The Neon Man
Icons of the world: the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Taj Mahal, the Sphynx, Machu Picchu, the good, old leaning Tower of Pisa, the H&C Coffee Cup…
Headed south on 220 towards Roanoke just as you crest the hill into town, there she is, the most perfect, 65 foot, bottomless neon pot of joe you’ll ever see. We had the pleasure of living beneath this Roanoke icon.
Our first evening, as we roamed downtown, every business in the city from the Thai restaurant to the bail bondsman, seemed to be lit up in neon. Even Mill Mountain, looking down upon the town, glowed red, white and blue from the Roanoke Star. The Roanoke neon effect was so striking with eyes, letters, scissors, coffee cups, violins, arrows, toothbrushes, glasses, musical notes flickering about town, that naturally, our first thought was, who is behind all this neon? The answer came to Jeremy and I one evening in the form of a small placard attached to a fence post near our front door. The placard dedicated the neon coffee cup to “Mark Jamison, the Neon Man.”
Sadly, Mark Jamison, Roanoke’s Neon Man died in 2004 while hanging a neon sign. Mark’s girlfriend, Lisa Thomas, Ann Jamison, Mark’s mother, and Slash Coleman, his best friend, each came to the mobilebooth to remember Mark.
Neon signs made by Mark Jamison and other artists as part of “In the Glow.”
Mark learned the neon craft in Johnson City, Tennessee. He first set up shop on his parent’s property in Boones Mill. He made signs for commerical businesses like Burger King and the food court at the Tanglewood Mall but his pet projects like the restoration of the Grandin Theatre Marquee, or a 10-foot leaping cat commissioned for someone’s home, are true works of art. He was an expert at crafting a perfect neon circle, one of the most difficult skills.
Aside from his neon work, Mark had an electric personality. “He looked like a fairy or an elf of some sorts,” said his girlfriend Lisa. He wore an fringe leather jacket around town that he adorned with squirrel tails that he caught and skinned himself.
He was wearing the jacket the first time that Lisa met him, “He was this beautiful character and I thought wow, who was that sitting across the table in this fringe leather jacket?”
Once, when visiting his best friend, Slash in Chicago, Mark wore the jacket with the fringe and the squirrel tails on the elevated train. John Cusack also happened to be riding the train, but all the passengers were staring at Mark instead of the celebrity. Cusack sidled up to Mark and said, “You’re not from around here are you?”
Mark’s death was a great tragedy in Roanoke. Newspaper articles were written, the entire town mourned. In a bittersweet twist of events his girlfriend, Lisa Thomas, found out that she was pregnant a few weeks after Mark passed.
Ann recalled the moment that Lisa told her the news,
“You didn’t know Wayne [Mark's father] and I. You came out to have dinner to tell us. And I had this stupid, big roast beef dinner. And I know you could hardly breathe. And you were eating your dinner and you said, ‘Well I have something to tell you.’ That was a momentous point. You could of so easily said, ‘I’m going to survive this thing within myself with my family.’ But you let us be a part of this baby. There’s is no way you’ll ever know how that was appreciated and how we loved that.”
“I don’t think I had a choice,” said Lisa.
“The first thing I did was buy a little white onsie and had it embroidered, ‘the neon baby,’” said Ann.