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The Story Behind the Eye-Catching Art at I-75 Exit 266 Tampa Florida
While attending an art class in 1958 at the age of 8, Tampa folk 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 into art?
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.
He keeps a blog about his art at hongkongwillie.blogspot.com. He also sells his creations through the Website Etsy.com.
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 off I-75.
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 hook, though.
“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 family.”
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.”
Famous Recycling Artist. University of South Florida, Florida Focus,Fletcher and 75
By Kerry Schofield
The 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.
Hong Kong Willie photomontage
View photographs of the Hong Kong Willie art gallery
Black Bird of Key Largo
“Black Bird of Key Largo”
The allurement of the winds blowing in the palm trees and the moon shining through and the “Black Bird of Key Largo” looking upon.
Hong Kong Willie
**HONG KONG WILLIE artist Kim Brown, chose aged Florida sawmill stock as canvas. Recovered Brass Hanger: Key West lobster trap rigging. Originally connects and suspends rigging of spiny lobster traps in Key West waters. Candy-like appearance due to multiple protective layers. Assigned number in artist register by Fisherman ID tag, corresponding burn-etched # rear of piece. Key recovered by Robert Jordan, acclaimed treasure hunter: also in identification of piece and artist.
Weight: 17+ LB
Tampa Art Gallery,MY FOX TAMPA BAY,Charlie’s World Fox News
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 beckoning visitors.
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 lifestyle.
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,” she says.
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 area roads.
“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?”