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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Neon New Yorker Writes His Name in Lights

MTTony Hayes' Moscow business experience stretches from neon to bars and playgrounds.
Ten years ago, Tony Hayes was sitting in his shop in the middle of Soho, New York, when a Russian customer walked in and changed his life.

Since then Hayes has written his name in lights all over Moscow -- literally, in that his initials hang from the neon lights and billboards on roofs and walls all over town, although the TH actually stands for the company he is director of, Trinity Neon, rather than Tony Hayes.

Hayes first got involved with neon as a fine arts student in upstate New York. The form fascinated him as an artist and he became a collector of old American signs. It was after college when his collection had taken over so much in his apartment that, after stepping on one neon light bulb too many, he decided to turn art into business and set up his own shop.

The Russian who walked in needed a sign -- a big one -- to brighten up the outside of 21 Novy Arbat, otherwise known as the Metelitsa casino, and he offered Hayes a price and an exorbitant daily rate he could not refuse.

In Moscow, the work, which would take "two days in New York, four days max" stretched out for three weeks, and Hayes found himself in the most popular expat meeting rooms for doing business -- the two Western bars in the city, Shamrock and Rosie O'Grady's.

"Everyone was very open, you found yourself talking to the general director of Pepsi Cola," said the calm and softly spoken Hayes, 45, over a beer near Pushkin Square, the neon center of Moscow. "You don't get access to those people in New York."

He saw a space for a business in Moscow and, despite having had no desire even to visit the country before fate decided it for him, sold his New York shop and moved to Russia.

Now Trinity Neon has the lion's share of neon light advertising in the city. Spot the Heineken advertisement across from the White House or Tinkoff on Pushkin Square.

Initially, Hayes went into a joint venture with the local Russian neon industry. He found a factory impressive in capacity -- "the biggest in the world, I thought" -- and history, but using 1940s equipment and, as he found out the hard way, incapable of change.

Arkon had been the main Soviet source of neon and was used for the grandiose signs, which would light up Red Square on Soviet holidays.

Hayes tells the story of the flashing Stalin mustache. On one of his birthdays, Stalin and all of St. Petersburg turned out for celebrations and the first sight of a neon Stalin. But as the sign was turned on, it went "fizz" and out went Stalin's mustache, "fizz" and on again, blinking on and off. The Arkon director stepped back in fear that it was going to be the end for him, but was astonished to see that Stalin began to laugh. Still, the director posted a worker at the back of the sign to press the connecting wire on and off to ensure no one would realize it was not part of the plan.

Today Moscow has, metaphorically speaking, plenty of flashing mustaches, although there is no need for a man at the back of the signs. Indeed, with signs on the roofs of some of Moscow's most prominent downtown buildings, one of Hayes' headaches is dealing with the strict regulations intended to avoid assassination attempts against the Russian president. Many of Hayes' signs on the president's routes have electronic indicators that alert the police if anyone gets on the roof.

When Hayes' deal with the Russian factory fell through, Trinity Neon, with the backing of his Metelitsa casino friends, otherwise known as Trinity Group, then took off.

Meanwhile, Hayes had also joined up with Kalmykian and Chechen partners -- recommended to him by the Dalai Llama's envoy to Eastern Europe and Russia -- and Canadian Doug Steele to open what became the most famous and notorious bar in the world, the Hungry Duck. The Duck introduced Ladies Night (free drinks for women and then the doors were opened to the city's males) and a new wildness to Moscow's nightlife.

"I wasn't married, I didn't have children, so I partook in the magic of the frenzy that the Hungry Duck was. Would I approve of it now? No, I would think of it as a dive and pretty disgusting."

It was so successful at times that the bar literally ran out of drink and Hayes, bar staff and the Chechen partners had to run back and forth to the nearest kiosks to stock up on supplies during the night.

Now a father of two children, and set to move to the Moscow suburbs, he has a slightly different interest: playgrounds.

Five years ago, Hayes used part of his old art skills to start designing safer and more child-friendly playgrounds which, through corporate sponsorship, have been put up all over Moscow including in the American School and the U.S. Embassy.

"I get to do a little design and it's very satisfying," said Hayes, who hopes to expand the new project into a fully-fledged business.