“My name is Chris Bracey, you’ll probably forget about me by the end of the night”. These were Chris’ first words as he introduced his work at London’s Village Underground last night. Let me tell you, I will not forget this guy. Nor will anybody else in the audience. What a character.
Chris is the ‘Neon Man’. Starting out doing Soho’s late night sex club signs, he moved on to work on lighting for some of the biggest movies to ever hit the big screen. His work has appeared behind Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut, Jack Nicholson in Batman and Johnny Depp in Charlie in the Chocolate Factory.
I was fortunate enough to have a chat with Chris last night. He spoke with such great wit and dry humor, so instead of trying to re-tell the story for him, I thought I’d give it to you in the raw. Here you are, the story of Chris Bracey ‘The Neon Man’…
“My Dad was a coal miner in Wales. After the war he got sick of living in the dangerous underground and he decided to come to London. He managed to get a job in the East End learning how to make neon. So he went from the dark to the light. In 1952 he started his own company making neon and started doing fairground and circus signs.
I left school, learning how to work from him making neon. It was really difficult trying to get the money out of the fairground people. I met this girl… She got pregnant, we had to get married. Couldn’t live off the fairground. So I thought, where can I make money? …Oh, sex! So I went to Soho. Not to have sex, but to sell the words ‘sex’ in neon.
I did thousands for about 20 years. I did every sex establishment in Soho. I used to just make up whatever signs I wanted. I was like council public enemy number one in Westminster.
I got sick of sex after 20 years and wanted to work in movies. As luck had it, they were trying to make the movie Mona Lisa, which was about sex. No one would let them film in these sex clubs, so they came around and said to me, “Look, you do all these signs, can you get us in there?’’. I said, “I’ll get you into any of these clubs, I’ll get you anywhere you want in Soho… but you gotta give me the work on the movie doing the lighting”. Which they did.
I did Superman, Batman, worked with Stanley Kubric, worked with Tim Burton…The rest is history, really… ”
What an amazing story. Today, Bracey is continuing to pursue his passion for neon as enthusiastically as ever. With the help of innovations in light technology, he’s able to develop his work in wonderful new ways.
Chris works from God’s Own Junkyard in Walthamstow, where he has the most amazing collection of neon signage outside of Vegas. Unfortunately “God’s Own Junkyard” the place “where neon never dies” is under threat.
Developers are hungry for his plot as the processes of gentrification quickly sterilise just about every neighbourhood across East London. With the local council already claiming Compulsory Purchase on the block across from his, it seems it’s only a matter of time before the city loses another cultural icon. I’ll have more on Chris and God’s Own Junkyard soon.