Seng Hoo Lee:
A Body of Work
by Anusha Abishegam
You’ve probably seen one of those YouTube tutorials on applying makeup, but have you ever seen one on body painting? It’s a distinct difference! We had a chat some time ago with body painter Alexander Lee on where the fine line between the two begins, and where he takes that line in his artworks.
What exactly is face/body painting and how is it different from commercial makeup?
Well, with commercial makeup, you can go crazy with it- like Alexander McQueen-ish- and I would consider it a beauty-based thing. You can actually do that with face painting as well and make it high fashion- I’ve painted myself as a geisha before, and I looked hot!
One of the biggest differences is creativity, because with commercial makeup, most people are going to slap on foundation, lipstick and eyeshadow. But with body painting, you can take it to the extreme and transform yourself into anything; I’ve done The Grinch, Anger (Inside Out), Sadness (Inside Out), Chewbacca, and so on.
How did you discover this form of artistic expression?
I did photography back then and I liked to make my pictures gory. I thought, “you have to use contour to make the cheeks more sunken in, and black eyeshadow or fake blood”. Then I realized that I liked doing it! I started with makeup before I got to body painting. I did special effects makeup, which included liquid latex, or anything to make me look like a zombie.
Face painting is what stuck with me because I felt it was really fun that I could paint and transform myself into something else. I still do regular makeup and special effects makeup, but body painting is what inspires me.
Would you call it your passion?
I wouldn’t call it a passion- because I do it as a side job, freelance. When you’re getting paid to do something that’s a passion, I feel like you’re doing it for other people, not yourself. Whenever I get calls to do Halloween parties, it’s nice to get the extra money, let’s be honest. But when I’m there and I’m painting, I ask myself, “Do I really like doing this? Do I want to call it a passion if I’m using it to get money?” Then I feel bad, and there’s a conflict in calling it a passion- the label irks me.
“I prefer calling it a hobby I enjoy doing.”
I’ve actually talked about this before with my friend, we feel restricted when clients want this and it’s different from our usual creative expression, it’s like feeling caged. My creative wings are bound and I can’t go far.
Were you a traditional artist or painter before you started using the human body as a canvas?
No, I can’t draw at all- I still draw stick figures, with the sun at the corner, and my trees are fluffy-looking things! It’s so weird, but with body painting, it’s easier to correct my mistakes- if I don’t like something I use makeup remover and start over. That’s why I like it. With watercolours or acrylic, you slap it on the moment you start and if you mess up you have to start all over again.
How did you learn to do this? Are you self-taught?
I started watching YouTube videos first- there was this YouTuber called “MadeYewLook”. Some of my Instagram body painting pictures, I followed tutorials and did my own take on them.
What are the kinds of designs that you usually create and what inspires them?
There is no specific moment of inspiration, it comes to me when I’m taking a shower, when I’m eating or driving. For example, I could just be sitting here and suddenly I’d go “I feel like doing a black-and-white clown”- which I’ve done- and there’s no reason that it happens. What I like about it is that I can just do whatever the hell I want, with my take on things.
Most of my body paintings are sudden and random. Even when I’m awake at two in the morning, I’d feel like doing a design with a certain eye design or hair colour, and I’d just write it down and do it sometime within the following days.
How long does it take to do a design, and how much do you spend on materials?
For materials, I use a compact powder-sized (body) paint- it’s in cake form- and it costs RM28. I have a bunch of colours, and it’s quite an expensive art form because they run out quite fast. Body paints are hypoallergenic; I could use poster colours but those are toxic and they crack so if you put that on your face, it’s gonna sting and give you eczema or acne. If I get a 200ml tub, it’s RM54.
It takes an average of two hours to do a design if I’m really focused on it. With photography, maybe a little over two- I take more than a hundred photos before I’m satisfied with it. It’s press, smile, press, smile- and the slightest angle makes a huge difference. I tend to contour my jawline whenever I body paint and I like to turn and look sideways when I take a photo.
A lot of your designs are specifically dark and haunting; is that harder to do emotionally and technically?
Technically no, but emotionally… well I have been told my work tends to be on the darker side. I’m drawn to sad, morbid things. It’s not that I’m not a happy person; I think you can see I’m a happy person. [laughs]
When I was younger, I did photography as an emotional outlet. We all go through dark times and my coping method was self-mutilation. I eventually realized that I should express myself creatively instead of continuing that. I’m very open about it now.
Your photography is simple and aesthetically pleasing while your body painting is usually evocative of uncomfortable emotions. What causes this opposition in your two favourite forms of art?
I like to make my object-oriented photos more presentable; I have no idea why, I just like taking pretty photos. I’ve never put much thought into it. In body painting, it’s like I’m showing myself. Whatever I paint on, there’s a little bit of me. When I’m doing those pretty little photos, it’s just for show. I can be artistic or be one of those food photographers, but when it comes to my body painting, it’s personal.
“I’m showing a bit of my soul.”
How do you get all that paint off afterwards?
Literally, a shower: just stand in the shower and it washes off. If I paint two or three times a day I’ll shower after each time. Usually I’ll just chill for a bit after a painting, and wipe off my hands and mouth so I can eat and drink. I’ll look in the mirror and be like, “sigh, time to wash this off after spending so much time on it”. I put a little more effort in photography because I want to make it last and make it impressive.
What is the general reaction you get from people when they find out about your talent in this specific skill?
I get a lot of “wow”s. I’d meet new friends and when they go through my Instagram they’d say, “wow, so you’re popular” and I’d be like “no, no I’m not”. [laughs] It’s very humbling, because I started this out as a hobby and I didn’t think I’d go as far as to get featured on several websites and The Sun. I didn’t think I’d get any recognition but I’m getting more jobs- which makes me happy and sad at the same time, because of the passion versus income thing.
There are times when I feel like I want to stop what I’m doing because I’m doing it for others. The amount of detail I put into my body painting, I want to make sure there’s no skin showing, good contouring and highlights- because I keep thinking that people are going to see it and comment on it. At the back of your mind, you think about it because you’re gonna post it on social media.
Do you face any criticism or gender-based stereotyping about what you do?
Not really, because in general there are more male makeup and body painting artists out there. If you’re quite active on the video community out there, there’s Jeffree Star, Miles Jai, PatrickStarrr- a lot of them are doing beauty makeup. A lot of people see body painting as art, not makeup- and I hate when it’s called makeup. I don’t smear it on to hide imperfections, it’s a creative expression and not the same thing.
I don’t get any criticism for that, mostly just “wow”. At least, for now- because I haven’t painted myself as anything stereotypically feminine yet. I did plan to paint myself up like a drag queen, for fun.
Is it easier to paint yourself or a model? Which do you prefer?
Definitely painting myself! It’s easier because I have the patience and I know how my face works. When I paint my eyes, I know this would work or that wouldn’t work. When I paint on someone else- I don’t usually analyze where I should go, I just go with it- but it needs to work with their face. When you’re painting others, you need to stand still or lie down for a very long time and it’s very annoying for me because I’m the one who has to move around. My back aches every single time I paint on someone else, and it’s uncomfortable.
I don’t feel pressured, knowing that someone’s watching me. I have painted others before who went, “oh it should be this, be that”, and I’m like “shut up, it’s my work. You’re the canvas, just hush and be like a real canvas.” I can deal with criticism but not unconstructive criticism. You can give me constructive remarks that help me improve, but if you’re gonna go “oh your work sucks, you’ve done better”, it really hurts.
I can’t always paint something that’s “Level 10”, sometimes I want to do something simple that’s a “Level 3”. Then I’ll get comments that hurt me so much, and it’s always about making an impression online. I do have artistic blocks and I’ve painted during a block and it’s not well-received in terms of likeability. There’s a love-hate thing with art and generally putting yourself out there.
What piece did you particularly enjoy doing?
Hmm, I think I really like the recent clown one, and also the tribal design. Oh, and the Van Gogh one! That one was definitely my favourite, I just really enjoyed that a lot; I liked the process of it and the outcome. It’s the first and only painting so far in which I applied acrylic and oil painting techniques to create that effect. It was fun.
What are the professional prospects for an artist with your skills (locally)?
I have gotten invited to do KL Fashion Week before, to body paint the models, but they fell silent after initial contact. A lot of art bazaars, and children’s birthday parties and Halloween parties- I have the most friends during Halloween. I have painted someone as Mystique (X-Men) for an office party before. In terms of prospects, I’m not too hopeful, but people who do body painting know makeup and special effects, so they could work for Halloween events and fashion shows.
When in comes to painting on the body, in general there’s no limit- I could slap some contour on you, glitter and sparkles, then call it a day. It can be artistic, it depends on how you interpret it.
If you could work with another body painter, who would it be?
Jordan Hanz, on YouTube, she’s really good. Her body paintings are very realistic, you should check out her channel. Elsa Rhae is very simple but does a lot of tribal makeup- stuff that would fit that indie Coachella theme. I actually won a competition hosted by her and got a personal letter from her! [Check out her instagram here.]
Do you think the local arts scene needs the turn towards more unconventional art forms?
Definitely! Art is unconventional! When I think of “conventional”, I think of following traditional art styles, and I believe that if you can, don’t plan your art. Just grab a brush and start painting; body painting is a little different, but with a canvas you should just paint what you feel.
When you’re planning, you tend to have an idea of how it should turn out. Even when I paint I have a mental image of it, but when I finish painting it didn’t turn out how I wanted it to be. Some artists believe you need the preparation. The recent clown piece, the tribal one I did- I wouldn’t say they were planned; I wanted to do something themed and related to those. All those details were added in during the last minute.
Does your background in psychology help in your work in any way?
Since I learnt about behaviour and emotions, I know that a sad person’s probably gonna be attracted to something because of such and such. I actually have a plan (I know that’s contradictory because I was talking about having no plans!) of doing body painting based on emotions. It’s not ‘Inside Out’, by the way!
If a person’s happy, they’d have radiant cheeks, if you’re sad you’d have a sunken kind of look, if you’re angry it’d be fiery and red. Colours help with it based on the moods!
What would you say to someone interested in body painting?
Do not use cheap body paint makeup! I started out using the cheap ones and it was sh*t. So invest in a good brand. Another thing is do not be afraid to put yourself out there.
One more thing I want to talk about is originality and ideas- when you start out, it’s okay to copy off of someone in terms of following tutorials. If you have no knowledge in painting, don’t be afraid to copy YouTubers but don’t call it your own! That’s plagiarism. I recognize certain people’s original designs and when I see kids copying an idea, I have the strong urge to tell them to credit the artist. Give credit. It’s fine to be inspired by someone but don’t tell the world it’s 100% your original work if it’s not.
You can catch more of Alexander’s works on his instagram account.