This story is part of Image issue 13, “Image Makers,” a celebration of the L.A. luminaries redefining the narrative possibilities of fashion. Read the whole issue here.
One image might capture the spirit of Natalia Lemper and Julissa Aaron’s friendship better than any of the others. In the photo, Aaron sits cross-legged, leaning forward on a tattoo bench. She looks over her shoulder, smiling coyly into the camera as Lemper points to the butterfly design she just tattooed on Aaron’s lower back. Iconic on its own? Yes. But even more so because it’s a re-creation of an early 2000s photo that 8-year-old Aaron took of her mom, who was in the act of getting her own lower back tattoo.
The photo checks all the boxes of Aaron and Lemper’s friendship: It’s referential — to the creative dynamic between the two, but also to the mediums through which they tell stories. Aaron, who is also a film photographer, airbrush artist and DJ, wears one of her own designs — an image of a tank top with a sad clown airbrushed on to it — while Lemper, a tattoo artist by trade, showcases one of her signature fine line pieces in the picture. (Their mutual friend Willie Jane snapped it.)
They met at an L.A. fashion party a little less than a year ago, after first knowing of each other through Instagram and mutual friends. Since then, Lemper and Aaron have been each other’s sounding board for all things creative and personal — in particular modeling, where they’re both carving out a notable space for themselves in L.A. Lemper, who is originally from Chicago by way of Las Vegas and San Francisco, has been interested in modeling for years. But it was only when she moved to L.A. — in part, to pursue a modeling career — that she felt valued in that world. Since then, her likeness has been everywhere — from Ganni campaigns to the Getty, modeling for a collab by Amor Prohibido X Género Neutral. For Aaron, a native of Bakersfield who has been in L.A. for years, the biggest moments have happened in her transition from behind the camera to in front of it. She’s modeled for Nike, Mom n Dad Vintage and more.
Both Lemper and Aaron are artists working in different mediums — from painting and tattooing for Lemper, to airbrush and photography for Aaron. But modeling has forced them to look at images — namely, their own likenesses — in more expansive, sometimes challenging ways. It’s a process, one they lean on each other for.
Natalia Lemper: We met at the Born X Raised Sadie [Hawkins] party. We started following each other on Instagram from Género [Neutral]. I was walking by Julissa and …
Julissa Aaron: I feel like we were drawn to each other. I left my friends to go around and see what I could find. Then I found Nati. I was like, “Oh, my God. She’s so pretty. Wow.” I was definitely like, “I’m going to go talk to her.” If I see someone from Instagram, I’m going to come up to you. We’re all human. I said, “We should hang out.” Then we did.
NL: The first time we hung out, we had a photo shoot with this girl Willie Jane, and we were like, “Wow, we’ve been connected forever.”
JA: My dad’s Apache Cherokee. Both of my parents did DNA testing and then my mom found out she’s Hopi. I was telling Nati, and she was like, “I’m Hopi!”
NL: Julissa posted something on her Stories about it, and I was like, “Oh, that’s special.” The first hangout was really relaxed because Willie is one of our friends too. It was a trip to Venice. We were doing it for an eco-friendly T-shirt brand [Unless Collective]. Willie wanted us to act like best friends, sisters. And we’re like, “OK, easy.” It didn’t feel like work at all. It was just hanging out, having fun. It feels fluid working with Julissa.
JA: I started getting randomly casted for things. It’s a domino effect in a way: once you start getting casted, either the same person will bring you up for another thing or with Instagram you just get hit up randomly, which is cool. I never would have thought I would have modeled for Nike, especially in the comfort of my home. It was so odd, but I was down. I love that I was able to do that — I wasn’t specifically just modeling for Nike. They wanted to see me do what I do. It was very organic. I airbrushed in my room, and they were just flies on the wall taking pictures.
NL: My life right now feels very emotional because growing up I was always told I couldn’t do anything that I’m doing now. Growing up in Vegas was really hard, at least in the schools that I went to. I was the only one that looked like me. I was made fun of for drawing skulls, roses and chains — like, “Nati is weird. Why is she doing that?” Now, I can completely be myself and have people appreciate me. It feels so rewarding I could cry. When I had met Jen and Ashley [owners of Género Neutral] they were super interested in me, and it brought some sort of confidence. I had always wanted to model when I was younger, but I had gone to agencies and they were super toxic. I was like, “I can’t model if I’m going to have to change myself like that.”
But being recognized by Jen and Ashley (they were like, “We want to take photos of you in our clothes.”) I felt welcomed. Like, “This is a thing that I can do.” And then my friend Alexis Gross put me on to my first campaign with Ganni and fought for me to work with them. She brought me a lot of projects. Then finding Natural Models. I sent random photos to agencies just to see what would happen and they reached out.
It’s something that I’m working through constantly, being like, “OK. I love myself and how I look.” Everything seems clear now that I know more about myself. It makes sense why I was interested in these things and gravitated towards them. It was just a toxic environment that had me second guess myself.
Physical spaces in L.A. have always been sacred. Ashley S.P. and Jennifer Zapata see their concept shop as a vehicle for community and an homage to their friendship.
JA: I’m an Aries Sun, Cancer Moon, Virgo Rising, Aries Venus, Pisces Mars.
NL: She knows everything. I’m an Aquarius Sun, Cancer Moon as well, Libra Rising and Pisces Venus.
JA: The last year, I’ve been gravitating to air signs. I need y’all, because I’m crazy.
NL: We always tell each other what’s going on and ask for advice. It’s more hyping each other up and holding each other accountable for things.
JA: We’ll be constantly talking on the phone or texting. We’re definitely hyping each other up to be productive because [even though] we do the most, there’s a balance where we need to vent on it. I go directly to Nati because she knows the feeling of being burnt out and it’s nice to have comfort. We can talk each other down.
NL: My goal wasn’t even to be a supermodel or anything like that. It was building a brand, representing my ancestors and other people that look like me. If I can help somebody not feel like I did when I was younger, that would be amazing.
JA: It’s refreshing because I was more behind the camera than in front of the camera. [Modeling] is a little reverse and it definitely helps my confidence. I feel the same as Nati: it’s common for a lot of models to be blond, blue eyes. We’re breaking the standard. It also seems like modeling in itself is changing — accepting more people with tattoos or POC. It’s refreshing to see shoots being properly done and the creatives of the shoot being POC. It incorporates all this knowledge in a sense. It’s nice seeing it represented properly. I’m definitely seeing how everything’s changing.
NL: Because of how modeling is now, no one’s telling me to change my body. Modeling has helped me so much with knowing my face and my body in a healthy way. [When I’m doing it], it feels like I have to make myself black out, go with the flow. Like I’m dissociating — in a good way. It definitely feels awkward. I think I’m still learning how to position myself. Ways where I can present myself in the way that I want to look. I know some photographers are like, “Stick your head out and put your chin down.” From the side, it looks like your neck is broken but from the front, it works.
JA: It’s weird because, again, I’m so comfortable being the photographer. So, when I shoot my friends or my subjects, I’m just getting candids so I don’t even pose anyone. As a model, to get kind of told what to do — and I’m an Aries, too — it’s growth. I’m learning to go with the flow and have fun. And not take it too seriously.
NL: I feel like it creates patience and trust. You’re so vulnerable that you just can’t think about it.
JA: Yeah. It’s reassuring to have someone [like Nati] that mentally feels the same. It’s nice to be able to talk to someone that feels me, completely. It’s very cool and comforting. Like a little hug.
NL: Julissa’s my security blanket. If I I’m unsure about something, I’ll drop off a coffee at her work and be like, “Can we talk?” I call her for like two seconds, like “What are you doing?”
Lettering design by Vivi Naranjo/For The Times; typeface: Goliagolia
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