Delve into neon emporium God’s Own Junkyard, as we explore the life behind the lights.
“It’s a neon emporium. It’s where people come and get their fix. It’s like walking into visual cocaine. It’s a buzz, a magical experience. An Aladdin of neon light,” says Marcus Bracey when I ask him to describe God’s Own Junkyard in one sentence. Following the passing of his father Chris, in 2014, Marcus has been at the helm of Electro Signs and its sister project, God’s Own Junkyard, continuing a legacy that has already spanned over 30 years. An artist in his own right, Marcus is making a sure attempt of filling his father’s very large boots, with his own designs building on his father’s unique and outlandish creations.
Based in Walthomstow, God’s Own Junkyard (described as “heavenly junk in a hell of a location”) houses hundreds of unique neon signs, some of which were made for cult classics including Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, as well as Willy Wonka, Batman and Superman. It’s practically a dazzling utopia within which the harsh realities of the outside world seem to fade away with, quite literally, the flick of a switch. Despite the unique and awe-inspiring interior, it’s the story behind the family business which is the most exciting element, from dashing around Soho at 4am to install neon’s for strip clubs, designing over 150 special pieces for Kubrick, and conjuring up custom creations for the likes of Jude Law and Kate Moss, there’s more than meets the bedazzled eye when it comes to God’s Own Junkyard.
On a rare morning away from his studio, we sat down with Marcus Bracey to learn more about life behind the lights.
So Marcus, tell us a bit about your background. How did you get involved with neon?
My dad, Chris Bracey, was working as a graphic designer with an agency in Soho back in the 70s. My Mum was having me, she was only young. My dad was 18 when I came along. And then one day he just approached Paul Raymond in a pink fur coat. He started to get in with owners of strip clubs and bars. He got in with some of the families – Micky Perrin and the Poulton’s and he started doing their signs. He approached the old Paul Raymnd and said ‘look mate, I can bring Vegas to Soho… this is what I can do for ya!’. So that was his insight, that was how he stepped into the sex, the sleaze, the signs. But he didn’t go there for the sex, he went there for the love of neon – the love of art!
I started working with him like his buddy. I was going to work with him at the age of 10. My grandfather was working on funfairs and carnivals, he was up and down the country. My dad was working Soho, and we were up there all the time. I would be footing my dad’s ladder while he was fitting sex signs, so Westminster council wouldn’t come round, well they would come round but by the time they did we had the sign up and [had] got away! We took down the old one and had put up a new one. So that was a big thing! Going in at 4/5 in the morning, while the sex joints were still open! Still trading!
What did you think of it all when you were younger?
I was fascinated! I couldn’t believe how popular neon was! When he was in Soho and he turned to me and said ‘look, I’m going to turn this place in to Vegas’ and I thought ‘Ahh, what’s he on about?’ But I tell you what, I loved every minute of it. His designs, his sketches, his air brushing. I loved it. It clawed me. It was addictive. It was intoxicating. I knew that I was going to run this firm, I knew that I was going to be a part of it. You know the father and son, handing down the trade to me. Handing down his visionary to me was fantastic. Sitting there sketching with him on the weekends, doing designs and that was basically how I got into this business.
Can you tell us about some of the clients that you have produced work for.
I’ve created stuff for Jude Law, Kate Moss – I done a big Union Jack for Kate Moss. I think she’s got that up in her house now. I worked with David LaChapelle back in 2005, done 12 window displays with him; that was great. That was fantastic to work with him. He was a big figure. I’ve done work with Martin Creed, worked with Damien Hirst. As well as normal commissions, for instance. People that come in and say: ’I want to buy my wife something’ and I’ll say ‘what do you want? have you got any ideas?’ We’ll work something up! I’ve got logos, strap lines. I’ll work something up for them, come up with some ideas.
“I was fascinated! I couldn’t believe how popular neon was! I loved it. It clawed me. It was addictive. It was intoxicating.”
You also worked with Stanley Kubrick! Tell us a bit about what that was like.
He was eccentric. He was an amazing figure. We were shooting that film [Eyes Wide Shut] for 18 months. It was a hell of a long film. Tell ya what was really funny, one of the scenes was filmed wrong. They got the continuity wrong and they had to film the whole film in reverse. So they had to turn all of the signs round. We were on the set for ages! All the cars had to be reversing, even the vehicles! People were walking backwards if you were in the scene. It was bonkers as you can imagine. I was driving the car for Tom Cruise. I was driving a big old yellow taxi and because I could drive a van they let me drive. Stanley Kubrick said: “look we want a guy that can drive this car that ain’t going to crash the bleeding thing.” So I had to drive a car, with Tom Cruise in it, in reverse! And also, not look backwards!
How long did it take you to create all the signage for the film?
I think we were building for about 4 or 5 months. I tell you what, I’ve got one particular sign that I’ve got up over there (points), the rainbow tuxedo shot. We got a call one night at about 6 o’clock. He wanted us to go up to where this film was being made and do a light test with him. So me and my dad shot up to Pinewood studios, got up there about 8 o’clock with this neon sign – the rainbow tuxedo. He [Kubrick] was ringing up the local curry house. They would usually use this local tandoori place near Pinewood Studios and he rung them up and they were closed. And he got the chefs back in and sent the driver down to get a curry. He used to buy bundles for the crew.
He sounds like he was a pretty laid-back guy?
He was laid back and he weren’t laid back. He didn’t take no shit. But if he had to get another hour or two worth of filming to get exactly what he wanted, he wouldn’t nap that night. He would stay on. He was eccentric! He loved his fairy lights in all his windows. Loved dressing it up and getting involved!
That sounds amazing. There must be quite a lot of people that worked on that. How many people do you work with now?
I have about 30 people every day, that work Electro Signs and God’s Own Junkyard. They work in-house, in the workshop, manufacturing from the graphics side, painters to metal workers and the neon workshop. So it’s all made in-house; nothing is made in China! Everything has got its own touch of us in it. The guys drive around and they see a skip with wood in it and they’ll go to the skip and bring back old reclaimed wood from old houses that are being redecorated or stripped out. They will see a TV and go ‘ah Mark knows what to do with that!’
And where do you draw inspiration from? Do you have snappy ideas or do you take a lot of time doing research?
I think snappy is a good way of putting it because it is snappy. Something comes in to your head and you think ‘God! Got to write this down.’ You know, I’ll have a wild dream one night and I’ll get up in the morning and think ‘yeah.. didn’t that in my dream work. Wasn’t that the bollocks?’ You know you pick bits up when you’re reading a magazine, you extract bits from that to turn it into art. Also, it’s just the excitement. You get the buzz. You know you’re on to something and you know it’s going to work. But yeah, searching the internet, reading books, magazines and the often wild dream you have a night. You think ‘yeah, wow, I gotta do that one!’
So you quite literally dream about neon?
I do, yeah! It’s in my blood innit! It’s like I have it running through me. I am three generations on, still in the same industry from the 50s and my daughter Amber, she’s now doing it! She’s a graffiti artist and she’s got something here. She’s just like me, she’s gradually been fed into it and now she’s trapped! She’s got the bug.
What’s your favourite piece in Gods Own Junkyard?
Well, if you were talking about my dad, my old man, I would say ‘Luxury Addiction’. He made that for me on my 40th birthday and even though he gave it to me, I want it here to show it off. I don’t just want it at home. That’s something that means a lot to me.
It’s amazing! So presumably social media, and specifically Instagram, has resulted in more people coming and visiting Gods Own Junkyard?
People know who we are through the decades and the history of working in Soho and now they’ve got a place to come and see it. It’s worked immensely, it really has. Then being in the papers, it’s a long way to come. Through three generations of light – it’s really put us on the map. Sometimes we have 400 people come on a Saturday. It is bonkers.
It’s amazing the people that come to this place from all over this world. You know people from Dubai, Australia who have heard about it. They come here and it’s truly amazing. The conversations that I have with people…
So finally, what are your plans for the future?
Going forward, as my dad passed away early, I’ve continued to make his art. There was stuff that we would talk about that he never got to make and I’m going to make it. I’m going to finish the stories we had, sketches that he didn’t finish. It’s great, the future is bright.
I make my own art, my own series of Marcus Bracey art and I’ve got my own show coming up, hopefully, in L.A. My own show, likely done at a screen gallery to highlight the new series of art that I’ve got. You know, continue the next chapter. To show people that it hasn’t just finished with Chris – I’m carrying it on! In my direction, giving it my language and my feel! That is what I’ve got to show with Jonathan Farrow in L.A. and I think that will be really popular! That’s going to go down well because I’m touching areas that we haven’t been before. I can’t say anything at the moment because I want it to be a real shock.