In Russia, a new generation is emerging – one where individuality trumps tradition

Portrait of an Artist

Here & Now: In Partnership with Levi's Performance Denim

Kirill Grig doesn’t fit the traditional Soviet identity. In a country once defined by rigid norms, the artist has been pushing boundaries ever since he began using creativity as a means of self-discovery. The result is a fluid sense of self with no fear for the future.

One day, five years ago, Kirill Grig woke up and decided to get four tattoos on his face. To say this would be considered taboo in Tver – a small, sleepy Russian city northwest of Moscow, where Kirill was born and raised – is an understatement.

It’s a gesture that challenges the status quo – one that automatically makes you unemployable for most jobs, one that invites withering disapproval from old ladies on public transport, one that leaves you open to physical attacks in dark alleyways.

“I didn’t have a grand idea behind it, I just trusted my desires,” says Kirill, a 22-year-old artist. “Yes, I have consciously created a situation where I cannot find a normal job. But I don’t think that I have ruined myself… Sometimes things that have no immediate meaning are actually much deeper because they reveal your unconscious.”  

Following the unconscious has become a way of life for Kirill. Today, his body is covered in a symphony of tattoos that blend into each other – a physical canvas that reflects his ease at adapting to the moment. If one design starts to feel tired, it just gets covered over by something else entirely.

“What we’re seeing in Russia is a moment when old heroes leave the stage and old priorities get replaced with new ones.”

- Kirill Grig

Kirill lives in a tiny studio within a drab, Khrushchev-era apartment building not far from Tver’s railway station. Inside, it’s a messy hub of creativity: a place where you can make tattoos, clothes, photographs, masks and oil paintings. Maybe that’s why it feels the opposite of homely. Apart from some art hanging here and there, the repurposed Soviet furniture and smell of turpentine evoke an air of business-like focus.

“This is a typical provincial town – there’s nothing to do,” says Kirill, sitting on a haggard brown sofa, dressed in a ruby long-sleeved shirt and a pair of dark blue trousers he made himself. “Teenagers here drink and have sex; when they grow up, they take drugs.”

“What we lack is money,” he adds. “But if you get a job, then you need to go to work every day, you spend all your free time on it and you become consumed by that. It is very hard to create anything after work; you’re just filled with all this routine and you can only squeeze shit out of yourself. You really need to be alone to catch that creative mood.”

There’s something fluid about the way Kirill speaks. He gets easily carried away, clutching at memories or drifting into poetic allusions, his two mates occasionally grunting in agreement over the rumble of music. (The friends, both named Nikita, are deeply immersed in the Russian rap boom.) Kirill is as slim as a feather, but his penetrating pale blue eyes add weight to whatever he says – a clear sense of personal freedom flowing naturally through every word and gesture.

That sensibility is what distinguishes Kirill and his peers from previous generations in Russia. He does not fit the traditional Soviet identity: one defined by a rigid set of norms and practices that must be adhered to at all costs. But he can’t be considered post-Soviet, either – a term for the generation who focused on survival in a collapsing country. Not so long ago, pursuing the unconscious was a luxury those people could not afford.

Instead, Kirill represents a new ‘non-Soviet’ man: a wave of creative individuals who inhabit a world largely formulated by the Internet. This is something that the Russian government has been relentlessly trying to put under control without success.

Yet despite experiencing great indifference to those political forces and all they represent, he’s the kind of figure who wants to play a huge part in formulating the country’s future. “What we’re seeing in Russia is a moment when old heroes leave the stage and old priorities get replaced with new ones,” says Kirill.

Ph: Owen Harvey

Ph: Owen Harvey

Ph: Owen Harvey

Ph: Owen Harvey

Kirill grew up believing that anything was possible, even if his circumstances suggested otherwise. His father, a lorry driver who does bodybuilding in his spare time, left when Kirill was six to start another family. “It did make an impact when he left – I was very angry at him for a long time... until I learned to value everything that I have.”

Although father and son couldn’t appear more different, Kirill has come to notice some similarities between them over the years. Once, his dad came to visit looking all buffed-up from a series of bodybuilding competitions he’d entered. His mother – a strict, uncompromising woman – made it clear that she did not approve, telling her ex that he looked ugly. “Why are you doing this?” she asked. He replied: “I’m just interested to see how much I can do.” It was then that Kirill’s mum realised her son had explained himself the exact same way two weeks earlier.

That restless sense of curiosity has never left him. Kirill remembers how, not long after his father left, the pair took a road trip all the way to Finland. He can still picture the vivid green fields flashing by the window, the aroma of good coffee somehow imbuing the romanticism of it all.

At 16, Kirill and his friend Denis tried to pull off an adventure of their own by hitchhiking all the way to Japan. It took three weeks and covered almost 6,000 miles of highways. They didn’t have any money and Kirill didn’t even have a passport. The plan was to talk some sailors into smuggling them across the sea for the final stretch, but the teens lost their nerve once they reached the port. “All of that happened spontaneously because we were just bored,” he says. “We felt suffocated in Tver.”

Boredom is a constant fear for Kirill. He starts doing something new the moment he feels any hint of stagnation creeping in. “I have a million ideas that I want to implement every day,” he said, citing figures such as Jim Carrey and renegade artist Paul Klee as inspirations. “I will sit on a sofa and do nothing only if I want to do that, not because I have nothing else to do.”

That level of conviction is a big part of who Kirill is. Whereas his father’s generation viewed masculinity as something outward-facing, worthy of being shown off, Kirill prefers to see it as an inner strength for others to draw from – a shared sense of confidence that everything will be all right, that people can empower each other to do better as long as they’re on the same page.

“My ultimate aim is to lift up the spiritual and cultural level in Russia, to make an impact on these things in my own way,” says Kirill. “And I know that I can do that. I am working on it every day.”

“If you discover what you are yourself, and you keep learning from the world around you, you can find so many interesting things,” he adds, finally. “Whatever way you choose to fuse it all together… that becomes your art.”

Find out more about Here & Now an editorial partnership between Huck and Levi’s Performance Denim, which is available now, with our profiles of photographer Owen Harvey and musician Tofel Santana.