Russian artist Irina Romanovskaya has a special talent: She paints with her breasts. In September, she made headlines when Russian news agency Ruptly filmed her painting a surprisingly lifelike portrait of Vladimir Putin with her cleavage.
Since then, she has drawn Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, the infamously homophobic MP Vitaly Milonov, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a Donald Trump-like figure in Russian politics who once proposed to ban overweight MPs and set a country-wide legal limit on the number of times that people could have sex in a year (his suggestion: about once a month).
Drawing Mother Russia's most conservative alpha male personalities with your breasts definitely grabs attention. Ever since the video went viral (325,000 views and counting), Romanovskaya, 33, has consistently landed in local and international news. Russian bloggers nicknaming her 'the boob artist.' The Sun, a British tabloid, even asked her to use her breasts to paint Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. (She's not sure if the conservative paper were taking the piss when they commissioned the work, "but there was no sarcasm or irony on my part... The painting is in their office now.")
When I meet her in a shopping mall coffee shop in the outskirts of St Petersburg, where she is based, Romanovskaya is keen to set the record straight on her work. She wants to be known as more than just the boob artist. The nickname, she says, is not only insulting—"Why do they have to use that word [boobs]?"—but also inaccurate.
"I call what I do 'body prints.' For me the technique grew out of monotyping, which I specialized in for a long time—this is when a print is made by pressing a flat surface with paint on it against canvas or paper. Then I just got curious what it would look like if I used my body to create the prints."
Body print techniques have been around for decades: In 1960, Yves Klein smeared female models in paint and dragged them across canvases to leave an inky blue trail. Acclaimed New York artist David Hammons used body print in the 60s and 70s to deconstruct black identity. But Romanovskaya decided to use her own body to create portraits. She experiments various methods, sometimes using stencils, or drawing the whole picture on herself before printing it on canvas—or, as shown in the awkward Ruptly video that shot her to fame, she will paint details of the portrait on herself and then transfer them onto paper.
But while Yves Klein turned the process into a performance and invited audiences to watch his "living paintbrushes" at work, Romanovskaya says she says she prefers not to let other people watch her paint. After the Ruptly video she was flooded with offers of interviews and requests to film her work process in greater detail. Many journalists noted its staged atmosphere and doubted that she would normally wear clothes when making prints.
"They [the reporters] kept calling me under different aliases, tried to make me show them how I create my paintings, get me naked in front of the camera basically. They later wrote that if I say I use my breasts to create paintings I have to show them how I do it, to prove it's really true. 'You have to': that's the words they used."
Romanovskaya says that other reporters felt like they had a right to see her work naked—and were outraged when she declined. But she argues that the technique itself is the message. In a conservative country like Russia, women's bodies are either sexualized or branded as taboo. Using her tits as an art, Romanovskaya suggests, is a rebellion against the status quo.
"Our country is very patriarchal," she says. "As an artist and as a woman I protest from the deepest parts of my soul. I think this is called feminism but in our country that word is so perceived in a twisted way. If it was a man using a part of his body to draw this, it would be considered sharp social commentary; when I do it they blame me for being cheap and selling something sexual and erotic."
Most of the time, she says, people misunderstood the motivations behind her work. "People's dislike for Putin was transferred onto me. Some Ukrainian bloggers were very aggressive, they said that I'm a fan of Putin, that I admire him so much I even draw him with my breasts. But there is more to that. There is irony, of course, but I also want our society to be so civilized and [progressive] that it reacts appropriately to artists and women, even if we do [provocative] things like this. So they don't hear about my works and automatically go 'Oh, she's either crazy or asking for attention... Maybe her parents didn't bring her up right.'"
Romanovskaya never studied art in college but decided to pick up painting after getting a degree in architecture. She took up several art fellowships and explored fauvism and figurative art before turning to body prints. The Russian says she plans to stick to it for now—despite the agitation and hostility it causes. While local artists and Russian media have been less than supportive, she has still exhibited her work in Moscow and St Petersburg and is now planning a solo show in the former"
I've been noticing that the people who judge me are mostly men. I was a bit surprised, wouldn't the majority of men kind of like the idea of this technique? But they were brutal. Maybe because they are so uncomfortable with themselves that anything slightly erotic throws them into an aggressive fit. They thought they'd be messaging me and judging me, and I'd have to listen silently or message back and admit I was wrong. I blocked most of them.
"I never read the comment sections now," she adds, "I've learned that from a Madonna interview."