I met Ivan while traveling through the domestic terminal in Costa Rica en route to Santa Teresa. He was making his way through the security check point, having just had the agent hand check his half dozen or so boxes of Portra 400. It was clear the whole thing was a headache as he juggled his belongings along with the rolls of film, a scenario I could very well relate to. I had a strong sense we had a common interest & shared passion for film photography, so I said hello. The conversations that followed, there in that airport and those to come, covered not only the analog medium, but also expanded to stories about traveling the world, our approaches to life, and what it all might mean in the end. I came to learn that photography is only Ivan's hobby, as his main pursuit has been as a highly skilled and sought-after tattoo artist. He was taking residency at Good Life Tattoo in Santa Teresa for the next couple months. I was intrigued by Ivan's approach to both his tattoo work & his photography, so I asked him if he'd be down to dig a little deeper and let me capture it all on tape.
How did you get into tattooing?
I got my first tattoo when I was 16. I was in Russia and I did it as a form of rebellion. I thought it'd be cool to have a chest tat, it kind of peeked through my shirt at Warped Tour in my V-neck. I never thought about doing tattoos or getting any more tattoos until a buddy of mine came over with a tattoo kit and we would get together and we'd draw, we'd paint. He was like, 'Hey, try this out. Here's some fake skin, here's a machine.' And I just kind of scribbled on it, didn't think much of it. And then eventually a couple friends asked me for some tattoos. So I just naturally started tattooing them without ever wanting to become a tattooer or doing anything of the sort. And before I knew it, yeah I was knee deep in it, man.
Where did you get gain the knowledge or learn the skills to be confident to ink a tattoo?
I used to draw a lot. So just because I was an artist, I had buddies that would trust me, maybe wrongly so, to tattoo. Just learning from mistakes. Later in my career I had a couple mentors. I never had a full on proper apprenticeship in the way that would be considered, you know, the right way of doing it or perhaps the proper undertaking of a trade like tattooing.
What was it like growing up in Russia?
It's difficult for me to compare it to anything. It was a pretty basic childhood as a kid growing up in a big city, St. Petersburg. My mom and dad were separated so I'd spend time between my dad's studio, he was an artist, he pretty much lived out of a studio, and just my mom's apartment, sometimes with my grandparents. There's a lot of pop culture references I miss here because I didn't grow up with it. But my parents are both artists so I think that was pretty formative in just me drawing and kind of having that ability and then eventually becoming a tattoo artist.
Do you see influences from your parents work in your own?
Maybe not stylistically, but yeah, absolutely it's there. I can't pinpoint it. It's just something that's kind of felt, I think taste is a pretty important factor in that and just being able to look at their art and other art that they've exposed me to and decide what I like, which further directs the stuff that I make.
Where do you draw inspiration from today?
Traditional tattooing is rooted in old tattoo flash.. old paintings, old drawings of tattoos they used to hang up on the walls of the shops that people would choose from. So there's a lot of that in my tattooing. I've also been into French Impressionism lately, around turn of the century stuff, but it's all over. You know, I might see a carving in a tree and decide that could be an interesting or a cool tattoo. But I also think tattooing is more of a craft, which I used to think differently. I used to think it's more of an art than a craft, but I definitely think it’s much more of a craft than it is an art form. And maybe it's because I personally have stepped away from viewing it as an art because it's a lot to do a piece which you associate your full creative body with and then to have it walk out the door and never see it again. So I think it's easier for me to just think of it as a craft. I do a tattoo and you get what you want and that's it.
What made that shift of looking at tattooing as more of a craft than a form of art?
I think it was necessity. I was getting burned out. I was getting burned out because everything I was doing I viewed as my creativity. That's kind of why I got into photography. I felt like I wasn't happy with what I was making and because I wasn't happy, my creative worth as an artist felt diminished. It just made me not want to do it anymore. So then looking at it as, and treating it as, something different, more of a craft, I think kind of reignited the drive for it.
What has photography meant in your life and when did you get into it?
Maybe three years ago is when I started doing it pretty consistently while traveling, taking photos and capturing moments in a press of a button. I always thought it was an easy way to paint something, I figured it'd be cool to kind of use it as a reference for maybe future paintings. I kind of tap into a flow state sometimes, particularly when I'm traveling... I see something and if I have my camera with me, I just shoot it. That's it, man. I don't really think too much about it, don't really have a direction for it. I'd like to put a book out at some point, more so for myself than anybody else. It just feels like another outlet.
I don't know. I can't answer that question. Just can't do it with digital. I think it's the fact I have to wait before I can see the results, sometimes a few months, sometimes a year. There's still a bunch of photos from Japan, which I haven't seen, which is pretty cool.
"I think I find comfort in the discomfort, always changing different environments, which also yields new perspectives and new inspiration. That's what I think keeps me going."
- Ivan Antonyshev
Is there something you are trying to say through your work, be it through tattooing or photography?
I don't think I've found that out yet. I think to call myself an artist would be a little pretentious. I just do things that inspire me, call them creative or artistic, but I don't feel like there's some sort of message I'm trying to convey. My creativity flows most when I find something to latch onto, like with photography, I'll see something and I'll want to take a bunch of photos of one scene because there's something in it. I can't pinpoint exactly what it is, but I can feel it. Same with drawing or painting or doing anything like that. Somebody will throw me an idea or I'll be sitting doodling and I'll see an image that inspires me and I'll reference that. I just tap into this kind of flow state and I try to see what that yields, see what kind of results that can produce.
I don't know if you get this with your work, but a lot of the times after looking back at some photos, tattoos or even paintings or sketches either a couple months or a couple years after the fact of having completed them, it's a whole different perspective. And I'm like, oh, this makes sense or there is something cohesive here. Maybe I can pinpoint it, maybe not, But it only is in hindsight that it seems to be revealed, which is interesting, an interesting process for sure.
What keeps you motivated these days?
Since I started tattooing one of the things I've always known I wanted to do was to draw and to travel. There's always been a bunch of places I've wanted to go and I've always enjoyed drawing and I thought wouldn't be cool if I could draw, and then take that drawing or allow that drawing to take me across the world. That's something I've always wanted to do since I was a kid, maybe it's because we moved around from Russia to the United States, nevering having a sense of home. So I've always wanted to travel and find a place that feels like home. Tattooing became that vehicle. I think I find comfort in the discomfort, always changing different environments, which also yields new perspectives and new inspiration. That's what I think keeps me going.
What’s next for you?
Sometimes in life, with traveling, with doing anything creative, I feel as though I'm following a string. Sometimes you know the string’s there, you feel it and you know the direction you have to go. Just follow the string, it's guiding you and you know what you have to do. And then sometimes you kind of lose sight of the string and you have to find it, go laterally for a little bit. Once you touch that string again you're back on track. I kind of try to live life that way. You know the string's always there. Can't always touch it. Can't always see it, but you can always feel it. And sometimes you're right on it and you know exactly what you have to do. And a lot of time traveling feels that way for me, a lot of time tattooing feels that way for me.
Photography's one of those things that is just on the way, it's like a notch on the string. I don't know how long it'll be there for, it's part of me now, might have it for a couple of years, might lose it in a couple years. Who knows, it might be with me forever. But I'm just following that string whenever I can feel it.