Bradley Theodore merges many worlds, from high fashion to his Caribbean roots
The artist Bradley Theodore won’t mention the year he was born when I ask him about it. “I never talk about my age,” he tells me, “because I’ve met a couple collectors, and they’ve said some weird things—like ‘How old are you? So we can find out how long you’re gonna live,’ or, ‘Oh, let me buy a painting before you die.’” This macabre bargain is insulting and awkward, so it makes sense that it would make Theodore uneasy. And yet, maybe ironically, one of Theodore’s most popular themes is the skeleton, which appears over and over throughout his work.
His aesthetic is a mix of Día de Muertos, Caribbean architecture, and street art, a result of his time spent living. Born in Turks and Caicos—the British territory due north of Haiti and the DR—Theodore grew up in small village called Conch Bar. “Most of the people that live there live simply,” he says. “They’re not really worried about much.” It’s a calm, quiet place, where people get to know each other intimately, and almost everyone is a conch diver, where the houses, Theodore says, are made with boiled conch slime and sand, a kind of conchrete.
Though he grew up enjoying the sway of palms and azure allures, this islander lifestyle has a deeper history worth reading into. “Some families live in the houses that were slave quarters for their ancestors,” he tells me, a testament to the brutal history of colonialism. Darkness lurks everywhere, and Theodore gradually came to integrate that understanding into his art.
As a kid he moved to Miami, but went back and forth a lot. As he told Turks & Caicos magazine recently, “I saw my mother work three jobs to raise 9 kids and that work ethic, focus, and energy just stuck with me.” This inspired a desire to be ever moving, physically, socially, and artistically. However, he also realized from a young age that art could be disruptive, in ways good and bad. When I ask him about his earliest memory of making art, he responds, “Painting on my mother’s wall with crayon. They were pretty mad at me. My aunt said it paid off though.”
It would take some time however before Theodore made fine art his career. He studied Computer Art at SVA in New York and worked as a digital creative consultant for an assortment of startups and brands, but he developed a deep skill and passion for street art. His mural skills were refined in Japan, where he spent a number of years. He learned to speak Japanese, and a street art language that was being spoken by the masters converging there. “Japan was a big influence because it was accepting of that art,” he says. “Street art was art.”
“Shepard Fairey, Invader, KAWS, who I went to school with, and Futura 2000, those were the artists that were around me,” Theodore says. Though he moved in and out of this world, Theodore says this was before street art became solidified as part of the fine art world. Still, it had its own cultural excesses: “We didn’t consider [street art] a part of the mainstream art world. We didn’t care. When you’re riding out in Tokyo in your boy’s Ferarri, you’re like, this is the right environment.”
His painting practice was absorbing all this information from Japan and the global street art movement, but it was his experiences in New York City—amongst the crisscrossing social milieus of fashion, music, art, and the wealthy—that would launch a market for his work. As Theodore recalls, “We used to go to parties on Mercer Street and Kate Moss would be sitting next to me. I remember a party I went to in 2004 with a friend. We sat at a dinner table with David Bowie, Iman, Johnny Depp and a bunch of fashion designers.”
A year later, his fashion world traipsing would merge with his art, and out of it came his first signature skeleton. “In 2005 I was at a party in Paris and I saw Karl [Lagerfeld] and I decided that I wanted to paint him as a subject matter. I said I was going to paint him one day.” Years later, in 2013, on the day that he was supposed to paint Lagerfeld, “I was at brunch in the West Village and Anna Wintour walked by. I decided to paint them together.”
In his mural of two fashion icons, he decided off the cuff to paint Lagerfeld and Wintour as skeletons. It was a simple decision: “I was looking at them being themselves in the sketch, I just saw a deeper, darker existence.” It was a moment of inspiration that beckoned back to his time as a kid hearing about pirates in his native Turks and Caicos, getting inspired by Michelangelo’s figure drawings, when he came to know the figurative skeletons in the Caribbean closet.
Still, Theodore approaches these darker subjects with joyous hues that color his characters. They’re signifiers of another dimension that defines the region: the abundance of life, fun, and great beauty. This negotiation has propelled Theodore throughout his time as an artist, affording him opportunities that he never dreamed of.
He’s a resident artist with Google Tilt Brush, currently exploring the possibilities of painting in a virtual world—“This is Salvador Dali’s territory, this is probably what he dreamed of. It is surreal,” he says. For an artist who came of age in the era of rapid globalization, this makes perfect sense.
Theodore is also in the process of building a studio and residency in Turks and Caicos, a chance for himself and other artists to experience the laid-back culture he comes from. Still, Theodore finds himself jet setting across the world, “Miami, London, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Italy, Turks and Caicos, that’s my pattern right now,” he says. He’s courting collectors and making them wait before they can snatch up a painting for their yacht or home. He works in series, takes time to perfect his work.
Theodore understands the position of artists in society. “Artists are the historians,” he says. “When all is said and done, any chapter of society, the way you gauge that decade century millennium is the art work. You always go back to the music, the fashion, the paintings, the architecture. That’s what you look back upon.”