With tattoo ink spilled on their bedsheets, walls immersed in paint, unopened spray paint bottles lying near a closet full of hand-made clothes accompanied by a camera next to their bed, Li Zalis is an all-around fine artist who experiments with street photography and mixed art forms to capture their next muse.
Based in Chicago but originally from St. Louis, Zalis, 20, is a queer, nonbinary self-taught fine artist, photographer and stick and poke tattoo artist who uses their work to uplift the beauty of unconventional subjects.
From black and white photography, film photography, candids and portraits, Zalis has shown an interest in the field since their sophomore year of high school.
“I started doing black and white darkroom photography, and developing the film and printing it and seeing it show up on the paper was just so fun. I would walk out of the darkroom with the biggest smile on my face and it was my favorite thing to do, and I’ve done a lot of darkroom work since then because I just love it."
Their biggest influences come from Cindy Sherman and Ryan McGinley because of their fascination with self portraits. A fun fact about the artist is that their favorite musician is Lil Peep and they have over five tattoos dedicated to him. Aesthetically, Zalis blends all these influences into their artwork.
Perfecting their “colorful and chaotic” style, Zalis looks back at old artwork for inspiration to either improve upon or mimic it. The work they are most proud of has been shot in St. Louis, even though Zalis has expressed a deeper, profound love for Chicago’s environment.
“It’s kind of a weird relationship between my work and the different places I shoot and the way that I feel about them,” Zalis said. “But I have done some cool work in Chicago and I’m excited for all the opportunities that come along with living in Chicago, and to see where my work goes.”
Before moving to Chicago for college, Zalis explored different forms of photography and mixed media art; something that always provided their “compulsive hands” comfort and sanity. For Zalis, art has served as a form of spiritual therapy.
“I kind of can’t live without making my art, even if it’s just like throwing paint on a pill bottle and putting flowers in it, that is meditative for me... the prevalent theme throughout all their work is a strong sense of authenticity and showing balance between the “the beauty and the ugly.”
Dyed hair, bodies cramped with tattoos, intense gothic makeup, eccentric senses of fashion styles and all sexualities and genders are captured through Zalis’ photography. Queer representation in itself is an art form to Zalis because of the authenticity and uniqueness the LGBTQ+ community serves. “I think my art really appeals more towards queer people, and I feel like that’s understandable as I am a queer person. They just understand it more,” Zalis said.
Anarchy and graffiti go hand-in-hand in the artist’s creative endeavors. Zalis has always used art as a form of escapism. For inspiration, Zalis visits the “graffiti wall” in St. Louis which is considered their sacred space to create absolutely anything out of building ruins and open space that stretches for miles.
“The graffiti wall is a giant flood wall that goes for miles in St. Louis, and it’s legal to graffiti on it… and it’s constantly changing and there’s a bunch of abandoned buildings".
Zalis added that throughout the last two years, their artistic dreams and its message of activism has elevated significantly. Immersed so much in their own art, Zalis dreams of living and owning their future gallery and to work for themselves.
“My biggest artistic dreams have to do with some form of activism. I either want to get a house that acts like a commune, but can also be a gallery or a place for gathering or I would love to own my own gallery in the city,” Zalis said. “I want to showcase and uplift anarchist artists, self-taught artists or artists with a compulsive hand. And I think that’s kind of my dream to work for myself and amplify the voices of people that I really love and support and they are doing great things.”
Zalis said that anarchy can be shown through their artwork, but it’s also a lifestyle they involve themselves in that’s rooted in “community’’ and “unconditional love” to show support for artistic pursuits. They want their works to make audiences think critically of the issues that are happening everyday, whether they see them within their own communities or not.
“When I talk about anarchy, I like to say that anarchy is not chaos. I really found myself in anarchy — as in no government — it’s just a community based on unconditional love. Regardless of what you do, we’re gonna uplift you and work together to make a community work, everyone has a say, everyone has a part in it… I would love to uplift the voices of a lot of people who are scared, and feel like nobody wants to hear their voice. I feel like that’s common for a lot of anarchists, or activists in general,” Zalis said.
For Zalis, photography serves as an experimental outlet that provides a sense of freedom and self expression. As someone who has struggled with emanating their feelings and thoughts, the artist has found their voice through the comfort of creating their work.
“I definitely do think that I found my voice through my art. I am not the best at expressing myself or my feelings sometimes, and I’m very insecure. Even though I come off as confident, because I have all these tattoos and I am very aggressively myself, I think art helped me find my self expression. And what I wanted to portray — and wanted to do — regardless of my insecurities, it helped me figure out how I could express myself without having to do it verbally,” Zalis said.
Everyone has an “eye,” but it takes on various forms that differ from artist to artist. The artist’s biggest advice is to practice and to think about the message behind the photographs because they hold a lot of impact for future generations of artists.
Zalis’ eye has been trained to show others their natural beauty that doesn’t have to conform to established beauty standards:
“That’s my whole goal to show everyone is beautiful, and I feel like my eye has been trained to show you just how beautiful you are. Objectively, you can’t see how beautiful you are to yourself because you have all these insecurities, inner judgments and inner critics and whatnot. But, I can show you objectively that you are actually beautiful and I want to show the rest of the world that too.”
“I love abandoned buildings, graffiti and things that are in places they’re not supposed to be, or things that aren’t considered ‘pretty’ and I like to make them pretty or show people how they can be pretty.”