"Are you crazy?": Zentai walk participants attract curious onlookers

Japanese artist Yuzuru Maeda helps to zip up her statuesque friend, transgender artist Marla Bendini into a full-body black lace number at Lasalle College of the Arts.

They draw some curious onlookers attracted by Bendini's ensemble, which also comprises black high-heeled combat boots and a train made of a camouflage-printed ground sheet.

Among them is Lasalle fine arts student Sharyl Lam, who leaves her books to take a photo with Ms Bendini.

The 22-year-old says: "I was studying and I realised that something awesome was happening, so I came." She gets to talking with Maeda, 36, and soon enough, she is joining Bendini, 28, in a black spandex suit to walk down Albert Street.

On this Friday evening last week, the world is starting to look like a Keith Haring painting already.

Zentai, short for "zenshin taitsu", involves the wearing of skin-tight spandex suits that cover every part of a person's body, including the face. Created in Japan in the 1980s by photographer Marcy Anarchy, it is an artform that explores issues of identity, as it both conceals and reveals the wearer in different ways.

Maeda, a Singapore permanent resident, is the organiser of the Zentai Art Festival, which is taking place till June 5. At Earl Lu Gallery in Lasalle, an exhibition exploring the phenomenon of zentai is on display till May 10.

Joining Bendini and Ms Lam at Lasalle is performance artist Chand Chandramohan, also clad in black, and a mystery man dressed in a zebra-print outfit, who wants to be known only as "Jasper".

The latter, an engineer in his 30s, says he does zentai in the privacy of his home as a form of meditation. He does not want to tell me his last name, and says he is doing this walk "just for kicks".

When all are ready, the zentai artists walk down Albert Street, a pedestrianised lane near Sim Lim Square mainly populated by tourists and local seniors. Unsurprisingly, looking like a more artistic version of TV's Power Rangers, they create a minor stir.

Passersby whip out their phones and stare openly. A child bumps into Ms Chandramohan and screams, running for his mother. Maeda waves at a baby in a stroller and his parents smile back.

A young girl goes up to Ms Lam and asks: "Are you Sharyl?" After getting an affirmative answer, she says: "Are you crazy?"

"Maybe I have an aura," says Ms Lam, hazarding a guess as to how her friend recognised her despite having her face covered.

As the quintet cross a road, the red and green men in the traffic light appear to be joining them as zentai artists.

When they sit down for a while, a crowd of about 30 people surround them, arms extended to take photos on smartphones. Bendini buys an ice-cream cone from a nearby seller, prompting a Chinese tourist to laugh in amazement: "She wants to eat."

It is tough to eat when your face is covered, but it is possible, as the suit is porous.

As quickly as the onlookers form around the zentai group, they disperse when Maeda approaches them to shake hands. Those who do accept her pink hand do so with a mix of amusement and fascination.

Maeda tells her name to an elderly man, who then asks: "Is that Kumar?" He is gesturing towards Bendini, who is now doing a performance where it looks like she is "licking" the ice cream while wearing a mask that resembles the lips and tongue design from a Rolling Stones album.

Soon, most of the people move on, thinking it an art or fashion shoot.

As we walk back to Lasalle after a refreshment break at Albert Centre Market & Food Centre (the zentai practitioners drink through the fabric covering their heads), Ms Chandramohan, 22, shares that the suit makes her feel rather isolated. It is her first time wearing zentai.

Ms Lam says that she had wanted to break out into a dance initially, but then changed her mind as she "didn't want it to be a performance".

This reporter finds the difference in their reactions fascinating. "I wish I had worn the suit with you guys," I blurt out, feeling a little like a loser as I do.

Says Jasper: "You should. You don't know what it feels like until you try it."

He disappears into the basement once again, and the last thing I see is his retreating back, clad in that fabulous zebra-printed suit. I cannot see his face, but I imagine that he is smiling.

ZENTAI WALK

What: Curious about the costume and what it feels like to wear it? Sign up for this mass event to walk down Orchard Road in a zentai suit with more than 100 other people, with facilitators leading the group. Open to both children and adults. Part of the Zentai Art Festival running from now till June 5.

When: May 23, 3 to 5pm

Admission: Free

Info: www.zentaiart.com or e-mail zentaiartproject@yahoo.com