During my 4 years of attending USF I've gotten to venture around a decent amount of local spots in the surrounding Tampa Bay area. These ranged from restaurants, cafes, parks, bars, and other places of interest. Recently I got to check out this particular spot that has always been on mind. If you're frequently in the Temple Terrace area then there's a pretty big chance you probably been down East Fletcher Avenue before. If that's the case, then you definitely have seen this spot I'm talking about. Go east onto Fletcher Avenue and as soon as you're about to hit Highway I-75, look to your right and you'll see an establishment with some very interesting art installments around its vicinity. Just by looking at the photo above, you can see why its hard to miss. Once again, I had my good friend, Nick, tag along with me to check out what this place was all about.
Hong Kong Willie
When we pulled up onto the property, there were no other cars there besides mine. It made me wonder if there was even anyone around (Plus it kind of creeped me out a bit). The first thing you'll immediately notice is that the majority of the property was covered in ocean like paraphernalia such as vibrantly colored buoys to coconuts. It makes you feel like you're walking around a dock for boats.
We proceeded to walk towards what appeared to be the main building since it had "open" signs posted around it. The signs led us to a door on the right side that had a wooden sign with the words, "WE ARE OPEN CALL 813-770-4794". I called the number and before anyone could answer, a man comes out of nowhere right behind us and asks, "You want to view the gallery?". He then unlocked the door for us and behind it was a room completely filled with artwork made by him. These ranged from paintings, wood carvings, more buoys, and so much more. It was pretty overwhelming. As we kept looking around, the man introduced himself as Joe Brown, aka "Hong Kong Willie".
From Hong Kong to Willie
Born and raised in Tampa, Joe's passion for art started when he attended an art class at the age of 8. Through it he learned the importance of volunteerism, reusing, recycling, and giving back to the community. With deep admiration for his teacher's past work in Hiroshima, the "Hong Kong" part of his name came from the fact that his teacher was from there. Later on "Willie" was added to form the catchphrase "Hong Kong Willie". As time progressed, the young artist unfortunately decided to leave his interests in art behind with the thought that it wasn't going to be able to support him in the future. This transition mainly occurred when he started attending college at UNC Charlotte. Now this the part of the story where things for Joe start to get REALLY interesting. Right after graduating college, Joe became involved with a project that helped bring UPC codes to the market (UPC codes are those bar codes you see on products). Sounds crazy right? Who would of known that some random artist in Tampa played a big role in something like that? However, he wasn't content with what he was doing with his life; this led him to move back to Tampa where he spent 5 years living in a beat down trailer in a forest across the street from where we were standing. He recalled the trailer days when he would always piss off the locals by blasting loud music at night and dealing with 20 something cops showing up; surprisingly, he never got kicked out. Soon it was finally time for the man to make his comeback as an artist.
So how successful has the artist been since? Well, the highest value he's ever sold one of his pieces for was $200,000... Holy crap... If you're able to sell one of your pieces for that much then you're definitely doing something right. Many of his clients have ranged from businesses wanting to place something in their stores to individuals who just want unique artwork in their home. One current project he's working on is creating several pieces to be placed in Tampa entrepreneur/cardiologist Dr. Kiran Patel's 32,000-square-foot home. But putting aside the art talk, the artist gave us personal wisdom about his outlook on life.
Joe believes that one of the biggest issues we currently face is people being too absorbed by the lifestyle of riches, straying them from being themselves. It's no surprise that when you live in a society that glamorizes wealth that you become tempted to throw aside your genuine interests to find ways to get rich instead. I've personally had friends who've stopped pursuing their passions because it seemed to them a waste of time since it didn't hold any potential to make them money. A majority of these passions were related to art, music, and dance. It's sad to think about but as a photographer myself I understand where they're coming from. Luckily there are still people out there like Joe who still follow their passions with zero care about wealth. I've always believed that if you truly loved doing something then you'll find a way to pursue it regardless where life takes you. If you find that too hard to do, then you never loved it in the first place. Joe also weighed in on the issues of race that have been recently prevalent in media by describing his personal experiences with it. He acknowledges that as an individual who physically appears to be white, that it gives him a bigger social advantage as compared to "minority" races. As a man of Spanish, White, and Jewish descent, he's had a mild taste of these social tensions when he once lived in a community of English people.
What started off as a normal visit to Hong Kong Willie, became one of the most enlightening experiences that I've ever had. Just the amount of resilience that this man had maintained throughout his life was impressive. His early struggles really embody the cliché phrase, "When there's a will, there's a way". He owes a lot of his success to the support of the community, god, and other artists. Those humbling words left such a big impact on me.
If you're ever in the area then I highly recommend that you visit Hong Kong Willie. This definitely beats a visit to a regular art museum for sure. Below I've provided more info on how you can learn more about him. You just never know what story a place might hold for you till you go check it out.