A New Yorker of American-Colombian descent, Michael Mejia is a gay artist best known for his hyper-realistic body paintings. Mejia — whose clients have ranged from New York City school children to celebrities like Claudia Schiffer, Jason Derulo, and Timbaland — appeared on the third season of Skin Wars, the body painting reality competition hosted by Rebecca Romijn on Game Show Network. On the show, he shared his amazing photo-realism, debuted his flamboyant drag persona (Unleashya), and — much to the consternation of the judges — demonstrated his burgeoning penchant for out-of-the-box artistic exploration (for example, by creating elaborate, unexpected props).
In this interview, the 26-year-old artist comes out about his HIV status and talks about the rampant stigma, his artistic collaborations, amazingly supportive mother, and the rite of passage that had him literally dangling from hooks piercing his skin.
Mejia, above right, brings it as a mentor on Skin Wars: Fresh Paint, with mentee Rachel Mandala (photo by Lisa Rose).
Why is the ephemeral nature of body painting so compelling to you?
Body painting is almost a Buddhist exercise for me. I’ve learned through Vipassana silent meditation the three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering, and non-self. I’ve cultivated the practice of contemplation of impermanence to gain insight into the true nature of reality, which is arising and passing away. All physical and mental events come into being and dissolve. The only constant in life is change, everything comes and goes, like the waves in the ocean, the oxygen we breathe, the blood that travels through our body, life and death. When I body paint, I have an understanding that it too shall pass. I paint with freedom and liberation because I know I can’t attach myself to my art. Of course there are times when I create a piece that really speaks to me and I really love, I crave for its eternal existence, and feel pain when it’s washed off. But I accept the nature of destruction and learn to move on to the next experience. If only we could all learn to let go of hatred, materialist things, unnecessary attachments, the past, regret — all things that constrain us from developing into a better society.
You did a mural of the legendary Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara for a school in Oaxaca, Mexico. How did that come about?
While I was on my way to film Skin Wars in [Los Angeles], I ran into an incredible artist and good friend Luis Raul, who was traveling the world, making a difference through art. After the show finished filming, I joined him in Mexico. In Juchitán, a small town in Oaxaca, our friend Gotha — known as the artist of the town — was commissioned to paint a Che Guevara mural. The stars aligned and I ended up free-handing the face of a hero who desired to create the consciousness of a “new man” driven by moral rather than material incentives, and a world where social equality prevailed.
Mejia painted model Marina Kim into an out-of-this-world octopus (photo by Lisa Rose).