The zen of junk
December 25 2010
Drive south on I-75, look to the right around East Fletcher 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 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?”