Seeing lights at God's Own Junkyard
Tucked away in a forgotten Walthamstow warehouse sits God's Own Junkyard, a dizzying showroom and tribute to neon artist Chris Bracey.
It’s the 1970s and a graphic designer decides to leave his agency job to work at his father’s business. He has big-city dreams of names in lights. However, those names don’t include his. They belong to the seedier establishments tucked into Soho’s twisting streets — the sex shops, strip clubs, brothels — and they all hum and glow neon.
This man is the late Chris Bracey, who would go on to become one of the most famous names in neon art.
It’s now a blue Friday morning in 2017 and Bracey, the nicknamed Neon Man, has been dead since 2014. I’m lost in a Walthamstow industrial estate carpark with a friend, navigating my way through the lorries and trying to find God's Own Junkyard, Bracey's legacy. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot a larger than life coffee cup, then a motel sign, then a collection of chairs and tables. A half-open garage door spills rainbow light onto the road, despite the glare of the sun. Two men, one a wizened gentleman wearing a black pillbox hat and another younger in a baseball jacket, linger outside and take puffs on rolled up cigarettes. As the younger man spots me, he turns around and I see the words GOD’S OWN JUNKYARD printed onto the back of his jacket.
God’s Own Junkyard is both a showroom for Chris Bracey’s family business Electro Signs, where collectors can enquire about purchasing works, and a memorial to the artist. Located in a warehouse in his old Walthamstow neighbourhood, the attached Rolling Scones café just beyond the lights serves as a local favourite for an affordable cream tea amidst the otherworldly setting.
While Chris Bracey may have started by simply making sex shop signs to earn cash, his work and his approach transcended the commercial as he repositioned himself as an artist with more creative aspirations. For nearly forty colourful years, Bracey’s work painted Soho pink and sensual, loomed ominously in the background of films such as Bladerunner and Eyes Wide Shut and was hung on walls belonging to the likes of Vivienne Westwood and Grayson Perry. Some of his most famous commissions have since found their way back home here to their final resting place, to be recorded by Snapchatters and serve as backdrops for avid Instagrammers.
The first steps into the warehouse are a delightful sensory overload and an epileptic nightmare. A life-size statue of Jesus with a neon halo (which no longer lights up) watches over us as we tread past a discarded carousel horse and the first neon sign, a mish mash of letters that spells out the name of the establishment. From then on, it’s a whirlwind of illumination and colour plastered against the walls, stacked on tables and couches and hanging precariously from the ceiling.
There are other people there too: a middle aged man experimenting with a heavy duty camera who throws us self-conscious looks as we step inside, a fashion blogger posing by an angry X with her photography team in tow and a pair of Spanish tourists admiring a sculpture of the Statue of Liberty, painted over in pink with the words ‘Waiting for my man’. As I pull out my camera to start taking photographs, the man with a pillbox hat appears at my elbow and demands to know what I’m doing with them.
“It’s for my personal blog,” I babble, still reeling from the frisson. “It’s for my masters.”
He side eyes me, then says, “As long as it’s for personal use.”
He disappears into an alcove lit up by a brilliant Union Jack sign, opening up a laptop to deal with business. Tucked away beside him is an animated pole dancer made of yellows and pinks, spreading her legs provocatively with breasts perky enough to cut glass. I recognise it as one of Bracey’s commissions for the famous photographer David LaChappelle. It’s funny how something that wouldn’t be out of place in a red light district has now become art. Surrounded by other lights that scream GIRLS and LOVE in pink and crimson, it’s clear that these are throwbacks to Bracey’s days creating signs for sex establishments.
It’s hard to believe this electric wonderland all began when Bracey told a man in a mink fur coat, ‘I wanna bring you Vegas to Soho. No one’s ever done it before’. Not long after, this man Paul Raymond would commission his first work for the Raymond Revue Bar and become the most in-demand name in the Soho district, defining the dizzying aesthetic of the adult paradise. It’s therefore no surprise that a gigantic Welcome to Las Vegas road sign hangs over God’s Own Junkyard, speaking to the undercurrent of sex and excess that permeates the works.
We make our way to the back of the room to the Rolling Scones café, where Walthamstow locals watch us take photos in bemusement as they pour themselves another cup of tea. Above the counter, STARK is spelled out in hot red letters — a commission for a Captain America movie. I order a peppermint tea for two quid and we sit in old repurposed theatre chairs, upholstered in printed burlap. A sign for the Central Line is nailed to the wall beside me and gigantic disco balls project glittering squares across the room; it’s not just lights that find a second lease on life here, but also the quirky odd end that’s been salvaged from the skip.
A gigantic bulb sign hangs in a more modest corner, spelling out the word CARNIVAL. It doesn’t shine quite as brightly as the others and seems to come from another time entirely, which makes me think it might be the work of Chris Bracey’s father who used to build signs for carnivals and funfairs in the 50s. A Second World War veteran and former coal miner, Dick decided to turn his hand to electrical engineering and more artistic endeavours with his Walthamstow company Electro Signs. As I look around, I find more carnival signs scattered around the place and wonder how many more of Dick’s works sit comfortably beside his son’s as part of the family legacy.
With Chris Bracey’s passing, God’s Own Junkyard has been handed down to Bracey’s sons just as his own father handed down Electro Signs. I see a framed article depicting his son, Marcus Bracey, grinning before a stack of neon signs. With a jolt, I realise that Marcus is also a neon artist and has taught his own daughter to craft in glass and light. While Chris Bracey may have gone ahead to God’s real junkyard, his art lives on in this little electric warehouse, in the passion of his family.
God’s Own Junkyard is open Friday and Saturday (11am-9pm) as well as Sunday (11am-6pm).
God’s Own Junkyard, Unit 12, Ravenswood Industrial Estate, Shernhall Street, London, E17 9HQ
Thanks to my girl Nat Yadav for helping out with some of the photography!