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 exclusive 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).
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!”
Putting final touches on a model for the show.
Coming out about being poz is tough. What made you decide to be open?
There are several reasons why I’m coming out. One is because people aren’t informed enough about HIV and are still stuck in the trauma that has carried over from previous years. I’m hoping that people will read this, gain perspective and lose the stigma and fear against HIV. Another reason is because I know there are many people out there that have been recently diagnosed and may feel alone — thinking they are the only ones. But the truth is you are not [alone], there are more than 36 million people living with HIV in the world! And it’s OK, we’re all in this together and we need to support each other in any way we can. I want people to understand that having HIV is not a death sentence anymore, it’s a lifestyle that requires a strict treatment regimen and healthy living.
As an artist, has becoming HIV-positive impacted your work in any way?
HIV is now in my blood, so I am full of positivity — contagious positivity, that is — so of course I have ideas running from my blood through my head all the time about how I want to portray this experience.
Onicks models patiently as Mejia creates an eloborate snake design (photo by Brett Saari).
What does "living in truth" mean to you?
Living in truth is making every step we take a conscious one, living with acceptance, and putting denial aside. It’s important to accept the brutal truth of this world and ourselves. If we dig deep within the actions we make and accept who we really are with flaws and all, we can then change ourselves, and reflect that out into the world, and inspire change in others. I feel my vision and dream of helping others has finally come to the surface. I hope my story resonates and makes an impact in the way people choose to live. I want to invite people to start changing now.
Are you single or married?
I married Kyera Dalessandro, a contestant of Skin Wars season three, at the World Body Painting Festival in Austria. There was an incredible art installation, “Wedding Chapel,” by artist Birgit Mörtl, where she invited all people to celebrate love with magical creatures, beautiful costumes, body paint, and a view of Wörthersee Lake. A faun was in charge of the ceremony; it was an unforgettable moment. There’s a video of it on my Instagram. Kyera and I are good friends, soul mates, but not sexual partners. I am surrounded by love, but always seeking more. Perhaps one day, someone will fly with me on my journey.
What’s next for you?
I am constantly traveling around the world working on different projects with many creative people. I hope to collaborate with as many artists as possible to make magic and bring light where ever I go. Stay updated @michaelmejiaart on Instagram/Facebook/Snapchat/Twitter.