What Really Makes a Girl “Ugly”, According to Artist Hikaru Cho

What Really Makes a Girl “Ugly”, According to Artist Hikaru Cho

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“To be a culturally refined artist”. That’s the motto of Cho Hikaru, a graduate of Musashino Art University where she majored in Visual Communication Design. If you were to trim away at her profile you’d see an artist emerge, outlined by words such as smart, stylish, gentle and reserved.
Although she works alongside a circle of familiar pop culture names, her personal role is not at the forefront of expressive art. It’s rather one of “creating pop culture” from the sidelines. We’ll get into that later, but first things first…

What her work involves: Painting realistic imagery on to people’s bodies, often with the theme of eyes or other objects, clothes design including collaborative projects with fashion labels, illustration, sculpture, video production work, poster design, smart phone app illustration, as well as character product design, CD art direction among many other things. Recently it appears that she has even earned the title of essayist. This long list poses many questions but foremost may be, “Who exactly is Cho Hikaru?”


The original image I painted of her is already beginning to seem wrong. She’s neither stylish, nor cool, nor even reserved, but an artist who is bold and daring, at times, smart, but also sensitive and considerate.

Barely over 24 years of age, the thing that speaks the strongest as she peers into the dazzling and radiant female portrait of Japan’s art and culture scenes, is her fascination with “beauty” and “ugliness”. Talking about it in a straightforward manner isn’t a simple task.

– At a first glance much of your work doesn’t appear to be connected, so in order to give us some clues and establish their connection, could you tell us about what it was that made you pursue art?

Hikaru Cho: When I was around the age of 18 I took the entrance exam for the Tokyo University of the Arts, and failed. And because it was so difficult for me to accept that the University wasn’t interested in someone like myself, my first thoughts were that I had to do something different. I later entered Musashino Art University where I was filled with the urge to accomplish something. I went to draw something but there was no paper in the room!

Before, when I was at art prep school, I’d only been drawing plaster figures or still life as my motif. As a result of this I longed to draw the human body. One day I wanted to draw an eye but there was no paper left in the room. It was too much of a pain to go out and buy some so I thought, “Maybe I can use my hand?” So I drew on my skin like that.



– I see, that sounds logical enough.

Hikaru Cho: The outcome was interesting, and actually the drawing itself was better than what I would have been able to do on paper. I snapped a photo and uploaded it to social media where it received a positive reaction. My first attempts at body painting started to give me the kind of approval that I was seeking for my work. I figured that there must be a need for it, so I decided to continue experimenting with it for a while.

– So you continued with it throughout university?

Hikaru Cho: Well, during my first year I often uploaded my work, but gradually I came to dislike posting my work to social media. Other images, such as a cute girl’s selfie, would get way more views and likes than something I had spent hours creating, and so, slowly, I started feeling strange about it… As a result I decided I wanted to showcase my work in a more professional way, so during my second year I created my own website and began to display my work there. I also continued to use Twitter though.

– So seeking approval gradually became more difficult. Also it was just around the period was when you started appearing in media.

Hikaru Cho: My desire for approval was really strong at the time. Sometimes I would take selfies and post them; so embarrassing. Obviously its not always the case, but I think that the age of 18 or 19 is when people really seek approval, and it’s rare to get the same reaction from your circle of friends that you are able to achieve on social media platforms. At the time I was filled with the urge to become someone, so I churned out body paintings recklessly. I would invite friends over and ask them to let me paint on them.


From there I gained exposure, mainly from user-generated content (UGC) sites, and then I began to get more and more offers to appear on TV programs. They would write taglines about me like, “This beautiful university girl’s paintings are amazing” and I’d think, “Who do these jerks think they are trying to stir up interest by calling me a beautiful girl?”

– Recently your work abroad has been getting a lot of attention, too.

Hikaru Cho: I went to Finland with a poet friend of mine, we did performances involving poetry readings and live body painting. Afterwards I was invited to do a solo exhibition in Germany that got picked up by the media. After that I travelled to the Middle East where I ran a workshop for children, teaching them about hand painting.




– Have you felt any differences about how your art was accepted while abroad? Compared to Japan, that is.

Hikaru Cho: In Japan it doesn’t seem like there’s much of a culture of buying art or decorating with it, right? Even if there is, instead of decorating with works by artists you like, people buy things like landscape paintings that are only made for decorating. Overseas there were many people who wanted to buy my work, so that was really surprising. Of course, there’s the fact that it’s easier to hang things up on the wall there. In Japan not only is there less space, but also many people live in rental properties that don’t allow you to hang things up.

– Body painting in foreign countries is like, for example, how Indian people decorate themselves with henna, right? But I feel like in comparison you tend to paint human parts on the body more often than not. How did you come up with this idea?

Hikaru Cho: There are a lot of people that do body painting, but the part I enjoy is being able to create things that people haven’t seen before. In general, you’ll find many body paintings where people paint flowers and so on. For me, there’s no point in doing the same things everyone else is doing, so my body paintings use the motif of realism every time.

– On the other hand, you also paint on things like bananas and oranges.

Hikaru Cho: Body art also includes special makeup (movie effects etc). However, I want to differentiate my work from special makeup. So I try to avoid drawing blood or grotesque things. Also, I always try to have certain concept, and present them as an “Art work”, that’s different from special makeup.



On the other hand, I also draw images of bananas, fish, and things like that. First I painted bananas on cucumbers. I got word from the Swedish Embassy that they wanted to hold a Swedish-themed art exhibition, and while I was thinking of a theme, I felt that Sweden was a country that paid a lot of attention to racial discrimination. From there I decided to make something regarding race. I thought disguising a banana as cucumber would fit the theme.





– So you come up with it while taking the concept into consideration.

Hikaru Cho: That’s right. First I’ll have several visual ideas, and when I’ve got the concept idea, I’ll connect them in the way that ties them the most. For example, I had “banana and cucumber” or “egg and eggplant” written down on my memo pad as a visual ideas. With the previous theme of racial discrimination based on appearances I thought painting an object to be disguised as something else would fit the theme. So that’s where the idea for “cucumbanana” came from.
Because, you know, if you’re fooled by a painted object, how can you know what the person is like just based on their eye color or skin color.

– Going back to the topic of body painting, you paint directly on the body, right? How are you able to capture the physical aspect of it and the meaningful aspect of it?

Hikaru Cho: Well, even if I were to paint the same thing on paper that I can paint on the body, it would not create something as meaningful. I think people are able to see that it’s not merely body “decoration”, but a work of art. I believe people are able to view the body as if it were truly like that.

Also, I think it’s easier to make a connection with something drawn directly on the body than something on paper… I think it makes it easier to perceive the work as if it’s about the person. For instance, if a wolf were painted on a girl’s face, there is a higher chance that someone will try to discern its meaning or interpret it, instead of thinking “It’s just a wolf”. So painting on the body creates an additional meaning beyond the painting itself. Because I’m painting on something related to the viewer (the human body), people don’t feel the same distance they might from a painting. I think that’s what makes it interesting.


– Beyond that, I think with body painting there are many opportunities when it comes to modeling the target subject, and naturally, creating an awareness of beauty. How do you define what makes a girl pretty or ugly?

Hikaru Cho: Hmmm… When it comes to beauty, I think a pretty woman is one who is satisfied with her own looks. People who aren’t satisfied with their own looks and then become whiny or jealous because of it, are ugly. This is just my own personal view, but let’s say there’s a triangle shape, or a “pyramid of women”. At the very top would be the top 5%, beautiful women whose frames and parts fit what’s considered ‘ideal’. These are women who have been called pretty/cute since they were born, and who continue to be accepted and adored. I mean cute, not in a girly or cutesy way, but from an analytical point. I think people whose eyes are close to the center of the face, and who have a face with a roundness balanced like that of a teddy bear’s, are cute.

– So like the golden ratio.

Hikaru Cho: I think about 5% of girls fit that description, and then there are those that are the complete opposite.

– (laughter)

Hikaru Cho: Those girls are the women who make-up the lowest 5% at the bottom of the pyramid. People blessed with a figure that they would find difficult to reinvent through their own efforts. People who, when you look at them have parts that are significantly above or below the average, are not those who you would say are beautiful. “Beautiful” people are basically people who are made of average parts. They may have larger eyes or something like that, but they have the perfect proportions, you know? People who are proportioned perfectly are beautiful. For example, if your nose is too big or your chin sticks out too much… anything that deviates too much from the average… It’s likely to be deemed as being ugly. If they are satisfied with that, then that’s fine though.

– What about the other 90% then?

Hikaru Cho: Everyone else is just sort of ugly. Most people are ugly, and only about 5% are beautiful. However, those who are ugly in this 90% may be able to move upward depending on their own effort, or sometimes they may fall lower. They all fluctuate in their degree of ugliness.

– So where would you say you fall?

Hikaru Cho: I think I would fall into that 90% grey zone. So I don’t see myself as being beautiful. But actually, there are no set standards for prettiness or cuteness, so it’s difficult to judge. However, you have to set your own standards, and so in order to not get lost in a myriad of details of what constitutes as “cuteness”, I look at it from the frame or figure aspect. Since men don’t live in a world defined by “cuteness”, I don’t think they often analyze themselves, but for those of us who are the gender where it’s painful not to be cute, it’s something we always have to be constantly thinking about.



Hikaru Cho : She is a body painting artist born in Tokyo, 1993. Gaining world wide attention for her works painting bodies and objects. She has been featured on various media, and also collaborates with Samsung, Amnesty International, and Shiseido, along with her personal exhibition domestic and foreign. She also works on fashion design, illustration, 3D art, and videos. Her art book : “SUPER FLASH GIRLS Cho Senkou Girls”

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Translated by Jamie Koide

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Karasuma Oike

Editor and writer. His favorite artist is Oasis.

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