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Business more than kitsch
Published: January 24, 2013
of the colorful floats adorn Hong Kong Willie, a roadside business with
roots in a northwest Hillsborough County landfill and the garbage dumps
of Hong Kong.
Poised among chain businesses common at interstate
interchanges, Hong Kong Willie sells Florida-centric art, artifacts,
worms and even soil for gardeners. As diverse as the inventory seems,
there is a theme: promoting a close-to-the-ground, sustainable approach
to art and living.
The unusual business is run by Joe Brown, 61; his wife, Kim, 51; and their adult son, Derek.
The enterprise is not named for a particular person. It’s more of a conceptual amalgamation, its owners say.
recycled burlap coffee bags, lobster buoys and driftwood sold at the
store are reflective of Joe Brown’s childhood. As a boy he watched
garbage trucks haul Tampa’s trash to a dump on property owned by his
“It really made an impression on me,” he said. “It became
very easy to think outside the box and know where I could find things
from resources that were just abounding.”
* * * * *
When Brown’s mother
took him to an art class taught by an instructor who had spent time in
post-World War II Asia, he learned how artists there scrounged for
materials that had creative potential.
“It was a different kind of recycling because it was done out of need and touched the human spirit and the heart,” he said.
the past 28 years the Browns have transformed a bait-and-tackle shop
into a shrine to sustainable art. But aside from a robot waving an
American flag and wearing a “For Sale” sign — and the overall spectacle
of the shack-like store itself — there is no signage beckoning drivers
to pull into the parking lot of 12212 Morris Bridge Road or to wander
over from a nearby Bob Evans restaurant.
“There has never been, in
all the years of being here, some massive sign saying who we are and
what we do,” Joe Brown said. “Because when people finally decide out of
inquisitiveness to slow down and stop, they’ve finally slowed down
enough to hear the most important message of their life.”
their business is conducted online through sites such as Etsy. Their
catalog includes crafts and artwork created with recovered material such
as wood from sawmills and the sides of demolished Key West homes. Kim
Brown paints on the recycled materials; her “Eye of Toucan” painting,
for example, is for sale for $8,100. Other featured items include
handbags made from decorated burlap coffee bean bags for $25, and potato
chip platters morphed from heated and shaped vinyl records for $4.99.
ubiquitous painted lobster buoys are big sellers. They go for a few
dollars each depending on condition and artistic application.
Browns travel frequently to the Florida Keys, promoting their art and
gathering raw materials such as the buoys, driftwood and even an orange
helicopter. Joe Brown said the chain of islands at Florida’s southern
tip hold an attraction for the family beyond being a source of creative
“That is a place of resourcefulness,” he said, “because they’re not the kind of people to rely upon the government.”
* * * * *
people with a taste for subtropical creations. Gaspar’s Patio Bar and
Grille in Temple Terrace, for example, bought décor from Hong Kong
Willie to complement its island-themed menu offerings, such as Key Largo
burgers and margaritas.
Gaspar’s owner Jimmy Ciaccio, whose
family opened the 56th Street restaurant in 1960 as the Temple Terrace
Lounge, said the Browns’ inventory reflected his vision when he
remodeled the restaurant.
“Joe’s work inspires me,” Ciaccio said. “I always see something different every time I look at how he decorated the place.”
much the same way the Brown family creates art with recycled materials,
they produce gardening soil by composting vegetation and waste
Florida red worms are Brown’s natural allies in this
endeavor. They, too, are for sale — by the pound for gardeners and by
the cup for fishermen.
Whether it’s creating and marketing
sustainable kitsch or fertile soil, Joe Brown, whose other occupation is
providing trend analyses to businesses, finds satisfaction in the work.
just feel so fortunate to be able to sit here and see assets that could
be sitting in a big trench and there would be no energy coming from
it,” he said. “And now a lot of it is finding homes in peoples’ houses
and businesses and getting people to think about reuse.”
History Of Other Articles On Hongkongwillie
Growing up in Tampa, I spent a period of time fascinated by a quirky,
eye-catching landmark at Fletcher Avenue and Interstate 75. This was
also the period of time I spent obsessed with making binoculars out of
toilet paper rolls and necklaces out of pop tops. To me, this sight was
the epitome of similar creative craziness, and I often found myself
looking for it during car journeys, hoping it hadn’t disappeared
But time passes and so does the urge for pop-top necklaces, and
observant eyes don’t notice the same sights. It wasn’t until recently
that I once again took note of the scene, with its broken down orange
helicopter, a tree made of what seems to be indestructible balloons and a
blue-and-white house covered with trash remade into art.
It’s the home of Hong Kong Willie, artist of reuse.
I finally paid a visit to this art gallery after many years of
wondering about the story behind it. The pavement leading to the door is
painted with handprints and splatters, the store edged with upside down
Coke bottles. Streams of lobster buoys hang from the roof and also make
up the “tree” I marveled at so often from my car window.
Various shoes, bottles, clocks and signs are glued to the side of the
store, and there’s a tribute to Sept. 11 off to the side. No one seemed
to be home, so I called the number on the “WE’RE OPEN” sign, which
brought a middle-aged man in a bright Hawaiian shirt from behind the
After a few basic questions, Joe Brown begins to open up about the history surrounding his art.
Brown, better known as Hong Kong Willie, says he was an artist from the
start. “Everyone is born an artist,” he said. “However some are granted
the gift of being able to express that art.”
As a young boy, his mother decided to send him to art school, which he says changed the course of his life forever.
At the age of 8, Brown recalls being heavily influenced by the lessons,
which included transforming a Gerber baby bottle, something with no
real value, into a piece of art. His teacher had spent an enormous
amount of time and effort in Hiroshima, Japan, helping those affected by
the atomic bombs. Brown learned many lessons about recycling from this
teacher, who had come from Hong Kong. Brown added an American name,
Willie, to Hong Kong for his nickname Hong Kong Willie.
While Brown grew up to be an artist, he left the world of mainstream art to return to his background in technology.
“But on Nov. 13th, 1981 … on a Friday at 1:30 in the afternoon, I had
an epiphany,” Brown says. “I was at a friend’s house right across the
street,” pausing to point at a row of apartments across from his store,
“and a series of events led me to rejoin the art world.”
With the help of two other artists, Brown set up his business in the
Florida Keys in the early 1980s, then moved it to Tampa. Together, they
believed that they were predestined for the Green Movement, and have
been making art out of recyclables for close to 30 years.
How’s business? He smiles. “It’s pretty wild.”
Inside, Hong Kong Willie’s art includes glossy pieces of driftwood
restored and painted with beautiful landscapes and kernels of truth,
some of the gorgeous work priced in the six figures. But there’s also a
wide collection of handmade bags, wooden sculptures and sassy bracelets
for more moderate prices.
A portion of the proceeds go to benefit the Green Movement, Brown says.
With a laid-back swagger, Brown continues. “We live pretty minimally.
And all the funds we get from donations and our art sales are delegated
to green projects.”
I’m not sure what I was expecting when I decided to visit Hong Kong
Willie. Certainly not the breathtaking art inside, and definitely not
the history behind it. I’m feeling thick-headed for not visiting years
ago, and say so.
Brown offers a last bit of insight:
“I’m a big believer in predestination and timing. If someone is not
ready to view art, the door is closed. Every piece of art that is made,
and every project we do is done for a reason. It doesn’t matter if that
reason shows up the next day, or walks in six years later; every piece
of art will find a home.”
It all started on a Tampa Landfill.
Reuse Became the way of life. To read the story from the inception of the Name Hong Kong Willie.
Famed, by the humble statements from the Key West Citizen, viable
art from reuse has found its time. To Live a life in the art world
and be so blessed to make a social impact. Artists are to give back,
talent is to tell a story, to make change. Reuse is a life experience
16For God so
loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever
believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
FOX World News Artist Born For The
The Hong Kong Willie Story
Sometimes, it’s the smallest experiences that have the biggest impact on a person’s life.
While attending an art class in 1958 at the age of 8.
Hong Kong Willie Art Gallery In Tampa, a reuse Art Gallery. Artist Kim,Derek,and Joseph. reuse artist that have lived the life and are meant for the green movement in the world. A gallery that was born for this time. Artist living a freegan life,art that makes a social statement of reuse. Media that has a profound effect in making the word green truly a movement of reuse in the world today and the future.
FAMOUS Tampa Florida Art Galleries
Hong Kong Willie.
Famous Green Artist Born For The
The name of the artist. In 1958 his mother took Hong
Kong Willie to an art class. The name started then. An art teacher when
doing crafts out of Gerber baby bottles, made a statement, in Hong Kong
reuse was common. At that time he thought this was very interesting. His
father had low-land, at that time landfills were common also. The
county had told Hong Kong Willie’s father, it was safe, but as we now
know this was not so. Something can come from bad to be good. Hong Kong
Willie the name came from that art teacher impressing on that young mind
that objects made for one use could be for many other uses. Hong Kong
for the neat concept. Willie for an American name. So for many years
Hong Kong Willie had a life of reuse. Hong Kong Willie saw forms in a
different light, His life now was meaningful, knowing this was and would
be his life. Art made from found objects, making less of a footprint on
this world. Art and art teachers, HOW IMPORTANT. For the ones that
have, and the ones who have not. Media can be found. Now 50 years later,
we know now being green is important. We need to look at this very
carefully. Our children and our world need a different understanding.
Objects can be used in many different ways. Hong Kong Willie the tons of
objects in his life that have been used, without much change, So for
that art teacher what she did for my life. Thank You. I still have the
Gerber baby bottle till this day. Hong Kong Willie.
Hong Kong Willie Preservation Art Group
The Story Behind the Eye-Catching Art at I-75 Exit 266 Tampa Florida
Sometimes, it’s the smallest experiences that have the biggest impact on a person’s life.
While attending an art class in 1958 at the age of 8, Green Movement artist Joe Brown recalled being mesmerized by the lesson. It involved
transforming a Gerber baby bottle into a piece of art.
“The Gerber bottle had no intrinsic value at all,” he said. “But when
(the instructor) got through with me that day, she made me see how
something so (valueless) can be valuable.”
By the time class was over, Brown learned many other lessons, too,
such as the importance of volunteerism, recycling, reuse and giving back
to the community. He recalled being impressed by the teacher’s
volunteer work in Hiroshima, Japan, helping atomic bomb survivors.
“One of the last words she ever spoke to me about that was, ‘When I
left, I left out of Hong Kong,’ ” he said. After turning that over in
his young brain for awhile, he decided to use it in a nickname, adding
the name “Willie” a year later.
You’ve probably seen Hong Kong Willie’s eye-catching
home/gallery/studio at Fletcher Avenue and Interstate 75. But what is
the story of the man behind all those buoys and discarded objects turned
Brown practiced his creative skills through his younger years. But as
an adult, he managed to amass a small fortune working in the materials
management industry. By the the ’80s, he left the business world and
decided to concentrate on his art. He spent some years in the Florida Keys honing his craft and building his reputation as a folk artist. He
also bought some land in Tampa near Morris Bridge Road and Fletcher
Avenue where he and his family still call home.
Brown purchased the land just after the entrances and exits to I-75
were built. He said he was once offered more than $1 million for the
land by a restaurant. He turned it down, he said, preferring instead to
make part of the property into a studio and gallery for the creations he
and his family put together.
And all of it is made of what most people would consider “trash.”
Pieces of driftwood, burlap bags, doll heads, rope — anything that comes
Brown’s way becomes part of his vocabulary of expression, and, in turn,
becomes something else, which makes a tour of his property somewhat of a
visual adventure. What at first seems like a random menagerie of glass,
driftwood and pottery suddenly comes together in one’s brain to form
something completely different. One moment nothing, the next a powerful
statement about 9/11.
One Man’s Trash …
Trash? There is no such thing, Brown seems to say through his art.
In his shop, he has fashioned many smaller items out of driftwood,
burlap bags and other materials into signs, purses, totes, bird feeder
hangars and yard sculptures.
He sells a lot to the regular influx of University of South Florida
parents and students every year who are are at first intrigued by the
“buoy tree” and the odd-looking building they see as they take Exit 266
Brown Sells More Than Art
Of course, the real locals know Brown’s place for the quality of his worms.
If there’s one thing that Brown knows does well in the ground, it’s
the Florida redworm, something he enthusiastically promotes, selling the
indigenous species to customers for use in their compost piles. Some of
his customers say his worms are just as good at the end of a fishing
“To be honest, what made me come here is that they had scriptures on
the top of his bait cans,” said customer John Brin. “Plus, they have
good service. They’re nice and they’re kind, and they treat you like
Though Brin knows Brown sells them mostly for composting, he said
they are great for catching blue gill, sand perch and other local
favorites. He also added that he likes getting his worms from Brown
“because his bait stays alive longer than any other baits I’ve used.”
For prices and amounts, he has another blog dedicated just to worms.
Of course, many people also stop by to buy the smaller pieces of art
that he and his family create: purses made of burlap, welcome signs made
of driftwood, planters and other items lining the walls of his store.
He’s also helped put his mark on the decor of local establishments too, such as Gaspar’s Patio, 8448 N. 56th st.
Owner Jimmy Ciaccio said that when it came time to redecorate the
restaurant several years ago, there was only one person to call for the
assignment, and that was his good friend Brown.
“I’ve known Joe all my life, and we always had a good chemistry
together,” Ciaccio said. “He’s very creative and fun to be around, and
that’s how it all came about.”
Ciaccio says he still gets compliments all the time for the
restaurant’s atmosphere he created using the “trash” supplied by Brown.
He describes the style as a day at the beach, like a visit to Old Key
West. “They’re so inspired, they want to decorate their own homes this
way,” he said.
It’s that kind of testimony that makes Brown feel good, knowing that
others, too, are inspired to create instead of throw away when they see
his work. He simply lets his work speak for itself.
“Somebody once told me to keep telling the story and they will keep coming,” he said, “and they always do.”
It,(was the dump) that had all this media, and a young enterprising mind. Not enough time to capture it all.
Tampa Art Galleries
By Kerry Schofield
year was 1958. Joe Brown, 8, lived next to a county dump site in Tampa,
Fla. Brown found old junk, fixed it up and sold it. Brown knew he had a
higher calling in life — he was destined to be an artist.
is as colorful as the gallery — he wears a bright tropical shirt with
red, white and blue plaid shorts. Patrons tell him they can smell the
salt water when they drive up. The gallery, however, is perched inland
near Morris Bridge Road and Interstate 75 where a rusty-hair hen named
Fred, first thought to be a rooster, patrols the property. Fred,
abandoned five years ago by tourists, trots between the gallery and
adjacent hotel leaving a trail of droppings behind her.
lived on the Gunn Highway Landfill from 1958 to 1963. The Hillsborough
County landfill operated for four years and was closed in 1962. “It was
astounding how quick they could fill the 15 acres in pits that were
enormous,” Brown said.
apartment complex now sits on top of the old landfill. A report by the
Florida Department of Environmental Protection indicated that a lining
was placed underneath the complex when it was built to block methane gas from leaking. The gas is a byproduct of rotting garbage.
lived on his father’s dairy and beef farm. Brown said during heavy
rain, the low land on the farm flooded the neighboring Gunn Highway. In
1957, Hillsborough County officials offered to elevate the low land to
stop the flooding by turning it into a landfill. When the property was
sold in 1984 by Brown’s father, soil testing revealed heaps of old paper
and punctured cans of spray paint.
dug up and took out newspapers like the day they were put in,” Brown
said. “It reminded me of nuclear bombs that were going to go off. They
dumped everything in the landfill.”
a child, Brown foraged at nearby dumpsters. County workers saved junk
for him that people dropped off. One day, Brown’s parents got a call
from his elementary school teacher and told them that Brown had $100 in
his pocket and that he must be stealing.
picked up the saved junk after school and turned it into something new.
Contrary to his elementary school teacher’s accusation, he wasn’t a
thief after all. Instead he was a young entrepreneur who sold other
Brown’s mother wanted him to pursue his talents and dreams, not money.
But he developed a business sense during his young junk collecting days
and told his mother, “I’m not going to be an artist. I’ve read that
artists starve to death.”
mother became concerned. He said his mother knew “the value of
happiness and the travels of life” and sent him to a summer art class.
art teacher inspired awe in Brown. She taught him how to reuse baby
food jars by melting the glass and adding marbles to the mix to create
paper weights. The teacher had traveled to Hong Kong, China and
Hiroshima, Japan after World War II. She saw how people were forced to
recycle and reuse items out of necessity after the war. This left an
impression on Brown.
was at this time that he personified the name Hong Kong Willie, which
harkens back to China where the mass production of merchandise occurs.
The “Willies” are people like Brown and other environmentalists who try
to reuse trash instead of throwing it into landfills.
high school, Brown went to college to study business but dropped out
after three years. He worked in the material handling industry until
1981. Although Brown had achieved a successful career and lifestyle, he
had become discouraged in 1979.
had been diagnosed with depression in 1973, a condition that was caused
from high fructose intake and that lasted for more than four years.
1985, Brown and his artist wife, Kim, bought the half-acre property off
Fletcher Avenue and Morris Bridge Road. For two decades the two small
wooden shacks, built around 1965, that now house the gallery operated as
a bait and tackle shop.
Brown raises and sells worms by the pound mainly for composting. He
recycled 250 thousand pounds in the worm bed in 2009. Brown still sells
the worms for $3.50 a cup for fishing.
1981, Brown resurrected the Hong Kong Willie name from his childhood
art class. In the early 1980s, both he and his wife, Kim, began
upcycling trash into art. Brown entered another world when he left his
mainstream lifestyle behind — he joined the art scene and booked rock
bands at the same time.
Brown family spent half their time in Tampa and the other half in a
small home on Boot Key Harbor in Marathon. Brown gained the reputation
of the Key West lobster buoy artist.
in Key West, Brown became friends with local fishermen. He and others
organized efforts to clean up plastic foam buoys that had collected in
the waterways from years of fishing.
Earth Resource Foundation reports that plastic foam is dumped into the
environment. It breaks up into pieces and chokes animals by clogging
their digestive system.
sells the buoys from the Hong Kong Willie Art Gallery for $2.00 a
piece. He said he has sold from 30 to 40 thousand buoys in the last ten
years. Some of the buoys are more than 50 years old and are collected by
tourists from China and Japan.
you go to the Keys right now and you see a buoy floating, you’ll see
someone slam on the brakes to get it,” Brown said. “They’re the most
prized buoys of the world.”
made a holiday buoy tree 12 years ago from the Key West buoys. Hundreds
of buoys are strung on rope and wrapped around a utility pole next to
the gallery. Brown hopes the novelty of the buoy tree will inspire and
stimulate children to find new ways to reduce, reuse and recycle
Kate Shoup’s “Rubbish! Reuse Your Refuse,” the author said much of what
we get is designed to be scrapped after only a few uses. We easily
throw away pens, lighters, razors and dozens of other items. Shoup said
Americans consume 2 million plastic drink bottles every 5 minutes.
Brown finds uses for items that would otherwise end up in a landfill.
He buys used burlap bags from coffee and peanut producers. He sells them
to the U.S. National Forestry Service for the collection of pine seeds
and Samuel Adams for hops production.
also an artist, paints fish, turtles, crows, parrots and the like on
driftwood and on wood that Brown has salvaged from saw mills and from
old buildings in Key West.
said art is viewed and appreciated by certain people. “If it all came
out the same, it would be like bland grits all the time,” Brown said. He
likes to refer to the gallery art as reused rather than recycled, which
takes waste and turns it into an inferior product. Reuse on the other
hand involves remaking an item and using it again for the same intended
also try to stay away from imprinting a definite use for a definite
item,” Brown said. He explains that 2-liter bottles are not limited to
making bird feeders. The bottles can be used for art and craft projects
“I still have the original Gerber baby food bottle that I melted” Brown said. “It’s sitting on my mom’s little table.”
Hong Kong Willie photomontage
working on a feature story about Hong Kong Willie aka Joe Brown and
family who are reuse artists. I recently spent some time interviewing Joe Brown at his studio in Tampa, Fla. We had a pleasant talk about his
working gallery. We sat outside and there was a nice breeze, although it
was a warm sunny day still here in Florida. Join me in the midst of
writing the story. I took a few pictures to share with you. Enjoy.
View photographs of the Hong Kong Willie art gallery
Tampa Art Gallery,
Art For Sale
Fletcher and I-75 with a bunch of buoys strung everywhere? This small
business that many think is an old bait n’ tackle shop is actually Hong
The little shop specializes in preservation art. The artists don’t take
preservation too lightly either.
the name was created by his father, Joe Brown, in the 1950s.
were melting Gerber baby food bottles,” Brown said. “The teacher
interjected that Hong Kong had a great reuse and recycling program even
Americanized name Willie to the end. And that’s how Hong Kong Willie
was born as a location that offers recycling in a different and
are less concerned with materialistic things and more concerned about
reducing consumption to lessen the footprint humans leave on this
jumping into a dumpster or picking up something on the side of the
road,” Brown said. “There [are] people who will have excess. There
[are] also things that can be trash to one man, but art or a prize to
his family’s way of life, turning trash, which would otherwise fill up
landfills, into an art form.
the Florida Keys. In fact, this is where the deluge of buoys wrapping
around the ‘Buoys Tree’ came from, the fishermen of Key West.
blame the fishermen for their livelihood wouldn’t be correct, instead
we find a usage for those,” Brown said.
the painted driftwood, which are also salvaged, to the wall are old
bent forks. Everything’s reused here. Purses made out of old coffee
bean sacks to “kitschy,” as Brown described it, jewelry made from old
Avenue, and you can’t miss it. The tree appears first, hundreds of
buoys wrapped around its branches, resembling a sort of Dr. Seuss-ian
Christmas ornament. Then the rest of the 20,000 buoys come into view —
thousands of strands of the multicolored foam balls stretching from the
tree to two wooden shacks, hanging from their roofs and walls, and
stretched out over the property.Strewn about the lawn is a menagerie of surfboards, car doors, CB
radios, wooden sculptures and painted signs. A 1979 Ford pickup sits in
the front driveway, painted with a rainbow of colors, four racks of
antlers affixed to its roof. An old stuffed caribou sits in a lawn chair
Of the thousands of motorists who pass by this eclectic landmark off
Exit 266 every day, few stop in the funky gift shop and Key West-themed
folk art gallery that is Hong Kong Willie’s. But this is not your
typical roadside store selling cheesy Florida magnets and beach T-shirts
(although they have those, too). From the moment the owners come out to
greet you, it’s clear that for them this isn’t just a business — it’s a
As I step out of my car, Joe Brown ambles toward me wearing a red
Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts. With his disheveled shoulder-length
brown hair and strong jaw line, Brown, 56, looks a lot like Mel Gibson
in Braveheart. He ends most of his sentences with “Do you follow
me?” and stares with wild gray eyes until you nod in agreement. His
46-year-old wife, Kim, who bears a strong resemblance to Grace Slick,
sits near the shop’s open sign, branding her latest creation. Wearing
large sunglasses, she gives a smile, hardly looking up.
Joe and Kim — Tampa natives — bought the half-acre property off
Fletcher Avenue and Morris Bridge Road in 1985. For the next two
decades, the Browns operated A-24 Hour Bait and Tackle, living on the
premises and bagging worms for K-Mart and Wal-Mart to make a few extra
bucks. But in 2001, they decided to abandon fish food to pursue the
fickle business of art, although they will tell you Hong Kong Willie’s
was always “part of the journey.”
“We were artists,” says Joe. “We were born that way. We had no choice. You follow me?”
The underlying theme of Hong Kong Willie’s is creating art out of
objects destined for the landfill, and while browsing the items, I get
the feeling the Browns are trying to make a point rather than a sale.
“Thirty percent of the gifts given will be in the dumpster by next
Christmas,” Joe says. “Most Christmas gifts will be given because they
think they have to. Very few will have a social impact.”
Every item at Hong Kong Willie’s is either art made out of an object
destined for the landfill or products that other companies were throwing
away and the Browns retrieved before they made it to the dumpster. But
don’t call this recycled art. The Browns prefer “preservation.”
Recycling implies the material will be used for the same purpose. “If
you get stuck in that word, then you get stuck in that form,” Joe
explains. Instead, the Browns create a whole new use for an item that
would have been otherwise thrown away.
Kim looks up from her painting after Joe finishes his long ramble.
“We’ve always been able to take nothing and make something out of it,”
Although most people assume Joe is “Hong Kong Willie,” he says the
name refers to the origin of junk: Hong Kong produces much of the
useless merchandise that Americans buy and quickly throw away, he says.
So it’s up to the Willies of the world — i.e. the Browns and other
conservationists — to find new uses for the trash.
“All of us who believe what we believe is Hong Kong Willie,” Joe says.
The gift shop is a space not much bigger than a tool shed, cluttered
with handmade candles, pottery, ceramic figures and deer skulls painted
tie-dye style. Joe, who’s not content to allow me to wander by myself,
darts from item to item, sharing each one’s origins. One of the first
objects he shows me is an old scuba tank cut in half, stenciled with
yellow and purple spray paint with a weighted rope attached on the
inside. What would have been a heavy addition to a landfill or junkyard,
the Browns now sell as a nautical-themed bell. Another popular item: a
used Starbucks Frappuccino bottle filled with sand and shells, and the
words “Florida Beachfront Property” written in paint on it.
“Is it really pragmatic to say this had one life — to have
Frappuccino in it?” he says, holding up the $3 gift. “That’s not true.
You follow me?”
Joe picks up a droopy glass vase — the result of an Arizona Ice Tea
bottle stuck in a kiln for too long. He says it’s a collector’s item:
Only 300 were made and none look alike.
“People really want something that is one of a kind and something
that means something,” he says, holding up the vase and pointing to a
stack of Beanie Babies. “Which one is the real collectible? The one that
cannot be copied or the one that is mass-produced just on a small
scale? You follow me?”
Most of the materials the Browns work with come from Key West. Every
few months they hop in the pickup, drive the 425 miles to the Keys and
start looking for the junk no one else wants: used dive tanks, the
lobster trap buoys, burlap bags and even old wooden planks from ships or
homes destroyed by storms.
In fact, the latter is one of their biggest sellers. They bring back
an imperfect piece of lumber, slap some urethane on it and Kim paints
everything from colorful fish and birds to old Key West landmarks on it.
Every piece is branded, marked with a lobster cage tag and affixed with
brass rings or forks with which to hang them. In the building opposite
the gift shop, among stuffed animals and fish (Joe was once a
taxidermist), 30 of these painted planks hang from the walls.
Customers are few at Hong Kong Willie’s, but the Browns say they’re
doing well. They never try to push their art on anyone, figuring that if
someone stops and buys something, it was meant to be. (“A piece of art
is a love affair,” Kim says.) They count Gaspar’s Patio Bar and Grille
in Temple Terrace as one of their best customers. Their other business
comes from Tampa residents looking to add a tiki feel to their
backyards. Among Joe’s most popular creations are old car doors
outfitted with waterproof speakers. A few Key West bars bought the
unique sound systems to hang from their ceilings.
But the Browns are not just content to sell their art to passersby —
they want to live the ideals that inspire their art. The couple is
working on getting their business off the electrical grid and powered
completely by solar energy. Kim wants to start a coffee and ice cream
shop with free wireless Internet to bring in likeminded people. Joe
wants to be in the Guinness Book of World Records for hanging the
greatest number of buoys to a structure (it’s not a category yet). And
they’re always trying to find new uses for the trash they see lining
“We’re not just sitting out here being weird,” Joe says suddenly.
“We’re actually taking objects and making these thousands of people say,
‘What’s that?’ We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”
His eyes get wide.
“You follow me?”
Eye of Toucan – Hong Kong WIllie
Original Art $8100.00