This Artist Creates Jaw-Dropping Depictions Of Pacific Islander Women, And You've Got To See This For Yourself

Meet Luca, a mixed Tongan artist who was born in Fiji and lives in Onehunga, Aotearoa (New Zealand). The 24-year-old (who uses he/they pronouns) creates breathtaking portrayals of Pacific Islander women, and his avatar creator recently went viral on the Pasifika side of social media.

As a Samoan woman who frequently laments the lack of PI representation in the US, I immediately fell in love with their art. So, I reached out to Luca, wanting to know more about them and their work. "I spent my formative years in the lagoon-side hamlet of Mataika in Nuku’alofa, Tongatapu," they told BuzzFeed. "My dad was away on business for a lot of my upbringing and died when I was young, so I was mostly raised by my beautiful mum, my aunties, and my three older sisters, who — due to having different mums — all hail from different island nations: Kiribati, Solomon Islands, and Samoa."

Luca credited his mother as his number one fan, recalling days spent drawing mermaids that she would show off on Facebook. She fostered his creativity, never making him feel like an art career was invalid or unrealistic. "In my view, Tongans are intrinsically a very artisan-positive nation, especially since the reign of Queen Sālote and the groundwork she laid down as a patroness of the arts."

Their childhood in Tonga featured a "strong, beautiful, and fierce" matriarchal presence that heavily influences their art today. "Besides growing up with my boy cousins and the rare sighting of an uncle, I was vastly surrounded by a village of women. It’s very important to me to provide accurate representation for Tongan and all Pasifika women. Pasifika peoples come in all sizes, shapes, and colors, and that’s something I love exploring in my work."

He noted that this perspective has not always been the norm. "Historically, with the colonial male lens, value was ONLY assigned to exotic, slender 'island maidens.' This is something I not only actively reject but reframe for a more familiar, nostalgic, indigenous, queer, and female gaze. And that, of course, includes luscious rolls-and-all women/leitī."

The lens through which Luca views Pacific Islander women is evident in each of his pieces. With each brushstroke, I can see the heartfelt way he uplifts and honors our community. And as mermaids no less! Since the ocean is integral to our history, culture, and way of life, I can't think of anything more fitting.

When asked if their queer identity has influenced their art, Luca said, "In more complex ways than people imagine! I was always a very feminine child, and so I was frequently labeled a fakaleitī (leitī now being the more appropriate term) growing up by family and strangers alike, mostly affectionally and sometimes in a more teasing fashion." He recalled dressing in dresses, skirts, and heels that were three sizes too big to perform hulas for his family.

"My art now is a continuation of that love of expression of femininity for me. My identity is still a work in progress to this day, but it’s no longer a struggle or something I feel the need to explain, thanks to the beautiful people around me. It can be a little shock to my system sometimes to have strangers understandably (due to how I look perhaps) reduce me to a white, cis man, but my queer identity is my own, and that’s not something that can ever be stripped away from me."

In part due to his childhood love of dress up games, Luca made an avatar creator where users can choose from countless options to construct a character that looks like them. He hand-drew everything from hair to noses to face shape, making it fully customizable. For many Pacific Islanders, this was our first time seeing avatars that actually look like us, with clothing and accessories unique to our cultures. No wonder it was such a hit on social media!

Illustration of two women in traditional Pacific Islander attire with floral hair adornments

Even beyond the avatar creator, his art has sparked an outpouring of appreciation from the community. He said, "I really do love making people happy. That is what brings me life fulfillment and value at the end of the day. The messages I get from people on IG pouring their hearts out about how happy they feel to have found my art, that they feel seen and loved and the connections I make with them. It’s genuinely priceless and makes my entire day every time."

Luca is "incredibly hopeful" about Pacific Islander representation in art, despite there being "a ways to go." He continued, "There are so many gorgeous Pasifika/Māori people in the arts today as there have always been, creating our own visions of our own Pasifika utopia. The internet as a tool has really provided the visibility and connection we needed to bridge all of us together as a people, and allowed the flow of art and information at our fingertips."

"We really been out here creating our own representation. Whether that is our collective feelings, humor, nostalgia, or finding familiarity. Seeking empowerment through self-expression and even activism, saying we are here, we are valid, and we have something to say!"

"In terms of further progress, I’d love there to be more big budget opportunities offered by the mainstream media as equity towards Pasifika people and having us produce more of our own stories, imagery, and content. But at the same time, I have no doubt — like the artists before us — we will continue to navigate and forge our own destiny."

Follow Luca on Instagram to keep up with his art and journey!

Check out more API-centered content by exploring how BuzzFeed is celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month! Of course, the content doesn't end after May. Follow BuzzFeed’s A*Pop on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube to keep up with our latest API content year-round.

Illustration celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month with diverse animated characters and "APAHM" letters prominently displayed
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