Perry describes his first sexual experience at the age of seven when he tied himself up in his pyjamas. From an early age he liked to dress in women's clothes and in his teens realized that he was a transvestite. At the age of 15 he moved in with his father's family in Chelmsford, where he began to go out dressed as a woman. When he was discovered by his father he said he would stop but his stepmother told everyone about it and a few months later threw him out. He returned to his mother and stepfather at Great Bardfield.
At this time he decided not to join the army and, following the encouragement of his art teacher, decided to study art. He did an art foundation course at Braintree College of Further Education from 1978 to 1979. He studied for a BA in fine art at Portsmouth Polytechnic, graduating in 1982. He had an interest in film and exhibited his first piece of pottery at the "New Contemporaries" show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1980. In the months following his graduation he joined The Neo Naturists, a group started by Christine Binnie to revive the "true sixties spirit – which involves living one's life more or less naked and occasionally manifesting it into a performance for which the main theme is body paint". They put on events at galleries and other venues.
When he left for Portsmouth in 1979, his stepfather told him not to return home. Perry has been estranged from his mother since 1990. After graduating he lived a hand-to-mouth existence in squats, at one point sharing a house with milliner Stephen Jones and pop musician Boy George, the three of them competing to see who could wear the most outrageous outfits to Blitz, a New Romantic nightclub in Covent Garden, London.
He lives in London with his wife, the author and psychotherapist Philippa Perry. They have one daughter, Florence, born in 1992. In 2015 he was appointed to succeed Kwame Kwei-Armah as chancellor of University of the Arts London.
Perry is also a keen mountain biker.
Perry is a supporter of the Labour Party, and has designed works of art to raise funds for the party. In October 2016, he said that Jeremy Corbyn had "no chance of winning an election".
He was very interested in pottery and was taught by a woman named Hilary Duncan. She taught him for 6 years and he was showing major improvement. The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam mounted a solo exhibition of his work in 2002. It was partly for this work that he was awarded the Turner Prize in 2003, the first time it was given to a ceramic artist. He attended the award ceremony dressed as a girl, his alter-ego Claire, wearing a little girl party frock. Perry was accompanied by his family.
He was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2013 Birthday Honours for services to contemporary art. He wore his Italian mother of the bride outfit to Buckingham Palace for the occasion.
From pots to textiles, Perry created the 15m x 3m Walthamstow Tapestry on show in the London Gallery in 2009. The vast tapestry bears hundreds of brand names surrounding large figures in the stages of life from birth to death.
Perry's 2012 documentary series All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry, about class "taste" variables, was produced by Channel 4. Living among the "classes" in different towns, he explores both male and female culture in each "league" and what they buy, in three parts: "Working Class Taste," and "Middle Class Taste," and "Upper Class Taste." At the same time, he photographs, then illustrates his experiences and the people, transcribing them into large tapestries. The contents he says, were partly inspired by William Hogarth's series of small paintings "A Rake's Progress" depicting 18th century society at the time (1732–33).
Of the tapestries, Perry says,
The Vanity of Small Differences consists of six tapestries that tell the story of Tim Rakewell. Some of the characters, incidents and objects I have included I encountered whilst filming All in the Best Possible Taste. The tapestries tell a story of class mobility. I think nothing has such a strong influence on our aesthetic taste as the social class we grow up in.
The sketches were translated using Photoshop to design the finished images and the tapestries were woven on a computer controlled loom in Flanders. In 2009, Thames and Hudson published an anthology of his work by Jacky Klein.
Perry's work refers to several ceramic traditions, including Greek pottery and folk art. He has said, "I like the whole iconography of pottery. It hasn't got any big pretensions to being great public works of art, and no matter how brash a statement I make, on a pot it will always have certain humility ... [F]or me the shape has to be classical invisible: then you've got a base that people can understand". His vessels are made by coiling, a traditional method. Most have a complex surface employing many techniques, including "glazing, incision, embossing, and the use of photographic transfers", which requires several firings. To some he adds sprigs, little relief sculptures stuck to the surface. The high degree of skill required by his ceramics and their complexity distances them from craft pottery. It has been said that these methods are not used for decorative effect but to give meaning. Perry challenges the idea, implicit in the craft tradition, that pottery is merely decorative or utilitarian and cannot express ideas.
In his work Perry reflects upon his upbringing as a boy, his stepfather's anger and the absence of proper guidance about male conduct. Perry's understanding of the roles in his family is portrayed in Using My Family, from 1998, where a teddy bear provides affection, and the contemporaneous The Guardians, which depicts his mother and stepfather.
Much of Perry's work contains sexually explicit content. Some of his sexual imagery has been described as "obscene sadomasochistic sex scenes". He also has a reputation for depicting child abuse and yet there are no works depicting sexual child abuse although We've Found the Body of your Child, 2000 hints at emotional child abuse and child neglect. In other work he juxtaposes decorative clichés like flowers with weapons and war. Perry combines various techniques as a "guerrilla tactic", using the approachable medium of pottery to provoke thought.
As well as ceramics, Perry has worked in printmaking, drawing, embroidery and other textile work, film and performance. He has written a graphic novel, Cycle of Violence.
Perry frequently appears in public dressed as a woman, and he has described his female alter-ego variously as "a 19th century reforming matriarch, a middle-England protester for No More Art, an aero-model-maker, or an Eastern European Freedom Fighter," and "a fortysomething woman living in a Barratt home, the kind of woman who eats ready meals and can just about sew on a button". In his work Perry includes pictures of himself in women's clothes: for example Mother of All Battles (1996) is a photograph of "Claire" holding a gun and wearing a dress, in ethnic eastern European style, embroidered with images of war, exhibited at his 2002 Stedelijk show. One critic has called Perry "The social critic from hell". In 2011 Perry curated the Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman at the British Museum.
In 2015 the external work was completed on a holiday home in Wrabness, Essex, created by Perry working with FAT Architecture. It overlooks the River Stour, after a commission from Living Architecture, the charity founded by the philosopher Alain de Botton, and is known as "Julie's House." The house encapsulates the story of Julie May Cope, a fictional Essex woman. Writing in The Guardian, Ellis Woodman said, "Sporting a livery of green and white ceramic tiles, telephone-box red joinery and a gold roof, it is not easy to miss. ... Decoration is everywhere: from the external tiles embossed with motifs referencing Julie's rock-chick youth to extravagant tapestries recording her life's full narrative. Perry has contributed ceramic sculptures, modelled on Irish Sheelanagigs, which celebrate her as a kind of latter-day earth mother while the delivery driver's moped has even been repurposed as a chandelier suspended above the double-height living room."
In 2005, Perry featured in a documentary produced by Twofour for Channel 4, Why Men Wear Frocks, in which he examined transvestism and masculinity at the start of the 21st century. Perry talked about his own life as a transvestite and the effect it had on him and his family, frankly discussing its difficulties and pleasures. The documentary won a Royal Television Society award for best network production. An autobiographical account of his formative years, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl (written by Wendy Jones), was published in 2006. He was an arts correspondent for The Times until October 2007.
His television and radio appearances include BBC's Question Time, Hard Talk, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News for You and QI. He has also been the subject of a South Bank Show in 2006 and the subject of an Imagine documentary broadcast on 1 November 2011. His three-part series for Channel 4, All In The Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry, was broadcast in June 2012. In July 2013, the BBC announced that Perry was to present the 2013 Reith Lectures. In a series of talks titled Playing to the Gallery, Perry would consider the state of art in the 21st Century. The lectures were broadcast in October and November 2013 on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service. In 2014 Perry presented a three-part documentary series for Channel 4, Who Are You?. In 2016, Perry presented a series exploring masculinity for Channel 4, All Man.