Lauren YS is a relatively new face to the Bay Area art scene, with an explosive 2014 filled with travel, painting murals, and working with some of the industry’s best. Since her graduation from Stanford in 2013, Lauren has been quite the busy girl—she has contributed to San Francisco-based Contemporary Art publication, Juxtapoz Magazine, and recently finished a three-month artist residency and solo exhibition in Vienna, Austria. YS also has had the unique experience of assisting famed Austrian muralist, Nychos, on some of his work.
I first met Lauren at Scope Miami during Art Basel Week while she painted a large, three-dimensional Heineken-branded pyramid in the on-again/off-again random Miami rain. My first impression was of a girl who is extremely grateful for her experiences and just wants to paint. She is down-to-earth in person, but in her paintings, she’s definitely in another world of aliens, robots, squids, and geishas. Her work is vibrant and confident in color, content, and just all sorts of awesomely weird. The other day, I caught up with the globe-trotting artist at her home/studio in the Haight to ask her some questions about her background and to see what she’s been working on.
Brock Brake: You have a very unique imagination that translates into your work. Where do these characters come from in your brain? What inspires them?
Lauren YS: [Laughs] Thanks! I’m always trying to answer that question myself. They seem to come from all over the place, they just show up with a backpack and a sleeping bag and ask if they can crash. It’s funny. Some of them end up moving in forever, others will move on, but they come back to visit when I don’t expect it. They come from my travels, from novels and comic books and science, dreams and horror movies and mythology. People I know. Strange things I’ve seen people do. My brain just sucks things up and deposits them in this big glowy stew until I get to a piece of paper. Then it dumps the stew down through my hands, who try to beat them into some decent form. I think they come out as characters because they want to be able to talk, somehow. Once they’re out, that’s when I can start to ask where they came from.
“My brain just sucks things up and deposits them in this big glowy stew until I get to a piece of paper. “
How was your overall college experience at Stanford University and how do you feel it prepared you to be an artist? Do you have any advice for art students?
It’s a bad idea to expect anyone or anything to prepare you to be an artist. For a lot of professions, there are only a finite number of ways to get there. If you do the work, there’s no reason you shouldn’t succeed. Unfortunately, that’s not always true for artists. But the cool thing is that there are almost infinite ways to be a practicing artist - infinite paths, all subject to chaos and chance and your own raw balls and how you decide to swing them that day. I don’t see how any school can prepare you for something like that. Stanford didn’t give me as much technical training as an art school would’ve, but I did learn massively important lessons about how to be enterprising and resourceful with anything I want to do. It also gave me an incredible community that I consider crucial to my work and well-being.
Being an artist is something you do on your own terms, in or out of school. If you want to know what you’re getting yourself into, then talk to other artists; as many as you can. Ask them what they did and how they’re still doing it. But you won’t be prepared until you actually do it. Once you are doing it, you will hopefully feel prepared to keep doing it.
Does your background, upbringing, or childhood have any narrative in your works?
Very much so. It’s like I have this knot that I’m constantly trying to untangle, and only writing or drawing will help tease it out. It kind of just sits there by my bed, waiting to be worked on. I don’t already have an idea most of the time when I sit down to draw. I’ll start sketching blindly, trying to give form to whatever I’m feeling. Oftentimes, these deep-set emotions will surface; memories and questions about my childhood that have lately taken the shape of astronauts. There I am again with my pen, working out the knot.
“It’s like I have this knot that I’m constantly trying to untangle, and only writing or drawing will help tease it out.”
I’m half Chinese, so that’s where all the Asian themes come from. My dad was a pilot and my sister works at NASA, so themes of space and flight have worked their way into a lot of my work. Last year, my little sister spent several weeks in this Mars simulation camp in Utah. I made her send me all the photos she took, so I have all these amazing source images of her in space suits tramping around the desert. How could I not use those?
How did you end up meeting and eventually working with Nychos on some of his pieces? What have you learned from him?
The summer after I graduated school, I was working an internship at the Pirate Store in the Mission and trying to figure out what to do next. My boss from Juxtapoz called me up and said that Nychos was painting a mural in the Tenderloin, so I went to check it out. I’d always been interested in street art, but I was mystified by how someone could physically paint something so huge. I rolled up and started helping unpack boxes, take photos, carry paint. I came back every day. It blew my mind, how quick he was, free-handing this six-story painting like it was a sheet of notebook paper. And it was amazing to see how people reacted. People stopped to watch, they said, “Thank you, now I’m proud to live here.” They were taking notice of the city rather than just trying to pass through it.
“Things I’ve learned from Nychos? Among infinite other things - work hard, respect, smash the world.”
Nychos came back later that year to have a show at Upper Playground, and I live two blocks away from where he was staying. We both had artwork to finish, so for a month I just brought my work over there and we drank gin and tonics and watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and worked. He’s really great, once you get over his weird accent. [Laughs]
Things I’ve learned from Nychos? Among infinite other things - work hard, respect, smash the world. Always have cheese in the fridge. Don’t grow up too much. Chill out and have fun even if you’re nervous. Be generous. Also, how to say “shit” like fifty different ways in Austrian.
You were offered an artist residency in Vienna that ended up, a bit unexpectedly, turning into a three-month thing with a solo exhibition. Tell us about this experience and how it may have shaped you and prepared you for the jet-setting work style you finished your year with.
After the month in San Francisco, Nychos asked me to come out to Vienna to work for Rabbit Eye Movement, which is the art space and agency he runs out there. It’s a really unique space that I think has the potential to become one of Europe’s strongest outlets in the contemporary/lowbrow/street art arena. I was only meant to stay for six weeks, but we had started so many things and I was having so much fun. We extended my flight and he said, “If you’re gonna stay, you’ll have to have a solo show.” So I sat down and made whole show in about two weeks, we hung out, and had a party. Things kind of snowballed from there, and I got to see how Nychos lives - “travel to paint, paint to travel,” as he puts it - and the amazing opportunities that kind of life can open up. I kind of just fell into that pattern myself, being open to one wave after the other. It will carry you far, if you keep up momentum.
At Art Basel, Miami, you painted over three large murals, participated in at least two live painting events, and planned future works, all while assisting Nychos with his murals. How do you keep your stamina up? How did you like Art Basel?
So, baby giraffes are born while their moms are standing up. They literally just fall out, six feet to the ground. And then, within the next hour, they get the fuck up and they figure out how to walk. That is how I felt at Art Basel. Nychos picked me up from the airport and took me straight to Wynwood to see all the murals. I was just geeking out, seeing all these paintings in person. I would have been dead happy just to be there as a tourist! But then, we went home and immediately started planning our own walls. The next day we showed up to paint at the Miami Ad School and Nychos throws me into this huge sixty-foot, articulated monster cherry picker and says, “You’re gonna have to drive this,” and I’m like, “Ok, but it’s gonna be bumpy.” And that’s how I learned to drive a boom lift.
The rest of my time in Miami just followed suit. It’s a combination of adrenaline, stupidity, ambition, fun, and a lot of coffee. It’s hard to stop, once you get started. When you wake up and roll past artists like Alexis Diaz, Tristan Eaton, and The Yok and Sheryo, all painting within seven blocks, you’d be insane not to bust your own ass too. You don’t go painting with someone like Nychos and not give it as much as you can, just out of pure respect. I think I thrive under those conditions, but the stress and chaos of Miami did take a toll. Seriously, someone please insert a subway between Wynwood and South Beach! I will buy you a pet lemur!
“[Instagram] is a horcrux.”
You’ve definitely traveled and learned a lot from other artists. Who or what piece is your favorite and why?
Oh, man. I have met so many amazing people over the course of the past year. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to stop myself from fangirling over someone I’m painting with. I get so awkward sometimes [laughs]. I think my favorite piece is still the Nychos tiger on Geary Street in San Francisco, because that’s where I fell down the rabbit hole.
Followers on all of your social networks have been growing at a super fast rate over the past couple months. Do you find this attention via social media to benefit your work and career? What advice can you give to emerging artists when it comes to their social media and how to manage and grow their presence?
Instagram is both incredibly useful and incredibly silly. The most valuable thing I get out of it is the ability to connect so easily with other artists and art connections. Sometimes you can just drop down in a city, post up a photo asking if anyone has a wall, and the next day you could be painting. It’s also really cool to know that it allows my work to have so much reach.
Being a working artist requires you to manage your own PR and marketing, unless you have an assistant, so these tools become really crucial to make things work. Don’t underestimate the role they play in your practice - but at the same, time don’t take Instagram as a metric of success. It is a horcrux. Ooooooooh…
What is some of the best or funniest feedback you’ve received about your work?
Hmmm. One time I was painting in Hawaii and this old Asian man came up and told me he thought fate had put him on the wrong bus and brought him here to see me paint. Then he wrote “Horse Dragon” in Chinese characters on a scrap of paper and gave it to me.
Sometimes people will post pictures of girls in bikinis posing with their business all out in front of my murals. These are my favorite.
Sometimes Alex Pardee will hug me and say “I LOVE your art” and a million glowing art fuzzies will explode in my head, because Alex Pardee does not bullshit and he is the best.
I’ve also always loved this comment on one of my super old drawings. DeviantArt comments are the best, man.
I love any and all feedback, even though I’m still shy about asking for it sometimes. I’m working on it. If anyone is reading this and you have anything you want to say to me about the stuff I draw, or you know a bad pun or had a weird dream last night, send me an email! We are so very far apart but robots can connect us togetha! Roboooots! [Email Lauren @ firstname.lastname@example.org]
People are starting to get your illustrations tattooed on them. Is it weird for you at all or are you flattered?
It’s incredibly flattering! It’s so cool! I imagine it feels kind of like how musicians feel, knowing that people are lying in the dark somewhere listening to your voice and making out. It is weird, though - how a drawing can actually take on a life of its own once you put it out. You might expect it to feel weird because you’re seeing a part of yourself branded into a stranger’s skin, but for me it’s actually the opposite. It’s weird because I don’t feel like it’s mine anymore. Which is great - I like to think that I’m releasing babies and they can go grow up and live wherever they want. I do always ask that fans consider buying some art directly from an artist if they want their work tattooed. Just a little bit of child support, you know?
What keeps you inspired to create?
On one hand, it’s just plain fun. CREATING things! It’s like being a god! A tiny, pink fuzzy god for your eyeballs! On the other hand, it can be like some manic disorder that temporarily relieves the stress of feeling totally inconsequential in the universe. It’s a mode of communication, a release of pressure. Sometimes I just want to womp my head against the desk until everything comes out. Humans just want to express how the world looks from their own heads because that’s literally all we will ever know. No matter how hard you try, you will never be in someone else’s cockpit. So I rotate between all these languages - words, bodies, sounds, and where those languages fail I try to pick up with another - maybe this can get me closer - and drawing just happens to be one of the most vivid ways I can show what I see. I just don’t know what else to do.
You told me a pretty wild story of dressing up as a bright pink robot and going to a Flaming Lips show. How did the rest of the night play out?
When I was 17 I went to see the Flaming Lips play at Red Rocks in Denver, and I made this pink robot head to wear to the show. Their live show changed my life. I mean, the lead singer fucking rolls out into the crowd inside of a massive inflatable hamster ball. It blew my mind! Imagine this: huge drifts of astral balloons dripping down this gorgeous natural rock face while intermittent blasts of technicolor confetti rip up through you like crazy sonic orgasms. The narratives in the music shook me too - silly and strange and wickedly moving all at once. The Flaming Lips show spoke to my theatrical and aesthetic sensibilities in a way that no other experience ever has, and it continues to do so. I got hooked from there. I have probably seen them 20 times ever since.
Anyway, I made a new robot head every time I went to see them. They used to have dancers onstage, and it was my mission to get up there and be part of the confetti storm. They started recognizing me as the Robot Head and eventually I made it up.... I finally got to meet Wayne, gave him a drawing, and that’s how I met The Flaming Lips!
“Moth in the Incubator” is the comic you did for The Flaming Lips! How did this come about and what was your thought process for coming up with the imagery?
I remember telling Wayne that I wanted to make comics. I was in a Graphic Novel course at Stanford at the time, and he was just getting into comics too, I guess. We started talking and throwing around ideas, and he said to sort of combine the Lips imagery with my own stuff, which was easy given that their aesthetics had influenced mine so intensely. It’s always fun to feel like your art has bled into your real life, and vice versa. It’s the closest thing I can imagine to making magic happen.
What’s your game plan for your upcoming solo exhibition this April at Cotton Candy Machine in New York? What can everyone expect from you?
This show is going to be a little more conceptually focused. Last year was just about doing as much as I possibly could, just to see what was possible. I was just trying to control my aesthetic over a range of mediums and be ridiculously prolific. That approach, while insane, really helped me see what I liked doing and what I didn’t. I’ve gotten that out of my system, so now I’m focusing in on a series with much more intent and continuity - it has a little more flesh, something you can bite into. Keep an eye out [smiles].