In the late 1940s, a Welsh miner named Richard Bracey who grew up in Tredegar tired of shovelling coal in the historic Monmouthshire pits, packed a suitcase and left the Black Mountains of south Wales for London.
After training as an electrician, the man so accustomed to working in darkness found a talent for light, and in 1952 set up his own neon sign business called Electro Signs.
His works lit up the south-east of England, from fairground rides, amusements and carnivals in coastal towns, such as Southend, Hastings and Bognor, and the Golden Horseshore arcade on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, to strip clubs in Soho. Bar Italia, the historic café on London’s Frith Street, still bears a red and green sign with a clock in the centre – an original Dick Bracey creation.
Nearly seven decades later, his grandson Matthew Bracey runs what is now a multimillion-pound business with his mother and older brother. It is Europe’s largest neon signage operation and is probably home to the world’s largest collection of neon signs (a Guinness World Records count is due to take place in late 2020).
With five workshops, five warehouses and 40 staff spread across Greater London, the firm dominates the neon lighting industry and exports custom-made signs to Paris, New York, Dubai, Miami, Los Angeles, Australia and China.
“I’ve sold neons to Las Vegas!” Bracey laughed when we met, twisting the old cliché of “selling coals to Newcastle” – a fitting echo of his grandfather’s beginnings.
Dressed in a dark leather jacket, grey jumper and jeans, the 43-year-old’s muted outfit contrasted with his surroundings: a giant whitewashed warehouse lit by a jungle of neon adverts, slogans and pop art.
This is “God’s Own Junkyard”, a neon museum established by the Braceys in 1978 and named after God’s Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of America’s Landscape, a 1964 book by the German-US architect and critic Peter Blake, which rails against capitalism “befouling” the physical environment.
The museum started out on Vallentin Road in Walthamstow, which the Sun described in 2018 as “the UK’s most dangerous street” due to the number of crimes committed there. Despite having relocated to a nearby industrial estate in 2013, Bracey is defensive over such comments: “Walthamstow gets a bad rep. But this estate never has any trouble. It’s kind of like a utopia in the middle of Walthamstow.”
Still, he has watched his home town change not always for the better over the years. “It’s got this coffee shop culture now, which is destroying a lot of things,” he observed. “A lot of the shops in Wood Street we used to deal with, like hardware shops, which had stuff you couldn’t get on the internet, we could just go down the road, grab a pot of paint – you can’t now, it’s not there.”
From the 1980s, his father, the artist Chris Bracey, expanded their business from commercial signs to an artistic venture, selling his own neon artworks to celebrities from Elton John to Kate Moss,and making lights for films such as Batman, Blade Runner, and Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. When he died in November 2014, the Guardian’s obituary immortalised his nicknames: the “Neon Man” and “Master of Glow”.
Around a thousand signs are stored at the museum; just 10 per cent of the Braceys’ entire neon light collection. The electricity bills can reach up to £3,000 a month and around 500 to 1,000 people now visit each weekend. Featured in London city guides and used as a backdrop in photoshoots for magazines such as Vogue, God’s Own Junkyard has become an Instagram hotspot, with nearly 70,000 followers and tens of thousands of photos tagged on the social network, mostly of millennials excitably posing among the lights.
“We get so much excitement from seeing people come in and actually enjoy it,” Bracey reflected. “But I suppose I’m in here all the time so it’s a bit weird to see it. What I enjoy is when people come in and ask questions. Not many do – a lot of people don’t really understand the history of [the business], they just think, ‘oh, it’s for Instagram’. But it’s nice when people actually come in and go ‘What’s it about?’ and you can expand their mind a little bit.”
Bracey began sweeping floors in his father’s workshop at the age of nine, while his mother Linda ran the company’s accounts, as she does today. The first light he made himself was an “XXX Videos” sign, with arrows pointing down to the basement of Soho Original Bookshop, which still sells the same wares.
“We had no money, really. We lived in this really old cottage in Walthamstow and when we first got it they found skeleton bones under the house. The floor was just earth; there were no floorboards, I can remember the smell of it,” Bracey recalled. “It was cold, it was pretty tough.”
In his book Steel Dogs (2020), which chronicles the family history and his adventures with his father, Bracey describes encounters with Soho gangs and spivs. One client who didn’t have the cash for his signage instead paid in a job lot of sex toys. “That seedy side of Soho has gone,” Bracey said. “You can still see glimmers of it – we get a lot of people who actually still want to put ‘Girls Girls Girls’ signs in restaurants and bars, because they love the history of it.”
Despite the present hipster taste for retro interiors, the environmental impact of neon and the rise of LED lighting (which consumes less energy) could have killed the industry 15 years ago, Bracey said. Yet shifting the business from signage to art and film secured his family’s livelihood and kept love for neon alive. At 17, Bracey’s first solo film job was constructing the “lasers” in the ventilation shaft that Tom Cruise navigates in Mission Impossible (1996). Soon after, he lit the wedding venue in a 1998 episode of Friends set in London. Today, his company makes and transports neon lights for Tracey Emin and other artists who use the medium.
Although the Braceys have been asked to franchise their business and expand overseas, they keep it in the family. Bracey’s teenage son is already training to make signs, while his eldest son is an accountant who will one day return to run the company finances; even his 12-year-old daughter helps out in the museum’s “Rolling Scones” café, which serves proper cups of tea in china cups. “Doing what we do is hand-me-down,” Bracey said. “It’s a trade you can’t really go to college and learn.”
Steel Dogs: Unlucky Part 1 by Matthew Bracey is published on 25 March 2020
This article appears in the 05 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Europe after Brexit