Art News

Neon Dad Lights Up Denver

Glass Arrow at the Brandin' Iron: the open sign is lit once again.
Glass Arrow at the Brandin' Iron: the open sign is lit once again. Save the Signs Facebook
Jeff "JJ" Bebout, aka Neon Dad, is known for his coffee shops — he's the current owner of Glass Arrow and a former co-owner of Roostercat — but when he's not roasting beans, he's busy creating and restoring neon signs around town.

“I grew up plumbing. I grew up building things. I love Americana,” Bebout says. “Neon just seemed like the thing for me.”

He named himself “Neon Dad” before he actually had a kid. It was a way for the Denver native to rib his punk-community friends, many of whom were starting families and adding “poppy” or “dad” to their Instagram handles. “I was doing it mostly as a joke, but then the art kind of took off, and then I became a dad, so it all came together,” he says.
click to enlarge Jeff "JJ" Bebout - CAT EVANS
Jeff "JJ" Bebout
Cat Evans
His work with neon came together not by chance, but through a lot of hard work and no small bit of necessity. Bebout has Niemann-Pick disease, an ultra-rare genetic disorder characterized by a body’s inability to transport cholesterol and other fatty lipids inside of cells. That leads to abnormal accumulations in organ tissue that causes damage. He refers to it as “a life-shortener.”

“Everything turned around when I quit real estate, which I hated,” Bebout recalls. “I was living in Cincinnati, making great money, flipping houses, running HOAs, doing my thing. I did all that in order to be financially stable enough to have a family. When I was 28, I went through a really bad breakup, and it occurred to me that I was running short on time. Even if I had a kid soon, I figured I’d die when they were probably in high school. That just seems mean.” Without family life as a goal, he found himself without a desire to stay in the business of making money. “That was when I decided to just make art,” he says.

Bebout remembers when he first got turned on to neon as an art form. “Not to sound cheesy about it,” he laughs, “but I had a dream.” The dream stemmed from a documentary about neon benders — he can't remember the name of it — that he watched with his then-girlfriend. “It was amazing. It really spoke to me, my love for Americana, the Southwest aesthetic, country-Western music," he says. "I just loved it.”

A few nights later, he dreamt about making a balloon with a big neon string, and it was floating away. “The next day,” he says, “I called everyone in town who did neon. That’s only two people, but it was everyone. I asked them to teach me, and they said no.”

So he began going to the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati. “I bought a lifetime membership there, and I would post up and work on my laptop sitting in the neon museum," Bebout says. "One emotional breakdown later, I came back to Denver.”

He ended up working in service and repair for Denver’s longstanding Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO). “Historic company,” notes Bebout. “They let me go in and play in the neon benders’ fires.” He says he got fired from the job because he wanted to get serious about learning to craft neon, and when YESCO caught wind that he was looking for other work, he was let go. But again, no one working in neon in Denver was hiring. “So I bought my own fires,” he says, “and I’ve been teaching myself ever since.”

Bebout taught himself how to bend glass in the basement of Roostercat Coffee — which he and a friend took over in June 2018 — while managing the place as part-owner. He made thirty or forty pieces of neon art while simultaneously getting the coffee shop up and running again, and created a show that debuted at the now-defunct coffee-and-cocktail shop Bellwether in December that year. The show grew out of that space and moved to Edge Gallery, where it doubled in size as he kept making signs to add to the collection, then went to the Downtown Artery in Fort Collins in July 2019.
click to enlarge Bebout's Lost and Found neon art exhibit - JJ BEBOUT
Bebout's Lost and Found neon art exhibit
JJ Bebout
That was when Bebout’s new girlfriend got pregnant. “Suddenly I could no longer be that vagabond artist," he says. "I was living in the basement of my friend Nico’s house and bending glass in the basement of Roostercat.” So everything had to change — again. He sold Roostercat but continued to hone his coffee-roasting skills while taking on whatever neon work was available.

That’s how Glass Arrow, located in the Brandin’ Iron building at 8600 East Colfax Avenue, came to be. Bebout had a gig restoring the Brandin’ Iron signage in 2021, which led to an opportunity to open the coffee shop in an old front office that he renovated with a little help from friends. Bebout says he discovered along the way that business is business is business. “I used to sell drugs, way back,” he admits. “It’s all been really similar. From management to selling dope to selling coffee…it’s all one skill set, really. Care for people, and don’t bite off more than you can chew.”

Coffee and neon go together pretty well, it turns out. Bebout did the neon signage at Mutiny Information Cafe, and has a piece up inside the store as well. Mutiny is one of the vendors that use Bebout’s “white label” service, so it can put its own brand on Bebout’s beans. Gravity Espresso on the CU Boulder campus is another.

Bebout has a wish list of local signs that he’d love to have a hand in saving. “I want to redo the Jonas Bros. Furs sign,” Bebout says. “The Benjamin Moore sign I worked on with YESCO. Same with the Sapp Bros. sign. Those are in good shape. But the White Swan [Motel] would be a great one to save; same for the Red Pine on Broadway.” He rattles off a number of other motels, most within sight of the Brandin’ Iron. “Where Motel 9 is, that used to be called the Palomino.”

Two of Bebout’s wish-list signs are in private collections, unrestored. “I would love to see them brought to a public space where the community can enjoy them,” he says. One of those is the recently discovered Famous Chef sign, which was hidden under a newer marquee for the strip club Saturday’s and then PT’s All Nude II before the latter closed in 2015 following a murder at the club. Bebout helped uncover that sign, which was actually two neon signs back to back, made into one. “I would love to see one of those two signs given to the city,” he says.

The final wish-list sign is “in someone’s backyard in Park Hill,” according to Bebout. “It’s the Ahwahnee Motel sign, the one with the chief with the headdress.” Bebout, who has Native American roots himself, would like to see that preserved.

It makes sense that Bebout has set up shop at an old classic called the Brandin’ Iron: He has a lot of irons in the fire, after all. He chalks that up to a sense of urgency and something of a work addiction. But as Kris Kristofferson once wrote, "Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose."

“There’s this beautiful truth to surrender,” Bebout muses. “You surrender, and you’re out of your own way. All of these hustle-culture bros are like, 'Just go out and say yes and work hard and it’ll happen,' and I don’t think they recognize the steps between homelessness and that. What those guys are saying isn’t inaccurate; it’s just not kind. But there are resources out there, and you’re worthy of them. That’s fucking it. There’s an energetic principle there that makes sense.”

Much like the neon that gives the Colfax night its old-school glow.

To see Bebout's work, visit his Instagram under @neon_dad_ or his Facebook page.
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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen