illustration for Unbound Babes
With her Instagram bio declaring “WARNING NSFW,” Kristen Liu-Wong is no conventional artist. Featuring electric pinks and blues, Kristen creates eye-catching artwork that often features naked women in fantasy settings. With each bold line and defined shape coming together to create a dramatic scene, Kristen has solidified a distinct style of art that allows us to hear her voice in each of her pieces.
Having grown up in San Francisco and later studied at Pratt University in New York City, where she obtained an Illustration BFA, Kristen has the influences of both coasts. Currently, Kristen is based in Los Angeles, where she has made her mark as an artist with a mural in Nasty Gal’s HQ and commissioned illustrations for different articles and essays.
Intrigued by her extraterrestrial images exploring motifs such as female sexuality and violence, I asked Kristen the following questions.
Chloe Xiang: Can you describe your artistic style and what inspires it?
Kristen Liu-Wong: It’s always difficult for me to describe my work, but I guess they can be thought of as “ornate cartoons.” I’m inspired by so much—art, architecture, books, movies, life. I’m asked this question a lot so it’s hard for me to give a fresh answer, but yeah, I look at Shunga, American folk art, my contemporaries, cartoons I grew up with, etc.
Chloe Xiang: Why do you choose to use a neon color palette?
Kristen Liu-Wong: Because I like it! But aside from aesthetic reasons, I think the brightness contrasts nicely with my occasionally darker subject matter.
Chloe Xiang: How is your identity as a feminist expressed through the artwork you make?
Kristen Liu-Wong: I try to portray women as the complex beings that they are. They can be cruel or kind, sometimes they’re sad, sometimes they’re dangerous, but even though they are badasses, like everyone else they have their moments of vulnerability and contemplation.
Chloe Xiang: A lot of your work features violent motifs such as knives and blood—can you explain the purpose behind that?
Kristen Liu-Wong: People are violent, life is violent. I like exploring that part of our humanity in my work.
Chloe Xiang: What do you think about society’s stigmatization of women’s sexuality? How do you try to change that through your art?
Kristen Liu-Wong: I think it’s a stupid leftover from our Puritanical founders. I don’t know if I’m specifically setting out to change societal standards when I make a piece (that seems a bit grandiose to me), but I make the work I want to and if people don’t like it, they don’t have to look at it.
Chloe Xiang: Talk about your experience as a PoC in the art industry. Has your identity ever created any obstacles for you as an artist?
Kristen Liu-Wong: Yeah, people see a young Asian woman and they assume I’m an artist’s assistant or someone’s girlfriend instead of the actual artist. That pisses me off. I also feel like people take certain liberties in business with me because I’m a young woman and I don’t immediately come off as aggressive, so I’ve been trying to work on that. People always expect free things or come to me with insanely huge jobs that they will only pay $200 for, which is ridiculous considering how many hours it takes just to make one piece.
Chloe Xiang: I love how you represent all types of women and portray them in an uncensored manner, with unshaved hair, body rolls, and other perceived imperfections. How do you want viewers to respond to this raw portrayal of women?
Kristen Liu-Wong: I want them to see themselves in these women! When I have a back zit, I’ll add some zits on my girl! Half the time I have to use myself as reference for the poses, so if I see a belly roll, I draw it! My pieces aren’t about being the perfect woman; they’re about being an imperfect human.
Chloe Xiang: With women being such a dominant subject in your work, does each woman you create have a different personality and story?
Kristen Liu-Wong: No, I’m not typically that thorough with my characterization. Each piece has a narrative, but it only occasionally goes beyond that.
Chloe Xiang: How do you approach each piece of work you create? What is your process like?
Kristen Liu-Wong: Deadlines!! Haha no, just kidding, although it can be hard to stay fresh when you have so many projects due in rapid succession. I typically take a few hours or a day to look through art books, go to a museum, and maybe when I have extra time go somewhere cool and explore. Once I see something that inspires me, I make a sketch about it. And then from there I start the final drawing! I also keep a list of ideas for pieces that I’ll revisit.
Chloe Xiang: Have you ever encountered an experience where someone tried to censor your work completely?
Kristen Liu-Wong: HA yeah, my work was part of a campaign for Unbound and the MTA would not allow them to run the campaign although, as anyone who’s been on the subway knows, they have had their fair share of risque and even offensive ads.
Chloe Xiang: What advice do you have for girls who are still familiarizing themselves with their bodies and their sexualities?
Kristen Liu-Wong: I’m definitely still getting there myself! I don’t want to go into my own issues too much, but sex and sexuality [are things] that I’ve struggled with and that I am still struggling with (which is part of the reason why I’m so fascinated by it and paint it constantly), so you aren’t the only one!