Walking along 27th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue, you’ll hit the Radio Wave Building, where electrical engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla used to live and conduct radio wave experiments in 1896, back when the building still operated as a hotel. These days, just a few blocks away on 26th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenue, another man of science toils away: Jason Sapan, who transforms into Dr. Laser in the seconds it takes to throw on a white lab coat.
Sapan has been immersed in the holography industry for over 40 years. His workspace isn’t some shiny, clean lab—he identifies more with Tesla, Thomas Edison, and Doc Brown of Back to the Future. His equipment is homemade for the most part—“like MacGyver or the professor from Gilligan’s Island, where what we have at hand becomes the materials we use,” he explains.
Giving off a museum-like feel, over 200 miscellaneous holograms are on display in the studio’s front room. The smallest ones are under an inch in size and the largest ones are over a meter: a helicopter mid-landing, a Hershey’s chocolate bar, a jolly Santa laughing, and a Pegasus in flight. There’s even a portrait of Michael Jackson, who, when you step to the left, is unamused and awfully serious, but when you step to the right, is playful with the most devilish grin. Near Sapan’s computer is a wall covered in signatures of stars he’s worked with: musicians Billy Idol and Cher, artist James Turrell, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, and former New York mayor Ed Koch. Shelves nearby are crammed with cans of WD-40 and Gorilla Glue, cassettes, VHS tapes of holography shoots, and a stereo-cum-record player that hasn’t been turned on in roughly 30 years. But he’s not a hoarder.
Sapan, founder of Holographic Studios, is gregarious, witty, has the tendencies to wax poetic and curse often, and uses the word magical in reference to everything from New York City, from cruising along the Hudson River on his sailboat, to making time in his schedule to pursue every single one of his passions. He prefers not to discuss his age, apologizing for his “idiot beliefs.” In other words, “I think that it’s prejudicial,” he explains. (His hairs are gray and white but his eyes are alive with youthful curiosity.) Despite the holography educator’s knack for humorous storytelling, he has no problem snapping back into serious mode.
“He died broke, okay?” Sapan says of Tesla. “Nobody really got him until Elon Musk decided to name his car after him. Where would we be today had nobody started working with wave technology?”
“What I do is I record light waves,” Sapan says. “What a hologram is, is we’re taking an impression of a three-dimensional object by bouncing laser light off it. And what we’re doing is, just like Play-Doh, pressing an impression into the Play-Doh—but our Play-Doh is the wave of light from the laser. The purer the Play-Doh, the purer our impression will be. It’s really important that we have really good quality laser light.”
In 1979, Sapan opened up shop on 26th Street, trading a 4,000-square-foot space on 24th Street and 7th Avenue that he had for five years for one less than half the size. On any given day, Sapan is creating a personal portrait, teaching an introductory holography class, or giving tours of the studio. He has lent his laser skills to nightclubs (a laser light tunnel that guests of Studio 54 would enter through), artists (a portrait of Andy Warhol flipping through his magazine Interview), and treasured comic book covers by Batman’s Neal Adams. He’s also been commissioned by the Museum of Natural History, the NYU Langone Medical Center, and corporations interested in having a hologram for a trade show or brochure cover. His skills are so sought-after that he was called in as an expert witness in a court case involving a hologram-related patent dispute.
Sapan says he has “lots of idiot claim-to-fame things,” which double as fun facts and insane stories.
In providing laser effects for A Flock of Seagulls’ first music video in 1983, “(It’s Not Me) Talking,” he also starred as “Sparks” Hopkins, the radar operator who notices a UFO approaching. The video was shot at Dawn’s Animal Farm in New Jersey on a humid, 96-degree day, “and the best part was there was lots of animal poop everywhere,” he says.
Sapan’s acting career has taken off in the last couple years. It all started with an open casting call on 14th Street for Gotham—“It’s just a few blocks,” he says. “I decided to go over.” That led to a call for Boardwalk Empire. He’s played the roles of an FBI agent on Limitless and a shocked restaurant patron in Orange Is the New Black, after Mike Birbiglia’s character yells “Enjoy nose-fucking your whiskey!” to his father. He even played a priest– “Father Laser,” he jokes– in Blue Bloods.
Also salad-related: After college, Sapan scored a gig at the Record Plant recording studio, which at one point involved affixing soundproofing to the walls with 3M adhesive.
“No one explained to me that sniffing glue isn’t a great thing to do in a confined space for hours and hours and hours,” Sapan smiles. “What’s the expression we use today? Tripping balls? I was seeing gobs of paint dripping from the ceiling.”
After finally leaving the room to grab an orange soda from the vending machine, Sapan bumped into John Lennon.
Do I talk to him about music? Do I ask him about his politics? Oh my god, what do I talk to John Lennon about?, he wondered.
Instead, Sapan just stared, and Lennon said hi and walked away.
Later that day, Sapan ran into Lennon a second time at the studio.
“John is sitting there eating a salad in an aluminum, round takeout container from the deli across, Smiler’s, on 9th Avenue,” Sapan says. “John, just being a human being (much to my surprise), sees me staring at him, and doesn’t realize I’m staring at him because he’s John Lennon. He looks up and goes, ‘Oh! Would you like some salad?’ And hands me the salad! Oh, I frickin’ ate the whole thing—with his fork! You’re not gonna say no to John Lennon.”
Sapan was born on 88th Street and East End Avenue, in what was then Doctors Hospital. It was his father who instilled in him an addiction to adventure, by setting off on meandering family road trips. “I remember in Canada we were up in an area called the Gaspé,” Sapan recalled. “It was all French speaking, and he knew no French. His struggle to get a roll of toilet paper cracked me up.”
The elder Sapan, an electrical engineer, was “blessed with the odd but unique vocation of making brand-new technologies accessible to the public by way of displays,” his son says. He built cutting-edge displays for the 1964-65 World’s Fair and other expos.
With the laser craze of the 1960s, it wasn’t long before he took his work home with him and introduced his son to holography. “I remember us trying to see it at home and struggling because we had no idea,” Sapan says. “It was like a challenge. But I saw a laser viewable hologram and a white light viewable hologram.”
The early exposure to technology rubbed off. “To me, it was like a girl going into mom’s closet and trying on her shoes. This is dad’s stuff, and you’re a kid. You play with it.”
“I’ve always felt as though I’m working in a medium that hasn’t really been understood,” says Sapan. “I see one of these new buildings a thousand feet high and think, ‘Okay, I’m walking into the lobby and there’s some piece of pedestrian art, like any other piece of mundane art.’ Imagine if they afforded the resources to put into holograms and what could be done.”
In this age of VR, holography might seem antiquated to some—the stuff of Pink Floyd laser shows. But Sapan sees it differently. “Digital is just simply one way of seeing who we are. And I’d like to leave behind a record of—not quite like Mathew Brady chronicling the Civil War, but a record of who we were to the people who come after us, in a medium that will more approximate things of the future than the things that we’re currently using. That has always been my goal: to do something more with this.”
Though he can’t discuss most of his newest work because of nondisclosure agreements, he does spill some information about a “totally fun” project he recently inked and will be working on for the next six months: a room full of illusions in a suburban house just outside New York City. “This is just some guy who just wants the coolness of holography, so that when his friends come over, they’re all gonna go like, ‘Whoa! How’d you do that?’”