“The history of neon signs is the history of this city”, said Zbigniew Łankiewicz. What’s the story behind the neon signs of Katowice, the city once known as the Polish Las Vegas?
Quite recently, as short as 30 years ago, Katowice used to be the most illuminated Polish city. Dimmed for over two decades, the former neon postcard of socialist Poland has now regained its shine. Travel to Katowice of the past, see how neon signs reclaimed the streets, and learn the names behind all this hype. Finally, join our photo tour of the city by night. Let there be light again!
In The Prime of Shine
In the 1970s and 80s, Katowice had no need for street lamps. The urban landscape was decorated with neon signs which made it the brightest city in Poland, and the whole of Europe, according to many who remember those times. Even visiting Parisians applauded the famous “city of neon signs”.
It all started in the 1960s when the authorities decided to make Katowice a showcase prosperous socialist city. The neon signs for shops and service businesses were meant to attract customers, but also create a modern atmosphere. It’s estimated that in the late 60s there were over 800 neon signs in Katowice alone. The illuminated ads were present across the entire Upper Silesia region as well.
The uncontested legend of neon signs and the history of Katowice in general was and is Zbigniew Łankiewicz, who designed the majority of neon signs at the time. He started working on them in the 60s as the main technical designer in the state-owned advertising company Reklama. The visual harmony of the city came under the supervision of the Town Hall Department of Architecture and all designs required its approval. The top-down supervision and control of the municipal office kept the urban space consistent. Neon signs were custom made for the different businesses and also according to the type, size, and shape of the entire building. Every neon design accounted for particular typography as well as the color of tubes and letters. The scale of demand and production was incredible – the backlog of demand for signs meant some businesses waited up to 10 years for their signs.
That time saw the iconic signs of the Katowice Hotel, the Silesia Hotel, and the Millennium Cinema. The famous steaming kettle at the corner of Stawowa and 3 Maja Streets invited passers-by to the Randia teashop, and the grand neon signs of Skarbek and Zenit advertised shopping at the modern department stores (read more about their history here).
And so it was at least until the end of the 80s. At that time the socialist system changed to our current system and that changed the needs and preferences of Katowice residents. The newly opened private businesses did their best to separate from the legacy of socialism. Shop windows were covered with imported self-adhesive foil and cheap plastic signs were hung. Unplugged, the neon signs disappeared from the urban landscape for over two decades.
Saved From Oblivion
The new century brought about many changes in the urban landscape. It started with the long awaited renovation of the Katowice Railway Station, for instance. Old buildings were gradually given new life, many were refurbished. At the same time, the inactive neon signs were taken down and unsentimentally thrown away. Unfortunately, many iconic pieces were lost forever.
At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the topic of vanishing neon signs piqued the interest of the Katowice association Moje Miasto – My City. They decided to take action and in 2008 started to race against the clock to save the last pieces. They talked to the owners of renovated buildings, to the construction workers, and they even carried the neon signs away from demolition sites.
The pieces they saved found their place in the Strefa Centralna cafe in the Katowice Centre of Culture (now the Katowice City of Gardens). In 2013, a gallery under the working name of Katowicki Skład Neonów – Katowice Neon Repository, was launched and in 2014 it presented the first renovated exhibits including one of the “Katowice” signs from the former railway station and the neon sign of the closed “Kino Millenium” Cinema in the Bogucice district. Gradually, other neon signs joined the exhibition: “Rejon Boże Dary” from Kostuchna, the Sosnowiec “Aria” hotel and more.
Not all the iconic neon signs could be saved. The legendary kettle of the Randia tea shop vanished without a trace and it had to be recreated. Krzysztof Krot, the owner of the Strefa Centralna cafe, spent hours on end browsing through the city archives in search of old designs. Luckily, the kettle sketch was found and carefully copied.
Dominik Tokarski, a co-founder of the My City association and initiator of the Katowice Neon Repository, explained that what really inspired his action weren’t the neon signs themselves, but the need to turn around the mediocrity and inconsistency of the public space. He simply wanted to remind the city what used to be and still should be its calling card.
The Neo(n) Wave
The actions instigated by Dominik Tokarski and other urban activists have been effective. The recent decade has seen a great return of neon signs reappearing in the city landscape. The shop and service businesses in Katowice increasingly use this form of advertising for their business.
And as history will, it comes full circle: the majority of neon signs installed in the city are made in the Katowice Neon Irsa studio, originally launched by the legendary Zbigniew Łankiewicz in 1991. When the political system changed and neon signs went off the state agenda, the designer never lost interest and wanted to share his knowledge with next generations.
Since his death the studio has been run by his sons, Michał and Miłosz, who have already manufactured several hundred (or maybe even several thousand, the boys have lost count) neon signs in Katowice and across Poland. Their designs are not only private commissions – the studio made the popular “Sunset at Rawa”, the neon sign produced for the Katowice Street Art Festival in 2016. Neon Irsa devotedly renovates the old pieces as well.
Their artistry and modern vision of the city masterly blends with its history and reaches out to tradition. Miłosz and Michał learned from the best, after all. And the undisputed charm of neon signs still evokes the same emotions. Mr Zbigniew himself said they are “the aristocracy among advertising”. We couldn’t agree more.
For Neon Enthusiasts
Take a nighttime stroll along Katowice streets. Look up and see it become brighter. We’re total fans of the neon tradition and cannot resist the impression of the bright future ahead!