Raised by the internet, Australian artist Lee Solo has developed a cult-following for her illustrative work and fashion brand, Salem7. Swathing her pieces with vibrant palettes, she captures the most eccentric figures in music alongside sardonically reimagining the pop-culture from her childhood. Using her prowess as a means to voice what she can’t speak, Solo remedied her disconnection from the world while finding acceptance from her peers and a platform to unabashedly express herself.
Check out the interview below, where Lee talks about finding community, and herself, through the spreading of her art.
What was it like developing the style you have now and how did growing up in Australia influence that?
Art has always been a big part of my life. As far back as I can remember, I’ve drawn. I was a sad kid, so my art used to be very dark, evil and grotesque. It reflected how I was feeling at the time. When I was a teenager, I discovered Tyler, The Creator. He introduced me to a world of color, despite how dark his earlier music was. This taught me that you can be sad and colorful at the same time. I incorporated this style into my own work. I like to use color to pull people in and then mislead them with these unsettling themes at the same time. I love to confuse people, and perhaps, that’s because I am a very confused person myself.
I’m a Maori/Canadian, but I’ve lived in Australia for several years. Growing up here, I never felt like Australia was truly home for me. I, in fact, feel quite disconnected here and don’t fully relate to my peers. I feel more like the internet had a greater influence on me than the Australian culture.
Art helped me to understand my own emotions, and to start a conversation with others.
What artist(s) inspired you the most as you developed your skills?
I can’t say that there are any particular artists that inspired my drawing style, but I admire people like Tyler, The Creator, Pharrell, Kid Cudi, Kanye West, NIGO, Gangster Doodles, KAWS, Takashi Murakami and Super Future Kid. I really admire how these artists are true to themselves and original. There’s really no one like them and they’re pioneers in their craft. This inspires me to stay true to myself and create my own path.
When you’re working, what tools do you find yourself using the most?
I paint with acrylic paint and outline with Copic markers. I’m quite simple, so I just use the cheapest paints and mix my own color palette. I see other artists who put themselves on a pedestal, gloating about how the best tools make the best art, but I don’t believe that shit is necessarily true. I’m a cheap ass but I make do with what I’ve got…and here I am, I scored an interview with HYPEBEAST!
Art or one’s own creative work may be seen as an interpretation of what the self wants to say. What do you think your work says about you that you maybe can’t express with words?
I’m not good with words at all. When I was younger, I struggled with a speech impediment, and to this day, I’m still not a very confident speaker. I think that’s why I love art so much because I can use it as a platform to freely express myself. When I was younger I was very depressed and very sick and I didn’t know how to tell anyone. I suffered in silence for a very long time, but painting pacified me. Art doesn’t have any rules, so I felt it was a safe place to express what I was feeling, without the fear of being judged. Art helped me understand my own emotions, and to start a conversation with others. It was my voice when I felt as though I didn’t have one.
A piece of my soul lives in all of my artworks.
How did you manage to establish an identity through your illustrations?
By putting myself into other characters or self-portraits that I paint, it’s kind of like an out-of-body experience. Sometimes my artwork can be very confrontational to others, but it can also be especially confrontational to me. Viewers might perceive it one way, but only I know the true intention. And sometimes, that can be a hard pill for me to swallow. A piece of my soul lives in all of my artworks. When I have a problem, putting it on paper helps me to dissect and assess the situation. This enables me to have a better understanding of myself. As connected as I am to my paintings, I also feel somewhat disconnected because I get to look at myself from a somewhat third-person perspective. The cool thing about art is that there is so much freedom. You get to do whatever you want or be whatever you want. Sometimes I paint who I was, and other times, I paint who I want to be. Whether it’s the past, the present or the future, I’m painting, it’s all me.
What was the initial response like?
There’s a saying that goes along the lines of something like, “Art is supposed to disturb the comforted and comfort the disturbed.” Simply put, I like to offend old people. It’s funny. So, when I get that response, I get a real kick out of it. I love to paint explicit images, sexual themes, drugs and violence. Like a rainbow cake with “BITCH” spelled out in icing or baby playing with alphabet blocks that say “FUCK.” Lala, the Teletubby, playing Kim K and Ray J’s sex tape on her tv tummy. It’s so wrong, it’s right. We millennials love that shit. I don’t know why, but we all seem to have some kind of sick and twisted humor. Maybe we’re all messed up. Maybe that’s why old people hate it so much because they’re reminded that they’re the reason we’re all messed up.
At times, your work depicts what feels to be a nostalgic reflection on the pop culture you grew up with. What influence did it serve on your growth as an artist, how does your outlook on it as an adult contrast from when you were younger?
I’m still very much a kid at heart. I love cartoons and I collect toys. Sometimes I even dress like I’m still seven-years-old. I really enjoy painting characters from shows that I watched as a kid, and putting some crazy, messed up twist on them. I think a lot of people my age really react well to these artworks because they feel as though they relate and connect with them because they grew up with them, too. These characters from our childhood bring back memories of more naive and innocent times. But we’re all grown up now, not so naive and not so innocent anymore. Just like my art.
What is it about modern culture that you find interest in?
I think social media makes the world a very small place. There are some fucked up niches out there, man, like furries. But, yo, the internet brings these weird ass people — that are probably alone and alienated in the real world — together to create a community. I mean, if you wanna dress up in a fox or a horse suit or whatever and get freaky like that, then you do you, boo, but that’s just how crazy small the world is now. There is literally a platform for everyone — a safe place for everyone — to be themselves, and that really fascinates me. Because IRL, we’re not always accepted. And I am well aware that not everyone loves my art, but I have my own little community, my own safe place, my own platform, where I am accepted. And that’s wild. I know for a fact, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today without the internet.
I love that I can express myself through my art and that my art can help other people express themselves.
The internet has played a role in allowing for creatives to have their work witnessed on a global scale. How did the internet play a role in your development?
I’ve always been interested in art, but not until I downloaded Instagram, when I was about 16, did I realize that my art was actually somewhat interesting to others. I’d upload all kinds of photos, like my outfit of the day, or a cool location I had visited or a painting I had just done. Art is a big part of my life, and so of course, it was something I would share, but I never expected it to get much of a reaction. I honestly don’t think I’m very good at anything else, and growing up, I lacked a lot of confidence because in school if you’re not academically smart you’re apparently going nowhere in life. I would have teachers tell me that I would never be successful, which cut deep at the time because they were the people I would look up to. Let me tell you one thing though, never take advice from people you don’t want to be.
The internet became a safe place for me where I was accepted and praised. Which is very surreal and somewhat overwhelming. Like waking up with DMs from strangers telling me that my art apparently saved their life when I’m just doing mine and sharing parts of it along the way. Though I’m so grateful, I don’t know where I’d be without the internet and social media. I wonder if I would have given up on art a long time ago, as there were many people that laughed at me and scolded me, telling me art was purely a waste of time. My advice to a happy and fulfilling life, if you find something that you love to do, then do it, and don’t stop doing it.
Your current work is a contemporary snapshot of the most eccentric faces, like XXXtentacion, A$AP Rocky, Lil Yachty, Kanye West, 21 Savage, Gucci Mane and Cardi B. How do you decide on which celebrities and figures you want to capture?
Rap music makes me feel invincible. I think that’s why I paint these artists because their music and/or their story inspires me in some way. I love how tight the hip-hop community is. I think, more than any other genre, there’s more to it than just the music. It’s a culture. It’s straight up gang shit! I love the hustle that these artists come from. Some come with very rough and abrasive backgrounds, but pressure makes diamonds. So as I paint these artists, I listen to their songs and I think about their stories, and where they are now. Painting is like a journey. My favorite part is when I reach the destination, like when I finish the painting and I get to step back and appreciate the final result. I dream of the day that I feel I have truly made it. Maybe one day someone will paint me while reflecting on my story.
What made you decide to bring your work to clothes?
Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always had a bit of an eccentric taste in fashion. When I was 15, I dreamt of having a clothing label, but I never really knew what designs I could use. I didn’t really have my own aesthetic. I spent a lot of time looking at other brands and trying to be like them, but I never liked what I created. It just didn’t feel very authentic to me. So I just kind of gave up on that dream for a while, and I focused strictly on my art because I believed that’s all I was sorta good at.
It was only until like early last year when my style really became refined. I’d start to get comments on my art posts, on Instagram, from followers telling me they’d wear my paintings on shirts. I was unemployed and so broke at the time, so I thought, “Why not?” And only a week after I had opened an online store, Zumiez got in contact with me and said they wanted to stock my clothes in their stores. Everything happened so fast, and I’m still trying to keep up and register what the hell is going on. I’m very blessed. Very grateful that a lot of people want to wear my art. How surreal. Growing up, I used to be bullied for the clothes I wore. But now, some of my bullies wear my clothes.
From your garments to art, what is that you want people to take away?
Fashion is art. So it’s crazy to have all these walking canvases around the world wearing Salem7. I think it’s really cool that my art means something enough for someone to want to wear it, maybe even if it’s just to offend an old person that passes by. I love that I can express myself through my art and that my art can help other people express themselves. I don’t really get to decide what I want for the people who view my art to take away. That’s why I love art, it can mean anything, or nothing. It’s up to the viewer to interpret and for them to decide how they react to it.
I don’t know where I’d be without the internet and social media.
Where do you see your cohesion of art and fashion developing as your work continues to evolve?
Everyone is asking me what I’m doing, where I’m going, what’s my next big project, but the truth is, I really have no idea. I’m just kind of going with the flow of everything. Seeing what feels right. When I was a kid, I liked making movies, I also love photography, writing and playing instruments. I just love to create. I’m an artist, and I love how broad that title can be. Who knows what my work might evolve into, but all I know is that I want to create art. May it be painting, fashion, films, photography, music or whatever. All I know is that I want to create art for the rest of my life.
- KURT THOMSON/HYPEBEAST