The tattoo scene in NYC is constantly changing and evolving. While few shops remain as longtime pillars of tattooing, often new ones open and a plethora of new talents come in and out of the city.
Some are here to stay, helping fulfill the modern requests for always different styles in contemporary tattooing. It’s the case of Ukrainian artist Anka Lavriv, co-owner of Black Iris Tattoo, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn: a cozy studio, even if not small at all, filled with plants, esoteric art and objects as well as taxidermy, magical herbs, antique or salvaged items. The atmosphere is really one of a kind, weird and timeless, dreamy and supernatural, and beautiful Anka will gracely welcome you in her magical world… She specializes in fine line black work, to which she combines symbolism and a unique and personal vision, with illustrations that are part whimsical and part magical – 100% original. Her designs are becoming dominant in her tattoo style and that’s what makes her art sought after by many.
How many years have you been tattooing and where and how did you start
I’ve been tattooing in a shop for the past 5 years, but I started learning when I was 15 in my country, Ukraine. A friend of my dad was a tattooer and he agreed to let me hang around the shop and watch him. I moved to the states when I turned 19 and I had to put pursuing a tattoo career on the back burner for a while, since I had to figure out first how to survive and make money. I ended up bartending for 8 years, but I have always worked on my artwork in the meantime.
You were talking about your grandmother in Ukraine when we met. She came across like being a very special person. What did she teach you above all and how she influenced your way of life and tattooing?
Me and my sister grew up in post soviet Ukraine which was a painful and confusing time for sure. My parents had to hustle and sometimes they would go abroad for months at a time to try and pick up some jobs, make some money. We spent that time with my grandparents who were really interested in holistic healing, yoga, Ayurveda, Chinese traditional medicine etc. My grandma is a herbalist and she taught us about gathering and drying herbs and medicinal plants, make tinctures and salves. There was a real paranormal craze after Soviet Union fell apart and my grandparents subscribed to every magic and supernatural magazine and newspaper possible (even though my grandfather was a professor of physics:). I always look back at that time so fondly. I remember reading about supernatural abilities, government conspiracies, searching for UFO signals with my sister on my grandpas giant old timey radio, having that profound realization that the world that we see and feel with our 5 senses is not all there is. We were dirt poor and didn’t have much, but life still felt so magic! They both taught me to always look deeper and search for the essence of things and never lose the sense of enchantment, things that I try to keep also in my art.
You seems to get inspiration in the symbolism of different cultures. What are you trying to communicate with your art?
The first painting I remember completing was my attempt to reproduce an icon of St.Nicholas I saw in a book. Practicing religion was pretty much forbidden in Soviet times and I didn’t grow up around any religious attributes at all. When I saw a photo of the icon, I felt such connection with it. I think what draws people to folk/traditional/tribal imagery is that sense of the essential, like a really visceral feeling of bypassing the language and communicating things on a different level. I went to a past life regression workshop/meditation once and had a really profound experience of finding myself in a body of a person who had no language skills and it gave me so much more understanding of this kind of primal visual communication.
I love folk/tribal art because there is no false intention in it, it’s very truthful.
Your shop is a mix of vintage and mystical, with a very welcoming atmosphere… tell me how you and your business partner Johno decided to get together and open up the shop?
A friend of mine got tattooed by John a little over 5 years ago and put us in touch, then I was interviewed at a shop in Astoria (Queens) where he worked also, and got hired. We’ve been working together ever since. John is an amazing business partner and we have a very similar aesthetic which makes things easier when it comes to decor. I’m really happy to hear that it feels welcoming, we did every single thing ourselves so it is a very personal project for both of us.
How would you describe your tattoo style and what you enjoy the most working on?
I definitely enjoy linework tattoos and anything that feels like an illustration. I’ve always loved lithography and etching so I do enjoy working in imitating those styles too. But most of the time I tattoo just as I draw. It took me a while to figure out how to merge both, but I’m getting there.
You recently had a bad experience in your own shop, a nasty borderline sexual and disrespectful act involving tattooing from a fellow (ex) tattooer and it was a very public event that you shared on social media… you are now left with a tattoo you hate and that needs to be removed with painful laser sessions and more painful mental repercussions. Do you feel the tattoo industry has done progresses in protecting and respecting women and their bodies or is it still considered a “grey area”?
It is definitely still considered a grey area by the legal system, but I really believe that our community has less and less tolerance for this kind of stuff. As a tattooer, I always feel tremendous responsibility of treating my clients with respect and getting consent for everything that I do. If I were to do something that made someone uncomfortable, I would love to get feedback so I can learn from it and try to do everything in my power to correct my mistake. Obviously, not everyone feels this way and uses this sacred responsibility and power dynamic to violate people. Even though the aftermath of everything is still very difficult since I have a physical reminder of it on my body, I was happy to see how the community handled the situation and incredibly grateful for the support.
How you personally feel about being a woman in this industry and did you ever encounter double standards?
I was very lucky to have almost always worked with some amazing men who were nothing but respectful to me. Of course everyone encounters some hostility when they are just starting out, but honestly, I have a pretty thick skin for that, after working at NYC bars for 8 years and having to deal with every kind of nonsense imaginable. I think women have to work harder to be recognized, but that only plays to our advantage. Do I dream of the times where there will be no need to announce my gender when talking about my work? Absolutely! But we aren’t there yet. I think the most important thing no matter who you are is to be absolutely and brutally honest with yourself about your work.
I personally believe that being able to give myself healthy criticism and always striving to get better in my craft is what got me where I am.
In your shop you also host and organize events and workshops on astrology, tarots, herbs, crystals and other magic arts. How does astrology and crystals and all affect your aesthetic in tattooing and can we call that a modern trend in tattooing?
I think this kind of imagery is definitely in trend right now, and I find it really awesome. I’m all up for creating mystical designs that contain elements of esoteric imagery and symbolism. I also do have my own clearing rituals before I start working and in between clients and I find it very helpful. So I’m all in!
What are your plans for the future and what are your favorite things to do apart from tattooing?
Honestly, right now just working and developing our shop! If someone told me 5 years ago I was gonna co own a shop in Brooklyn full of mega talented artists, I would have never believed them. So I’m still taking everything in and figuring things out. I’m a homebody so when I’m not tattooing I’m probably home drawing and listening to podcasts with my cat!
56 Jewel Street , Brooklyn, NY 11222
… Or follow her on Instagram: @anka.tattoo