Aaron Tsuru creates beautiful illustrations of what it's like to be seen by someone who loves us as we truly are.
We all have an idea of what we desire from a partner. Each of us imagine a different set of traits we can only hope for in a significant other. But I can’t help but wonder if there’s one we all share: to be seen, accepted, and loved for who we truly are. This means finding someone who will know us in a way that very few, if any, ever will. They will be able to look past all the things we hide behind, as well as all the constructs that bury us, and see our naked soul. Well, that’s the dream, anyway. I don’t think it’s easy or that it will happen for all of us. But we can long for it, allowing that hope to brighten up our days and fill us with a sort of optimism that perhaps, one day we will be seen.
I came across Aaron Tsuru’s work one day while browsing through my Instagram feed. I saw one of their sketches and then found myself scrolling through the entire repertoire found on their profile. A lot went through my mind as I looked at the drawings and images. But the recurring one was, This is how we all want to be seen. Each character featured in the work is sensual, beautiful, and real. They’re not idealized, but you can see in their expressions that they are being seen. I know that sounds like a Nora Roberts cliché, but I swear it’s not. When the idea is borrowed by romance novels it’s always in a superficial way. But what I’m talking about, and what I believe we all desire, is connecting with another person on a level that is beyond physical and emotional, almost spiritual. And the people in Tsuru’s pieces present that sensation.
In an interview with Cultura Colectiva, Aaron Tsuru spoke to us about the paradox of censorship and social media, the bizarre constructs that only keep people apart, the taboos that seem to have no place in our world, as well as their work, influences, and inspiration.
“The most important thing is my mission to normalize reality. We are globs of flesh and come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, colors, and in a beautiful kaleidoscope of genders. We need to stop feeling bad about our own bodies or thinking that one body is better than another. There's not many things more beautiful than self love which is why I love working from people's selfies so much! To be confident enough to put yourself out there, especially after society constantly tells you we all should strive for some bullshit "Photoshop perfection", is a wonderful thing. If I can get that message across, if I can tell that story, then I'll be okay.”
One that is strikingly visual when seeing Tsuru’s pieces is that there is a distinct relationship between his drawings and the work of Egon Schiele. So it’s not surprising when we found out that the Austrian artist was an inspiration of theirs.
“I was predominantly a photographer and zinester for years and haven't painted since high school back in the 80s when I painted with acrylics. But after seeing a Schiele exhibit her in NYC, I gave it a try and it felt great to create something new and fresh after years of taking photos. Eventually I started drawing nearly every day in my #sketchaday posts and that has really helped me evolve my look, experiment, and try new things. I push myself to keep the work with interesting angles & poses and more importantly to really make sure it's intersectional with body types, genders, races... [I] truly try to represent as many non-cisgendered males as possible and celebrate everyone's beauty!”
I then asked the artist about the bizarre situation we as a society find ourselves in. It seems that every day there’s another artist, photographer, or civilian, who is censored because of particular algorithms and social media policies.
“The hypocrisy is insane. There was an amazing series of topless photos by a transgender woman whose account I'm totally blanking on asking something like, "Am I woman enough yet?" to Instagram. They would pose topless as they were going through their transition wondering when their "male breasts" would be deemed female and therefore offensive. What's fascinating to me is how it only sexualizes it more by censoring the women's nipples! If we could normalize nudity, then it wouldn't be such a big deal. We are all naked under our clothes, our flesh globules are our flesh globules, who cares! UGH! I could go on for days... All I can say is, we should keep challenging it, keep showing them the hypocrisy and hopefully one day they'll listen.”
The Instagram Tsuru is referring to belonged to model Courtney Demone’s hashtag movement called #FreeAllBodies. However, both their account, as well as the Free All Bodies one, no longer exist. Yet it’s not just nipples and breasts that both the general public and social media have a problem with. Arvida Byström and Molly Soda are two photographers who have also had images censored and have even received rape threats for taking pictures with body hair, a female taboo that continues.
“The one that surprises me the most often is body hair on women. Every time I've drawn or painted hairy armpits, or a tummy, or legs, or bush, or butt or something, people lose their shit. Men AND women will comment "ew" or "gross" over something some completely natural and normal, and easily adjustable as your body growing hair. We've had full on comment-fights on some posts! It blows my mind. A series we've been doing since the photography days is called The Year Of The Bush, which is every year. Basically the message is, do what you want to do and do it for yourself because it makes you feel good, sexy, beautiful, whatever. You want to be 100% hairy all over your body, 100% shaved. Or some combo or whatever, go for it, but do it for you and love that other people do right for them. Don't fetishize it, don't shame it, just be you!”
I then asked the artist what are some of the challenges they face on a day-to-day creating their beautiful artwork.
“You mean besides the debilitating self-doubt? It's unbelievable how quickly I can go from 'I love what I created' to 'Oh dear godless universe, this is horrible! I'm a horrible artist!!!!' Beyond that, it's just learning how to let go of what you know works and try something new. It's scary. I know that if I do X, X will do well, but if I want to do Y, I need to be okay to do Y and not revert back to X! Pushing myself forward and being okay with messing up. There are tons of pieces that never see the light of day... and that's okay! It's how I learn... So just reminding myself of that when I want to try something new.”
Tsuru’s work proves that there is such a thing as being truly seen. These illustrations give us a sense of hope that perhaps one day we will also find our own space, whether it’s with someone or with an entire community that loves us in the way that we want to be loved.