His New York street mural of Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour made Bradley Theodore a star — and won him an army of celebrity fans, from Adele to Bill Clinton. Hamish MacBain meets the A-list’s favourite artist.
Despite the fact that he was at Chiltern Firehouse the night before we meet, when I arrive 20 minutes early on a Thursday morning at Mayfair’s Maddox Gallery, Bradley Theodore is already in the basement, working. I find him standing behind a table drinking ginger beer, pots of acrylics and brushes everywhere, applying blotches of yellow and red to a blue skeletal head and shoulders. He will continue painting while we talk, and by the time we part ways in the early afternoon will have added a mess of black, punk-ish hair and a cigarette.
‘I’ll just paint, paint, paint, paint all day,’ he says. ‘It’s kind of like meditation. I was an insomniac as a kid and to this day, I sleep, like, five hours. Sometimes that can go to, like, two or three hours. Which works out, because then I’m always painting.’ This is good news for the ever growing number of admirers of his work. We are meeting to discuss his forthcoming London show, Second Coming, which opens here next week. He likes exhibiting in London because ‘the collectors that buy are regular people’. But Theodore is not short of a celebrity fan or 20. Many of these he will not talk about because they would rather people didn’t know — but even the list of names he does mention is eye-watering. ‘The first person that I sold to was Alyssa Milano,’ he says. ‘She called me up and I was like, “Wow, of course”. And then Whoopi Goldberg: I had lunch with her and she’s like, “I need one”.’
Later, on his iPhone, he will show me a selfie Bill Clinton took in front of one of his works in LA. Then there is Adele, Bryan Cranston, Iris Apfel, Salma Hayek (‘She bought one of Prince, because she used to date him’). His subjects are often fashion icons: he’s painted skeletonised versions of Kate Moss, Cara Delevingne and Anna Wintour; another mural imagines a meeting between Frida Kahlo and Coco Chanel. Little wonder he is often dubbed ‘fashion’s favourite artist’. Does he mind the title? ‘All that stuff, I don’t really get involved in,’ he shrugs. ‘I’d rather not know who bought, and who didn’t buy. I don’t really care. I don’t want to be an artist focused on, “I need to have a celebrity at my show, I need a celeb to buy my work…”’
Still, famous people do seem to gravitate towards Theodore. Born in Turks and Caicos, his family moved to ‘a very psychotic’ neighbourhood in Miami when he was six months old. His mother, whom he credits with instilling in him his work ethic, worked three jobs — ‘switch-board operator, front-desk manager of a hotel, and hotel book-keeper’ — as well as raising him, his three sisters and five brothers. He had a severe speech impediment as a child, which made him reclusive — ‘a ghost’ — and so was always painting or drawing. But at 17, he headed to New York, where he came out of his shell: immersing himself in the clubs and the creative art scene. ‘Back then we had clubs that closed at 10am. Now it’s all about the corporate exec. But when I was growing up, it was more about the guy who was the most creative. You’d want to hang around this cool artist, or cool musician.’
“I was at dinners with David Bowie… It was like Willy Wonka and the chocolate factory: everything would go down.”
The people he found himself partying with included, well, ‘everybody: from the guys who started Wu-Tang, to Björk, to Tricky. I was at dinners with David Bowie. A friend of mine, this designer, was friends with everyone, so I just hung out with him. It was like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: everything would go down. New York back in the day was really, really, really eclectic: there were no rules, no borders. Bowie would be at my friend’s coffee shop on Avenue A twice a week. We’d hang out with everyone, no matter who it was.’
At this time, Theodore didn’t drink. How did a shy, sober kid with a speech impediment become so well connected so quickly? ‘I was a good dancer! I’m the guy that people call, even to this day, when they wanna go hang out. Because they know they’re gonna have a good time. So I was accepted. And I didn’t care who somebody was. I didn’t give two flying squirts.’ While making money as a freelance digital designer, he got involved in the graffiti scene.
‘Everyone was doing it,’ he says. ‘I know guys today who work at Fortune 500 companies, and they used to do street art. At the time, no one considered street culture, graffiti, to be art. It was just something you did. We did it for fun.’ He had to be careful (‘The cops weren’t f***ing around. You’d do two years in jail’) but this just made him come up with more ingenious ways of stencilling and spray painting. He gleefully recounts a time he affixed a ‘legalise it’ stencil to the bottom of a shopping bag, and covertly decorated Union Square and Times Square in broad daylight: ‘Walk, bag down, spray.’
“No offence to Banksy — the guy’s a king — but everyone in New York started copying him. I got sick of it.”
As the street art scene exploded and became more commercial, Theodore noticed the quality of the art drop off and started to tire of it. ‘No offence to Banksy — the guy’s a king — but everyone in New York started copying Banksy. I got sick of it.’ By the end of 2012 he was sick, too, of working in commercial design and of clubbing. (‘It started to feel like, “What is this? Areyou gonna do this until you’re, like, 60?”’).
He took what money he had, went to an art store, bought as much paint and canvas as he could afford, and dropped off the grid. Staying at home every day in Brooklyn, in his apartment right across from the East River, he just painted for a year. He didn’t go out and saw few friends, apart from the son of his neighbour, who he dubbed Bang Bang after his first tattoo featuring two guns. The name stuck. Bang Bang is now a major celebrity tattoo artist in New York.
‘I was holding Rihanna’s hand when she got her foot tattoo,’ he smiles. ‘I was there when he did Cara Delevingne’s finger, when he did the lion. I didn’t even know who she was! I just walked in one day.’
The technique of tattooing — ‘All the colours layer on layer’ — was interesting to Theodore, and by the end of 2013 it had influenced him in developing his signature style: the skeletons, the bright colours. In December that year, on the shutter-front of L’asso pizzeria in the Bowery, he painted (in 48 hours straight, ‘in sub-zero arctic winds’) a mural of Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour staring at each other with a heart between them. He curved his email address around Lagerfeld’s hair (‘people like to crop your tag out’) and, very quickly, things went crazy.
‘Within the first two days, there were bloggers that would Instagram it, and we had about 200,000 likes. So in 2014, everyone and their mother was offering me money. But that’s when I was like, “You know what, I’m not going to sell to anybody.” I sold to two friends, a couple of paintings, just so I could pay rent and eat, and just carried on painting. And by the end of that second year, I felt my style was ready to show.’
He was also ready to sell, though Theodore says he is not motivated by money. Prices at the London show start at £5,000 (for an Anna Wintour sculpture) rising to £70,000 for The Only Queen canvas (pictured below left). He met a guy at Chiltern ‘who’s like, “Oh, I should buy a painting, so when you die it’ll be worth a lot of money”. And I’m thinking, “That’s the kind of MF I would never sell a painting to”.’ He won’t tell me his exact age because, he says, people are trying to work out when he’s going to die. He donates work to charities (he’s raised ‘about half a million’ so far). He ‘turned down $100,000’ to do a portrait of Trump in the election run-up. ‘I turn a lot of s*** down,’ he says. ‘People come to me and are like, “We’ll give you a million dollars to do a clothing brand”, and I’m like, if you’re not the right person, I’m not going to do it.
‘I don’t need the money,’ he says. ‘Well, I do need money, but I don’t need money. It’s about priorities. And this…’ he motions at the now-almost-finished painting on the table in front of us, ‘is the priority.’
The Second Coming: Bradley Theodore is at Maddox Gallery, Mayfair, 21 April to 20 May.