We at Overcup Press get (understandably) attached to the books we put out. Since publishing Matt Wagner’s Tall Trees of Portland, a luxurious art book showcasing dozens of artists living and working in Portland, Oregon, we started thinking: just how were these artists faring in the biggish city since the book’s publication in 2014? I had the great pleasure recently to answer this question with fine artist and tattooer Bradley Delay, one of the featured artists and an all-around great person. We talked about painting, tattoos, and everything in between. The interview has been shortened and edited for brevity.
Keely: How did you get into the art scene when you moved to Portland?
Bradley: I worked at Upper Playground. It was the first shop outside of San Francisco that did what Fecal Face was doing down there. [Jason Sajko] opened [Upper Playground] in Portland and I got a job in that shop. And it was great! It was very much part of what I felt was my continual search for answers for what it means to be an artist, how to make money being an artist.
K: Would you consider yourself e of a fine artist or a tattoo artist? Or a little bit of both at this point?
B: If I were to define myself in any way, I would say that I’m a tattooer, because that’s the way I pay my rent. Literally, I get up and that’s my first concern, so I’m a tattooer.
K: Do you own Historic Tattoo?
B: No, but I’ve worked there almost the entire time. A friend of mine, [Clae Welch], opened it, and he became my mentor about a year after. He moved on, sold it to [Craig Brown], who was also a huge influence, if not a secondary mentor. [When I started at Historic Tattoo,] it was at the tail end of my Upper Playground experience. I felt like I had done everything I could do, I had run the gallery for a year, I had booked a bunch of shows, and felt like I did a decent job. At the end of that, though, I was just eking out a living. I was highly considering a Masters or something. I needed to do something, like a career-type thing. That was about the time the financial crisis hit, like 2008.
K: So you were in the art scene, and tattooing seemed like a way to merge your interests, in a way?
B: It really was about the money. And to me it was just like a hard question to answer because I knew what it meant—it meant an entire lifestyle change. To know tattooing, to become a tattooer, it becomes not just a job, but a way of life—a mentality. But I took it on. I could’ve went the collegiate lifestyle and maybe I would be a professor now, teaching art history, but I took a different road and ended up tattooing. And I couldn’t be happier.
An example of one of Delay’s traditional tattoos (image source)
K: Your painting style is pretty different from your tattooing style. Did you consciously move into the “traditional” tattoo style? Did it seem more profitable to do that?
B: Absolutely not. I was brought into tattooing with some fundamentals that are based on the medium. The way traditional tattooing responds to the canvas, to the technique, [gives the customer] more bang for [his] buck… And also, it’s also a temporal issue. For instance, the first person got a lower back tribal piece would have been an innovator. Hat’s off! You’ve figured out something really cool. But that poor soul is subject now to being lumped into this thing. Over time it became something else. People who get tattoos have to wear those their whole life. The tried and true iconography of eagles and panthers and totems just don’t go out of style.
K: What’s your fine art style in contrast to your tattooing style, when you don’t have those limitations based on the medium?
B: I keep going down this rabbit hole, of not realism, but more naturalistic expression. It’s a huge, vastly different approach, and I’m happy for that. So I can express myself with my fine art, and I make the best tattoos that I can make as a service. It’s a service job. I don’t always tattoo what I want to do. Honestly, 10% of my job is tattooing what I want to tattoo, but I love making people happy. That’s a whole different ballgame than sitting in a studio and coming up with a hopefully poignant message to put on canvas and a way to execute it. And I love that, too. In the grand scheme, if I ever found a way to make a living doing that, maybe I would! But I’m completely satisfied with tattooing giving me the space to make the kinds of paintings I want without having to compromise.
Delay’s “Light the Way We Have Come to Walk” (2011) (image source: http://delayart.com/artwork/2584756-light-the-Way-We-Have-Come-To-Walk.html)
K: How was your experience with The Tall Trees of Portland? And how do you know Matt Wagner?
B: Matt was the curator at Compound [Gallery]. I was literally across the street from him, folding t-shirts every day, and I would go and visit him. That’s where that relationship started. He knew me to be a painter, and he tapped me for it. It blew my mind because the level and caliber of the artists in that book is phenomenal. So I snuck in on that book, and it was like the coolest thing to ever have happen to me. I’m happy to be part of it, and the community that it’s created. The publishers are great, Matt’s amazing, and I’m excited that I’ll be in Paris when they’ll have their Paris book launch.
K: Are you just going to happen to be there? Or did you schedule your trip to coincide with it?
B: Just happened to be there. I got really lucky. I go to Paris [for the International Lille Tattoo Convention] every year and it just so happened.
K: Overcup just published The Tall Trees of Paris. Were you aware, or did you meet any of the artists that were featured?
B: The only artist I would say I have a connection to would be Koralie, who had a show at Upper Playground when I was just taking over the duties at the gallery. She was having an issue with her green card. She needed ten people in the fine arts field to write her a letter to the government saying, “This is why this person should be allowed to stay in the United States.” So, without having ever met her I wrote her a glowing review. I evoked the Statue of Liberty, because I thought that connection [to France] would be pretty funny. I think it worked, but I don’t know. And that would be the only connection from that book.
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Bradley Delay, as a “Tall Trees” alum, is making it work as an artist in Portland. Want to know more about his tattoos or fine art? Visit his website here and follow his Instagram @bdelay. And be sure to check out The Tall Trees of Portland to see his Delay’s superb art alongside 39 other artists who call Portland, Oregon home.