HIS SLAVIC INFLECTION COMBINED WITH THE LOMBARD ACCENT MAKE HIS VOICE HYPNOTIZING, SO MUCH IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO EVEN THINK OF INTERRUPTING HIM AS HE SPEAKS. SO MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN AND HEARD ABOUT HIM. HIS BOOKS OFTEN FEATURE DESCRIPTIONS OF HARSH SITUATIONS, HARD TO FORGET, LIKE THOSE RELATED TO CRIME IN TRANSNISTRIA, CONFLICTS IN CHECHNYA, VIOLENCE AND PERSONAL STRUGGLES. AND TO THINK THAT NICOLAI LILIN AS A TEENAGER DREAMT OF BEING A TATTOO ARTIST… TODAY NOT ONLY HE MARKS STORIES ON THE SKIN BUT ALSO WRITES AND NARRATES IN A SHARP, YET SOMETIMES CONSCIOUSLY IMPERFECT WAY, ABOUT THAT KID WHO WOULD HAVE BECOME THE MAN HE IS TODAY .
You were ‘christened’ by war at 12 in 1992 during he civil war involving Moldavia and Transnistria: have you ever been forced to turn to violence to protect yourself?
Violence is a part of life and anything connected to life encompasses on one side tenderness and love and on the other violence and hatred. When we talk about dramatic experiences like organized crime or street violence we must be transparent in evaluating such situations. Extreme violence is always harmful and after you have seen it, if the people are weak they tend to deny it, living a despicable and hypocrite existence. It’s impossible, it’s like denying the air we breathe, or the food that we need to survive. I realized all this as a teenager, Russian culture tends to reflect and focus on destiny and its messages. I have developed an awareness as regards the condition of the war that is often at the core of our cultural genre.
Did living in this kind of reality affect the transition from the kid you were to the man you’ve become?
Obviously it did. Several events made me aware of this transition when I had a closer look of the messages that destiny sent me. I grew up near a river and often one of my same-age friends would drown in it. Touching the corpses relinquished by spirit generated in the mind of a young boy striking dynamics and made you become aware of fate’s ineluctability, and this makes you feel more mature and responsible. I realized all this very early, but I already had a background that helped me face it.
In your novels, like Siberian Education elderly people are recurring characters. How much and what did you learn from them?
The elderly are one of the most important pillars of our society, which may be compared to a pack of young wolves that maintain a generational rapport with the elderly, as they educate them and teach them how to hunt. The mothers raise the cubs and give the pack the chance to survive through time creating new generations. In our society things work that way: the elderly educate the young and the adults procreate. Unfortunately our collectivity are going through a structural crisis. Today the elderly behave like teenagers, adults like kids and don’t want to have children themselves. In modern society there are shortcomings that are also to be blamed on culture that tends to convey the message that we must have fun at all costs, but having fun is like loving, it cannot be planned. The role of the old people in Siberian Education is something totally normal to me, while in the western world people are not used to having an intimate relationship with older people any longer.
The conflicts, the Communist regime, the corruption of power. How did you oppose against this kind of oppression? Did you have to develop a new personal ethics?
We didn’t have a common thought, a shared strategy. We did not oppose an ideology, but the human injustice committed by bureaucrats that looked like those that today in the West cause issues with the war in the Middle East or invade countries out of economic reasons. Reading certain books, getting a closer look at certain aspects of history, talking about them with friends, those were revolutionary acts. We were trying to create a cultural alternative to what they proposed us. There were also cases of physical violence but they were more connected to the local life in certain neighborhoods. Like the drug dealing that generated a war between corrupt police members and modern crime that protected those illegal traffics. Generally speaking, our morals were based only on cultural aspects like getting more information, creating and developing an intelligent criticism towards the system that represented the Soviet power. These were the central elements of our dissidence.
What is the value of the body for you?
I believe in what the Gospel says, the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit of our creator. We may use several terms to define God, but I prefer to give an abstract definition as it is a very universal notion that may be depicted in different ways. I think the important thing, when we talk about our body, is to be aware we are only temporary energy concentrations . We were not given this energy for nothing, we have the moral duty to pass on and collect the experiences we have made in our life. We have to give back to the universe that generated us that same energy, charged with new elements, only this way we will have not lived in vain. The body is sacred and must be respected to create and generate life.
Through a tattoo you tell the story of the person you are giving that tattoo to. In which ways you art is different from that of other tattoo artists? And what does marking forever the skin of those “who confess” mean to you?
I want to make it clear that nothing of what we do lasts forever, not even a tattoo. We human beings think we are immortal. My tattooing technique derives from the tradition to convey one’s experiences through symbols and to mark them on the ski to tell about ourselves in a new way. This is for me an ideal way to get to know a person and give them the chance to express their feelings, values, thoughts, exorcise one’s fears and protect from negativity. It helps reflecting on one’s experiences, it’s a mechanism that helps us never forget them and carry them with us in our life’s vision.
Based on what criteria you decide to tattoo someone’s story?
I give tattoos to people I like, I understand a lot listening to how they tell me their stories. If they are honest about themselves, I turn the stories into symbols, but not if they come to my studio because I am well-known or to brag with friends. This vision they have of the tattoo will prevent them from opening up with me, because I can feel all this and I will never give them a tattoo. I say no to many people, but some of them can open up and talk with honesty about themselves and we can have good conversations. The tattoos artist is like a priest, he has the task to turn the details into an image. It’s a process that creates a strong bond, those I have tattooed become friends, our relationship looks like that a therapist has with a patient. One becomes almost addicted to this urge to talk about oneself. We are not capable of keeping all inside, we have to share what we live with others. This is a little like what happened with my books.
Do you feel like a free man today?
I have always felt like a free man and this feeling has created some problems in certain phases of my life. I was born and grew with people who taught me a great sense of freedom and made me appreciate how precious that is. I am free from political and cultural belonging and this has caused problems in particular when I had to take sides, I am not capable of doing so, it kills your free spirit and the true independence of man. We are like animals living in herds but we are all different and function following the law of diversity. Every part of the universe is different and for this reason it’s so unique. The mechanisms that try forcibly to level us out suffocate and lead to self-destruction. In my own small way I try to stay free from all forms of conformism.