This Artist Turns Celebs Into Terrifying Monsters
They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The old adage couldn’t be more true for Anhia Zahira Santana, a Dominican-bred artist from Reading, Pennsylvania, who finds some of the most disturbing things beautiful. Her fixation on distorting some of your favorite ’90s cartoons, like Dragon Ball Z and The Rugrats, into monster-like figurines, has redefined the way one might look at seemingly innocuous characters (think: The Powerpuff Girls) ever again.
Santana also incorporates hip hop, putting some of the genre’s most prominent figures, like Kanye West and Queen Latifah, into the mix. Her disturbing touch on conventional-looking pieces of pop culture has garnered her a cult-like following, with a total of 23.9k followers on Instagram and 15.6k on Twitter, as well as admiration from stars like Erykah Badu.
In addition, Santana has presided over some of the art world’s most coveted stages, performing live art pieces in venues like Art Basel Miami and A3C. Before her current success, she was working alongside her boyfriend, designing for his clothing line, Bombardment. But all her work was tucked away behind the scenes, so she decided to branch out on her own. Gaining her independence, Santana held a day job at an elementary school in South Philly—while simultaneously remaining dedicated to her work.
But since the inception of her own brand, Distortedd, she’s had to quit that gig and pursue art full time. As lavish and cool as being a full-time artist sounds, things weren’t always so rosy for Santana. She recalls being a very lonely kid, who was often misunderstood by her peers, with no friends. She also faced the harsh reality of having her dad in jail for selling drugs. But today, Santana is cool, calm, and collected. We talked over the phone from Philadelphia, and I learned how gross and grotesque her still-beautiful art really is.
I think the grotesque part just shows how disgusting I really am.
You have an affinity for twisting ‘90s cartoon characters. Why does making these cartoon characters so grotesque appeal to you?
I think that’s just how my mind works. I think grotesque things are so beautiful. I hate looking at a piece of work that is so simple and boring. I think the grotesque part just shows how disgusting I really am. I just like stuff that’s disturbing. I don’t know; it attracts me. I look at the beauty in everything, because I feel there is something beautiful about everything.
What inspired you to create art?
My mom is mad creative. She is one of those Dominican moms that likes to make stuff for the house, like curtains, and all kinds of shit. That helped inspire me to be more creative.
When your dad was incarcerated, he would give you advice on your artwork. How did your dad’s feedback from jail inspire your art?
When I was growing up, I was ashamed of my dad. I was embarrassed that he was in jail, so I would never tell people. They had no idea. I would just act like my step-dad was my real dad. He used to always send me art, and mail me stuff. When I was younger it was hard seeing my siblings have their father around them, so I was like a real loner. I was by myself all the time; so my dad used to send me artwork—I used to just draw and send it to him. My dad used to make me feel like I was the best artist in the world. And I probably wasn’t even that good at the time, but he would encourage me to keep doing stuff, keep drawing. My siblings and my mom used to encourage me too, because I would always draw stuff.
What inspired you to make “Insanity”?
If you look at Erykah Badu’s pictures on Google, she has a picture with dreads. And she has little flowers in it. It looks like some type of a beehive. When I made it I was thinking, “it’s related to the brain, and how you see beauty, the world, and nature.”
I have a big fascination with nature and body parts. Those little purple and blue lines are actually veins.
I guess all the veins that go through your body, but instead of going through your body, it’s all in your head. So I just tried to make like a big cluster. I guess it just shows how insane I am; just because of all the details. I must have been on some shit when I made that. It’s within my fascination with nature, the human body, our brains, and how we are all connected to the universe. Everything is all connected. I hope that makes sense and doesn’t sound like a bunch of bullshit [Laughs].
Kehlani called you “the young Frida Khalo” and Erykah Badu gave you a shout out on Twitter. How does it feel getting co-signed from these artists?
It feels really good. When you first start out as an artist, when no one is paying attention to you it makes you feel kind of down. When I first started, nobody was really paying attention. I was like “ah man, maybe I’m not doing something right, I don’t know.” And then over time, when I got that recognition, that’s when I started getting more recognition from other people. So it’s great to have people of that caliber—already successful, already great—to take the time to acknowledge you. I think that’s amazing.
Does your art come from a feminist perspective? What was the idea behind the uterus with the eyeballs you drew?
When I made it I was symbolizing girl power, and I was trying to symbolize our uterus. I was just trying to make it look beautiful. It’s something that is weird and so ugly, so I was trying to make it look beautiful.
And when women see it I wanted [them] to be like, “Wow, I can relate to that.” I want to just grasp all of them, and pull them into my audience.
What is it like when you do live art?
It’s really nerve-wracking when you’re doing it live. I usually already know what I want to do. I’ll have a sketch that I’ll put in my sketchbook. I’ll take it with me, and check out the canvas. And then I’ll sketch it again on the big canvas, so I’ll stretch it big. And then start my painting process. It’s nerve-wracking when you’re doing it in front of a lot of people because if you fuck up, it’s paint—you can’t just erase it.
I just let myself know: “you got this.” When I’m painting, I don’t talk to anybody that is around me. I’m just in a different zone. I just do it. It’s fun though, because even if I fuck up, it just shows people that I’m human. I’m not perfect.
When did you first start becoming influenced by hip hop?
When I was a kid, one of my older brothers was really into hip hop. He was into Death Row, Bad Boy, and all of that era—when Biggie and Tupac were alive. I would always take his CDs. It stuck [with] me a lot. I love hip hop. If I could be a rapper, I would definitely be a rapper. [Laughs]
If you could pick one person to collaborate with, who would it be and what would you make?
I think I would collaborate with KAWS, because he knows how to make big statues. We can both collaborate and make some big-ass, weird statue.
What do hope your art does for the world?
I want to make an impact on the world. I want to encourage people from my background, especially Latinos, and I want to encourage people from the city. And from urban areas, people who didn’t have both of their parents growing up, who only had one of their parents. Or always felt like they were by themselves. I want to just encourage the youth especially; and for them to discover themselves. And to love themselves and accept themselves, despite how society may make them feel. Because when I was a kid, I went through hell. Just my whole childhood, even in high school. It was just hell. I just want to inspire, show that you can turn all those bad experiences into something good.
All artwork courtesy of Anhia Zahira Santana.
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