You might not recognise the face of London-born light artist Mr Chris Bracey, 59, but chances are you will have seen at least one of his neon creations at some point over the last 35 years, whether on the street, the silver screen or adorning the walls of a stylish London gallery or restaurant. A humble aficionado of this now very popular art form (he counts Ms Tracey Emin and Mr Martin Creed as friends in the field), his distinctive pieces of work have been bought by everyone from Mr Jude Law to Lady Gaga. We caught up with him in north London to see the invaluable items on show in his unique "junkyard", ask him about his time in the Soho sex industry in the late 1970s, and find out what it was like to be at Mr Stanley Kubrick's beck and call.
How long have you been in your current workspace?
I have been here for almost 30 years and was born just up the road in Walthamstow Village. I also have a workshop over the road where I make all of the pieces; this is a sort of makeshift showroom for them, I guess. It isn't really a showroom, though, is it? But then I am the anti-hero; I am the opposite to all those sorts of brands.
How did this preoccupation with neon all start?
My dad was a coal miner in Wales. He lived in the dark and in the end decided to do something else, so he came to London to work with light, producing fairground and circus signs. So I have lived around neon all my life. At first I didn't want to work with my dad. I went to art college but this was in the late 1960s - it was all hippy weddings and LSD - and that was just the lecturers. I became disillusioned because I thought they were going to teach me how to split the atom of art. The reality was that they weren't any more qualified than I was. So, I left. I didn't really have a trade, so I ended up working with my dad just to learn one, travelling all around the country at fairgrounds. It was hard to make money though. So I thought, how can I make money? I thought: sex. I can make money out of sex. So I went to Soho, not to have sex but to make neon sex, and I started doing signs for all the sex establishments.
Were you the first to do this?
Yeah, I think so. This was around 1975/76. I went up to one owner and I told him that he had a really drab-looking club. I'd learnt this when I worked for a graphic art firm years before, because while I was doing art the sex industry was all around you and it was naff - nothing looked good and it had no class. It didn't have that Vegas magic. So told him that I would do the club for him, I would give it the name, I would design it, I would come up with the colours, the concept, and all he would have to do was pay me. Anyway, this guy turned out to be ["King of Soho"] Paul Raymond, and the first club I did was [Raymond's] Pink Pussycat Club and that set Soho on fire.
When did it dawn on you that neon signs could become art?
Just before I started I went to the Hayward Gallery where there was a Bruce Nauman show. He had a lot of neon in his exhibition and that's when it struck me that you could make neon as art.
Does Las Vegas inspire you?
America was always a big influence on me. I really wanted to go and live in Vegas or LA, but my wife didn't want to live there so I had to try and make my own American neon world back here, which is what I did.
How did you make the transition to working on films?
I always wanted to work in films and it's weird the way that thoughts become a reality. I was working in Soho, and one day a guy came over and explained he was trying to make a movie around there but nobody [in the area] would let them film. I said that they weren't going to let him in because it could be the Inland Revenue; it could be the BBC trying to make a smutty story about Soho. I told him I could pull some strings but he had to give me all the work doing all the lighting and designing all the signs. And that was the deal. That was my first film - Mona Lisa - and after that I busted into the film world working on Batman with Tim Burton.
What is the most memorable film that you have worked on?
Working with Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut, his last film. He was an icon that I just dreamed to work with because of the movies that he had made. It was a bank holiday weekend and the art designer on the film, Leslie Tomkins, who I had worked with on Batman, rang me up and said, "Stanley wants to see you, can you bring up your box of tricks?" I used to have this old-fashioned suitcase that when you opened it, the whole thing lit up - it was full of neon. He seemed impressed and I ended up working on the film.
What was he like?
He was just one of those people... a bit mad because it was all night shooting; [he was] very demanding, but he could ingratiate himself with you and you would end up bending backwards to try and give him what he wanted.
How many people do this in the way that you do it?
Well, there's Tracey Emin - she does neon art, and she's really good. Martin Creed, I've worked with him, he's really good. I suppose there are probably six people in the world, but I'm probably the only one that goes right across the spectrum between film, fashion and art. I could do art permanently and I would make a lot more money. But I do enjoy working on movies, and it was great working on World War Z with Brad Pitt, great doing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Fifth Element.
Do you have any favourite pieces that you won't sell?
I've got a few that I won't sell. I won't sell things like "Byzantium" [made for Mr Neil Jordan's new vampire film Byzantium]; I wouldn't sell "Stark" [made for the Captain America movie]. I wouldn't sell it because it's like selling your photo album with all your family photos, but my photo albums are neon signs. I've got the biggest collection of neon anywhere in the world outside of the US.
What other celebrity collectors do you have?
Jude Law used to shop at my Primrose Hill store. A lot of blokes have bought pieces: Matt Smith from Doctor Who, Mark Zuckerburg... oh, and Ray Winstone - he has [a sign reading] "Raymondo's" in the bar in his pool house.