When Frank Ocean released his “Nikes” video off Blonde in 2016, the bisexual singer appeared with glitter makeup sparkling as he sang the lyrics, “We gon’ see the future first.” For 20-year-old Quil Lemons, this moment shattered his understanding of the past and associations he had to black masculinity growing up in South Philadelphia. Alongside Ocean, the queer photographer saw a future first that celebrated femininity and challenged heteronormativity—especially on men of color.
After a selfie of him wearing glitter spread across the Internet with the caption, “A real n***a wears makeup,” Lemons saw an opportunity and began shooting portraits of Black men—both gay and straight—in shimmering Blonde-inspired looks. He titled the ongoing series GLITTERBOY after Ocean’s snapchat handle, “AREALGLITTERBOY,” and invited friends to pose in front of a pink backdrop. The resulting images at once challenge his subjects’ understanding of themselves, as well as society’s understanding of his subjects.
Out.com recently caught up with the rising artist to learn more about his Philly upbringing and the greater goal behind GLITTERBOY.
OUT: You were raised in South Philadelphia. How was that experience for you?
Quil Lemons: I’m from South Philly, like the the great Amber Rose. Low-key all of Philadelphia is kind of conservative in comparison to New York. It’s a city, but it’s a lot more slow, so I would describe it as being more suburban, more homey and wholesome—all-American. I couldn’t really express myself how I wanted without everyone being like, “What are you doing?” Growing up, my mom had me at 14 and a half, so I had an unorthodox lifestyle where she was super accepting of everything. She just wanted me to get out there creatively and find out what I wanted to do as I got older.
What was your introduction to art?
I went to art school, cause I was like, “I’m not with these AP courses, I just want to do art.” So I went to high school for architecture and design, and did architecture for four years. But then in our senior year, they let us out of architecture classes to do whatever we wanted, and I took fashion and textiles. I remember taking fashion and textiles, and realizing I like creating things that are really art, not structural. With art in general, I wanted that since my upbringing was so, “You can do whatever you want to do.”
Describe your debut art show in Philly.
Two years ago, I did my first art show and was like, “Wow, I really can do this.” I did portraiture of my friends’ faces in front of my building wall. I did it by myself and knew I’d figure it out. I ended up talking to one of the gallery owners in Philly, and he was only three or four years out of art school, so he let me do it. The portraits were in front of this leafy vine set-up and I shot in black-and-white. They were really cool and I glued them up. Then for inside the gallery, I remember carrying 14 plants up 70 steps to the third floor in keeping with the same leafy theme. There were so many damn plants, it looked like a jungle. Looking back on my old work, I realize how much I’ve grown as an artist.
Now you’re living in New York. Where do you go to school?
I’ve fantasized about being in New York since I was 14. I’m a rising Junior at the New School studying journalism and design. Low-key, I’m a Sex and the City fan and thought I was going to be Carrie Bradshaw. I love her and her moments when she was writing about her life. That’s what I want to do: opinion articles. I wanted to study something concrete, which is why I didn’t go to school for photography. Right now, I’m freelancing and preparing for my next show this fall, and writing in my diary about boys [Laughs].
How did you begin your GLITTERBOY series?
GLITTERBOY started in 2016 because I went to this party for Milk Makeup—they really look out for the kids. It was their launch party and they invited all the influencer kids of Instagram. They were like, “Come play in our makeup,” and I wanted to get my face painted. Frank Ocean had released his “Nikes” video where he wears glitter makeup, and I showed it to Milk’s makeup artists as reference. They liked it and I posted a selfie later that ended up on Black Twitter. They were calling me “faggot” and “gay.” I was like, “Y’all are crazy, you should not be saying this when we barely have Black representation as it is.”
Was the response entirely negative?
The other half of Black Twitter was like, “Yo, I wish I got this done. It’s so cool, you look so good. You look amazing, sweetie.” I didn’t expect that response, so that was my inkling for the show’s idea. I had never played around with makeup prior to that night. When I showed it to my mom, she was hesitant with me sharing. At first, she was like, “Omg, why do you have makeup on your face,” and then she was like, “Omg, you look cute.” I was like, “Fuck it, I’m sharing,” and nothing really happened. Looking back, my mom was like, “I don’t even know why I was worried.”
Who was the first person you shot?
My friend Harley from Miami came up to New York—Harley’s the light-skinned guy with dreads and the first boy I shot for GLITTERBOY. He’s very androgynous and was wearing a dress. We bonded as Black men because people look at us both like, “What are you doing?” We shot in the middle of February and I put him in my glitter. It was freezing cold outside and he didn’t have a shirt on. After the first image, I was like, “Yo, I’m really onto something,” and ended up shooting other boys. It took so long—like a three-month process because there were no sunny days in NYC from February until May.
Have all your subjects been comfortable getting glittered?
Every time I was with a boy, they would be so nervous and then be like, “I’m just going to do it, fuck it.” Then I’d send them the shots and they’d be like, “These are crazy, I look so pretty.” I was shooting straight and gay men, but everyone was like, “Should we be doing this?” Just because of society, everyone was so hesitant, but once they saw the photos they’d be like, “Yo bro, I look so cute.”
Why do you think this series is especially important, right now?
Within the past five years, we’ve seen Young Thug in a dress, we’ve seen Jaden Smith in a dress, we’ve seen the rules of what it is to be a man be broken or rewritten. Now you can be straight and wear makeup, you can be straight and wear a dress, you can be gay and wear makeup. There’s no more line between what’s acceptable and not. It’s prime time releasing this right now, especially with Black men who are always seen as the gangsta, the thug. They’re always hyper-masculinized, and that shouldn’t even be a thing. I don’t know why the idea for being a Black man is, “I’ve got to be a gangsta, I’ve got to be hard and can’t express emotion. I can’t be soft or feminine.” I’m happy I can challenge those ideas.
What’s your greater goal in creating GLITTERBOY?
My goal was to have people go, “Oh, I can wear makeup.” Even with older people. I love it when old people are like, “No, this is not okay,” and then when you ask them why it’s not okay, they don’t have an answer. I want that to happen—who’s telling you it’s not okay and why is it not okay? If you can’t answer that, then it is okay and you really don’t have any valid points. You’re just going off what someone told you, and we’re at a point now where we can say and do whatever we want.