Mejia creating the face of Che Guevara on a giant mural at an Oaxaca, Mexico, elementary school (photo by Luis Raul).
Tell me about having your back pierced with fish hooks.
I have done two human suspensions. A suspension is the act of suspending a human body from hooks that have been put through body piercing. The first time was out of curiosity: to have what many claimed to be a euphoric experience. It was definitely a ritual. My closest friends and family were there, and like the Native American Sun Dances, it was my passage into manhood. I was 20 at the time and it was an experience of full emotion, vulnerability, honesty, and trust. The second time... I was exploring pain and suffering and this too was a form of meditation.
You spent six years as a teenager in Colombia. Did that period of time living there impact your aesthetic?
More than my aesthetic, living in Bogota influenced my entire life, through experiences like sexual cruising with men in public spaces — since the age of 14 — and feeling tremendous guilt because of the Catholic tradition. I have made some works of art about this, but they’re put away in a folder in a dark closet. It’s about time for them to be seen. I want to inspire people to be liberated from fear, to be free of worry about who will say what. We are all here for such a short amount of time, we shouldn’t be held back, we should be honest, transparent, and true to ourselves.
You were in the top four on Skin Wars. Was it frustrating to get that close and then miss out on the finale?
I had a fantastic time exploring different mediums and techniques, and was definitely side tracked from body painting into a more liberated and well-rounded artistic adventure, where I was making crazy props, like the octopus flotation device for the underwater challenge. So I understand the judges’ frustration with me for not following the rules.
I know Ru Paul judged Skin Wars and hosts Skin Wars: Fresh Paint. But what sparked your own flamboyant drag persona, Unleashya?
The girls from RuPaul’s Drag Race were competing on episode four, “Miss Skin Wars.” I have so much admiration for these queens! They are incredible performers, dancers, singers, artists, fashion designers, make-up artists, entrepreneurs, comedians — truly well rounded creative minds. I thought it was a perfect time [for] Unleashya. She’s a trashy caliente chola. Recently Manila Luzon from Drag Race did [Unleashya’s] makeup…and she looked so hot and gorgeous that she needs a new name, one people can actually pronounce and remember!
Mejia adorned his mom in full body paint to honor an uncle dying of stomach cancer (photo by Nina Méndez Martí)
You seroconverted recently. Was it difficult to accept having HIV?
It has certainly been difficult. My initial reaction was fear. I thought I would be ill for the rest of my life and die from it. Fortunately, we are in an era of incredible scientific advancement where HIV is now a manageable condition that people can live with, continue to be healthy, and live a normal life span without complications. The difficult part about being HIV-positive hasn’t been accepting the diagnosis, but coping with the absurd amount of stigma that comes along with it. Everyone is full of fear when they think of HIV and it’s because of ignorance. This fear is holding people back from getting tested regularly and keeping HIV-positive people from sharing their status. We need to end HIV stigma because stigma is the real illness we should be alarmed by.
You’re close with your mom. But you didn't end up telling her first, did you?
Oh my God, I have the coolest mom in the universe...she truly is my greatest friend. I tell my mother everything. She is incredibly open minded. I body painted her once in honor of her little brother who was dying from stomach cancer, she owned the art on her skin. She owned her naked body, and she served love and joy to all of New York City during NYC Body Painting Day. Mom was the last person I told out of my closest family and friends. She literally collapsed on my legs and cried. But I knew it was because of this same fear coming from misinformation. My sister and I began to break down the facts about what it means to have HIV today and she immediately stood up and started listening. Mom is a very smart woman. She is constantly keeping herself informed. Knowledge is power. I feel empowered and I believe we can end the way people perceive this virus. Today…she said, in a happy tone, “Michael, HIV is simply a virus that can be treated, that’s all!”