Anka Lavriv is a Brooklyn-based multimedia artist and the owner of Black Iris Tattoo. A Ukraine native, the world of art has been an ever-present force in her life. Her illustrative and tattoo work is as intricate as it is darkly gorgeous and her photography is visceral and filled with uniquely DIY charm. Everything she creates speaks to the personal mysteries within and urges them to hurricane out of your chest in a cloud of black dust. Right now, she is working on a delightfully cerebral experimental photography series titled “Modern Witch.”
Dear Darkling: How old were you when you held your first pencil? What is the first piece of artwork you remember completing?
Anka Lavriv: I was born in Ukraine just a couple years before the Soviet Union fell apart. My mom was a font developer mainly working on propaganda posters, so we always had a bunch of art supplies and art books around. Me and my sister always drew together; we created our own little imaginary universe. I don’t ever remember not drawing, it was always a very important part of my life. The first artwork I remember completing was a drawing of an icon of St.Nicholas I saw in a history book- religion was very frowned upon back then. I’ve always been really drawn to religious imagery and how it mainly focuses on a central protagonist figure and the secondary elements around them help tell the story; it’s definitely been a heavy influence on my work in any medium.
What is it about tattooing that calls to you the most?
Most of my big life decisions have been made completely intuitively and without any reasonable explanation. I was really obsessed with a Swedish band when I was a teenager and I literally didn’t know what to do with all those feelings. I gave myself a stick and poke of the first letter of this band’s name. I knew immediately I wanted to be a tattoo artist and when I turned 15 begged my dad to ask his friend who was a tattooer to show me how. At my first lesson he made me go over his old tattoos and I thought I was gonna die of horror since I’d never even seen a tattoo machine in real life.
“I love tattooing and I consider it to be a magical practice. The main thing I love about giving tattoos is when it makes [the person being tattooed] feel a little bit more in love with their body [and their] ownership of it.”
What other creative work do you do? Which is your favorite? Which is the most fun? The most difficult?
I do bigger scale ink drawing/illustration, photography, I play ukulele and I’m learning banjo. I can’t say I have a favorite, because I like to switch from one to another when the project I’m working on gets frustrating or stuck. The most fun I think is photography. I love seeing a different side of a person I’m photographing when it’s just the two of us creating magical settings out of everyday objects. The most difficult is definitely my personal artwork. I don’t like to spend more than three sittings on my drawings so I work on them for 10 hours a day at times and that can be very physically straining considering the way I work. It gets painful!
You are currently working on a set of photographs entitled “Modern Witch.” Can you tell me about this project?
2017 has been a very developmental year for me. I’ve always struggled to connect to mainstream femininity so I’ve had a very difficult relationship with “what it means to be a woman.” Just recently, I’m beginning to feel like I have a little bit of a better understanding of what femininity means to me and I think that the witch archetype fits me the most. To me, a witch is a person who uses their will to manipulate reality and who is an active participant in their life instead of reacting to the circumstances from a victim position/mentality. I also like the term used in a feminist way- reconnecting with your inner strength and the power that has been suppressed by outside influences. So the project is kind of a personal exploration of this subject.
Are the people depicted in this photoset practicing witches?
The women that I’ve photographed so far are absolutely fascinating and all-around incredible humans! They all have different magic practices but yes I’m pretty confident in saying they are witches. I’m planning to carry on with the project because I keep meeting all these amazing people who blow my mind.
Why did this project call to you?
I’ve definitely had an interest in the occult from a very young age. My grandmother is an herbalist and my parents had a prolonged New Age phase so I was reading Blavatsky and Crowley at twelve or thirteen. I was not understanding a word and was absolutely enamored by how it felt: like peeking into a different dimension. I could never understand the materialistic point of view of “I own a house and a fancy car” as the epitome of human existence. I’m just gonna say that for now I am studying and like to think of myself as a “DIY Magic Anthropologist.”
There is a focus on mood in your witch photographs. This comes from your use of multi-colored light sources and the creative way that you play with shadows.
Thank you so much for noticing, it makes me very happy! Yes, the idea was definitely to have a very high-contrast set of images. I think that’s where my lack of art education actually benefits because I don’t feel weird using a painted ziplock bag over a flashlight as an appropriate light source.
When you jump into a new project and are trying to create a cohesive aesthetic, do you ever feel like you are experimenting, or do you often begin a project with complete confidence?
I never know what I’m doing and I usually have a very loose outline of how I want the images to come out. I feel like controlling it only leads to frustration. I’m really enjoying working on Modern Witch because there is no pressure, it’s just me and my beautiful buds having a good time dressed up as witches.
What drives you to continue creating?
I just can’t imagine living any other way. I always hoped to be able to make a living with my artwork but I was very skeptical I could pull it off. New York is magical that way. I went through seven years of hell, being on my own, no family, broke all the time, but I never wanted to be anything else but an artist. Eventually, if you stick with it and never let yourself give up, I think you get it your way. It might not happen exactly the way you want it, but I truly do believe that it will happen if you persist and give it your all. You must be brutally honest with yourself and check in from time to time. I always analyze my tattoos and artwork and point out to myself what needs to be worked on.
Do you ever get stuck?
Of course. I think it’s absolutely a part of the process: like an exhale to an inhale. Sometimes I create feverishly and then when all that stuff is out, I’m on the couch with ice cream and Netflix. It used to freak me out, but now I accept it as a natural occurrence. The best way to get unstuck, I think, is to switch to a different activity instead of pushing through. And it’s okay to give yourself time off!
Would you like to share anything else?
Next year I am planning to do a lot of fundraising for NYC animal rescues so anyone interested please keep an eye on my Instagram for updates. We will also be working on organizing more occult and witchy workshops/classes at Black Iris Tattoo starting this winter. If you are interested in giving a talk, want to teach a workshop, or have a book release coming up and you’d like to hold it at Black Iris, please contact me.