Tuesday

Famous Recycling Artist .Updated 12/11/2018

Tampa gallery practices the art of creative reuse .

 

Passers-by traveling south on Interstate 75 at Fletcher Avenue might wonder: 'What's up with the lobster buoys?'
Strings of the colorful floats adorn Hong Kong Willie, a roadside business with roots in a northwest Hillsborough County landfill and the garbage dumps of Hong Kong.
Poised among chain businesses common at interstate interchanges, Hong Kong Willie sells Florida-centric art, artifacts, worms and even soil for gardeners. As diverse as the inventory seems, there is a theme: promoting a close-to-the-ground, sustainable approach to art and living.
The unusual business is run by Joe Brown, 61; his wife, Kim, 51; and their adult son, Derek.
The enterprise is not named for a particular person. It's more of a conceptual amalgamation, its owners say.
The recycled burlap coffee bags, lobster buoys and driftwood sold at the store are reflective of Joe Brown's childhood. As a boy he watched garbage trucks haul Tampa's trash to a dump on property owned by his family.
"It really made an impression on me," he said. "It became very easy to think outside the box and know where I could find things from resources that were just abounding."
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When Brown's mother took him to an art class taught by an instructor who had spent time in post-World War II Asia, he learned how artists there scrounged for materials that had creative potential.
"It was a different kind of recycling because it was done out of need and touched the human spirit and the heart," he said.
During the past 28 years the Browns have transformed a bait-and-tackle shop into a shrine to sustainable art. But aside from a robot waving an American flag and wearing a "For Sale" sign — and the overall spectacle of the shack-like store itself — there is no signage beckoning drivers to pull into the parking lot of 12212 Morris Bridge Road or to wander over from a nearby Bob Evans restaurant.
"There has never been, in all the years of being here, some massive sign saying who we are and what we do," Joe Brown said. "Because when people finally decide out of inquisitiveness to slow down and stop, they've finally slowed down enough to hear the most important message of their life."
Most of their business is conducted online .Their catalog includes crafts and artwork created with recovered material such as wood from sawmills and the sides of demolished Key West homes. Kim Brown paints on the recycled materials; her "Eye of Toucan" painting, for example, is for sale for $8,100. Other featured items include handbags made from decorated burlap coffee bean bags for $250, and potato chip platters morphed from heated and shaped vinyl records for $4.99.
The ubiquitous painted lobster buoys are big sellers. They go for a few dollars each depending on condition and artistic application.
The Browns travel frequently to the Florida Keys, promoting their art and gathering raw materials such as the buoys, driftwood and even an orange helicopter. Joe Brown said the chain of islands at Florida's southern tip hold an attraction for the family beyond being a source of creative flotsam.
"That is a place of resourcefulness," he said, "because they're not the kind of people to rely upon the government."
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Original Art $8100.00 

To Buy Contact Hongkongwillie

Eye of Toucan - Hong Kong WIllie Original Art
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Eye of Toucan - Hong Kong WIllie Original Art Eye of Toucan - Hong Kong WIllie Original Art Eye of Toucan - Hong Kong WIllie Original Art Eye of Toucan - Hong Kong WIllie Original Art Eye of Toucan - Hong Kong WIllie Original Art
 
 
Customers include people with a taste for subtropical creations. Gaspar's Patio Bar and Grille in Temple Terrace, for example, bought decor from Hong Kong Willie to complement its island-themed menu offerings, such as Key Largo burgers and margaritas.
Gaspar's owner Jimmy Ciaccio, whose family opened the 56th Street restaurant in 1960 as the Temple Terrace Lounge, said the Browns' inventory reflected his vision when he remodeled the restaurant.
"Joe's work inspires me," Ciaccio said. "I always see something different every time I look at how he decorated the place."
In much the same way the Brown family creates art with recycled materials, they produce gardening soil by composting vegetation and waste material.
Florida red worms are Brown's natural allies in this endeavor. They, too, are for sale — by the pound for gardeners and by the cup for fishermen.
Whether it's creating and marketing sustainable kitsch or fertile soil, Joe Brown, whose other occupation is providing trend analyses to businesses, finds satisfaction in the work.
"I just feel so fortunate to be able to sit here and see assets that could be sitting in a big trench and there would be no energy coming from it," he said. "And now a lot of it is finding homes in peoples' houses and businesses and getting people to think about reuse."



 THE IRONY OF IT ALL
 Hong Kong Willie Art ,Blue Marlin Dream of Key West. $225,000 To Inquire  about Hongkongwillie Art Call  Hongkongwillie








By Kerry Schofield


The year was 1958. Famous Recycling Artist Joe Brown, 8, lived next to a county dump site in Tampa, Fla. Brown found old junk, fixed it up and sold it. Brown knew he had a higher calling in life — he was destined to be an artist.
Brown, who is now 60, makes art from trash at his Hong Kong Willie Art Gallery. He has embellished the outside of the gallery with splashes of Caribbean-color paint and found objects reminiscent of Key West.
Brown is as colorful as the gallery — he wears a bright tropical shirt with red, white and blue plaid shorts. Patrons tell him they can smell the salt water when they drive up. The gallery, however, is perched inland near Morris Bridge Road and Interstate 75 where a rusty-hair hen named Fred, first thought to be a rooster, patrols the property. Fred, abandoned five years ago by tourists, trots between the gallery and adjacent hotel leaving a trail of droppings behind her.
Brown lived on the Gunn Highway Landfill from 1958 to 1963. The Hillsborough County landfill operated for four years and was closed in 1962. “It was astounding how quick they could fill the 15 acres in pits that were enormous,” Brown said.
An apartment complex now sits on top of the old landfill. A report by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection indicated that a lining was placed underneath the complex when it was built to block methane gas from leaking. The gas is a byproduct of rotting garbage.
 As a child, Brown lived on his father’s dairy and beef farm. Brown said during heavy rain, the low land on the farm flooded the neighboring Gunn Highway. In 1957, Hillsborough County officials offered to elevate the low land to stop the flooding by turning it into a landfill. When the property was sold in 1984 by Brown’s father, soil testing revealed heaps of old paper and punctured cans of spray paint.
“They dug up and took out newspapers like the day they were put in,” Brown said. “It reminded me of nuclear bombs that were going to go off. They dumped everything in the landfill.”
As a child, Brown foraged at nearby dumpsters. County workers saved junk for him that people dropped off. One day, Brown’s parents got a call from his elementary school teacher and told them that Brown had $100 in his pocket and that he must be stealing.
Brown picked up the saved junk after school and turned it into something new. Contrary to his elementary school teacher’s accusation, he wasn’t a thief after all. Instead he was a young entrepreneur who sold other people’s trash.
“There was so much excess coming into the landfill,” Brown said. “There was so much waste from our society.”
However, Brown’s mother wanted him to pursue his talents and dreams, not money. But he developed a business sense during his young junk collecting days and told his mother, “I’m not going to be an artist. I’ve read that artists starve to death.”
Brown’s mother became concerned. He said his mother knew “the value of happiness and the travels of life” and sent him to a summer art class.
The art teacher inspired awe in Brown. She taught him how to reuse baby food jars by melting the glass and adding marbles to the mix to create paper weights. The teacher had traveled to Hong Kong, China and Hiroshima, Japan after World War II. She saw how people were forced to recycle and reuse items out of necessity after the war. This left an impression on Brown.
It was at this time that he personified the name Hong Kong Willie, which harkens back to China where the mass production of merchandise occurs. The “Willies” are people like Brown and other environmentalists who try to reuse trash instead of throwing it into landfills.
After high school, Brown went to college to study business but dropped out after three years. He worked in the material handling industry until 1981. Although Brown had achieved a successful career and lifestyle, he had become discouraged in 1979.
“The change came from knowing that I had come to the point of what people call success,” Brown said. “I wasn’t happy inside.”
He had been diagnosed with depression in 1973, a condition that was caused from high fructose intake and that lasted for more than four years.
In 1985, Brown and his artist wife, Kim, bought the half-acre property off Fletcher Avenue and Morris Bridge Road. For two decades the two small wooden shacks, built around 1965, that now house the gallery operated as a bait and tackle shop.
Nowadays, Brown raises and sells worms by the pound mainly for composting. He recycled 250 thousand pounds in the worm bed in 2009. Brown still sells the worms for $4.50 a cup for fishing.
In 1981, Brown resurrected the Hong Kong Willie name from his childhood art class. In the early 1980s, both he and his wife, Kim, began upcycling trash into art. Brown entered another world when he left his mainstream lifestyle behind — he joined the art scene and booked rock bands at the same time.
The Brown family spent half their time in Tampa and the other half in a small home on Boot Key Harbor in Marathon. Brown gained the reputation of the Key West lobster buoy artist.
“I had a total different appearance when in Key West,” Brown said. “I used to have hair down to my waist.”
When Brown came back to Tampa, he lived in the woods for months at a time, much like Henry David Thoreau in “Walden,” who had lived a simple lifestyle in a one room cabin near Walden Pond in Concord, Mass.
Back in Key West, Brown became friends with local fishermen. He and others organized efforts to clean up plastic foam buoys that had collected in the waterways from years of fishing.
“You would go and find buoys floating in the mangroves, up on the shore and they had trashed up everything,” Brown said.
The Earth Resource Foundation reports that plastic foam is dumped into the environment. It breaks up into pieces and chokes animals by clogging their digestive system.
Brown sells the buoys from the Hong Kong Willie Art Gallery for $8.00 a piece. He said he has sold from 30 to 40 thousand buoys in the last ten years. Some of the buoys are more than 50 years old and are collected by tourists from China and Japan.
“If you go to the Keys right now and you see a buoy floating, you’ll see someone slam on the brakes to get it,” Brown said. “They’re the most prized buoys of the world.”
Brown made a holiday buoy tree 12 years ago from the Key West buoys. Hundreds of buoys are strung on rope and wrapped around a utility pole next to the gallery. Brown hopes the novelty of the buoy tree will inspire and stimulate children to find new ways to reduce, reuse and recycle garbage.
In Kate Shoup’s “Rubbish! Reuse Your Refuse,” the author said much of what we get is designed to be scrapped after only a few uses. We easily throw away pens, lighters, razors and dozens of other items. Shoup said Americans consume 2 million plastic drink bottles every 5 minutes.
Likewise, Brown finds uses for items that would otherwise end up in a landfill. He buys used burlap bags from coffee and peanut producers. He sells them to the U.S. National Forestry Service for the collection of pine seeds and Samuel Adams for hops production.
Brown and his wife, Kim, also make art hippie bags from the burlap sacks and sell them in the gallery. Kim, also an artist, paints fish, turtles, crows, parrots and the like on driftwood and on wood that Brown has salvaged from saw mills and from old buildings in Key West.
Brown said art is viewed and appreciated by certain people. “If it all came out the same, it would be like bland grits all the time,” Brown said. He likes to refer to the gallery art as reused rather than recycled, which takes waste and turns it into an inferior product.  Reuse on the other hand involves remaking an item and using it again for the same intended purpose.
“I also try to stay away from imprinting a definite use for a definite item,” Brown said. He explains that 2-liter bottles are not limited to making bird feeders. The bottles can be used for art and craft projects as well.
Brown said the larger message he wants to communicate is that the disposal of garbage today is creating a toxic environment.
 “I still have the original Gerber baby food bottle that I melted” Brown said. “It’s sitting on my mom’s little table.”