God's Own Junkyard: The Big Neon Glitter Comes To Mortimer House
The Notebook | 26th February 2020
God’s Own Junkyard’s Matthew Bracey steps into the light to discuss the family history behind London’s iconic neon wonderland
The late Christopher Bracey is often cited as London’s Master of Glow, and it is fair to say that the bright lights of Soho’s big neon glitter would never have shone so brightly without his singular passion for neon sign-making and near-legendary Walthamstow workshop-cum-permanent-art-installation God’s Own Junkyard, which remains one of London’s most treasured underground attractions. Stacked from floor-to-ceiling with creations that owe as much to the Pop Art movement and travelling carnivals as they do to its founder’s wry sense of humour and penchant for wordplay, it’s a truly unique tourist destination–one that has not only created iconic neon pieces that have graced destinations as far afield as London, Tokyo and Las Vegas for near enough 40 years. but has also been an inspiration and incubator for artists such as Tracey Emin and Martin Creed. In March, his son Matthew Bracey, to whom the torch of the longstanding multi-million family business has been passed, recalls his father in the autobiographical Steel Dogs–a book that charts the genesis and trajectory of the family business and a particularly hair-raising deal-gone-bad in China in the 80s. Next month, God’s Own Junkyard come to Mortimer House, with a site-specific install and live discussion about the inextricable link between the family and the history of Soho between Matthew Bracey and his mother, the legal eagle who now runs the accounts. Here, he tells us how a Welsh miner’s desire to escape darkness in the aftermath of WWII led to the creation of a multi-million pound business that has been responsible for some of the most iconic neon signage to grace cityscapes across the globe, and explains how to capture someone’s DNA in neon.
Tell us about the genesis of God’s Own Junkyard. Where did it all actually begin?
My Grandad was born in the Black Mountains region of Wales, and was a miner when he was little more than a kid. He would never talk too much about mining, but I do remember stories about how people were dying every day, and he once said something about a family member getting trapped under some rocks and surviving, but being mutilated. He left Wales, as a very young man, and came on his own to London, where he ended up getting a job in a neon sign company called Power Neon. I think he was sick of the darkness, and because of the whole background in mining he just fell in love with working with light, and you just don't get a better light source than neon–it looks alive, almost as if it’s got blood pumping through it, and it transforms space. Power Neon is not around any more, but that is how his, and I suppose the family’s passion for neon started out. It was a real struggle to make money at first, because after WWII people wouldn't pay you so much in cash–instead they would barter goods.
And your father was keen to follow in your grandfather’s footsteps?
The torch got passed to my dad, but my dad was an artist at heart–that's what he always wanted to do–so it wasn't really his first choice to take on the family business. He could really see something in neon, though. It was my dad who turned a junkyard into a workshop, and at first we were making one bespoke sign a week, then maybe two signs a week, and we gradually grew the business. That was really the birth of God's Own Junkyard. It was very much a family enterprise–everyone was involved. My nanny Doreen was on the accounts back then–she was the matriarch at the time–and my dad's brother was the family firecracker who first got us involved in Soho. He was a hustler, and was quite sort of in there with the cartels that ran it. My dad wanted to get into the scene to make money, and had come up with the classic Girls, Girls, Girls neon for the sex shops. Soho was very cliquey back then, so it took time, but eventually they approached him for a sign, and then that was it–he kind of exploded, the whole of Soho was lighting up. The Raymond Revue sign is the obvious classic.
God’s Own Junkyard is also famous for supplying neon to the film industry… How did that all start to take shape?
The foothold in the film industry came because an art director from a movie approached my dad to see if he could get him into one of the sex shops to do some filming. The film turned out to be Mona Lisa, and my dad saw a real opportunity. He cut a deal to get them in if they gave him film work for the signs on the movie. Mona Lisa really propelled him into the movie game, because you've got to know the art directors. We ended up on Superman, Roger Rabbit, Blade Runner, Judge Dredd… I was a 17-year-old kid learning the trade and we were stretched across all the studios, and it’s a lot of pressure on a blockbuster movie where it's up to 50 grand an hour to have everyone on set. I'd been working with my dad from a young age, and working with electricity is dangerous, so I handled pressure pretty well. I remember my nerves rigging up little red neon strips for the scene in Mission Impossible where Tom Cruise is coming down the ventilation shaft. I mean, I was a kid and I would be on these movie sets smoking and chatting with people like Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. All of that is mentioned in Steel Dogs, because it's a bit like a memoir or biography for me, as well as a story of a truly crazy deal.
How much of the book is about the family history, and how much of it is about your experiences in China?
I would say the first quarter is about the family and the way the business began, but then it steps up and I'm moving to the craziest deal that there ever was–and it really was a dog of a deal. I had set up this website and thought I could make millions buying steel cheap in China and selling it in Iran. I was a kid, and it was the very early days of the Internet. I had no idea about the kind of sanctions I was going to run into, or the culture shock of being in China–trying to do these deals for large sums of money. I won't say too much about the book as I don’t want to give it away, but it involved a Buddhist monk from Hong Kong who was our guide but had never been to Beijing, dinners where we were expected to eat Monkey brains to save face, bizarre spa hotels, lady boys and some accidental Viagra use. I mean, the whole thing was an absolute nightmare, but is very funny in retrospect. I was so lucky my dad found out what I was planning and came to China with me, otherwise I have no idea what might have happened. It was only when my dad was on his deathbed that he told me I should tell the story.
What do you think is unique about such strong familial ties in business?
There's a certain loyalty in a family business–you sort of back each other up as a family because you can trust each other. It's great to have that sort of inner circle. My dad was someone who carried himself so well–such a unique person and just brilliant in any situation, who would sort of work out what was going on really, really quick. I would say he was fearless, completely fearless. He would laugh and turn any situation that was mental into something funny. My mum is the matriarch now and does all the accounts. When she turned about 50 she studied for a law degree, because she always wanted to be a lawyer, and she uses it at work. I don’t think my dad would ever have imagined God’s Own Junkyard would become so recognised when he started out, but he definitely was the person that infused it with art–we are just very into unique pieces. When people ask us to design something, we’ll often ask to people actually write the words in their own handwriting–we’ll get them to do it like, 50 times on a piece of paper and then send us their favourite one. Then we create, and what is so satisfying is, you know, you’ve not just used a font–you’ve replicated someone's DNA in neon.
Interview by John-Paul Pryor
God’s Own Junkyard x Mortimer House takes place on March 18