Mike Perry is generally humble but there’s one thing he knows for sure: He’s the best damned tour guide you’ll ever meet.
“I can give a tour like nobody’s business,” he says with a laugh while showing off various objects in his 2,300-square-foot art studio in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights. It’s a skill he picked up right after college, when his stint as an RA meant he could stay in student housing for the summer. During that time, he worked as a campus tour guide.
Perry couldn’t have known then how that experience, like so many others, would shape him. But it has. They all have.
Tall, barefoot, bearded, and bespectacled, Perry, 37, looks the part of a Brooklyn artist. Originally from Kansas City, he came to Brooklyn more than a decade ago. In the 10 years since moving into this studio, he’s built a small team of designers and creatives to join him on the journey. Together they produce a spectrum of work that matches the breadth of their color palette: everything from print ads to animations and large-scale physical structures. Their most famous work is on the popular Comedy Central show Broad City.
While the subject matter changes from one piece to the next, the joyous, unabashed use of color is consistent. It’s most apparent in Perry’s paintings, which line nearly every inch of the huge but homey studio space. No matter what the image – nude women, flowers, a spray of wiggly shapes – the tones are rich and lively.
That liveliness is essential to Perry’s creative mission. “To be in the privileged situation of being able to make imagery, I should fill the world with positive things,” he says.
Here, Perry reflects on his life, his art, and the tonic-like effect of neon pink.
Your office is filled with so many cool things. If you had to flee in five seconds, what would you take with you?
It’s my whole memory, my journal. It’s everything I’ve gone through and all of the opportunities to reflect on the past. The sketchbook is so important to me. Like, you put something down on paper and it sits there and you don’t necessarily know what it means or why it’s there. And years later you come across it and you realize it now makes sense, and it changes all your work. And you say to yourself, “Hallelujah! I’m glad I wrote that down, because if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have had this epiphany.”
You’ve been drawing since forever, but you say painting is your first love. What sparked that love of painting?
My grandfather was a painter. I didn’t really have a close relationship with him, but he would show up randomly in my life. He was very overpowering – one of those “No one has anything to say except for me” kind of guys. For some reason, he gave me a tackle box of oil paints for my birthday. He probably just pulled it off his truck and was like, “Here’s some paint.” But I got it, and it f***ing changed my life, genuinely. I basically fell in love with painting. Painting was this thing that is so different than drawing; it still is. It has completely different challenges; I mean, you can’t do certain things with paint that you can do with pen, and so on and so forth.
So I basically painted all the time. When I graduated high school I had over 300 paintings. I was, like, painting something, then painting on top of it because I’d get an idea and not have another canvas. I’d go to construction sites and steal wood and take it home and paint on that. I mean – obsessed.
So you’re running around painting everything you can touch. What did your family think?
[Laughs.] My mom was really supportive. She was just really happy that I wasn’t, like, going out and doing bad teenage things. I was inspired, and I think she saw that. She’s amazing.
Was your color palette always this bright?
I remember using a lot of fluorescent colors. I loved fluorescent pink when I was a kid. I would wear fluorescent shirts, had a fluorescent-pink baseball cap. I think I’ve always just been attracted to color. When I started painting I was really into Impressionism. I actually think it had to do with my glasses; I definitely had a weird relationship with my glasses. I didn’t want to wear them – I was a teenager – so everything was kind of blurred. With Impressionism it was amazing, because I didn’t have to get lost in the details. I realized it could be about the color relationship. That’s what I took away from it – it’s about all the colors coming together to make something. That’s what I’m excited about.
At the risk of sounding like a second grader: What’s your favorite color?
That’s a tough one. [Long pause.] I’m really into blue right now; I’m trying to figure it out. It’s such a crazy color. It’s everywhere and it’s so rich and complex and there are so many different variations. I like what it represents; I like how it can be positive and contemplative and dark at the same time. Pink is probably my favorite color; I think fluorescent pink provides some sort of mental satisfaction to me. I don’t know – it just makes me feel good. It’s like a drug that I get to create with.
Probably because of the blue/pink thing, I’m trying to also figure out purple. I find purple to be one of the most challenging, badass colors. It’s probably the least represented color in my everyday experience. So when I see it, it really stands out. I like it, and it’s fun that I get to figure out how it works.
Going back to the Impressionist thing – it’s like all of these colors exist and they all become everything. So having some sort of priority for one thing or another seems impossible to me because they all do all of the work, all of the time. I mean, it’s such a rich reality of color. [Points to a low cabinet nearby.] This is not beige. It’s blue, pink, tons of yellow, some red. Our brain merges them into this kind of flatness. I love that I get to geek out on all of this complexity.
I did see a news headline recently that blue is the world’s favorite color.
Yeah – it’s interesting. I was in Greece recently, on this island called Paros. When you’re there, you can put yourself in a place where all you see is blue. I think my upbringing in the Midwest is dedicated to a split line where you have blue on top, and then either green or brown on the bottom. Well, not brown actually – a golden-yellow color that’s like the f***ing sun. There’s this hard line there of complementary colors. But as I’ve gotten older and traveled more, I’ve seen these places where you can just see two blues talking to each other. These blues are just reflections of each other that create this glorious forever landscape. It’s just so present that it makes sense blue would be number one.
As an artist, you’re kind of a combination of Keith Haring, Matisse, and Lisa Frank…
…in an awesome way.
Do you foresee a time when your style will be totally different from what it is now?
Who knows? That’s the fun part. Every day is a discovery of process.
So you’ve had this studio for over a decade. How did it all happen?
I went to Minneapolis College of Art and Design to study painting and was really excited about it but didn’t feel inspired by the program. Graphic design was forced on everybody, and it became really relevant to me because it allowed me to use my ideas to make things, not to make things of my ideas. It was presented as this boundless opportunity to solve problems and come up with fun, creative solutions. That really opened my eyes to the possibilities of what art can be. It left me super inspired and hungry to make things in the world.
I switched from painting to interactive media (interactive media was not my speed; I don’t have the most “math-friendly” brain) to graphic design. After I graduated, I applied for jobs in Minneapolis. It didn’t go all that great. I ended up applying for a job at Urban Outfitters’ corporate office in Philadelphia as a designer. I got that job, moved to Philadelphia, and worked as a designer there for three years. During that time I met my wife, Anna Wolf, who is a photographer – we worked on a job together, hit it off, and fell in love. It soon became either she moves to Philly or I move to New York. It was a simple answer; I moved to New York. That was a long time ago: about 2004.
I moved to New York and I wanted to start my own studio but I genuinely didn’t want to do it for a long time. I thought, “I’ll work for another 10 years, and I’ll have some sort of understanding of how everything works, and then I’ll start.” But I had some relationships from Urban that I had nurtured over the years and started getting freelance work. And my wife had this freelance existence, and she was really helpful in educating me about how that lifestyle works. I mean, the lifestyle is so different from the 9-to-5 job; there’s so much freedom but there’s so much responsibility. You know, I joke about this Spiderman quote: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Like, sure I can do whatever I want all day. But if I do that every day, the whole thing falls apart. There’s this education that needs to be learned in order to make this lifestyle work. I was so lucky to have a guide.
You mentioned you weren’t a math person. Was it daunting to start a business?
Yes, definitely. One of the things I’m trying to get better at is recognizing the things I’m not good at. I think that’s very liberating. Obviously I have to have a basic understanding of how everything works because it ultimately falls on my shoulders. I have a bookkeeper who I’ve worked with for a long time, and that’s very helpful, and my accountant has been with me since day one. It’s about knowing what’s going on and being economical; the studio survived the recession, which is fascinating as a concept. Now, our political situation is so volatile and it’s stressful, and I’m like, Okay, we did it once; we can do it again. It becomes this constant journey of trial and error and figuring things out. We don’t have any other option. This is what we’re doing.
Art schools tell us to be really good at one thing. I think that’s helpful, and what I do is conceptually one thing. But within that umbrella, I think it’s really important to diversify and be prepared. The income stream is mostly client work. That’s how most of this is run. To subsidize it, I sell paintings, we have these exhibitions, I make books – things that have longer streams of cash flow. Those things really subsidize the day-to-day.
What’s your advice to young creatives trying to do the same thing?
Keep your overhead low. This desire to grow is something we need to have a conversation about. I feel it in my own self all the time. Why is it that we need to grow all the time? I don’t know. Personally, we all need to grow as humans, and I believe in that truly. But does every business need to be hundreds of people, or is there a rationale for staying small and agile and needing to – I don’t know – be barefoot? [Laughs.] The journey is what I care about.
Walk me through a typical day.
I’m a morning person. I try to get up around 5 a.m. I make an espresso for myself and I make my wife a cappuccino; she sleeps for about another hour, so I put the cappuccino on the furnace and then start my day. I come into the studio. It’s usually dark out and quiet. I listen to a lot of podcasts, classical music. Radio is easy because there are no decisions involved.
If I get in at 5:30 a.m. I get a few hours to myself to figure out what’s going on, what I have to do today, and how long it’s going to take. I’m a task-oriented person; I like to cross things off my list.
Normally at 10 a.m. the world starts – people are here, the phone’s ringing, the emails start coming in – so I go into that phase of the day where it’s about correspondence, maintenance, and basically just running the studio.
We watch The Simpsons every day at lunch. We’ve been doing that for like two years. Most of the time we make food; I’ll make a big lasagna and bring it in to share. I’m a really big fan of not ordering out. I hate the waste; it makes me insane. Especially when there’s been a bunch of people here and we order lunch and there are like 50 to-go containers.
The second half of the day is usually something more conversational – meetings, conference calls. And then I try to get out of here at a decent hour. Especially if the goal is to make dinner, I have to be out of here by 6.
Watch Perry’s Adobe 99U Conference 2017 talk on the perils of self-censorship and how he built his studio.
You’ve done a lot of awesome work but many people know you best for your animations on the TV show Broad City. How did the opportunity come about?
Broad City came about because I met Abbi [Jacobson] at Art Basel. We hung out and that was it. Six months to a year later, someone from Comedy Central reached out. I’m embarrassed to say this, but I turned down the project initially.
You turned down Broad City?
Yeah. I was really busy, and it was one of those busynesses where I felt if I had anything else I would basically lose my mind. They ended up reaching out [again] about a month later, and I was luckily free and ready to do it. It’s one of those pitches that I didn’t really understand would change my future. I had so many ideas and was really fortunate to have a creative director at Comedy Central who was comfortable with the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing. That was my first real animation project; I had done some personal GIFs, whatever that means. [Laughs.] But here I had this creative director saying, “We’re here to help you.” They really were genuinely there to help me.
I’m very fortunate to be part of the Comedy Central family. It’s been five years. I feel like that’s really exciting, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops.
As humans, we’re all pretty concerned about legacy. I feel like we can get deep here: What do you want to have someone say about you?
I don’t know. “He was a good person, tried really hard.” Honestly, I did a talk at FIT a while ago and this woman came up to me afterward. She had watched the Broad City “Mushrooms” episode and said it gave her a flashback to this time 30 years ago when she and her best friend did mushrooms together. She had completely forgotten about the entire thing. And she watched the episode and was flooded with all of the memories of that experience and it led her to reconnect with her friend. And I was just like, “Success!”