“Holy Fuck, I’m Making A Living With My Art”: An Interview With Deerjerk
by Erica Lies
You may have seen the work of woodcut artist deerjerk, aka Bryn Perrott, and not even known it. Her wood carvings have been used on beer labels and rock band merch, signs for countless tattoo shops, and for collaborations with t-shirt designers like Shirts and Destroy and Gypsy Warrior. But she’s best known for the woodcuts themselves.
Perrott creates striking, immensely detailed high-contrast images that require a second look. Often modeled on tattoo flash and sometimes inspired by Mexican folk art, her carvings feature themes like death, religion, and animals, and she carves ferocious women like wolf mermaids. A portrait of two lovers in silhouette from one angle becomes the eye sockets of a skull from another. One design appears to be a traditional tattoo pinup, except it’s a lamb styled as a person. Many are takes on older images, like vintage valentines or Victorian postcard images.
Through smart business sense and internet savvy, Perrott has built an art career completely outside the gallery and “fine art” system. An early adopter of Instagram — where she has over 40,000 followers — Perrott shared her woodcuts with a national audience. A job in a tattoo shop sent her to tattoo conventions full of design-hungry audiences interested in affordable art. Perrott decided to combine her wood carvings with tattoo flash, knowing she’d have interested customers. Now she makes a living selling the work she wants to make. Even more remarkable: she’s done it without leaving her hometown in Morgantown, West Virginia.
Perrott and I actually share a hometown. Over ten years ago, on a trip home, I saw some of her paintings on display in a bar, and they struck me immediately. Perrott painted bleeding deer busts on canvas using cheery pastels, sometimes highlighting them with puffy paint. She mixed cute with gore, warping a hunting image I’d seen my whole life into something grotesque and funny. Perrott doesn’t paint much anymore, but her style has matured without losing that sense of the unexpected.
How did you start wood carving?
My background is in printmaking. The woodcarving process is just relief carving, which is what you use in printmaking.
Wood carving is really satisfying, because you feel like you’re really making something. I don’t call myself a woodworker, because I have no idea how to build a table. I don’t know how wood behaves. But, I’m a printmaker without the printmaking. Becoming a printmaker in college made me better at woodcarving, because before that, I wasn’t using appropriate tools. I was using linoleum tools on wood. And this was in the mid-’90s, so it wasn’t like I could Google anything. There weren’t tutorials, and I didn’t know what kind of wood to use. I didn’t have a jigsaw to cut shapes. It took a long time to figure out.
So why go more toward wood carving, rather than actually making prints?
It was a matter of convenience, really. I don’t have access to a print studio anymore. You can do it in your house, but it has to be a dust-free environment. And printing presses are expensive. And it’s partially because people seem fascinated by buying the wood block. There’s not many people who just sell the block as it is, so it’s a business thing, too. I make money selling them. I sell a lot of small pieces at tattoo conventions for $100. When woodcuts get especially large or complicated, it’s more on a case by case. I had some higher ticket items in my LA show this past May. I made eight-foot carved snakes and those were $1300. I try to work with what a customer can spend within reason.
I used to only make the woodcuts for friends. But when I was working at [Morgantown, WV tattoo shop Wild Zero Studios], I was looking at their tattoo flash and thinking, I really like these. I wonder if I made these kinds of images, if tattooers would buy them? And they did. So that’s an incentive: there are people who actually want to purchase these things. And the woodcut object is unusual.
Tattoo flash has a lot of good images, and they work well as wood carvings. It’s a jumping off point. I got a lot better by working in a tattoo shop. (I don’t actually tattoo, which always confuses people.) Being a counter person helped expose me to people who would buy my work, and it legitimized me in some ways. I can be at tattoo conventions and people know who I am because I work in a shop. And having a lot of tattoos helped, too. It’s like people trust you more in the tattoo world if you have a bunch of tattoos. And obviously, I make wood cuts for a lot of other people on commission. I do a lot of images of people’s pets.
What impact has the tattoo world had on your work?
Tattooing is like any other visual artist that you’re influenced by. Like, “Oh, I like the way they patterned this,” or something, and you take that in without ripping it off. A lot of tattooers paint and draw, too. People argue they’re craftspeople and not artists. But I think they’re artists.
It’s also impacted my work, in that many shops have had people bring in images of the wood cuts and want tattoos of them. Which is cool and, done right, can be really great. I’ve seen some really great tattoos and I’ve seen some really bad ones. It just depends. If a good tattooer does it, they know how to change it enough to make it a good tattoo, because they’re two different things.
If it’s on the internet, you can’t prevent it. People are going to get tattoos of your work. Lots of artists have their work tattooed on other people without them knowing it or being asked. I stopped fighting it.
So at first you weren’t into it?
I wasn’t into it. Sometimes it would be a commission for somebody, so it’s like, I know you like the image, but the image was created for another person. But I don’t fight it anymore, there’s just no point.
But then some people get really great tattoos, and it’s really flattering. Laura Jane Grace from Against Me! got a woodcut of a cobra tattooed. It’s small but it’s done really well, by a guy named Oliver Peck who’s a well-respected tattooer.
That’s crazy that she’s seen your work.
Yeah, she came to my show in Chicago and brought her daughter. I was really pleased when she showed me the tattoo because it was as though the woodcut had been printed onto her skin. It had all the right contrast.
What kinds of images are you attracted to making, if you’re creating something that’s not a commission?
Sometimes I’ll reference tattoo stuff, and I like warping pop culture images. But I also like doing something that’s more my own drawing. Like if I’m doing someone’s pet, it’s a portrait. So I have to make it look like their pet, otherwise it’s not what that person asked for. I can definitely make it my own, but there’s a lot more freedom and it comes a lot more naturally to just do whatever I want. I did a show in Cleveland where I got to do whatever I wanted. And those were cat-related, a little monster-y. People like that stuff, too, but when you run a business, people want what they want.
I like old valentines. Those have a lot of weird stuff going on in them. Sometimes if I’m thinking, Oh, I need to do a skeleton or a skull, I can look at an old valentine and see there’s a cool way to do it. I value funny and weird far above beauty. Beauty is important in making art but if you don’t understand the bizarre, I think the beauty falls short of the mark.
I’m also heavily inspired by folk art of any kind. I’ve always really really liked Mexican folk art. It’s very bold and sometimes a little scary. It’s incredibly striking and reads quickly. I can’t help feeling slightly jealous I didn’t make the images that I see in that type of art.
You seem to do a lot of monsters, too.
I like monsters; they’re fun to do. Because they’re sort of like animals, too. Less human. I’ve done people, but I prefer doing animals more. I just like them better visually.
I’m having the most fun when I’m able to just make whatever I want. Although it’s great to conquer a commission and be stoked in the end and feel proud of it, like I would hang it up in my house. I don’t like giving anyone anything that I’m not proud to show other people. I’ve remade woodcuts because I didn’t feel good about the first one. I don’t want anything I consider crappy out there.
You have a viable, growing art career living in your hometown in West Virginia, which breaks with this idea that you have to move to a larger city to have an artistic career. How were you able to bust out?
Well the Internet is huge. Instagram is the reason that I have a career, which is weird to say, but not many people within this state are really buying anything from me. I can sell things because I can reach nearly anyone in the world.
I didn’t ever think that I’d be able to make money on art, ever. I just assumed that that wouldn’t happen. I assumed that I would have to always work some other job, whatever it would be. And you still can’t guarantee it. I have no idea. I could easily fall out of popularity and have to do something else. But I hope not.
At what point did you realize you should think of making art as a business?
I don’t know the exact point, but I started to realize that I worried less about my day job at the tattoo shop. While I love that job, I don’t need it financially anymore. I think that’s when I realized, “Holy fuck, I’m making a living with my art.” It still amazes me. I’m afraid one day it might end.
But I don’t just do woodcuts. I made beer labels for Jackie O’s Brewery in Athens, Ohio. I don’t know if you can get it in another state yet.
Yeah, I noticed you also did merchandise designs for bands like Lucero and Cory Branan. I’m wondering about the split between being an artist and the commercial aspect of making a living. Is there a tension between making whatever appeals to you, but also recognizing that you can make a living if you gear your work to a specific taste or audience?
I’m making art I want to make, but I definitely want to make money and survive on it. So I gear stuff toward what’s gonna sell. If I go to a tattoo convention, I bring small woodcuts that often reference some tattoo image — butterflies or panthers or kewpie dolls. That’s one of the better-selling woodcuts I make. People love them. They’re fun to make, too. They provide a canvas that’s pretty interesting that you can still change and make each one different.
I definitely pay attention to what people buy. I don’t vary things when I go to tattoo conferences or conventions. People all want the same thing. Once I did all skulls and had one that was an old tattoo image of a duck. That one was the last one to go, because everyone wanted what everyone else had. If I’m going to have two images at a table, I need to have multiples of both. I can’t just have the one rogue one, because no one will pick that one up. I don’t know why. Even in what you’d consider a creative environment, people want what someone else has.
I’ve noticed if I have a whole table of a bunch of different images, there’ll be a favorite and once that one’s gone, people won’t buy anything else. If you give people too many options they don’t buy things. It’s weird.
You’ve also had several exhibits of your work, in tattoo galleries in particular, in Cleveland, Austin, Chicago, and New York just in the last year.
Yeah. It’s a thing for tattoo shops to have galleries in addition to their shops now. That’s what they want to do, is have shows with artists who may be tattooers as well or not.
So it’s mixing tattoo art with the idea of “fine” art.
Yeah, and galleries are fine, but what you do get is a more comfortable environment. There’s usually drinks and food and people are laid back. And the art is lower cost, so people are buying things. I think it’s good that art shows still be accessible to people. Fine art sometimes gets a bad name because they create an environment that feels hostile and quiet, where people feel uncomfortable. And yeah, they’re gearing that toward people with a lot more money.
It seems like you decidedly didn’t go in that direction. Did that not appeal to you?
I guess it would be great to sell things for thousands of dollars, but that world is weird, the curator world. It tends to be a lot more sexist. Unfortunately, it’s dominated by white, middle-aged men. Some of those men are great artists. But it’s like a brodeo and you sometimes can’t break into that stuff. (And there are women there, I’m not as educated on who’s who in that world.)
But I prefer a less stuffy environment. I did a print show called Prints Gone Wild with my sister, Sage (who’s also a printmaker, known as Haypeep) in New York. It’s run by these great guys at Cannonball Press. The part we were involved with was where most things were low cost, like $50-$100. So all these people come in and buy prints and it’s like a party. There’s drinks and DJs spinning records. That’s an environment I’d much rather be in, where people are hanging out and having a good time, and people can buy things and enjoy them.
Erica Lies is a writer and performer in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in Bitch, Rookie Mag, and Splitsider. She hails from the West Virginia hills.