Midori Tajiri-Byrd is a powerhouse of artistic creativity. Her many talents include, but aren’t limited to: makeup artistry, costume design, and drag performance. Throughout her career she’s demonstrated an ability to adapt and remain a creative force. We interviewed Midori in her Bohemian studio above Zeitgeist theatre in the OC Haley Arts District to discuss her life and creative process.
NCM: Where are you originally from?
Midori: I’m from Chicago, but I have been in New Orleans for almost nine years. I went to the Art Institute of Chicago and worked about a year and a half in fashion. Then I worked in the music industry for 10 years before I moved into Architecture and Information Technology.
NCM: What brought you to New Orleans? Why have you decided to stay?
Midori: There’s several stories of why I ended up here. The easiest story is that I needed to move and wanted to live here! New Orleans seemed like an adventure. It is like living in another country without leaving the country.
I was also leaving a bad relationship and wanted to have a fresh start in a different city. My grandfather had ties to New Orleans years ago and for some reason it was just a place that I just ended up not really ever going. So I thought it was time for me to experience it.
And then the other part of the story is that I had read the book, Eat, Pray, Love. That book talks about how every person has a word and every city has a word. If your word doesn’t match your city, you’ll never really feel like you’re home. Over time your word might change too. We’re not always the same person that we were to start with. I just felt like, my word didn’t match Chicago anymore.
I tried to think about what my word would be. At the time I felt that my word would be “celebrate”. The word “celebrate” means more than just partying in the sense that when there’s a thing that I like, I want to share it with people. If there’s food I like, I want everyone to have a taste. If there’s a person that I like, then I want everyone meet my friend. I like to celebrate people and things. So I thought: where in the world might that place be? And then I thought it might be New Orleans!
I came here to visit and figured, if it felt right, I’d get an apartment. This turned out to be my best decision! I’ve met some of the best friends of my life here. Some of the most awesome and creative women whom I’ve ever known live here. One of the strongest and most creative communities in the world is here in New Orleans .
Make-up art turned out to be the skill that people wanted most when I decided to focus on an artistic career. It had the best returns.
NCM: Your makeup art is like makeup on steroids! Did you go to art school to learn this technique, or are you self taught?
Midori: I started out at the Fashion Institute in L.A., so I had a little bit of experience in fashion and costuming. But I realized how competitive it was and didn’t feel like it was my strength at the time.
So I went back home to Chicago and enrolled in the Art Institute because both my parents went there. The Art Institute was perfect for me because I didn’t have to declare a major and I was able to take a lot of things before deciding on a focus.
NCM: What kind of art do your parents make?
Midori: They were both painters and sculptors. Most of the people in my family are working artists and writers. They are filmmakers and sculptors here and overseas. Art was almost something that I took for granted because everyone important in my life was making it.
I definitely feel like my family is far more interested in what creative pursuits that I’m up to than anything else in life. I’m so lucky and appreciative for that. My aunt is a filmmaker, Rea Tajiri, and she has some of her video art in the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago. My grandfather was a photographer and author. He was the art editor for Playboy magazine for the first years in the sixties and seventies.
NCM: That’s so unusual, for an artist not to have to justify their career to their family.
Midori: Yes, I spent many years trying to do the opposite and get a “real job” to prove to myself that I could be something other than being an artist. Then one day I had an epiphany. What’s important about the arts is just the simple reminder that we’re not alone. Art communicates whatever it is you’re experiencing emotionally or within your life. From a psychological standpoint, the act of seeing something beautiful creates a feeling that you’re not alone in that experience. That concept is so valuable for humans, a reminder that we’re not alone in the universe. That even without words, you can feel a connection to another person.
Art is a reminder that somebody else experiences or sees things in the same way you do. Aside from whatever value something has in its visual content, there is an emotional drive behind it. When I was reminded of that, I thought, “Oh, okay, what we’re doing really is valuable to society”.
NCM: Where did you first learn to do makeup?
Midori: As a kid, I was always trying to put makeup on everybody. It was more about theatrical transformations to me than it is about any sort of like specific beauty ideal. I was definitely always trying to transform myself. Like most kids, I had a dress up box – my mom used to have those little Avon miniature sample lipsticks and I took some of those from her. I was so small that I had to sit in the sink in order to see in the bathroom mirror. I ended up with lipstick all over me, but I don’t think she was angry. Luckily my parents didn’t get upset with me about things like that.
Growing up, a lot of my artistic expression was expressed through creating my appearance and other people’s. I’d usually just strong arm friends and family into letting me change their appearance. I’d also put on living room fashion shows. As I got older I spent a lot of time working in fashion and the music industry. Eventually, I met a lot of makeup artists through that work. I love that whole backstage culture and the makeup artists who prepares people’s faces for a show.
I also started doing photo shoots with friends in Chicago. Someone needed to do makeup for our little photo shoots and videos that we would make.
After I got down here, I had to think about embarking on a new career. There are a lot of creative things that I like to do, but makeup was the thing that was most promising. So I went through a program and got a Cosmetology certificate.
NCM: Did you have any trouble building up a client base?
Midori: The first place I worked fed me clients. I was also already in a couple of parade Krewes and had a bunch of girlfriends who always need someone to make them up before parades and events. It didn’t seem that hard for me. I also enjoy marketing myself. It’s a fun challenge to me.
NCM: What about costume work? I see all of these different costumes here – are you constantly sewing?
Midori: The costuming really came about because it was something that I was always doing for myself. When I started doing drag performances, I wanted to make my own costumes and make my own things. Eventually people wanted them and asked if I could make costumes for them.
I’m usually naive enough to not know what I’m supposed to be afraid of and brave enough to do it anyway. Many times I roll up my sleeves and look up things on Google. And then it’s like: “Well, “I’m one foot in anyway, might as well just go for it! I guess I’ll learn along the way.”
I have learned that, if you really want to do something you can probably do it. Right now I’m trying to work on my own projects as much as possible. I enjoy the autonomy and creative directorship of doing my own thing. I still obviously take a bunch of assignments, but I’m trying to make more time to do the projects that involve my own weird dreams.
NCM: Who influences your style?
Midori: I’m always, always on Pinterest or online and looking at different people’s artwork. There are so many! I’ve been obsessed with the work of Kirsty Mitchell. She’s a photographer who creates images of a model in a costume within a fantastical set. She designs the costumes, the makeup and does the photography. What I also like about her is that she is her own publisher.
She basically grew all her own projects with Kickstarter type of funding. So as a business person as well as an artist, I love those things about her. I like that she creates alternate realities and worlds you can step into, and I love that you can lose yourself in the reality of those images.
As a kid I was really obsessed with the Narnia books and the idea that within your world there could be portals to other places. As humans, we also have the ability to structure and build our own sense of reality and our own reality of ourselves within our shared reality.
For example, you could meet someone who is just completely delusional, but in their world these delusions are real. In subtle ways we all have little delusions within ourselves. The delusions could be with our self image or other things. There are so many beautiful people out there that have a poor self image of themselves.
I feel like transforming one’s self is one way of expressing your inner reality. The transformation could be simple or excessive body modification. Or the transformation could be the costumes we wear at carnival. But those times when you get to live your own inner reality outwardly is fantastic and I want to encourage more people to do that.
NCM: Did you have any artistic mentors along the way?
Midori: Just seeing that people in my own family had working art careers made me realize that it was not out of the realm of possibility. But, I don’t think I’ve had any specific mentors whom I’ve worked with who looked over my work or gave me any specific guidance. I think I just kind of do my own thing and find people who get involved with things. I also used to move every year. New Orleans is the first place that cured my wanderlust and provided enough of all of the emotional and psychological nutrients that I need. I’m satiated! I don’t need to like look at another menu. I never really locked into a community before living here.
NCM: How do you deal with negative criticism?
Midori: I always like to hear what other people think about things because I want to understand other people’s perspective and why. I prefer positive feedback to negative feedback. But it doesn’t mean that I’m going to take negative feedback too much to heart. There will always be people who love you and people who aren’t into it. And that’s totally okay.
It’s good to have some negative feedback out there because when you only have positive feedback you can lose perspective on where you’re going artistically, and you can lose the drive to continue to evolve as an artist. I get the most satisfaction when I’m solving a creative obstacle. I want to keep learning and growing and doing more.
NCM: What would you say is the most challenging part of being an artist?
Midori: The hardest thing to do is edit yourself because most artists have so much random inspiration. It is hard to let go of your little babies. We get so attached to all the details within our little baby that it’s hard to see it critically. Editing yourself for sure is the hardest thing to remind yourself to keep doing properly.
But the hardest part about being a makeup artist is carrying all this gear around! When I’m on location, I might have a 150 lbs. of gear on me. And sometimes I have to go up narrow staircases in New Orleans or across City Park.
NCM: What do you wish you knew about your profession before you got started?
Midori: I wish that I knew I could have started earlier and that I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone else in order to get to this point in my life. I wish I had stayed on my path as a kid and kept doing my weird art. Perhaps I wouldn’t be any farther along than I am now. But I am happy as I am now. My theory is, if you have no regrets, you’re not trying hard enough.
My best advice really is that, in the long run, you’re going to end up following your passion anyway. If you settle on being a mailman or a doctor, thinking that when you’re 80 you’ll finally get back to painting, well you could have been painting the whole time. Why not start now?
NCM: How do you come up with a profitable pricing structure for your art?
Midori: It’s important to pay attention to what people in your area are charging as well as across the country. I’m always factoring in the usual math plus how much I’m paying myself per hour and then looking at that price compared to what my peers charge.
I usually lay out three price levels for people. If it’s commission based, once I’ve figured out the range that I’m willing to do the project for, I’ll offer a client three levels with different options included in each level. The higher price includes extras. Or if you ask people for a budget, then you can tailor a plan. I think giving people a choice of at least two to three options saves you the trouble of worrying about too much about what this client can and can’t afford.
NCM: If you could transform or make up anyone living or dead, who would it be?
Midori: Everybody! I’m always thinking about transforming people all the time. I love transforming people into their alter ego. Whether it’s human based beauty or if it’s letting them be their spirit animal. I like the joy of working with someone to find out ways that they either see themselves or want to see themselves.