The neon-light guru Chris Bracey works out of a studio called God's Own Junkyard in east London. It's a graveyard of new and reclaimed neon signs, lights from fairgrounds and arcades, vintage signs from America, as well as original pieces he makes on site. Stanley Kubrick has been there; he paid Bracey a visit after he hired him to make the neon signs for his last film, Eyes Wide Shut.
"He was intrigued," says Bracey. "He had never worked with neon before, and fell in love with it."
His neighbour is Grayson Perry, whose studio is 500 yards away, and who regularly pops in for cups of tea. "His studio is really tidy and clean, my place is a mess," says Bracey. "I'm always cutting up steel, making neon and 3D objects. It's a bit like Andy Warhol's Factory – we are always trying to reinvent things."
"We" is Bracey and his team of 10 who work flat out to construct his works, either from scratch or by recycling vintage signs and old lights. Recent commissions include the giant neon Aladdin Sane lightning bolt which hangs above the door of the new V&A exhibition David Bowie Is, as well as a neon sign, "Roc Nation" for Jay-Z's record label and a giant 3D Union Jack for the latest Rimmel advert with Kate Moss. His celebrity collectors include Damien Hirst, Jude Law, Kate Moss, Elton John, Lady Gaga, Richard Curtis, Ray Winstone, Tim Burton, and Vivienne Westwood.
So it's surprising that this unassuming East Ender, whose dad was a neon signmaker for fairgrounds, is only now holding his first solo show of new work in the UK. I've Looked Up to Heaven and Been Down to Hell at London's Scream gallery, which started to represent him only a few months ago, includes a giant neon dagger which will appear to burst on to the street through the windows of the gallery.
Inside will be similarly striking light works playing on religious iconography including The Hands of God – a statue of Jesus holding two guns, a neon sign, No Place like Utopia and a pair of illuminated angel wings found in a church in Sicily with a neon halo standing in for the missing angel. One bright neon work has a strapline written by Depeche Mode's Martin Gore that reads "Shine a Light Into the Darkness of Your Soul" while Sky Diamonds is a suspended neon heart with lyrics from "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" spelled out in rainbow colours made from Murano glass.
"Half of them are original and the rest are made using found and scrap items," says Bracey, who now fetches from £15,000 to £25,000 for his pieces. "It's a biographical show – I have lived and worked in hell," says Bracey, "You always think you are going to end up in heaven but it doesn't exist."
Bracey, now 59, learned the tricks of the trade from his dad and cut his teeth making sex-shop signs in Soho in the late 1970s. He earned his living this way for nearly 20 years. It wasn't until he saw a show by the American light artist Bruce Nauman at the Hayward Gallery that he realised it could be art. "It was then that I realised my dad made neon but there was a fantastic other element to it. That was the catalyst, really."
His luck changed when the art director for the film Mona Lisa, which starred Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins, saw him putting up a sex sign and asked him to do the neon for the Soho- and Brighton-set film. It was the start of a more creative chapter in Bracey's career which led to commissions for various blockbuster movies – including Superman III, where he met Peter Young, an Oscar-winning set decorator, who in turn introduced him to Kubrick and Tim Burton. His neon artworks have appeared behind Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut, Johnny Depp in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Jack Nicholson in Batman. Blade Runner, Tomorrow Never Dies, Casino Royale, Dark Knight, and Byzantium are also among his credits.
He waited three hours, with his magic suitcase full of coloured tubes, for an intense interview with Kubrick at Pinewood Studios. "Les Tomkins, designer for Eyes Wide Shut, called me up and said 'Kubrick wants to meet you'. I'd worked with him on the Superman and Batman films so I was a natural choice," he says. "I sat on the edge of the set when they were filming the interior of Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise's apartment. Eventually Kubrick came over, wearing a French peasant suit. One thing led to another as he realised that I could make practically anything in neon. It took me an hour to convince him that I knew what I was talking about. We sat on the floor of his office picking neon colours for the Rainbow Fancy Dress sign in the film."
At the same time as his film work snowballed, Bracey also branched out into the art world. He ghost-created Martin Creed's white neon sign The Whole World + The Work = The Whole World, that lit up the front of Tate Britain in 2000, among other neon works for the artist. With David LaChapelle he created Vegas Supernova, a set of pole-dancing and plastic surgery-themed window displays at Selfridges in 2005. "David did a thumbnail sketch and I took the loose concept and turned it into neon reality," he says.
It wasn't until 2010 that his career went mainstream when auctioneers Phillips de Pury approached him to sell the artworks he had made for Selfridges at a sex-themed auction in London. His pole dancers and escorts fetched £15,000, which was unusual for an unknown artist. He was then approached by the LA agent Guy Hepner, who has since brought his work to mainstream audiences in the US.
A perfectionist, Bracey never makes more than three in any edition and doesn't like to sell his work because he loves everything he makes. He was offered £30,000 for his neon God Save the Queen. "But I turned it down."
He works with metal, acrylics, neon, paint and wiring to make his signs. Murano glass from Venice – Ruby Red with 24 carat gold – is his secret weapon for bright colours. "If I'm not 100 per cent happy with the way it looks, I make it again. I'm a one-stop shop," he says. "I don't go to anybody else. It all happens here."
Despite his success, he is nervous about his first UK show. "When I'm selling in LA, Miami, Las Vegas, and New York it's a thousand miles away," says Bracey. "I'm really well-known out there and it always sells. When you are doing it in London, I'm on my home turf and I feel really exposed."
I've Looked Up to Heaven and Been Down to Hell, Scream, London W1 (screamlondon.com) 12 April to 1 JuneReuse content