Pretend you’re on vacation in Florida, driving along a road that looks like any other. As you go around a bend in the road you see a helicopter, sitting in the side yard of a house that is covered with hundreds of colored lobster buoys. What would you do? Well, if you’re me, you turn around and find out what it’s all about. And that is how I discovered Hong Kong Willie. Parking nearby, we debated what to do (and by we, I mean my girlfriend). She comes from the Appalachian south, where you don’t just walk up to a strange house and say “Hi!” unless you want a shotgun stuck in your face. I don’t come from the south and, I prefer to trust my inner voice. The inner voice said, “If this person didn’t want visitors, they wouldn’t have decorated their house like this.” So I brazenly walked up to a house covered with lobster buoys, a 9-1-1 made from driftwood, a turtle shell bird fountain and a random chicken wandering around freely in the yard.
A sign on the door stated visiting hours, but the door was locked, so we carefully looked around, keeping in mind that while we were invited by the decor we hadn’t been, ya know, *invited*. After just a few minutes though, a gentleman emerged and introduced himself as Joe Brown. He explained that this was where local Tampa artist “Hong Kong Willie” displayed all his artwork. It wasn’t until much later into the conversation that I realized that Joe Brown and HKW were in fact one and the same and that he was speaking of himself in third person. Or more accurately there is no HKW, he ia representation of an idea, of reuse of recycling and conservation. Joe enjoyed talking about his art and seemed not at all surprised by our unexpected visit. People apparently stop by frequently for the same reason we did, out of nothing more than curiosity. “There has never been, in all the years of being here, some massive sign saying who we are and what we do,” 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.”
Soon Joe was telling us about how he became a re-use artist. How does one become a re-use artist? For that matter, what is a re-use artist? Simply put, a re-use artist is one who repurposes items into art, often items that are found or scavenged. For example, you could take a glass Gerber baby food jar and melt it down, then with some additional materials you could make a beautiful paper weight. Something that would have been discarded after serving its original purpose, now has a new purpose and a new life. The idea is hardly original, but while many artists do this type of thing, not many can claim such an interesting history as Joe Brown.
Joe and his family lived on the Gunn Highway Landfill from 1958 to 1963. Nearly half of Tampa’s waste was brought in by the truckload every day until the landfill closed in 1962. “It was astounding how quick they could fill the 15 acres of enormous pits,” Brown said. As a child, he often would scavenge materials from the landfill and sell them for pocket money. One day, his mother took him to an art class taught by a native of Hong Kong where re-use of discarded materials was common. “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. 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 re-use.”
Brown started out life in the business world, not surprisingly, in the waste management field. Brown also told us that he worked for IBM and was involved with the development of bar code technology before finally deciding to leave the corporate world for something more personally satisfying: creating art and living an ecologically sustainable lifestyle.
In the Florida Keys there is an abudance of styrofoam buoys used by local fisherman. Styrofoam doesn’t biodegrade very well, but it does have a limited shelf life for its original purpose of being a buoy. Brown collected a large number of discarded buoys and eventually created the buoy tree which sits in his front yard. From a distance the individual buoys blend into one enormous shape which I originally took for a giant ice cream cone. Up close one can see lots and lots of individually painted buoys. “It is Styrofoam; we understand that it does not degrade, but to blame the fishermen for their livelihood wouldn’t be correct. Instead we find a usage for those,” Brown said. He hopes the novelty of the buoy tree will inspire and stimulate children to find new ways to reduce, re-use and recycle garbage.
Brown said art is viewed and appreciated differently by different people. “If it all came out the same, it would be like bland grits all the time,” Brown said. “I also try to stay away from imprinting a definite use for a definite item.” He explains, for example, that 2-liter bottles are not limited only to making bird feeders. The bottles can be used for many other art and craft projects. Not all the items he collects turn into art. Some are simply repurposed, like burlap bags from coffee and peanut producers which he sells to the U.S. National Forestry Service for the collection of pine seeds and to Sam Adams Brewing for hops production.
Brown said the larger message he wants to communicate is that the disposal of garbage today is creating a toxic environment.
Besides selling his art to private individuals, Hong Kong Willie has provided pieces to local business and helped with much of the decor at Gaspar’s Patio Bar and Grille in Temple Terrace. According to one article I found while researching the artist, Gaspar’s owner Jimmy Ciaccio said the artist’s 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 addition Brown has a side business selling compost, soil and worms. Brown and his family compost waste materials to feed their Florida red worms. He sells these worms by the pound to gardeners and by the cup to local fisherman. One local said they are great for catching blue gills, 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.”