Girls Girls Girls - Artist illuminates murky world of neon signs in Soho strip clubs

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Neon light artist Chris Bracey recounts his journey from the red light district to Hollywood

He is the go-to neon sign designer for big-budget feature films. He made the flickering turquoise neon hotel sign in Tim Burton's Batman and the jazz club sign in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.  Daisy Lowe, Kate Moss, Lady Gaga and Grayson Perry all own works by him. You might not know his name, but the light artist Chris Bracey has had a hand in Hollywood blockbusters, fashion shows and the art world for the last three decades.

Bracey started out, not in the glamorous bright lights of Hollywood, but the murky backstreets of London's Soho in the 70s, learning his trade among strippers and gangsters. Here, he tells his story.

I got married when I was 18 and my wife was 16. She had a baby and suddenly I had a family to support. I trained to make neon signs with my dad. He used to be a coal miner, but he got fed up with living in the dark and wanted to work with the light. He learnt to make neon, and then he taught me. He used to pay me a tenner a week. My rent was £3.50 a week and I used up 50p worth of petrol a week. I remember back then I never had enough money to eat during the day. After I finished my training with my dad, I used to drive around at night looking for broken neon signs and asking if the businesses wanted them repaired.  One day, after three years in our flat, my wife and I realised it was our wedding anniversary, and it just so happened I had an extra 50p in my earnings. I went to the Chinese takeaway to celebrate. Egg fried rice was 50p and special fried rice was 60p, so I bought the egg fried rice. I had this idea in my mind that I wanted to make it on my own.

Sexual Cinema,  The Triple X, Dreaming Lips, Doc Johnson's Love Shop, Sex Supermarket, Rude Encounter, Pink Pussycat, Models! Peep Show, Lunatics Strip and, of course, Girls Girls Girls. When I was in my early 20s, I started making the sex signs in London's Soho. The owners of the clubs had no creative ideas, so I used to just make up the names as I went along. I had free rein.

Remember the east end gangsters the Kray twins? When they had the funeral for the Krays' mother, in 1982, 80 percent of my client base were there. They were difficult characters to work with,  because if they didn't want to pay you, you couldn't ask. To be offered to be paid in kind in Soho is normal. I was offered all manner of forms of payment.

I am probably borderline mad. You might not be mad when you first start to learn but after youve burnt your hands and your arms and breathed all the vapours, then you go a bit mad.

Grayson Perry said to me "you haven't been on Britain's Worst Hoarders have you?" I've got two junkyards and four warehouses of scraps and neon and wood and broken things. It is like a disease. I made a neon sign for Davidoff with all different bits of driftwood off a beach and it looked beautiful, but to make it you need all these scrappy objects. You’ve got to have a lot of old tat cos you never know what might come in handy. You might need that broken car headlight that becomes the dot on the i. You've got a rough idea, but its not until you've found that last bit that makes it complete.

I couldn't ever retire. It's a labour of love. I do neon in LA, Miami, New York, Vegas Paris,  God Save the Queen [one of his works] is in Hong Kong now. But you are only as lucky as the next phone call, and there's always that next fabulous project. I don't feel I can ever turn down work because I know what it's like not to have it. Also there's a part of me that worries the spell will be broken and the phone won't ring any more.

Neon work is a dying craft. It's a very secretive society. The knowledge is handed down from father to son - it's top secret and very hard. It's made by people who are superstitious and keep themselves to themselves, locked in hot little rooms, with no air. You can't have a draft as the glass would crack, so you're living and working within a bubble. The first neon signs were bright red, because of the chemical neon. People used to call it 'liquid fire'.

Those people in Murano that make the Murano glass, they work until they drop down dead. They've got the secret of how to make the ruby red glass and it's so secret there is only one room in the world where that glass is made. It's got real flecks of gold in it. It is really expensive, but its beautiful. It's like blood.

Chris Bracey's Circus of Soho opens 21 November 47 Beak Street, Soho, London

Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album