Broad City illustrator Mike Perry wants to live forever

"Polluting the world with visuals, visual information, objects and ideas. That's the goal."

Originally published on Hopes & Fears on May 28, 2015

Mike Perry was in the middle of dying a pair of white sneakers blue when I walked into his studio in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Perry was introduced to art by his grandfather who handed him a tackle box of paints and encouraged him to explore. Now, at 33 years old, Perry has published several books filled with his illustrations, and currently creates the colorful animated introduction for Comedy Central’s Broad City.

His former employment in the "dot com" department at Urban Outfitters influenced Perry to explore the idea of becoming a brand by creating longevity in his work. He asks, “How can I live forever?”  The answer, according to Perry, is easy: keep making art.

HOPES & FEARS: So are you going to the art fairs?

MIKE PERRY: Is that what's going on with the world right now? I just hide in here and make stuff. I don't know what's going on outside. No, there's just not enough hours in the day to do all the things that I want to do. I'm not necessarily the best at participating beyond things that I can’t walk to in the neighborhood. You used to be able to get away with making work that was rebellious, anti-establishment-like gestures, but nowadays, what are you rebelling against? I don't know, it's just that modernism is so modern, you can do whatever you want. But becoming part of the brand, in a way, is almost one of the goals. I feel like that's half of what I'm working for—to brand myself in the context of every other person that I am competing against. To stand out just enough that I can do my thing.

H&F: How did you start working with Broad City?

MP: I went to Art Basel and met Abbi [Jacobson] and we randomly hung out. Years later, she called and told me about the show, and asked if I wanted to make some stuff for them. I wondered, how? Like, how are these worlds connecting? It didn't make sense but I went with it.

H&F: Did you have full reign to make whatever you wanted for the show?

MP: Yes, that's how it started. It was, and still is, a great job. It's the first time I’ve basically created work that has created job security. As a concept, they originally only commissioned one GIF to use for the show. That was the goal, just to do one title. But I had so many ideas and pitched them all...and they wanted to do all of them! It was great!

I'm starting the titles for season three soon, and it's like a mini body of work on its own. I've always been aligned with the vibe of Broad City: youth culture, energy, and fun. It took the Comedy Central team a leap of faith to say that I was the right person to do this job because I didn't know how to do it; I didn't know how to animate these things, but I told them that I was gonna figure it out.

I've always been aligned with the vibe of Broad City: youth culture, energy, and fun.

The power of them saying that my lack of knowledge about TV animations was not important to them and that they wanted me to make these beautiful things, and they were willing to work with me to make them what they needed to be was absolutely brilliant. It just opens up the world even more because suddenly I have this body of animation work that I wouldn't have had if they didn't take that risk on me. Now I have this new vocabulary that’s part of my work.

H&F: You give a lot of information about yourself on your website; there's one quote from your "About You" section that says, "He is seduced, juiced, intoxicated by the ways the hand-drawn informs and transforms contemporary visual culture and the experience of life itself." Your hand-drawn work is in some way branded, and it leads right back to you with its details and intricacies. But, I’m wondering, how do you see your work transforming contemporary visual culture and experience?

MP: I don't know how it transforms everyone's culture, but it’s definitely about the relationships between the work you make and how you put it into the world.

Like the Crown Heights mural; it was just a summer day, the space was offered to me, we just painted it and that was that. I thought it would be a fun neighborhood piece. And then, on Instagram every other tag with the #crownheights tag was just that mural in the photo. You see people standing in front of the mural and you keep seeing who people are and how they are responding to the work. The amount of selfies is crazy!

That's how you start to see the influence on greater culture; you start to see the effects of your work on the spectrum of humans, and the fact that they are engaging at all is this beautiful gesture of approval. And the mural hasn't been tagged! There's a little bit of a tag on the side, but it seems like the person started to tag it and then they were like, "I'm not gonna do this." It feels like the neighborhood respects it and loves it.

H&F: It seems like you explored similar designs and ideas while working at Urban Outfitters early in your career. Did your experiences at Urban Outfitters help you grow as an artist?

MP: Yes, it was brilliant... It was like grad school, except I got paid! It was a moment in time when they didn't really think the internet would make any money, but they knew they had to have a presence so we kind of had free reign. It was me being 22-years-old in a room full of CEOs and VPs and having to engage with real world business people as a child. That's what it felt like.

I remember I was in a meeting and I raised my hand—which is fitting for the age I was—and I asked if anyone in the room shopped at Urban Outfitters other than me. They just went back to their conversation. I felt very privileged to be a member of the population buying the stuff but also making the stuff; I was the exact demographic they wanted to shop at the store, but I was a part of it too. I had a class of school kids here yesterday and one of them took a photo of the front room and posted it on Instagram and it said, "Mike Perry's studio looks like Urban Outfitters. Cool!" It's fascinating to see that a 13-year-old is looking at the work that I'm making and, without even knowing about it, is connecting me to something I've already been a part of.

H&F: What did you do after?

MP: I moved to New York, worked in a studio for a bit, then the universe called and here I am now.

H&F: You went to school for graphic design, so already you're in this contemporary world of making digital works, typically for media. You also started Untitled Magazine. How was your experience making magazines?

MP: It was just a desire to print something, put things in sequential order, and share them with the world. It was also an opportunity to kind of experiment with different formats and ideas but, as a project, it was very complicated and time-consuming. Part of the reason I jumped into the magazine world was because my wife is a photographer. She was really interested in the fashion world and I was interested in learning about it too, so it was kind of a way for me to work with her and her friends and get introduced to photographers. I was able to match photographers with illustrators as a concept; it was almost a way to connect my world and her world to make this new content.

I gave up the magazine world, and my wife began another magazine called TIDAL. When she's running the issue, it's very organized. It's like a testament to our characters and how different we are. She has the follow- through to get distribution and can set up an infrastructure for things that I feel like are not worth it. It’s amazing. So now I get to design the magazine, push the production and experiment with printing material, but I don't have to be responsible for the content.

H&F: Did your experiences working with these magazines help you to publish your latest book, My Mother Caught Me Doodling?

MP: Yeah. So I just self-published my first book, and I got immediately more excited about it because the concept of a magazine is so based on that moment; a magazine is about culture now, it’s about things that are happening now. The shelf life is now and, after that, it's no longer there. It was amazing to do this book because it will last longer than the "right now." I can sell this book in 20, 30 years and it will still live on.

So I just self-published my first book. It was amazing to do this book because it will last longer than the "right now." I can sell this book in 20, 30 years and it will still live on.

H&F: I think this particular book is important though because it's your own exploration into the female form.

MP: On the basic level, that’s what it is. It’s a document that captures a point in time; these are drawings I made from point A to point B, and it feels great to not be stressed out about trying to move a thousand products immediately. The work I am making is about breadth, longevity, the experience of life, how time moves and how we participate with it. The relevance of the drawings are hopefully just relevant for all of time. That’s the most insane thing about books. Like, my book Hand Job—I think we sold 55,000 copies, and that's just 55,000 intimate relationships with people out there in the universe, and it's still not done after that. After someone dies it goes onto the next place and it keeps traveling through time and space.

Making stuff like that is one of the bigger goals in my life—to make that long-lasting work. You know; how do I live forever? How do I sustain this being for as long as possible? Polluting the world with visuals, visual information, objects and ideas. That's the goal.

H&F: You specifically used the public forum and social media for My Mother Caught Me Doodling by reaching out to your followers on Instagram to ask for models for your female nude project. You have thousands of followers on Instagram. What was the response like? Any great stories from that experience?

MP: Yeah, it was a good sociological experiment. I'm always curious as to who is going to show up and why. The stories are always different and everyone has different reasons for wanting to pose naked. Some people are just nudists and they don't care; some people are trying to overcome fears and issues.

The first time we did the big social media drawing, there was a girl who was trying to overcome a fear of her own pubic hair. Part of her therapy was to expose her bush in a public space as a final step to overcome this fear. There were these beautiful older women who walked into the room feeling like they'd lost every ounce of attractiveness because they've had children; this was a step for them to rebirth themselves—to recognize that they are still beautiful women. It's a transformational experience for me because I see people overcome these things. But then I also got the nudist who's just naked all the time. We had a couple who was on their first or second date and they just went for it. It's a fascinating thing to be alive and to have the opportunities to just experiment and to see how you fit into the world. 

H&F: Your portraits of women is a totally different type of body of work than what you've made in the past, but you still manage to inject your usual brand and style into it. How did you get the idea to make this focal shift in your practice?

MP: I felt like I was missing that human element in my work. Things were getting very abstract—not in a bad way, just in a way that I could see that I was losing the figure. So it was just about reintroducing the figure back in and practicing. You just gotta draw and draw and draw. So they started out from life, then from images, and then I just started doing it from my head. Then it became about shapes, composition, and gesture. It had a different feel, a different vibe.

H&F: Do you plan on exhibiting this work?

MP: I’m always making new things, but I've been less interested in pursuing proper venues for exhibitions. There are only so many hours in a day and I don't know if I care to spend a lot of time trying for it. My exhibitions are experiments. Like, let's put a bunch of stuff on the wall and see how people respond. It's fascinating to observe and allows you to think strategically about the decisions you make and how the install works for your work.  

In a way, I am trying this backdoor path which is being myself and making the work I want to make for myself. The biggest exhibition I ever did was organized by me. There's a lot of power that comes from taking control and being in charge of the things you want. I just have high expectations of how I want spaces to look and how I want things to work, and if those things don't present themselves then I’m not interested in getting involved. I'm the only person who can present things the way I want them to be presented. Now I'm like, "show the work when it's ready. You'll know the right time to show the work when it's ready."

Please note that the images below are some of the images and media that were shown with the article.  To see all of the included content, please refer to the article on Hopes & Fears.

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