Interview by T.K. Mills - Images @just_a_spectator @bhlooberry @lifeanstimes_o_nat
If you’ve taken a stroll through the East Village, you’ve probably stumbled across one of Urban Russian Doll’s murals. Painted in earthy, naturalistic colors, and often depicting animals or sensual imagery, it’s no surprise this emerging artist has quickly built a name for herself in the street art community. I spoke with Urban Russian Doll about her craft, her name, unity, and her motto: Why Wait? Love Now.
T.K. Mills: When did you start painting?
Urban Russian Doll: I started painting when I was a little girl. Expressing myself on paper has always been something crucial in my life. My mom was a single parent with me and my sister, who worked hard to make ends meet to support our family. Recently, she gave me this little diary of hers. In that diary, she said she regrets she couldn't buy me brushes and paint when I was little because painting was something I really wanted to do.
I just had a cheap set of watercolors and a brush. Since my mom, sister and I were attending and singing in church, I was inspired to paint little portraits of the Mother of God, and other saints... things that my mom, my sister, and I were into. You can still see the influence if you look at the Russian icons and then you look at my art, it’s easy to notice style similarities, even though the portraits I create are very sensual, there is still this little icon vibe to it that I find unique.
T.K. Mills: How did you get into the street art and muralism?
Urban Russian Doll: Approximately a year ago, I was painting canvases at home, and I thought, “I should do something bigger.” I went directly to the businesses and asked the owners if they needed window murals, and I got it! My goal was to beautify my neighborhood - Washington Heights and Harlem.
That's how I learned that when my art was outside, I was able to bring good emotions into people's lives, people I didn’t even know. Around that time, I went to see a concert in Bushwick, and found myself exploring the neighborhood. Suddenly, I was surrounded by all of these gorgeous murals. I looked at them and felt... home. I finally had clarity about what I want to do.
I was meant to create big beautiful walls to help people get through their days and maybe even feel a little happier and stronger the moment they looked at them. I felt like I found myself. It was an unforgettable feeling. A year later, I got an opportunity to paint for @eastvillagewalls. It was my first brick wall. I enjoyed every second of painting it.
T.K. Mills: Did you grow up in Washington Heights or did you move there at some point? Did you study art in college?
Urban Russian Doll: I grew up in Russia and moved to NYC in 2012. At that time, I didn’t even speak English... maybe just a couple of basic things. I went to a language school and then to college here in New York- that's how I learned American English. I have two bachelor’s degrees that are not related to art - one from Russia and one from here.
I’m mostly a self-taught artist. I did ask questions and advice from creators I look up to such as Paulie Nassar, Leopold Fuentes, Uncutt Art and many more. In the beginning of my street art journey I did stencil work. Uncutt introduced me to street art culture, taught me how to cut a stencil. I'll always appreciate the knowledge he shared with me.
T.K. Mills: How would you describe your style? What aspects of the craft do you appreciate? Are there any images or certain things you try and use that would just define your touch?
Urban Russian Doll: My art is very emotional, like... me. My life philosophy is "Why Wait? Love Now." I recently trademarked that phrase. I feel like when you appreciate the moment, you do everything in the moment. You shouldn’t wait for something to happen to appreciate it. You create that moment, and that's how we all should live. I always say that “Why Wait? Love Now” is mostly a movement and a life philosophy that helps people get through challenges and situations by having the courage to love.
Right before quarantine hit, I went to a show that was created by The Flood at 198 Allen. I was invited by my friend Kristy Calabro. I met her that day and she introduced me to everybody - to Eyebrows, Token, and lot of amazing artists that I respect so much. I feel like I learned a lot from them in every aspect of art. I'm very grateful and appreciative of every artist that I've interacted with.
It was one of the last days before the quarantine hit, that's when I really had time to start learning about myself. I put my emotions on the canvas and explored "Why Wait? Love Now" philosophy even more; it became more self-oriented and helped me learn more about self-love.
T.K. Mills: How did quarantine affect you both personally and professionally?
Urban Russian Doll: I was really scared of COVID at first, but over time, I learned how to overcome the fear and use this time to my advantage. Personally and professionally, I was growing and I'm still growing. That time that I had to myself, the inner fights that I had with myself during that time... they were tough but educational. I painted pretty much every day. That’s what kept me sane; painting, the art community, my friends and of course, my dog Maya. I painted a wall with a portrait of my dog this summer. She means so much to me.
T.K. Mills: Could you tell me a little bit about why you chose the art name Urban Russian Doll?
Urban Russian Doll: When I was about 15, I loved Russian rap and hip hop. Usually their music videos were filmed in an urban setting with old buildings full of graffiti in the background. Even the word, “Urban,” which sounds very similar in Russian, was often used by Russian hip hop artists. When I decided to become a street artist, I was thinking of a name for myself.
I was talking to my friend on the phone one day and we started brainstorming art names. She said: "Why don't you name yourself Russian Doll?" And I responded: “Then it’s gotta be Urban Russian Doll.” It felt so right to me because there are a lot of layers in that souvenir. Like in a person. The Russian doll represents depth to me. I love deep people. I like discovering and learning about every layer of a personality and soul. Urban Russian Doll makes deep street art for the people.
T.K. Mills: Do you prefer doing commissioned murals, or free murals?
Urban Russian Doll: Currently I’m working on becoming a full-time artist and of course it’s a job that I know will never feel like a job to me because I’m forever in love with art. I paint free walls occasionally because it’s important to support the community and it always would be a strong message that I want to send through my art.
I started painting in the East Village, and to me, it became a second home. I know the community, they know me. I spend so much time here and it feels so organic. I feel like it's such an epicenter of art that every artist welcomed here. It feels... united. Unity is one of the most important things to me.
T.K. Mills: Are there ever any particular colors that you find yourself using often, not necessarily favorites, but ones that you feel you're naturally gravitating toward?
Urban Russian Doll: Earthy colors - shades of brown, green, yellow and blue, and fire colors. Those colors represent nature to me - we are all a part of the nature and the universe. I like painting about unity, growth, fearlessness, emotions, diversity and, of course, love intertwined with wild animals and nature forces. The colors I mentioned are so organic to this concept.
T.K. Mills: Do you have a spirit animal?
Urban Russian Doll: I've been loving foxes for a long time. I remember when I was a child, I had a little fox costume; paws gloves, ears and a tail. There are a lot of different negative and positive things said about foxes, but to me they represent wisdom, sensuality and protection. I also fell in love with wolves recently. I went to a wolf sanctuary and had a chance to pet them, feel their independent energy, authenticity, look them in the eyes. My energy was recharged for painting inspiration.
T.K. Mills: Is there anything I haven't asked you about that you would want people to know about either you or your art?
Urban Russian Doll: I think that we all should unite more. Artists should support each other more. I have been feeling so supported by the art community that I am so thankful for. Though, of course, there’s always room for growth. As a woman. sometimes it’s hard to get around and not be sexualized. It would be nice to have women support women, men artists support women artists, and everybody basically support each other. Unity is growth. Unity makes the world spin. Unity is always a positive change. We can start making that change today. Why Wait? Love Now.
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