BY SOHINI LAHIRI
Growing up in Tampa, I spent a period of time fascinated by a quirky,
eye-catching landmark at Fletcher Avenue and Interstate 75. This was
also the period of time I spent obsessed with making binoculars out of
toilet paper rolls and necklaces out of pop tops. To me, this sight was
the epitome of similar creative craziness, and I often found myself
looking for it during car journeys, hoping it hadn’t disappeared
But time passes and so does the urge for pop-top necklaces, and
observant eyes don’t notice the same sights. It wasn’t until recently
that I once again took note of the scene, with its broken down orange
helicopter, a tree made of what seems to be indestructible balloons and a
blue-and-white house covered with trash remade into art.
It’s the home of Famous Artist Hong Kong Willie.
I finally paid a visit to this art gallery after many years of
wondering about the story behind it. The pavement leading to the door is
painted with handprints and splatters, the store edged with upside down
Coke bottles. Streams of lobster buoys hang from the roof and also make
up the “tree” I marveled at so often from my car window.
Various shoes, bottles, clocks and signs are glued to the side of the
store, and there’s a tribute to Sept. 11 off to the side. No one seemed
to be home, so I called the number on the “WE’RE OPEN” sign, which
brought a middle-aged man in a bright Hawaiian shirt from behind the
After a few basic questions, Joe Brown begins to open up about the history surrounding his art.
Brown, better known as Hong Kong Willie, says he was an artist from the
start. “Everyone is born an artist,” he said. “However some are granted
the gift of being able to express that art.”
As a young boy, his mother decided to send him to art school, which he says changed the course of his life forever.
At the age of 8, Brown recalls being heavily influenced by the lessons,
which included transforming a Gerber baby bottle, something with no
real value, into a piece of art. His teacher had spent an enormous
amount of time and effort in Hiroshima, Japan, helping those affected by
the atomic bombs. Brown learned many lessons about recycling from this
teacher, who had come from Hong Kong. Brown added an American name,
Willie, to Hong Kong for his nickname Hong Kong Willie.
While Brown grew up to be an artist, he left the world of mainstream art to return to his background in technology.
“But on Nov. 13th, 1981 … on a Friday at 1:30 in the afternoon, I had
an epiphany,” Brown says. “I was at a friend’s house right across the
street,” pausing to point at a row of apartments across from his store,
“and a series of events led me to rejoin the art world.”
With the help of two other artists, Brown set up his business in the
Florida Keys in the early 1980s, then moved it to Tampa. Together, they
believed that they were predestined for the Green Movement, and have
been making art out of recyclables for close to 30 years.
How’s business? He smiles. “It’s pretty wild.”
Inside, Hong Kong Willie’s art includes glossy pieces of driftwood
restored and painted with beautiful landscapes and kernels of truth,
some of the gorgeous work priced in the six figures. But there’s also a
wide collection of handmade bags, wooden sculptures and sassy bracelets
for more moderate prices.
A portion of the proceeds go to benefit the Green Movement, Brown says.
With a laid-back swagger, Brown continues. “We live pretty minimally.
And all the funds we get from donations and our art sales are delegated
to green projects.”
I’m not sure what I was expecting when I decided to visit Hong Kong
Willie. Certainly not the breathtaking art inside, and definitely not
the history behind it. I’m feeling thick-headed for not visiting years
ago, and say so.
Brown offers a last bit of insight:
“I’m a big believer in predestination and timing. If someone is not
ready to view art, the door is closed. Every piece of art that is made,
and every project we do is done for a reason. It doesn’t matter if that
reason shows up the next day, or walks in six years later; every piece
of art will find a home.”