Artist Born for this time, Lived on a landfill as a child. 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
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.


Look for Hong Kong Willie on Bing




Hong Kong Willie. 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.



February 22, 1989

North Tampa- The night light shines like a beacon on the bait shop’s buzzer, beckoning to early morning and nocturnal fishermen.
A-24 Hour Bait the workday doesn’t end. The rustic store sits off the
Fletcher Avenue ramp to Interstate 75 South. A windowless blue mobile
home and worm bed are it’s companions on a one-acre slice of land.
buildings are a sharp contrast to their new neighbors, Hidden River
Corporate Park rising out of the woods on the north and growing Tampa
Telecom Park on the west.
Owners Joe and Kim Brown work about 20
hours a day, occasionally resting in “the cave”, the mobile home they
live in behind the store.
The couple’s shop is well stocked with shiners and worms.
“What we try to do here is carry the best of baits,” Joe Brown said.
got night crawlers from Canada, salamanders from North Dakota and
wigglers from his own worm bed behind the store. A refrigerated tank is
home to cured shiners and minnows sedated by the cold.
“Wild shiners
in a non-refrigerated tank would be going crazy,” Brown said as he
peered into a tank of fish separated by size. “They’d be jumping around
trying to commit suicide. With the cold water they’re pretty sedate,
but you let the water (temperature) rise, a shiner would be like a race
Larger shiners are selling for $24 a dozen a dozen today
because the fish are dispersed and spawning, so they’re are difficult
to catch. Normally, large shiners cost around a $1.50 each, Brown said.
Good bait, proximity to the Hillsborough River and convenient hours lure in fishermen.
all the time,” Brown said. Catfish lovers are out early to snag popular
fishing spots, and during snook season there’s a real run for shiners,
he said.
It’s not uncommon for someone to ring the bell at 3 a.m.
stick my head out of the door real fast and tell them I’ll be there. It
takes a lot for someone to ring a bell that time of the day,” Brown
The Browns opened their shop about two years ago with a top
notch but small stock of bait and tackle. Born anglers, they knew it
was hard to get bait late at night or early in the morning, so they
decided to stay open 24 hours.
Now they think their hard work is
paying off. The shop has gradually grown to include all kinds of lures
and bobbers, rods and reels. Hillsborough River fishermen know they’re
there. And others find out every day, Brown said.
“I’ve seen this
place a bunch of times, off the interstate, but this is the first time
I’ve been here,” customer Michael Walker said one afternoon. “We got a
pretty good (fishing) hole near here, so this will suit us just fine.”
Walker said he’s been to a few saltwater bait shops that were open till midnight.
“But I don’t know any that stay open past midnight,” he said.
Although sometimes blurry-eyed when he waits on customers, Brown is never too tired to swap fish stories and other tips.
when he’s fishing with a shiner, Brown hooks the bait behind the rear
dorsal fin with a Khale hook. A bass usually grabs a smaller fish head
first, so the gills and fins smooth back as the larger fish swallows
its victim, Brown said.
But during spawning season, like now, he
uses a straight hook and punctures the crease at the bottom of the
shiner’s mouth, hooking upward through a hole in the snout.
“Now bass are eating and striking so hard they take him and swallow him,” Brown said.
shop has given Brown more than a chance to make a living and tell
stories. A former designer of conveyor systems, he gave up two houses,
boats and other luxuries to move to the woods 10 years ago.
“I had what you’re supposed to want,” Brown said. “I just wasn’t happy.”
he loved the river, and he lived for years on the Hidden River property
north of his shop. Today he said he thinks the land surrounding his
home will become Tampa’s version of Central Park.
“I had the
foresight to have bait and tackle because there’s 25,000 acres of
Southwest Florida Water Management district property adjoining the
river that will always be public,” Brown said.
Lettuce Lake Park,
Trout Creek, Wilderness Park, Hillsborough River State Park and other
natural settings also are permanent parts of the landscape, he said.
the area grows, the Browns hope their business will follow suit. They
feel lucky that they’re in the middle of a developing area minutes from
the pristine quiet of the undeveloped Hillsborough River.
Soon Joe Brown plans to have canoes for rent.
going to grow slow, we don’t believe in carrying debt,” he said. “It
takes a lot to start a business.” We’ve had to sacrifice, but we
wouldn’t trade it.”

Tribune Outdoors Editor

Hillsborough River has seen some tough times, It’s been dammed and
drained and polluted and sea-walled almost to the point of death.
But it keeps on hanging in there. Old man river just keeps on rollin’.
upper river, above the Fowler Avenue bridge, shows fits and starts of
the sort of thing that brought the lower river to its knees years back.
But all things considered, its still got a whole lot to offer a
city-world wearied soul.
I went up there a week or so ago with Joe
Brown and his fishing guide pal Ted Sawyer, both Hillsborough River
fans since they wore knee pants.
Joe asked ask me to ride along to
take a look at some of the trashing problems that are starting to peak
out here and there along the shore lines, and we saw more of it than
you’d hope to.
But what we saw mostly was rich-looking black water
and tall, thick cypress dams, lots of birds and fish and turtles. And
It’s not pristine wilderness. But considering it’s within
shooting distance of the downtown towers of a major American
metropolis, the upper Hillsborough ain’t bad. Not bad at all.
river snakes through the backyards of a number of homes and an
apartment complex or two until it slips under the Fletcher Avenue
bridge. From there on up, city turns country in a hurry. There’s a
landing at Tampa Palms, but you can’t see any buildings, and for much
of the rest of it, the river swamp spreads out all around the flow, a
lot like it must have when Tampa was a two-bit fishing village 10 miles
There are lots of interesting creeks to explore, including several that Joe said were excellent bassing spots.


Lake, the only open spot in the river, gave us a look at the county
park tower where folks so inclined can view the swamp without getting
their feet wet. And a little further up, we found the buzzards.
come in hundreds, maybe in thousands, Joe said, every winter. They show
up in November, they stay until March. They festoon the trees in
dozens, fight and hold discussions along the banks, bath in the river.
Yep. Buzzards bath.
they get a bit too strong even for themselves after a time. We watched
a dozen of them flutter like sparrows in a bird bath as they washed up
along a sandy shoreline near Nature’s Classroom.
The birds roost in
the trees along the river at night, fly out over the surrounding
pasture land by day looking for assorted horribles to fill their
Sometimes they go visit the downtown towers, where they
whirl for hours on the thermals of heated air rising up the glass
We found the trash piles, too. Heaps of plastic cups, beer
cans, paper plates, the fallout from the civilization that bustles
around the edges of this little piece of wilderness.
Joe said he
can’t understand why folks would take the trouble to come out here, to
get away from the pollution and the ugliness of some parts of the city,
and then turn the shorelines into a dump wit their leftovers.
I couldn’t either.


Brown runs 24-Hour Bait, on Morris Bridge Road just off Fletcher
Avenue. It’s the nearest bait shop to the river, and the only one that
operates around the clock. (Well, sort of around the clock. If you show
up at 3 a.m., you have to press the buzzer and wait a couple of minutes
until Joe rolls out of the sack and comes on down to the shop to serve
The folks who buy bait there return with stories of their
successes, and this along with his own long angling experience has
allowed Brown to put together a pretty good picture of what works,
when, on the river.
Wild shiners, Joe says, are the choice offering for the river’s large mouth.
sell ’seasoned’ shiners that have been in chilled, chemically treated
water for a week or two. This gives them a slightly silvery color,
makes their scales a lot tougher and makes them stay alive on the hook
longer than domestic shiners or even fresh-caught wild ones,” he says.
says the way to fish the shiners is to use a Kahle-style hook with a
big bend, made of light wire so the bait stays lively. The hook should
be inserted under the skin back of the dorsal fin. The bait is then
either free-lined, with no weight or cork, or with a cork only, around
beds of floating grass and along the deeper cypress shores.
Joe says
that simply putting a couple of the baits out behind the boat and
letting it drift with the current will also turn up plenty of fish.
says the side creeks are good spots to fish plastic worms, rigged Texas
style with a slip sinker. Colors favored by river experts are tequila
shad, red shad and crawfish.
Joe says that the waters above the
“pop-off canal” dam, which shuttles water to the Palm River in time of
flood, are good for top-water plugs early and late in the day.
Brown is also a catfish angler, and notes that there are plenty of spots where big channel catfish gather in the river.
“Every major bend has a deep hole along the outside bank,” he notes. “Most of these holes have big catfish in the bottom.”
fact, some of the holes marked nearly 30 feet deep on Ted Sawyers LCD
depth finder, and suspended dots showed there were plenty of cats
waiting in the depths.
Brown said that cut shiners were the best
bait for cats. He said the fish usually feed right on the bottom, so
the bait should be weighted with plenty of lead to make it hit and stay


He said speckled perch or crappie have been biting well in the river for several months, and should stay active through March.
of the best spots, he noted, are the hole just below the Fletcher
Avenue Bridge, and the island near the upstream end of Lettuce Lake. He
said Missouri minnows about two inches long are the best bait in either
The river offers good fishing year around, but water levels drop in late winter and early spring.
means possible problems for boatmen new to the river, according to
Brown, because there are many unmarked rocks and stumps, particularly
near the Fowler ramp.
Guide Ted Sawyer suggests using only
shallow-draft aluminum boats during the low water period, and
proceeding slowly until you learn the water.
If you’d rather let Sawyer show you around, he can be contacted at 949-7517. The number at A-24 Hour Bait is 989-2248.
Joe has one request, however you fish the river: take a trash bag with you.

Frank Sargeant
Tribune Outdoors Editor
Wednesday, July 19, 1995

They call themselves the Mutt and Jeff of Saturday morning fishing shows.
the air they are argumentative, querulous and cantankerous by their own
admission, but Jim Lee and Joe Brown of WFNS, 910 AM’s “GETAWAYS” radio
program get along just fine when they hop into a boat and head out for
some redfish and snook action, as they did a few weeks ago with captain
Tod Romine of Bradenton.
Lee is an insurance man at his “real” job,
while Brown runs Tampa’s only 24-hour bait shop. Both say the Saturday
morning radio gig is more for fun than profit, but the 25 weeks since
they started they’ve managed to collect enough sponsors to break even
and enough listeners to put them in the ratings book.
“It ruins your
Friday’s nights because you have to get up at 3:30 on Saturday morning
to be on the air by 6,” Lee said. “And we usually like to get together
at least once during the week to go over the next show and plan the
sound effects.”
The program not only covers hunting and fishing, but
also family adventures like locating shark’s teeth on the beaches near
Venice and going on-site at Gatorland at feeding time.
” We enjoy a
lot of foolishness on the air,” Brown said. ” We want to provide
information, but more than that we want to entertain. It’s humbling to
know you’re just a push of the button away from disappearing from your
For a part of the trip on Sarasota Bay, the fish were
somewhat humbling, too, with the temperature around 95 degrees and
baits scarce, Tod Romine had to delve into his bag of tricks to turn
the fish on. But after a few dry holes, he managed.
” The big
problem with fishing this summer has been the bait scarcity in this
area due to the red tide,” Romine. ” There’s lots of little stuff on
the inside that are good for chum, but the larger sardines we want as
bait are very hard to find.”
Fortunately, Romine had a “sardine
mine” in a 15-foot deep hole in the grass flats where he managed to
collect several dozen 4-inch baits with five or six throws of the 10
foot net. He then visited a spot near the mouth of the Manatee River
where one toss of of a small-mesh net captured all the chum-sized
sardines he could lift aboard.
” I like small sardines for chum
because they turn the fish on but don’t fill them up,” Romine said. ”
Once you get them popping on top, put out a bigger bait and you’re
hooked up in a hurry.”
Lee caught the first fish, a snook of about
23 inches. He pulled it aboard and was still posing for photos when
Brown nailed one of about the same size.
” That fish is just like mine, only an inch shorter,” Lee told him.
” Yeah , but it’s an ounce heavier,” Brown said.
” Mine has a higher IQ,” Lee said.
” He wouldn’t have hit if I hadn’t put it in there just right.
” Mine is better looking,” Brown said.
” Yours has a crooked nose.”
so it went. We managed 15 snook total, all but a couple smaller than
the legal 24-inch minimum, and a dozen redfish, six of them in the
legal spot, six over the 27-inch maximum. In between was a mix of lady
fish, jacks and undersized trout — a busy day considering the
sweltering heat.
Romine fishes a mix of yellow holes on high or rising water, deep cuts and island points on the drop.
more on fishing the Sarasota Bay area, Romine can be reached at (941)
747-3866. For more on Jim and Joe, their shows runs from 6 to 9 a.m.

January 26, 2002
A break with the mainstream led a couple to their own little corner of happiness from another day in time.

I believe every individual has a purpose. When you start going on your
journey to discover yours, you learn some things along the way.”

Joe Brown loves to express himself.
you want to see how, take a spin by his place on the southwest corner
of Interstate 75 and Fletcher Avenue. His yard is coiffed with a sassy
blend of crab-trap buoys, bottle art, fishy wind socks and a dog and
two cats that co-exist on a mainly peaceful basis.
Then there’s the man. Brown, a page out of the 1960’s better side, owns A-24 Hour Bait and Tackle.
one hand, he’s private enough not to want his photograph taken, on the
other, he’s gregarious enough to talk the ears off anyone interested in
fishing. Fact is, this 51-year-old Tampa native is primed to gab about
next best to anything on the minds of his visitors, including the way
things used to be.
Like in 1983 when he and his wife, Kim, planted roots on this corner and the new Interstate was their only new neighbor.
that, Brown had been part of the establishment, but he chucked his
mainstream career and spent 3 years on a 700-hundred acre spread across
Fletcher, searching for himself.
I was seriously unhappy,” he says.
left (the job) Nov. 13, 1981. That Date, the moment I left the office,
it blazed in my brain, I was 31 and dealing with severe depression.”
One day he heard a voice.
will tell you you’ve got serious problems when you hear voices,” he
says behind a grin. “But this wasn’t that kind of experience. It just
said, ‘Joe, what if it gets better?’”
Well, slowly it did.
He and Kim took an option on the corner that been home to a worm farm for 25 years.
” The worm business was at it’s ebb,” Brown says.
” I bought it to sell. I had no idea I was going to continue it.”
the years, neighbors started putting down roots to the west, including
apartment complexes and more than a half dozen hotels, such as Extended
Stay America and Residence Inn.
The bait and tackle business stayed
reasonably strong until the economy went south last year, Brown says,
adding that he still carries a full line of rods, reels, cane poles,
lures, crickets, shiners, and shrimp.
” But we did a lot a wholesale and we lost 90 percent of that business Sep. 11,” he says.” ” That’s dead. It’s not coming back.”
Fortunately the Browns have branched out.
Last year, they opened a gift shop that sells gator heads, sea shells, stuffed critters, t-shirts, and other trinkets.
also started dabbling in bottle art — melting everything from vodka to
Sprite bottles, reshaping them then letting them cool and harden.
Through the last 20 years, he seems to have learned to be a survivor.
He’s also learned his reason for being on this corner.
“I believe every individual has a purpose,” he says, turning serious for a moment.
you start going on your journey to discover yours, you learn some
things along the way. I like working with the public and making them
happy. And if you’re doing what you want to do, it’s a beautiful thing.”

JULY 5, 2005


Every month or so, Kim and Joe Brown pile into the family flatbed
truck, he one that’s decorated with multi-colored stencils of fern
fronds, and drive down to Key West.
There, they inevitably find what
they’re looking for: a few thousand discarded plastic foam crab and
lobster buoys, maybe a battered surf board or a life preserver. After a
week or so, they strap the whole load down, turn the truck around and
head home to Fletcher Avenue at Interstate-75, where they have lived
for nearly 25 years.
If you’ve driven by there recently, and you’d
know if you’d had, then you have a pretty good idea, of what the
Brown’s do with the buoys once they get them off the truck.
wrap them around metal poles, until they resemble marshmellow Christmas
trees. They festoon them outside the gift and bait shop they run. They
line their parking lot with them.
“It can drive you crazy,” Kim
Brown said as she stared at a mound of them. “There’s got to be
something else to do with them. I was thinking maybe I’d cut them in
half and make them into little planters.”
Occasionaly, a restaurant
owner who fancies a nautical theme will relieve them of a few thousand
buoys. Sometimes a home owner from New Tampa wants a dozen for his new
poolside bar.
But generally speaking, the treasures of the Key West
trips come in at a rate far faster than they go out. Doesn’t matter a
bit to the Browns.
“I have a pretty good life. I don’t have to bust
my butt,” Kim Brown said. “I don’t make a lot of money, but when
someone likes my stuff, that’s cool.”
In a corner of Tampa dominated
by late-arriving corporate parks and hotel chains, they live a life of
enviable self-sufficiency. If they appear eccentric, it is only by the
relelentlessly conformist standards of their neighbors. If the decor
appears kitschy, maybe it’s because we’ve lost touch with what’s truly
On a recent morning, Kim Brown was giving an impromptu
tour to a surprise visitor. She was wearing a loose-fitting white shirt
and a long gray cotton skirt. Walking around in her tanned bare feet
and sunglasses she seemed glamorous and unfussy. She casually mentions
her age, 46, without a trace of self-consciousness.
The sky was
threatening rain and that wasn’t doing much for sales at A-24 Hour
Bait. “Fish are going to eat today,” she says, shaking her head at the
squandered opportunity.
But it gave her time to tell some stories.
rings, they came from a Cuban refugee raft,” she says, indicating a
clump of artifacts outside thet baitshop. ” When I can, I take a
picture of the man or the woman and that becomes part of the story of
what we sell.”
She grabbed a bass lure dangling from the inside of a
metal cylinder and gave it a good tug. It clanged loudly. “We make the
bells out of dive tanks that were going to be thrown away,” she says.
“I’ve got a real nice anchor. It’s over 100 years old. That came from a Cuban who got it caught in his lobster traps.”
Lobster guys are lucky,” she says with real admiration in her voice.
“They find this stuff all the time, just floating out there.”
grew up near Lowry Park Zoo. Her husband was raised out on Anderson
Road. They met in 1981, the circumstances of which are one of a few
stories she’s reluctant to tell in detail. At the time she was boarding
horses across the road in what is now the Hidden River Corporate Park.
I met Joe, he was in a suit and tie. He always had a thousand dollars
on his back,” she said. He was in the materials handling business, but
it wasn’t long for that corporate life.
They saw some land was
available for sale on Morris Bridge Road, the part where it bends in
the southwest corner of I-75 and Fletcher. The acre or so had a worm
farm on it when they bought it. The previous owner had a Coca-Cola
cooler out front, and fishermen on their way to the Hillsborough River
would come by and fill a can with worms, leave a little money in a cup.
All on the honour system.
“That tapered off. Fishng wasn’t simple
anymore. You couldn’t just get a cane pole and a can of worms and go
catch some dinner,” Kim says. “Now you’ve got to have permits and
expensive reels and the latest lure.”
“That’s why we kind of went back to our art.”
the early 1990’s they made their first trip down to the keys. They
began to meet fishermen. They stayed in their homes, ate dinner with
them. Joined in the parties at the beginning of stone crab season.
wasn’t long before they saw all the buoys overflowing the trash cans.
Buoys generally last a few years. Turtles gnaw them. Storms scatter
them. Sun and salt bleach them.
“Hey, we can do something with those,” Kim remembers saying. “We make something out of nothing.”
gift shop, known as Hong Kong Willie, is full of stuff that was
perilously close to oblivion before the Browns identified some hidden
Kim makes “coconut grams”. They’re painted coconuts with
a space clearly marked for the address. There’s not much room for the
message. But the U.S. Postal Service will actually deliver them, Kim
The gift shop’s ceiling is packed with coffee sacks. Glass
bottles that have been heated in the Brown’s kilns sit on shelves
slumped like Dali clocks. Gnarled pieces of polished Lignum Vitae are
scattered about; Kim’s son Derek, 22, is responsible for that work.
has a price, because prices depend on too many variables for it to be
worth specifying. (A string of five buoys will cost you $12.99, though
the price drops for bulk purchases.) But whenever possible a piece will
come with a picture of the shop, or of the person who provided the
piece, to commemorate the item’s passage
through history.
telephone was on Duval Street,” Kim says. “It’s got all these names and
numbers written on the side. And a picture of a raccoon on the front.
Who knows why?”
The demand for items such as this is unpredictable.
Ditto the 1961 mailbox with the rusted front. But the Browns’ customers
tend to share their enthusiasm.
“I bought 1,200 buoys a month ago,”
said Jimmy Ciaccio, owner of Gaspar’s, a restaurant on 56th Street in
Temple Terrace that has a brand new patio with an aggressive Key West
“I must have 3,000 of them around here,” Ciaccio says as he
walks the deck, talking a torrent. “I got a raft, those traps, they all
came from Joe. I’ve bought a lot of novelty stuff from them. That’s
what they’re all about and that’s what we’re all about. And there’s
always a story behind everything. I love that. He gave me that thing,
it’s like a piece of wood or something I don’t know what it is, but
it’s from Key West. We’ve got that chemistry.”
If there were a few
more customers as fervid as Ciaccio, Kim Brown might not be toying with
the idea of getting into the food business. But there aren’t and she is.
everybody wants a buoy or a bell,” Kim says. “But everyone wants to
drink a cup of coffee. I don’t want to be a Starbucks but maybe a
little coffee shop. Maybe a good Cuban sandwich.”
“But then you get
into hiring and firing. I’ve got friends in the retaurant business. I
see how hard they work. It’s never-ending,” she says, beginning to
argue with herself. “I just don’t want to work that hard.”
She circles back to a calm contentment with life as it is currently defined.
“We’re happy. We don’t want to sell. We’re not rich, but we pay our bills.

The zen of junk

A Tampa couple devotes itself to creating something from nothing


Published 12.06.06

off East Fletcher Road between hotel chains and high-end office parks
is the gift shop and folk art gallery Hong Kong Willie’s.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

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.

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

“We were artists,” says Joe. “We were born that way. We had no choice. You follow me?”

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.

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.”

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.

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

“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.

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?”

About Hong Kong Willie

Artist Born for this time, Lived on a landfill as a child. 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. 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.
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