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

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

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The Independent Culture

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