What do disparate objects such as bubble tea straws, enoki mushrooms, garlic peel and prawn shells have in common? If you ask makeup artist Julia Lee, she will tell you that these items have all formed the basis of her work.
Placed across the eyelids and lips, these objects take on a new life as eyeshadows, eyeliners and lipsticks, creating unconventional makeup looks that blur the line between kitschy and artsy.
A UIUX designer by profession, Lee started her beauty Instagram account @radioactive.pigeon about two years ago to chronicle her bold and provocative makeup creations.
Not only does her M.O. question the very notion of what beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Lee’s choice of incorporating everyday materials – she professes to love trash – also makes one rethink how we view waste items in a time when sustainability is a big talking point.
On how she got her start
“I’ve always had an obsession with small quotidian objects. As a kid, I liked to stare at the floor and collect small items like plastic bread tags or pull-tabs from drink cans. Fun fact: I even have a collection of preserved insects.
I did not really know how to express my love for them until I started getting into editorial makeup. (Berlin photographer) Marius Sperlich’s work was a big influence on me, with the way he juxtaposes objects against the human body.”
Food serves as a major component of Julia Lee’s wildly experimental makeup.
On her M.O
“My work varies across styles and mediums because it is more like a diary of my obsessions than a personal brand. A lot of my looks that did well on Instagram happened to be food-related ones. I believe it is so because of the inherent relatability in food items.
Composing objects on my face is a way for me to re-contextualise and examine familiar objects through the lens of art and design. I did not specifically choose food objects on purpose, but a lot of food items happened to spark inspiration because of their interesting shapes and textures.”
Most of my extreme looks are achieved with lube. It is a great way to really push the boundaries of glossy aesthetics, without the hassle of trying to wrangle real gloss out of a tiny tube, or spend a ton of money on it.”
On using her face as a canvas
“Sometimes I do graphic looks using a combination of makeup and face paint. I used to draw and paint on paper, but doing it on my own face gives a certain extra satisfaction because it feels like the work is part of me. I also think using actual makeup allows me to directly explore or subvert existing makeup conventions. Although I enjoy the process, the end product never feels quite as interesting as my other looks.
And of course, my own face is a medium in and of itself, and so is Instagram, because their presence lends meaning to the way the photo is viewed. When an object is framed in a beauty shot, the viewer has to consider that somebody thought it was beautiful, even if its usual identity is mundane or even gross.”
On where she draws her inspiration from
“Sometimes I am inspired by the work of other artists such as @makeupbrutalism, @gothwok, and @supinatra; but I try not to take direct reference or imitate them. Often my ideas come spontaneously while I am looking at an object. I see a piece of garlic skin and I just get this itch to yell how lovely and delicate it is. It’s my way of paying homage to the unnoticed details of everyday life.”
On the importance of spontaneity and working with unusual materials
“Most of my looks are unplanned. I start by arranging the parts on my face and go from there. It is as though I am having a silent dialogue with the object, discovering its physical properties and the way it reacts to my manipulation. It is a part of the process that I enjoy a lot.
If I am lucky, I am able to just glue something to my face, snap some pictures, and call it a day. But sometimes it takes a lot more effort to prepare the item, and that can take the momentum out of the idea stream.
With my prawn series for example, as soon as the plate of prawn noodles landed in front me, I had to make the decision – the shells had to be peeled very carefully and kept intact as I ate my meal. I also began sorting them according to size and shape while eating. The shells were soaked in soap water, and thoroughly dried.
Generally, moist objects do not stick to skin very well. So everything has to be dried, and it causes some tricky problems for things that are required to be wet in order to keep their aesthetic quality – like fish skin.
Sometimes I have to act fast to compose and capture the image before the object starts changing appearance – fruit peels oxidise, petals wither, stems droop. Structural integrity is often a problem when preserving something for later use.”
An interesting trivia about her work
“When I was doing the enoki mushroom look, I initially gave myself very short, sparse enoki lashes because I was afraid of doing too much. My brother has never taken any interest in my makeup, but that day he looked over at me and declared “Coward! Longer! More shroom!”. I made the lashes longer and fuller, and it turned out to be such a good decision.”
Besides makeup, Lee exhibits her love for quotidian objects through her jewellery designs.
On her current obsession
“My obsession with kitschy quotidian objects continues, and I have been expressing it through handicrafts and jewellery. I do not have an Instagram account for this, but I like to make strange jewellery from found objects. My earring collection includes soy sauce fish bottles, neon carabiners, and those giant plastic lobster claw clips that you find on the ends of mask straps.”
On her daily makeup routine
“My daily makeup swings between extremes – sometimes I would apply black lipstick and neon eyeliner in contrasting colours while other times I would just do concealer and a simple wing. Wearing a mask these days saves the trouble of having to do anything more than eye makeup.
I have been exploring more with natural makeup looks in my daily life – it is a new area for me that I am not used to. People tend to think that the crazier makeup requires more skill, but in my experience, it has been the opposite. I have a lot of respect for those who can do the natural look well.”
On her future plans
“My art is just a hobby for me to express whatever obsessions I have. I was originally very active in the online makeup community, but it was exhausting to keep up with everything on Instagram, so I am currently taking a break from it.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to conceptualise the makeup for a crazy music video, but I think that pursuing my hobby professionally would end up taking the fun out of it. I am a UIUX designer by profession, so that is where my achievement goals are.”
Ahead, we get this visual artist to share more about some of her most arresting makeup creation