This is the artwork of Anya Tsyna: a deeply colorful hypnogogic world full of humorous absurdity and surreal stylings illustrating brilliant bling. Speaking with the same ecstatic and all-embracing empathy that is imbued in her tattoos, n this interview Anya Tsyna talks about growing up in Russia, the meaning behind the tattoos, and the joys of living in London.
First off, can you tell us a bit about yourself like your background, what you love about tattooing and why you were drawn to it?
I was born and raised in Russia although I’m not sure if I have any Slav roots. I can only guess by some of my facial features that it’s likely, but our family doesn’t have much information about our ancestors. My main heritages are Tatar and Mongol; they’ve had a huge impact on my art over the years. Also, I was born 1 year prior to the Soviet Union breakdown and my childhood used to be a weird one. The 90’s in Russia often are compared to the Wild West: laws didn’t work, people stole from other people and the government, they were shooting each other in the streets, no one trusted anyone, the police were even scarier than the absence of any authorities.
One could lose their home in a blink of an eye and an unbelievable amount of people became unemployed, desperate and therefore dangerous. Unfortunately, I cannot say that 30 years later Russia’s fully healed, but the situation is definitely better than it was. The main problem is that people still clearly remember how it was; they passed it on through generations the knowledge about serfdom which still influences people’s mindsets, so it’s no surprise when something that happened only 30 years ago is so impactful to this day. All in all, fair to say that for the past 370 years Russians’ve had a rough patch, so the nation’s grumpiness is annoying but understandable.
What parts of yourself or your background do you think have supported the person and artist you’ve become?
My late grandfather was a pilot, a dedicated atheist, and a successful sci-fi writer. His achievements made it possible for much higher living standards than the average USSR for my father when he was young. As my grandfather was a great breadwinner, nothing else was ever asked of him and any behavior from him was acceptable. When I was little, I felt anxiety but I couldn’t put it into words. It is a feeling of knowing that something is very wrong but you just cannot put your finger on it, you are too young and inexperienced in life to recognize mental health issues.
Being “rich” and “from a good family” means literally everything where I’m from and it must look like it by any costs. I was raised with a motto like “you can act as the most disgusting piece of shit towards others if you are a genius.” I didn’t know it back then, but even adults need to cope with abusive parents by inventing life principles to justify what was happening to them in their childhood. It’s a shame that I didn’t know it back then. I believed that I was tough as a child and I had met a lot of abusive “geniuses” before I started seeing a therapist, so I was learning to appreciate myself and use my weaknesses for creating art.
Because of how things worked around me when I was a child, I grew up extremely empathetic to each and every one. It’s a part of my personality that I love and hate at the same time. The great thing about it is that I can fully enjoy art. For example, when I hear Tony’s song “Something’s Coming” from Westside Story I immediately feel tingles; I become tensed, excited and really emotional within a second, I can start crying right away. You’d probably say “Oh! You must really love Westside Story and this particular song.” Not really, I think it’s good and ANY art that is good and has a meaning completely drags me into its story/vibe/mood within seconds and I cannot look away even if I want to. That’s the bad part: I’m constantly overwhelmed and even physically tired because I feel like a radio that receives tons of signals and switches from one station to another in a blink of an eye and you cannot listen to a song that you like, but you can definitely hear that it’s there.
What do you think are some key philosophies or imagery that present itself in your work often?
Mental health issues, struggling with anxiety and how they affect children in the families are things that I constantly think about. Many of my sketches are created from the point of view of a curious and lively child who sadly has to cope with the sometimes frightening world around them. Low-key alienation is a topic that is also always present in my works: it is something that scares you and hurts you deeply when you’re young, forms you, and later as an adult makes you feel like you are different and always not welcomed even when it’s completely not true.
My controversial and multicultural upbringing, feeling unsafe with the closest people and being mocked at school for a different look, shyness and a lack of confidence led to a thought that popped up in my head one day at school: “I’m all of them and I’m none of them.” It’s very simple and very true, even back then. When I was a teenager I already had a huge spectrum of complicated feelings and could easily relate to people of a very different age, gender, upbringing etc., and I felt so close to them but at the same time afraid of those hostile strangers. This though became a kind of mantra for me. It keeps coming in different circumstances, unexpectedly, but always at the right time to soothe me.
I recently went to the village that my mother was from for my grandmother’s funeral after I hadn’t been there for 15 years. Her side of the family is a part of a strict Muslim community keeping the traditions alive. My brother and I flew in for a few days. We went to my late grandma’s house and it was cramped with relatives. 90% of them I had never seen in my life, all of them speak Tatar, some of them Kazakh; they were very loud and tried to talk to me. I hadn’t heard Tatar for a while so I could understand every 3rd word at best and all of it felt surreal. Then one of my grandma’s cousins said “Hey, you, shoosh! Stop harassing her! She doesn’t understand you! She is Russian and she is from Moscow!”. “Moscow” sounded fancy and bad at the same time from her. And I remember standing there and thinking “I’m all of you and I’m none of you” because I was mocked for my heritage so many times in Moscow and I never felt like I belonged there either.
Fashion seems to be another thing often presents itself within your work. What is your relationship with fashion or style?
When I got my degree in Academic Art and Costume Design I was the youngest amongst my friends and yet everyone was still studying at universities. I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing and could start something of my own at that age, so I went for an interview with Vogue Russia and first became an intern, then after some time a stylist assistant. That job was the worst and, at the same time, the best I’ve ever had. On the one hand, it was extremely demanding and not very creative, on the other hand, I met some amazing people there and went through an outstanding school of life.
Also for the first time, I was so close to Haute Couture. I could not only touch it, I could even try it on. That’s when I started to realize how much hard work goes into one Dior dress, how the price for such a dress isn’t just someone’s whim, it is completely justified. I fell deeply in love with Haute Couture’s abundance of shine and textures. I’ve never wanted to draw something as much as I wanted to draw those fabrics, furs, and jewelry. Also there I learned that I’m a craftsman and I really missed making things with my own hands. I quit Vogue and started learning how to tattoo.
Your style is incredibly unique and the imagery you use is often absurdist, humorous and very emotive. Can you talk about how your aesthetic has evolved over time? Who are your artistic heroes, tattooers or not?
I’d say my current style is a mix of academic pencil drawings, my own perception of Russian fairytales, Central Asia inspired patterns, vintage circus owned by a fabulous transvestite from Transylvania aesthetics and, of course, Vogue.
Tattooing means everything to me; I cannot imagine myself doing anything else. I’m really happy to be a part of such an inclusive community, to get to know amazing people and their personal stories, sometimes light-hearted, sometimes tragic, but always empowering and inspiring. I just moved to London, as I’m answering these questions it’s only been 3 weeks since I got here, and it already feels like home. I LOVE how kind, friendly and open-minded people here are. No one is questioning my art here, no one is judging. My colleagues at No Regrets always say only nice things even though their styles are the opposite of mine. It makes me feel safe, which is the most important thing in my opinion for the artists as well as for the clients.
I know what a struggle getting a tattoo can be for an LGBTQ person in some places, Russia is one of them, but I’m sure everyone’s heard of it. As a Russian, I’m extremely impressed with how things work here in London, but I’m sure there are still people who unfortunately don’t get the treatment they deserve from the tattooers.
Sometimes, when I hear how other tattooers have treated my clients, it breaks my heart. Getting a tattoo should be a joyful, memorable and very personal experience. No one should feel like garbage at a tattoo shop/studio. I believe that the key to any improvement is education: the more we talk about how it should be, the more we show it on our social media, the more open we are about our personal experiences, the less ignorance and bullying there will be.
Beyond tattooing/creating art what do you really love?
I’m super passionate about stand up comedy and I think that it has a lot of parallels with fine art. Because when a person is on stage, while they are making people laugh, they also get them thinking. Thinking and processing the information and getting your own feelings about something that has never happened to you is the main purpose of all art. My favorite comedian of all time is Mike Birbiglia; he is just crazy talented and sincere and everything that he says is so touching to me that I’m always in between laughing and crying while he’s performing. I can watch My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend again and again and again and never get tired it because it’s not just a set of well-designed jokes. It’s a quick sketch of a great personality with a unique story of his own.
Another comedian who influences my art a lot is Neal Brennan. His comedy-special Three Mics is outstanding. He uses one mic for telling simple one-line jokes, the second one for a classic stand up and the third is for telling the story of his life; an ongoing battle with severe depression, as well as the relationship with his father and with himself. There’s nothing funny at the third mic, but nothing that he has to say really matters without it. It is an extremely powerful show, if I can call it that, that has inspired me and got me reflecting on my life because he and I have had a lot of similar experiences, which I wouldn’t wish for any child. I’m not going to tell you about each and every comedian who I look up to, but I must at least give you some names so you can see for yourself how awesome they are: John Mulaney, James Acaster, Chris D’elia, Daniel Sloss.
Also, every day I watch at least one movie no matter what. For some unknown reason the ones that affect me and stay with me are most unexpected ones, for example Nocturnal Animals. Have you seen Nocturnal Animals? This film is exactly about the perception of things, how unlike the same experience can be for 2 different people. For one character the whole story was just a nasty divorce and for the other, it was a kidnapping, rape, and murder. Both of them are quite right, which is sadly the beauty of Tom Ford’s masterpiece.
This is an artwork about how one can express their true feelings through an artwork...What a nesting doll! Unfortunately, I’m not nearly as cool as Tom Ford, but I talk/draw about everything that moves me; it is due to my scattered sensibility but in some cases, I truly enjoy experiencing all of it and producing something that I can pass on.
My tattoo icons are Amanda Wachob and Shannon Perry, I first saw their works when I just got my Instagram account, I had never seen such techniques, fine lines, colors, no contours, and no rules. It was everything that I wanted to try! I’m talking about other people’s art A LOT in general, because it is what inspires me, makes me talkative. I spend lots of energy interacting, working, creating, making something of my own, so when the sketch/tattoo is done I have nothing more to say about it. I can just hope that that piece becomes a part of the circle and some other person can look at it and feel kind of talkative.
What do you hope your clients feel when they get a tattoo from you or when people see your art?
This is what I hope my art is - quick sketches of me, my so-so personality, experiences, feelings, hopes and regrets that I put out there and get responses from people that I’ve never seen in my life who sometimes lives across the globe from me, but seeing my sketches gets them thinking of something that I’ll never know and leads them to get these ideas permanently on their skin. That’s just crazy!
Sometimes a sketch doesn’t seem much, it may be just a single gemstone and for some of my clients, it is just a beautiful gemstone which is cool because basically it is. For some, it is reminiscent of their grandmother and they want to dedicate it to her, for some, it is something that they’ve seen in a dream and now they’re going through my sketches and seeing exactly the same gem which feels like destiny for them. It’s all good as long as I don’t have to put any meaning to it for them and robbing them of pleasure to comprehend and feel.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received and what is the best advice you feel you can give?
I believe that there are no perfect words or advice that you can listen to and change your life. I think the most needed advice for each and every person who wants to succeed in what they are doing is to be confident, hard-working and persistent, but that advice is usually worthless when you hear it from a butter advertisement or from a person you don’t trust. But it is golden when you hear it from the right person at the right time. For me, that person is my husband Dima. When we just started dating and he saw how miserable I was at work, he told me to quit my hated job at a walk-in tattoo shop and start tattooing my own sketches, no matter how little people in Moscow were interested in them. To prove to me how much he believed in me, he let me tattoo him.
I feel like I need to explain that he hadn’t had any tattoos before and had been strongly against the idea of having even a tiny one. Today he has my art all over his body and I’m almost tired of his inexhaustible ideas! :) I guess this is the cost of getting great advice. I would never be where I am now if it wasn’t for his support.
Do you have any projects, collabs, travel plans, etc. planned for 2020 that you’d like to share?
I think that I mention myself moving from Moscow to London in every third sentence, but it is a huge thing for me, so I cannot shut up about it! it’s still hard to believe! This has been my BIG project for almost five years and now I’m really here! I surely need some time to adjust and relax a bit, but right after that I’m planning to visit a couple of other cities in the UK, also Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin, probably Brussels and Milan, honestly I cannot wait to finely be able to get there without an airplane involved. :)
I haven’t tattooed even 1/10 of my ideas yet, I believe that it was because I had to look for my audience in the wrong city. Now I’m in London and this month I already have tons of exciting commissions.