Soulful Psychedelia with Lauren YS

A look inside the new installation at Meow Wolf Santa Fe by LA-based artist Lauren YS.

When Lauren YS gets on a lift with a bag of spray paint, their goal is to paint a wall as fast and as fluidly as possible. Their headphones are always charged, music is always playing, and it’s in this flow state that they believe murals can create a portal for the viewer. In between projects, this globetrotting artist recharges with work by their “circle of gay moms,” including Yayoi Kusama, Björk, and a variety of radical Asian-American femmes. “Sisterhood and femininity are ideas that pervade my life,” Lauren says. “I believe in spirit and connecting with the ancestors. If you can find a way to create and speak with other people's voices, then something magical is definitely happening.” Lauren YS unveiled their installation at House of Eternal Return in Fall 2022. We caught up with them to talk about how they channel their vision of a more socially just world into their art.

Lauren YS painting a large neon face against a dark wall
Photo by Brandon Soder

How did you get started painting large-scale work?

I've always been into art and narrative, and I wanted to find ways to tell stories visually. The summer after I graduated from Stanford, I was living in San Francisco, and the artist Nychos was painting a tiger mural downtown. I decided to check it out, and he completely blew my mind. I came back every day to help him unpack paint, watch him work, and ask him questions. I think he saw potential in me, and he became my mentor. I went home to Denver, where I’m from, asked for a wall, borrowed some spray paint, and pretended I knew what I was doing. People trusted me. I painted shitty murals for many years, because spray paint is really hard to use. But I got better, and I fell in love with the street. Three years later, I woke up, and was like, “Oh. This is my career now.”

Lauren YS painting a bright eye on a large face for a new installation at Meow Wolf Santa Fe
Photo by Brandon Soder

What does it mean to you to create artwork that is so much a part of people’s daily lives?

Sometimes I’ll work on a piece for four days, and in that time all of my heart and energy is going into it. Then I leave, and I might never see the wall again, but other people get to see it. They impose their own narratives over it, and find things that they like or don't like. Murals require humility from the artist. You have to birth this thing with all the best intentions that you have, and then let go of it. That’s the beauty of public art.

Do you believe artists are also activists?

Absolutely. Art has always been political. I find it really hard to believe, especially with all the unrest and evil happening in the world right now, that you could have a huge platform and not want to try to use it as a tool to educate or to fight bigotry. Maybe not everyone is as angry as me, but they should all be pissed off.

What influences do you pull from, and what inspires you?

It’s important for me to explore my pain and my heritage in my art. There's a lot of misinformation about the Asian-American diaspora, about gender fluid people, and about queer people. But there’s also so much beauty, joy, and knowledge. I talk about my experiences openly. It helps me feel less alone, and it also helps other people feel seen. At the same time, I want everything to feel psychedelic, fantastical, positive and magical, in a way that’s not too on the head, but speaks to our best, most expansive, powerful selves.

interior of new installation called Ancestral Crypt by Lauren YS inside House of Eternal Return
Photo by Atlas Media

What do you hope people will feel when they look at your work?

Representation is so important. I've had to learn this because I often paint characters who look like Asian femmes. That’s my community. I was given full creative reign for the “Queer to Stay” mural I painted last year during Pride. I decided to only paint nonbinary people of color because you don't see murals of people who are gender fluid very often. All anyone wants to do is to take up space, and doing that is very hard for people who are intersectionally disadvantaged. A mural can take up space for people in a more permanent way.

What’s your process like?

It's not always the same, but everything starts with a sketch. Sometimes I'll paint a mural with only a line art sketch, and sometimes I’ll have a more fully-fledged plan to lay out the wall. Other times, I’ll show up, and there are windows in places that I didn't expect. That’s why it's great to be a free-hand muralist. Often, a narrative develops when I spend time in a place. I was painting in Santa Cruz, and people kept coming by and talking about the city’s history as a punk hub. So I was like, “All right, cool. Let's throw in some more chains and bikes.” If I ever mess something up, I fix it. It's all pretty on the fly.

a dark room with ancestral beings painted on the walls in shades of purple
Photo by Atlas Media

Do you ever get stuck creatively, and what do you do when that happens?

If you had asked me that five months ago, I would have said no, but I had a really intense mental breakdown about five months ago. I stopped painting for a little bit, and I told myself that it was okay. I’m a workaholic, but I think it's dangerous—in a capitalist framework—to place all my value on my productivity. I needed the break. During that time, I read a lot: Books by Ocean Vuong, and books about queer Asian literature, white supremacy, and Chinese history. I tried to sponge things up from other people to regain my soul and energy. I spent time with my girlfriend to feel queer joy. My work is political, so I have to keep living the life that I draw. I can't just stay at home and imagine all these queer things. I have to go out and experience queer joy, have queer sex, and be happy in order to talk about it in an authentic way.

Can you talk about your plans for your piece at House of Eternal Return?

I'm really excited to be installing this particular piece at Meow Wolf because I love that it's going to live inside a house. Lately, I’ve been making work that references altar spaces. In Chinese towns, there’s a room in every house that's specifically dedicated to communing with ancestors. The room for my installation is in the heart of “The Forest.” It felt right to create a spiritual space for people to connect with ancestors—whether it’s your actual ancestors or chosen ancestors. There will be altar-type sculptures with holograms, and I want there to be a strong queer narrative through everything, including queer elders. There’s also a big centerpiece that will have an ancestral deity. It’s important to have soft, creative spaces where we can hold people’s memories. Matt King’s passing is weighing heavily, so I’d like to incorporate something for him into this space. I wouldn't be here installing here if it weren’t for him and his work.

What’s been the most challenging part of your creative career? What’s the most rewarding?

It's easy enough to learn how to paint murals, but lately I’ve had to figure out how to be a project manager. I’m also learning sculpting, welding, organization, and business for this installation. Those things come to me a lot less easily. It’s a huge gift, but it's funny having to grow up a little bit and think, “I'm not just this feral, traveling-in-the-wind person anymore.” The most rewarding thing is being able to speak for my community, and to be trusted with narratives of queerness, identity, and the Asian community. It's a massive gift to be able to express what I feel on a large scale.

artist Lauren YS sitting with their in progress art
Photo by Brandon Soder

How would you define being a practicing artist?

I suppose as someone who is self-employed entirely by their work. Or, in a more ideological sense, as someone who's creative life is intrinsically linked to their output. I'm constantly working out trauma, political stuff, and identity through my work. I can't live without it, and it helps me figure out myself. My life is deeply woven into my work. When I'm gone, people will be able to look at what I've made and pull a story together.

What’s next for you?

I have a solo show coming up in Denver, and I'm excited about the paintings I've been making of gender fluid people who are close to me. I also designed a bunch of Magic cards that should be out soon. Right now, it really feels like a lot of people are going through a hard time. I want everyone to remember to keep making things and to take care of each other. It's easy to start feeling alone in the world when things are scary, but everything's going to be fine. Meow Wolf has always been at the core of that idea, and I'm really grateful for the space.

Want more? Watch the mini doc with Lauren YS here.