South Korean artist Dain Yoon distorts reality to encourage people to see differently. - Mission

South Korean artist Dain Yoon distorts reality to encourage people to see differently.

By Kala Herh.

Distorting reality through creative license is how this artist is choosing to connect with people.

Unlike traditional artists who paint on canvas, Dain Yoon employs an unconventional surface—herself. The 30-year-old visual artist creates surrealist artworks on her face and body, exploring the potential of a limitless canvas. At times she appears blurry with her facial features distorted, while other times she paints a scene in great detail. She is best known for fusing parts of herself with her surroundings.

One of her most popular works to date, Deep Rooted, was featured in Vogue magazine. The work reimagines Yoon as a tree with its roots entangled in another figure, and explores the intricacies of human relationships and what it takes to build a strong, healthy one. “I love using my paintings as my diary,” she says from her apartment in New York City, which she just moved into a month ago. 

Born and raised in Seoul, South Korea, the daughter of an artist and an architect, Yoon was always actively engaged in the arts. This love for art blossomed into an inclination toward movie and theater. She took her passion and ran with it, majoring in scenography at Korea National University of Arts and trying every job she could find in the visual arts world. You name it, she’s likely done it. Yoon has been everything from graphic designer to film assistant, from model to theater costume designer. Her interest in movie production stemmed from a love of taking characters off the page and making them come alive on the screen. But after a while, she grew discouraged when she couldn’t realize her full creative vision with these characters. “I can make a great character, but in my mind, I felt, ‘Oh, I want to do something more, but I cannot do it because movie and theater directors’ power is so important,’” she says with a laugh.

“After a lot of part-time jobs, I knew I really needed to create my own work rather than participating in production.”

Yoon also started to feel a lack of credit when she was working on sets. “One thing I really don’t like is [that a movie crew] has more than a hundred people who put in a lot of effort, but only a few people—directors and actors—get attention,” she says. “After a lot of part-time jobs, I knew I really needed to create my own work rather than participating in production.” 

A few years later, Yoon started forging her own path. Instead of being on set, Yoon spends her days ideating, sketching, and painting new works in her studio apartment. Using an extensive palette of paints and brushes, the works can take anywhere from 3 to 10 hours, depending on their complexity. Since she started exploring the realm of makeup art in 2016, she has drawn a global audience. She has been a guest on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, shown her work at major arts events around the world, and pulled in more than 605,000 followers on Instagram. And while she has amassed a huge following on Instagram, Yoon is now looking to expand her content on TikTok. Here, her content is different from her meticulously lit Instagram photographs, focusing instead on videos. Her account has time-lapse videos that show her painting her face from start to finish and 360-degree coverage of her work.

In addition to all of the above, Yoon is also a judge on Fake Up, a new competition series on Snapchat that pits six illusion artists against one another. “It’s really amazing to see how this show has come to life,” she wrote on her Instagram account. “When I started my career, it was pretty ‘unusual’ to use myself as a canvas … But today, there is a show about it.”

Yoon made the decision to paint on her face because she believes “the face is the strongest part that conveys our emotion.” Much of her work, like Deep Rooted, lies in the intersection of illusion and surrealism, which makes sense considering her artistic inspirations are Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, two major surrealist artists. And like the surrealists before her, Yoon finds inspiration in nearby objects—be it a couch, laptop, or sneaker. “I like to paint things that are slightly different from what we’re so used to seeing,” she elaborates. She also pulls inspiration from her own emotions or feelings. As a child, she was always using art to express herself and the experience she was living through. And while that was when she made art solely for herself, she now hopes her art will be consumed widely and offer viewers new perspectives about art and life.  

Yoon has a certain trademark aesthetic, but she is not tied to any one type of image. Recently, she worked with Korean beverage company Chilsung Cider to create one of her most famous pieces, The Inferno of Earthly Delights, which spans her face and chest. From the top of her head to her mouth, the work features an idyllic scene of a few bathers surrounded by a lush forest, but the painting takes a turn when it reaches her chin, switching to a fiery pit complete with disembodied limbs. Yoon shares that this body painting was inspired by 15th-century Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch, whose work she was exposed to at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. 

For someone who spends a good portion of her days with thick body paint on her face, one would imagine that Yoon’s skin care routine is as elaborate as her art. However, Yoon says she doesn’t do much, just some simple cleanser and moisturizer. “I think many people are very interested in my skin care routine, but I think the most important thing is genes,” she says, laughing. And while she keeps her skin regimen relatively simple, she does mention that a healthy diet and a regular exercise help keep her skin clear and ready for the next project. 

“Although I’m exploring other cities in the world, culturally, my Korean background will always be at the core of my inspiration.” 

When asked about her next projects and her future in general, Yoon says she doesn’t have any definite plans or goals—she just wants to keep creating, even when she’s 90. And though she may not have specific career goals in mind, her future is already looking very bright. Just recently, Yoon was selected to be part of the opening ceremony of the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism 2021, an event hosted by the Seoul Metropolitan Government. “Seoul has always been a special city for me,” she says. “It’s the place I was born and raised. Although I’m exploring other cities in the world, culturally, my Korean background will always be at the core of my inspiration.” 

For now, Yoon says she wants to focus on more conceptual works of art, rather than producing illusionary effects. She wants to continue to be an inspiration to a younger generation of artists. And finally, she wants to continue to push art and the interpretation of her work, not limiting it to one understanding. By overlapping motifs and distorting perspectives, her artworks warp reality and perception, causing viewers to explore different ways of seeing. “I don’t squeeze any emotion or any feeling from the audience, because that’s the actual message I want to convey,” she says. “Every person thinks differently, so you are free to feel.” And therein lies the beauty of Yoon’s work: It gives you the freedom to see what you want to see. 

All images courtesy of the artist. Taken from Mission’s Bipoc issue.