Famous Tampa Artist Raised on Tampa city dump,like living in the Penthouse in the upper east side. Hongkongwillie’s a Unusual Tampa Place.
Blue Marlin Dream of Key West.
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 hand prints 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.”
Hongkongwillie Famous Tampa Artist was once told to keep telling the story and they will keep coming,and
they always do.”Every piece of art that is made, and every project
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.” Famed, by the humble
statements from the Key West Citizen, viable art from reuse has found
Famous Unusual Tampa Place. of Google,Facebook ,Twitter ,WEIRD FLORIDA: ROADS LESS TRAVELED
Weird Florida Hong Kong Willie episode
God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that
whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
The Story Behind the Eye-Catching Art at I-75 Exit 266 Tampa Florida
Willie,” makes art with a message at his home/studio near I 75 Exit 266 Tampa Florida.
Sometimes, it’s the smallest experiences that have the biggest impact on a person’s life.
While attending an art class in 1958 at the age of 8, Famous Artist, Joe Brown recalled being mesmerized by the lesson. It involved transforming a Gerber baby bottle into a piece of art.
Gerber bottle had no intrinsic value at all,” he said. “But when (the
instructor) got through with me that day, she made me see how something
so (valueless) can be valuable.”
the time class was over, Brown learned many other lessons, too, such as
the importance of volunteerism, recycling, reuse and giving back to the
community. He recalled being impressed by the teacher’s volunteer work
in Hiroshima, Japan, helping atomic bomb survivors.
of the last words she ever spoke to me about that was, ‘When I left, I
left out of Hong Kong,’ ” he said. After turning that over in his young
brain for awhile, he decided to use it in a nickname, adding the name
“Willie” a year later.
You’ve probably seen Hong Kong Willie’s eye-catching home/gallery/studio at Fletcher Avenue and Interstate 75, a unusual Tampa Place. But what is the story of the man behind all those buoys and discarded objects turned into art?
practiced his creative skills through his younger years. But as an
adult, he managed to amass a small fortune working in the materials
management industry. By the the ’80s, he left the business world and
decided to concentrate on his art. He spent some years in the Florida
Keys honing his craft and building his reputation as a folk artist. He
also bought some land in Tampa near Morris Bridge Road and Fletcher
Avenue where he and his family still call home.
purchased the land just after the entrances and exits to I-75 were
built. He said he was once offered more than $1 million for the land by a
restaurant. He turned it down, he said, preferring instead to make part
of the property into a studio and gallery for the creations he and his
family put together.
all of it is made of what most people would consider “trash.” Pieces of
driftwood, burlap bags, doll heads, rope — anything that comes Brown’s
way becomes part of his vocabulary of expression, and, in turn, becomes
something else, which makes a tour of his property somewhat of a visual
adventure. What at first seems like a random menagerie of glass,
driftwood and pottery suddenly comes together in one’s brain to form
something completely different. One moment nothing, the next a powerful
statement about 9/11.
One Man’s Trash …
Trash? There is no such thing, Brown seems to say through his art.
He keeps a blog about his art at hongkongwillie.blogspot.com. He also sells his creations through the Website Etsy.com.
his shop, he has fashioned many smaller items out of driftwood, burlap
bags and other materials into signs, purses, totes, bird feeder hangars
and yard sculptures.
sells a lot to the regular influx of University of South Florida
parents and students every year who are are at first intrigued by the
“buoy tree” and the odd-looking building they see as they take Exit 266
Brown Sells More Than Art
Of course, the real locals know Brown’s place for the quality of his worms.
there’s one thing that Brown knows does well in the ground, it’s the
Florida redworm, something he enthusiastically promotes, selling the
indigenous species to customers for use in their compost piles. Some of
his customers say his worms are just as good at the end of a fishing
be honest, what made me come here is that they had scriptures on the
top of his bait cans,” said customer John Brin. “Plus, they have good
service. They’re nice and they’re kind, and they treat you like family.”
Brin knows Brown sells them mostly for composting, he said they are
great for catching blue gill, sand perch and other local favorites.
He also added that he likes getting his worms from Brown “because his
bait stays alive longer than any other baits I’ve used.”
For prices and amounts, he has another blog dedicated just to worms.
course, many people also stop by to buy the smaller pieces of art that
he and his family create: purses made of burlap, welcome signs made of
driftwood, planters and other items lining the walls of his store.
He’s also helped put his mark on the decor of local establishments too, such as Gaspar’s Patio, 8448 N. 56th st.
Jimmy Ciaccio said that when it came time to redecorate the restaurant
several years ago, there was only one person to call for the assignment,
and that was his good friend Brown.
known Joe all my life, and we always had a good chemistry together,”
Ciaccio said. “He’s very creative and fun to be around, and that’s how
it all came about.”
says he still gets compliments all the time for the restaurant’s
atmosphere he created using the “trash” supplied by Brown. He describes
the style as a day at the beach, like a visit to Old Key West. “They’re
so inspired, they want to decorate their own homes this way,” he said.
that kind of testimony that makes Brown feel good, knowing that others,
too, are inspired to create instead of throw away when they see his
work. He simply lets his work speak for itself.