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
www.godsownjunkyard.co.uk

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit