Remembering a beautiful artist, an icon and a wonderful man. Chris Bracey from God’s Own Junkyard, and our last interview together from October 2013
“Thank you so much for always sharing your fascinating stories with me, believing in little projects no matter how crazy they sound, creating work I will never stop falling in love and most all…making the world electric x RIP x “
You would struggle to find an artist with a more profound passion, and natural gift for their medium than Neon Man, Chris Bracey. A real deal artist with an exceptional raw talent and an authentic and rebellious London edge that not only makes his work rare and refreshing but incredibly collectable and cool!
He’s known as the King of Neon, and with over 35 years in the business and an illustrious portfolio behind him, the royal title seems more than deserving.
His clients, commissions and fans form a lengthy and impressive list of testimonials for why Chris has been so deserving of becoming the adored artist he is today. From the fashion, film and the art world his “bright ideas” have made lasting impressions alongside some of the greatest of our time. Including David LaChapelle, Martin Creed, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Tim Burton in ‘Charlie and The Chocolate Factory’, Stanley Kubrick in ‘Eye’s Wide Shut’, UK Rapper Professor Green and even legendary Soho Sex King Paul Raymond to name only but a few.
2013 has been no exception to Bracey’s rise to fame. With a sell-out UK debut exhibition under his belt, shiny new celebrity commissions, numerous film and television work, and now his own dedicated concession in prestigious luxury London retailer Selfridges…It may seem everything Chris Bracey touches turns to shimmering gold. But while numerous prosperous doors seem to be opening in every direction for the artist, the one which remains closest to his heart is the place where it all began, God’s Own Junkyard.
Set at the end of a long leafy road in Walthamstow, is God’s Own Junkyard. The birthplace and home to the awe-inspiring portfolio of the Bracey family work, over 4 decades of neon between them! An electric playground of everything from free standing angels and Virgin Mary’s, to illuminated song lyrics and star constellations which twinkle beside props, jagged scraps and magical movie misfits. Bracey’s saucy trademark Soho sex signs, tattoo and rock ‘n’ roll iconography and even an electric Jesus adorned with neon shotguns from Chris’s solo exhibition “I’ve Looked up to Heaven and I’ve Been Down to Hell” are all present. Hollywood relics like the “Stark” sign from Iron Man (fresh off the set), and the “HOTEL” sign from Christopher Nolan’s first Batman sit humbly among the intimately atmospheric grounds.
Giving visitors and fans of his work a privileged peak into the profound excellence and brains behind Bracey and his families craft, and a chance to take a walk in the fabulous neon wonderland of his imagination.
I sat down with Chris to chat about the excitement and success of his recent exhibition “I’ve Looked Up to Heaven and I’ve Been Down to Hell” , the real Soho and the importance of keeping it in the family!
Firstly, congratulations on your first solo exhibition and the tremendous response it had. You’ve had a pretty incredible year!
CHRIS BRACEY: Thanks, yeah the response for the show was incredible we had an amazing turn out! On opening night there must have been a queue of like 100 people out the door who wanted to get in! I was a bit unsure that maybe the pieces didn’t have enough edge or how they would be received, but the response has been amazing!
I’ve heard there was quite an A-list turn out for the opening and that you sold one of your pieces to rapper Professor Green?
Yeah that’s true. He bought “Saint and Sin” which he said was actually his first piece of art he’s ever bought! Its a great piece for him, our styles really match. Since then I have collaborated with him on artwork for his new album and also neon’s for his tattooed themed West End club “INK” which he just opened!
The exhibition was entitled “I’ve Looked Up to Heaven, and I’ve Been to Hell” where did you get the inspiration for for the name?
Well I first liked this idea of “Fallen Icons” and the “Bad and the Beautiful” . Every artist has done heaven and hell and I wanted to show that in my own way. I had a think and I came up with “I’ve Looked at Heaven and I’ve Been to Hell”. The exhibition is sort of like an autobiographical reference to me really, with loads of different references to my work throughout my career and my artistic journey. My Grandma once said to me when I was a little boy “Dont be scared about going to hell, your already in it” and I liked that idea. One piece says “No Place Like Utopia” and “Paradise Lost” and I really wanna do one as well that says “Heaven looks great from Hell”
The exhibition features all new work, when did you start working on it? and What is your favourite piece?
I was waiting to do an exhibition with an agent or a gallery that was the right fit in London for ages and Scream came along and it was a perfect match. All the pieces are new pieces. My favorite is probably “At the Hands of God” which features Jesus with shotguns, based around Mexican gun cartel. It has this really cool bright south american style neon.
You were the pioneer behind the infamous “Girls,Girls, Girls” sign, did you ever think it would become such an significant and iconic?
No, no not at all! It’s strange because its so simple but its become such a significant piece of that era and of my work. It was my first commission and it was for Paul Raymond, I made a loads for him and other Soho club owners all started wanting them on their clubs, I became kinda like a ghost neon writer of Soho. I was creating a lot of the names for the most famous and historic clubs of that time.
You were so integral to creating the visual style and atmosphere of what made Soho so famous;and for the most part still does today…
I took this genre of incredible light and sparkle and took it to Soho. This hedonistic, fabulous bohemian place. I created the names and image for a lot of the most famous clubs of that time like Doc Johnson’s Love Shop, Tunnels of Love, The French Pussycat, Sex Supermarket, I did 100’s. It was so different from today. The neon’s looked fantastic in every window!
Are a lot of your pieces still there?
Some but nothing like before. My dad actually did the neon for Bar Italia in the 50’s which is still there. I have this idea to maybe do a small tour one day of Soho maybe and tell the story of the real Soho and the neons, and what it was like before.
Wow! That would be so incredible! Some of my favourite stories about London Ive heard from you. You must be happy to be back home being such a true East End boy?
Yeah its really cool. You know Ive been so successful in America and Ive been so busy with so many projects all over the world, but I am so happy to have my work back home and to have debuted my exhibition here!
How do you keep up with such a packed schedule? This year you worked on a film Dom Hemingway with Jude Law, you’re constantly doing catwalk shows and huge fashion installations for Selfridges with numerous designers, plus commissions your exhibition! !!! You must be one of the busiest guys I know!
I have a great team! Theres about 18 of us including my 2 sons who work on everything to get it all finished on time! God’s Own Junkyard has been going now for over 60 years and at the heart it always been a family business!
You started out with neon’s as a young boy working with your dad at fairgrounds, and you’ve really kept that tradition alive by working with the family now…
Yes its great! My two sons work with me, and even my little granddaughter whose only 13, may one day be there. She’s got a real natural artistic eye and is super creative. Big credit is due to my wife Linda Bracey. You know she sometimes gets left out in all these things but she’s the glue that holds us all together. They say behind every great man is a strong woman and Linda is amazing. She really does it all and keeps me on the straight and narrow. I remember once I had this huge commission and I was having a bit of an artistic breakdown and Linda just jumped in and saved the day really!
As we said before you have such varied work, is there one area you prefer? Film, Fashion, now Art?
Well the exhibition was pretty cool and Im excited to explore the art world more. I would like to collaborate with other artists and see where that goes. I love film because there’s a lot of creativity there and normally a big bigger budget for what you can do, but fashion can be fun too, especially if you’re working with a really eccentric designer or someone with big ideas. I’d love to work with someone like Karl Lagerfeld for instance, his productions are huge.
After working with so many people is there anyone left who you would still love to work with? I know you once told me Ridley Scott….
Ah yeah that would be great, Ridley Scott would be great. I would still love to work with him. Tracey Emin visited the exhibition actually and she sent me a very nice, complimentary and very funny postcard! I would love to collaborate with her.
Lastly being a true Londoner what place would you recommend people to go that are visiting London?
Columbia Road market on a Sunday morning is the bollocks, the back streets of Soho still kick’s ass. If you want to get out of the East End, go to Leigh on Sea to Cockle Row, my grandad used to take me there for cockles and whelks which are very old school British. I take my grandkids now to do the same.
Words by Tracy Kawalik and Chris Bracey
Photos by Tracy Kawalik, and Gods Own Junkyard