If you’ve ever been on Instagram, you know John Yuyi. The Taiwanese artist has made a name for herself with her temporary tattooed self-portraits that explore body image, identity and female representation in the digital age. Gucci’s Alessandro Michele even tapped her for their #TFW campaign last April. And it’s easy to see why—Yuyi’s incredibly sweet and totally self-aware, which is exceedingly rare, especially for someone with over 90K Instagram followers. But it’s also her seemingly never-ending stream of ideas. The New York-based Yuyi is constantly creating, always on the look out for ways to improve her craft. In the days of fast fashion—and “fast art,” as Yuyi likes to call the viral meme-ified versions of digital art that have invaded our feeds—it’s easy to become disillusioned and, well, boring. Yuyi is neither. Her work is critical, but never feels like it’s giving up. And she won’t be either—at least, not any time soon.
BULLETT caught up with the artist to talk feminism, faces and finding her voice. View an exclusive series and read our interview, below.
Tell me a little about the faces series. What inspired it?
Ever since I started doing temporary tattoo art, I kept doing stuff related to the human body and face. I think the idea came out of just experimenting with the possibilities of temporary tattoos, and I just really love people’s faces.
How do you get the idea to start using temporary tattoos?
I started to use them back in 2013—I just made some weird stuff to sell on my small online shop. It was just for fun and I tried to earn a little money from it. But in 2014, I had a swimsuit collection, and I started to put Facebook elements on my body to promote it. Then I realized, ‘Why don’t I put my Facebook posts on my body just for Instagram?’
Your work obviously uses a lot of internet imagery. What role has social media played in shaping your work?
My inspiration is from my daily life and the observations I make from what’s around me. I think the reason the internet plays such a big role in my work, is because I spend a lot of my time on it—it’s a big part of my life and it represents how life is right now. I like to do stuff I have feelings about—whether it’s bad or good, social media is important for everything.
Why do you think social media, especially Instagram, has become a place women feel comfortable sharing so much?
The one thing I hate about Instagram is that women’s nipple are not allowed to be shown on it—it’s annoying. But the most annoying part is that I’m still on Instagram—that’s what I’ve been feeling a lot recently: are we using Instagram or Instagram using us? Tumblr is fine, but social media trends have changed. So, people have changed how they use social media. Instagram and Facebook’s standard for nudity is just ridiculous. But I still choose to use it, so I’m even more ridiculous.
Your work deals a lot with body image, female representation in media and racial stereotypes. How do you try to explore these themes in your images?
When I graduated from university, I wanted to be an editor at a magazine. I love styling but I knew that I’m very bad at expressing myself through words—I think it always feels like it’s missing something when I talk about it. I appreciate and admire people who are good with words. But I choose to talk less and just let my images speak for themselves.
Do you consider your work feminist?
A lot of people ask me this, especially being an Asian girl. But I feel like I’d need at least three hours to answer it because it needs a lot of discussion, and I don’t have enough knowledge about it yet.
How did you get into photography and design?
I majored in Fashion Design, so fashion design is what I originally learned. With photography, when I first started doing my stuff, I didn’t want to show people because I was really insecure and people are so judgemental. Then I started sharing my work, but I had such a hard time discussing what I wanted to do when I was working with photographers—basically I just don’t know how to say no. But my communication skills are getting better now and I’m only willing to work with photographers that I like, because I really admire some talented ones.
I know you’ve dealt with a lot of people copying your designs. Do you think the internet makes it easier for artists to be lazy?
I really don’t feel a lot of people copy me. It makes me really happy that people are getting inspired, and I think copying someone and being inspired or influenced by them is all very different. But it’s the internet era, what else can you expect? Not even fashion is original anymore because of fast fashion—fast art is also happening, and copying others is just being lazy. But I think there’s two different kinds of internet artists: One that cares a lot about being creative and original—especially because of the internet, it makes you feel like you need to be original and productive so everything you put on people’s feeds is the coolest. The other kind just follows trends, because you can obviously see what’s trending right now. Both of them can go viral, it just depends how you choose to work.
Do you ever worry about sharing your work because of that? Why is sharing it so important to you?
One of my favorite artists, one of his projects is to do art, but not show it for 13 years. Tehching Hsieh—he’s really, really, really cool. But I never worry about sharing my work because people might copy it—that’s ridiculous. I’d love to know if anyone doesn’t show their work because of that. So, why do I keep sharing? Because I want to—it’s that simple. Why do you want to dress up pretty? Because you want to.
We’re living in a really heightened political climate. Do you think artist’s have a responsibility to share their message?
I think I need three hours to talk about this. But sometimes, I observe more than speak out because I don’t like when people change their profile pictures everyday—for example ‘Pray for Paris,’ when meanwhile, some serious war is happening somewhere else. People die everyday, but that’s their choice. #MeToo is a really good thing because it’s really shocking how much shit women still have to deal with their whole lives. But the thing is—is it just another trendy thing to do? If you don’t do it, does it mean you don’t care? And what can we really do to fix the problem? A lot of things seem to just make people feel more negative. But I respect everyone’s freedom to speak and do what they want. And art is always political.
You’ve gained a large online following, and have been tapped by big brands like Gucci for collaborations. Have you been surprised by all of this attention?
The Gucci collaboration really makes me feel like, ‘Okay my life is enough.’ First I got interviewed by DAZED and i-D, and then Gucci? It felt so unreal. Of course, I think having followers can have a huge benefit, but it’s not the real world—what you have there is more important. I mean, I used to think, ‘Holy shit, that girl has so many followers! She must have a better life than me’—it’s a lot like how people feel about money. You think rich girls are happy but maybe they aren’t—it’s the same thing. So, for me, it’s all about finding the balance and remembering that doing what I like is most important.
Why do you think people are so attracted to your work?
Lately, some of my photos have been getting so many more likes than other people’s, maybe even three times more, but that’s just a guess. I literally don’t know why people like it so much—I’ll ask my friends, ‘Why are my posts getting the most likes?’ I just think it’s because my photos show myself and a lot of other girls, and people feel like they can relate to them.
What do you want people to take away from your work?
I hope people respond in their own way—I’m open to anything. One time, I posted one of my works and one girl commented that it made her think of blackface—I didn’t even know what blackface was! We learned history in Taiwan, but not much American history. So I googled it, and understood what it means, so I inboxed the girl and told her that was never my intention. She was very sweet and explained to me about the history and how it makes people feel. I never want to make people feel uncomfortable. However people want to react and feel about my work is their right—even if people don’t like it, it won’t limit me. But I think everyone needs to respect everyone—art is not an excuse to hurt people.
Models: Ellen Sheidlin & Bee Ke