The multifaceted Nicolai Lilin was born in 1980 in Russia, in the city of Bender in the Transnistria territory. He came to Italy in 2004, and in 2009 Einaudi published his novel Educazione siberiana (Siberian Education) which he wrote directly in Italian and which immediately became a publishing event translated into fourteen languages. In 2010 Einaudi published his second novel Caduta Libera (Free-fall), awarded many commendations. In 2011 the Oscar-winning director Gabriele Salvatores announced that he would be directing the transposition of the book into a film; in the same year Lilin opened the exhibition Il Tatuaggio Siberiano. Ritorno alle Origini (The Siberian Tattoo. Return to the Origins), at the Kolima Contemporary Culture gallery, the space dedicated to art and contemporary culture that he founded and currently manages in Milan. The exhibition introduced Lilin’s work as a tattoo artist, and the original designs that he hand-draws in pencil according to Siberian rules and symbolism.
Why did you write Educazione Siberiana? How much of the book is autobiographical?
I started writing by chance. Some friends had asked me to write some autobiographical short stories for their blog. In the end the director liked these stories so much that he presented them to my current publisher and that’s how my collaboration with Einaudi got started. It’s impossible to define in exact percentages how much is autobiographical in a novel.
Literature is not an art that has defined units of measurement. I think that all writers base their work on their own life experiences, and I am no different.
How does a person who grew up in a world that has such absolute values manage to live serenely in contemporary society?
I lived with old people who shared their arcane values with me, and at the same time I was preparing myself to embark upon a path in the modern world. When I was young, I was guided by a natural sense that told me that the whole world is full of nuances and transitions, and life is nothing but a continual changing of substances, of ideas that create flows of thought and form civilisations. I live life in this way, constantly changing, always trying to evolve and learn new things, carrying things that are useful from my today into my tomorrow. All values, even the most extreme ones, have fascinating aspects, but if they belong to the past that means that they have not passed the test of evolutionary usefulness. Contemporary society doesn’t exist; it’s just a thought in the minds of those who have decided to live in a certain way. Go to a village in the middle of Sardinia or a hamlet in some valley in Piedmont and ask any old man what he thinks of contemporary society. He’ll tell you that he has no idea what you’re talking about, because he lives life in his own way, regardless of the fact that his nephew has an internet connection and he himself pays with a debit card when he goes to the supermarket. It all depends on how we perceive our lives. To me, contemporary means everything and nothing; it simply represents a period that excludes past and present, and concentrates on just one moment.
How do you reconcile your cultural background with everyday life?
I think it is the things that each man does that represent his cultural activity. The word itself comes from the root collere, which means to cultivate; that is, to contribute to progress, to life, to development and forward motion. For me this is the meaning of life. I write, read, learn lots, and take advantage of the internet to study things that interest me. I discover the world around me, I seek to create, I draw, I tattoo images onto people’s skin, I create objects that I like, and I decorate knives.
What do you like about contemporary society?
The nearness, the speed of communication, the strength of science, the freedom of art and lots more. I am fairly optimistic about our world and humanity on the whole. In general I believe that human society is not bad, so I am happy to have been born and raised in this dimension and not somewhere else.
Is there a model of the perfect society?
I think that the concept of perfection is a very ambiguous, absolutist invention; just like sin and other concepts that man has used and continues to use in different moments of cultural transition to fill the black holes in his existence and avoid possible precarious situations. Personally I think there is a substance, a vital material that can behave in different ways, be it positively or negatively, but it cannot be defined as perfect or defective, because there are no real examples of perfection or defect. Everything in this world carries inside it the light of creation, of life, and for this reason it simply exists and does not need to fulfil other qualifications. When we talk about society I imagine one based on the laws of our species, where there is a culture of sharing, a common sense, but at the same time a society in which there is adequate space for the individual and for the liberty of each single element.
What does freedom mean?
Freedom is a very contradictory concept that could be debated until the next “Big Bang”, but if I have to sum it up in a few words it represents the total convergence between private intentions and social conditions. It represents the possiblities that every individual, every living creature in the world has; to realise and share with the others his ideas, feelings and projects, above all those connected with the organisation of social life, the existential ones, the ways of measuring oneself against life and the Universe, and the development of one’s own spiritual dimensions and the integration of these dimensions into relationships with those of other men.
What’s the relationship between freedom, creativity and quality of life?
It’s a direct relationship. Freedom enables people to develop their creativity and consequently a creative person has more ability to improve the quality of his life. If primitive man had been prevented from using stone to construct the first weapons and tools, our evolution and quality of life would have been compromised: it’s a childish example, but it works.
Are you a free man?
Now I am decidedly free and this is my greatest wealth. More than once I have lived in situations in which for varying periods of time I was deprived of my liberty, but I have managed to leave those situations behind me. All men are born equally free, but some don’t have the feeling of freedom, and they do not understand why others suffer when freedom is missing. This is one of the oldest and most serious wounds our species has.
What pushed you to leave a land and a social system to which you owe your education and your success? Why did you come to Italy? Why did you stay? What have you found?
I don’t believe that any man on this earth owes something to someone else. Sure, we are all born and raised and live in different circumstances, but this doesn’t men that your background is a result of these circumstances alone. Man is a container into which different life experiences are distilled, and it is the relationship between these experiences that creates the individual. If the container is good, you can get a good result, if the container is mediocre, the result won’t be too great either. I have never understood a world divided by frontiers; I perceive it as a temporary thing caused by the ignorance and deformity of human society. I hope that mankind will soon take a big step forward, leaving the old separatist systems behind and uniting in one big multicultural and multiethnic society, where each individual will have the space that he deserves. I left my birth country because of a lack of synergy with the socio-political system, which in my opinion is too backward and arrogant. In Italy I found a good society, where I can live and build my future without risking my life and my freedom (even if I must admit that every human society is subject to criticism).
What are the differences between Russia and Europe and Russia and Italy?
First of all the anthropological and geographical differences, but the greatest ones are formed by the people, due to their ignorance, egoism and closed attitudes to other cultures. Unfortunately the human race is very corrupt and when it comes to curiosity and discovery, everybody claims that they know everything and they are right. This is often simply to appear as an alleged expert in other people’s eyes. This is the side of our character that is connected to the idea of absolutism; the ignorant and weak always want to be right, because being right is comforts them and makes them feel superior to others. This is why we don’t know the world very well, and above all we don’t know the reality of the countries that developed society calls ‘the third world’. Some realities have been described by people who are conditioned by various elements that are part of mankind’s extreme aspects, like politics or racial judgment. In this way we will never know the stories of the people who live in those places, and certainly not by reading the books of some egocentric western traveller caught up by romanticism, or by watching television programmes dedicated to the promotion of tourism. In addition I can also say that in some countries many people live without knowing their own history, because it has been told to them by various regimes acting in their own interests. For this reason, in many countries the majority of the citizens have a distorted view of everything, and in order to accept a version different to the one they know, they carry out extreme acts.
How did art become your destination?
For me it wasn’t a destination, I didn’t live this process as a passage from one dimension to another. I was born with an innate curiosity and desire to create; everything I have done in my life has been based on these fundamental elements of my being. I’ve never defined myself as an ‘artist’. As a child I drew on everything, my bedroom walls were covered in drawings, then I began to draw on my friends’ skin, imitating tattoos, and then I experimented with my first real tattoos. I was eight years old. By the age of fifteen I was tattooing all the time, and I also liked working with metal. I made lots of knives for myself and my friends, I engraved weapons, and I experimented with different materials and techniques. I managed to do all this thanks to my grandfather who let me use his shoemakers’ workshop; he let me use his tools and he created others especially for me. I have travelled to many parts of the world for an assortment of reasons that have nothing to do with art, but I have always tried to grasp some particularity from the drawing, ornamentation, jewellery, colours, materials and ways of working of each place I went to. For me it’s all one unique life process, which I transmit into my designs and the things I create.
Are you a tattoo artist, an artist or a gallery manager?
I always try not to end up being branded with some precise definition, because I find that this brings with it the obligation to behave in restricted ways, whereas I want to stay being myself and dedicating myself to many things; experimenting in different fields, living lots of experiences. I write, I draw, I tattoo, I make knives, I engrave metals, I design jewellery, but I prefer not to be defined in any way. I have an exhibition space (editor’s note: the Kolima gallery in Milan) that is managed in an alternative way, tied not only to art but also to music, literature, theatre and cinema. I believe that at the end of the day I am a curious person, a researcher.
Why are tattoos so widespread today?
Today we are living a moment in history in which the speed of communication is greater than our individual ability to keep pace with the flow of information. Many old traditions have been spread through new channels, unfortunately in most cases losing their cultural content and assuming a modern aspect, based on commercial stability, almost completely losing their artistic or anthropological value. In brief, the tradition of the tattoo has not been circulated, it has been degenerated through the loss of its cultural content, and it is only the aesthetic part that has been spread. I continue to tattoo according to the old rules, and there are some western tattoo artists that work according to values that are similar to mine, but the majority are very different to us. This is not a criticism, nor an attempt to misrepresent the modern tattoo. It’s simply an observation. In ancient times man had a different way of relating to his body and his intimacy, exhibitionism was not as widespread as it is today. We live in a society which defines as female clothing miniskirts that are too short and tops that barely cover the breasts. Today’s tattoos also reflect modern society: full of images, colours, and confusion; attractive and provocative and unfortunately often meaningless.
What point are you at in your journey?
I am, as always, in movement, in the creative phase of something, and so it shall be as long as I live.
What do you see in mankind’s future?
As I already said, I am pretty optimistic. Despite the fact that I have been through some difficult situations, I believe that humanity is highly likely to improve, to make a ‘giant leap’ into the future. I believe in reason, in faith and in order: these values are as important in an individual as the percentage of red cells in his blood. To evolve, we need to reason; otherwise we arrive at no conclusions. To apply the results of this reasoning, we need to be faithful to our principles, to the world and to the lives of the other creatures in it. To share the results of the application of this reasoning, with others and in the right way, we need to follow an order, have an ethic. I don’t mean written rules, but that innate sensitivity that is part of our DNA, and order is necessary for it to emerge and for us to follow it.
Art worksNicolai Lilin