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How Queer Mural Artist Lauren YS Fights Hate With Paint
Lauren YS says painting celebratory queer murals has become a spiritual experience.
Lauren YS is a queer, Los Angeles-based artist who excels in multiple mediums. However, murals are in "my blood," YS, who uses they/them pronouns, tells Out. "I love traveling, I love being in the world, I think it's such a necessary antidote to the deeply solipsistic and sometimes isolating life of a studio practitioner," they share.
YS calls the experience of making large-scale art a "spiritual" act. The same could be said of beholding their murals -- dreamscapes swirling with monsters, aliens, femme Asian figures, nature, mythic creatures, and sexuality. "I have a deep and compulsive desire to inject the universe with the beauty of queer worlds -- there is an infinite well of strange wonder that I am constantly uncovering as I delve deeper into the queer," YS says. They see their murals as "portals to alleviate the heaviness of reality."
As inspirations for their work, the queer muralist cites Chinese folk art, Korean horror films, the U.S. history of Chinatowns, and "debunking the symbolism in my nightmares." Creative influencers include Lil Nas X, Black Lives Matter Toronto cofounder Janaya Khan, and transfeminine activist Alok Vaid-Menon, queer BIPOC visionaries who uplift intersectional communities through their gifts.
YS's endeavors also strive for this goal. Earlier this year, for example, they created a mural depicting cerulean tigers, candles, and an offering of fruit in L.A.'s Chinatown emblazoned with "Stop Asian Hate Crimes" and "Protect Our Elders." The work was in response to a rise of attacks against people of Asian descent, including the horrific Atlanta spa shootings, in which eight people -- six of whom were Asian women -- were killed.
Community events and a related series of prints raised funds to support Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition that fights violence and discrimination, as well as Squidtropica, the nonprofit platform YS cofounded with their partner, the artist Polartropica (YS's Instagram handle is @squid.licker).
While YS "rarely" paints such direct textual messages in their murals, it was important for them to be clear and loud in the face of "the enormity of the violence," they say. "The advent of the shooting in Atlanta made me feel as though I needed to shout with every tool available to me -- to send a message that is as pointed and intentional as I could possibly muster."
This message seeks to create community while inspiring passersby "to think twice about their roles as allies and protectors, and to never, ever fail to take action if they witness a hate crime being committed -- or anyone being hurt, at that. In my vision of the future there are no bystanders," YS says. They hope viewers are persuaded to further educate themselves about the Asian diaspora in the U.S. and the importance of caring for elders, a cause inspired by YS's close relationship with Peter Lai, a 70-year-old Chinese-American fashion designer and cultural advocate. YS is continuing this conversation at L.A.'s Chinese-American Museum, where at the time of this interview, they are creating another mural for an exhibition showcasing "uplifting futures" in the wake of the Atlanta shootings.
For YS, activism is the responsibility of any artist with influence. "I believe that anyone with a platform is also responsible for putting it towards promoting good when the forces of violence and hatred are also so pervasive," they say.
YS's background informs their art. Raised by a single mother, alongside a brother and two sisters -- one of whom is their twin -- YS had an upbringing "flush with really strong, positive lessons about women." As a result, they consider themselves today to be a "vehement feminist." Last year's lockdown also exerted a profound impact on their work and sense of self. During this time of isolation, they were "forced to interrogate a lot of my identity" outside of the "niches" into which artists can often be pigeonholed. The "pressure cooker created by the protests and election" likewise sparked a eureka moment: "I might be nonbinary."
"I realized -- trapped at home -- that nothing is more important than your own internal landscape, and the relationship that you cultivate with yourself," they say. "And if we are not aiming towards self-actualization in a lived-in way, how can we hope to be happy, to advocate for others' selfhood? I realized that much of my fervor for the power of womanhood lies in the matrix of the femme and within my queer-leaning sexuality, and less inside my own body.
"Regardless, the 29 years I spent as a woman fed me with intense respect for Asian women: for the battles they wage against stereotype, misunderstanding, and diminutive attitudes; for their deep resilience and the wildly powerful threads of sisterhood, independence, and ancestral notion that flows through and connects them, and for the deep, diverse beauty of spirit that is uniquely Asian and femme."
This respect blossoms from YS's murals, which also serve another function. They provide a larger-than-life mirror for marginalized people in landscapes where they may not often be reflected. Sometimes, this visible queerness causes a backlash. For example, a local politician in Los Angeles County's Antelope Valley spoke out against one of YS's works, commissioned by a festival, for portraying lesbians. (Ironically, YS was not painting queer women on this particular occasion. Sometimes, "the gayness just comes through the paint," they surmise.) Regardless, that reaction signified a success for YS, who was supported by the festival in completing the project. "I think it's important to paint things that make people feel uncomfortable," they say. "Enlightenment can often create discomfort."
Clearly, YS is aware of the power of a paintbrush to move a heart. "I try to tell visual stories that are super-dynamic, saturated, and pleasing to the eye, as a way of making those who see it fall in love," YS concludes. "In that way, I hope to spread messages of queer love and empowerment, but also the strangeness of the queer experience, the strangeness of the mind -- to everyone: to those who may identify, and to others, in hopes that they will also open their minds to us."
Photography courtesy of Lauren YS (@squid.licker) and Louis Amadeus Dain Jensen (@sprayingbricks).
This article is part of Out's 2021 Design issue, which is now out on newsstands. Ahead of Out's 300th issue, we are running a $3 promotion for a one-year subscription. Subscribe now (the promotion ends on December 1) and ensure you will receive the 2021 Out100 issue. Otherwise, support queer media and subscribe outside of the promotion -- or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.