I was casually scrolling through Instagram a while back when I stumbled across this illustration of Kanye West’s bloody head with a skeletal hand plunging a sword into his face. Kanye had used a similar setup for his own illustrated “Power” cover art, but here it was in this distorted, morbid form: Kanye had been turned into a cyclops, with an exposed spinal cord and snakes slithering from out of his crown. It was jarring, and it was fucking cool.
It was my first introduction to Anhia Santana, the young visual artist known as Distortedd, but I’m hardly the first person to take notice. After her psychedelic interpretations of pop culture started getting shared by the likes of Erykah Badu and Action Bronson, she has gained a steadily growing fan-base and gone on a national tour, all the while juggling a relationship with one of Atlanta’s biggest up-and-coming artists, Madeintyo.
“Distortedd is very creative,” Madeintyo tells me via Twitter DM, “Always been a fan of her work & honestly she a boss and she motivate me to make these moves. She my partner in crime.”
This year, the Philly-based Santana plans to move to Vegas and start a monthly series of parties, then head out on another, bigger 20-city tour. During one of her few off-hours, she called me from the sunny balcony of an L.A. hotel to talk about how her father inspired her drive, even when he was in prison, and how she’s turning morbid illustrations into a real career.
How did you get into art?
When I was a kid it was something I naturally did. My dad was a big influence on my art. He can draw really good. He got arrested when I was 8 and was in jail for a few years before he got deported to the Dominican Republic. He would write me all the time and always send me art, which really sparked a fuse in my head. We would send art back and forth to each other, and that was basically how we built our relationship from jail.
My mother is very creative as well. She liked to sew and would make curtains and stuff for me. My mother and grandmother made a Rugrats bed set for me, it was really awesome. Ever since then I was passionate about art.
Who’s your favorite Rugrats character?
I like Chuckie because he has, like, issues. He’s not like the other ones. He’s not brave like the rest of them, he’s just special. Chuckie had, like, some sort of mental health disorder—something was wrong with him and he had deep family issues. You didn’t notice it until you watched it as an adult, and then you understood why he is the way he is. I also like his hair, his glasses, and his outfit.
What’s been the most motivating moment in your career so far?
When Erykah Badu just randomly followed me and and gave me a shout out, out of nowhere. I swear that made my whole year. It really inspired me and made me realize that a lot of people are really paying attention to what I’m doing. Sometimes you need that reminder or that encouragement, and that really encouraged me. Especially coming from her, that’s super awesome.
Also, last year Action Bronson used to post my art and retweet it on Twitter. That really helped me a lot. I honestly think that’s what helped start my career.
How do you make money from your art?
It wasn’t easy at first. I remember when I first started, I could barely sell anything at all. It would be one sale every couple of days. It was tough. It took me a while to get to where I am now, where I can charge like $30-40 for just a small print. When I first started, I was charging like $10.
What I would suggest is to just keep going. Some people give up too easily, and I’m not that type of person. When I really want something, I go hard, I go all the way in. When I first started four years ago, my art the wasn’t the same as it is now. It was just me creating things daily, and I think everyone else noticed my passion, noticed how much I was improving. After a while you have no choice but to respect that or pay attention to it. You have to keep putting art out to the point where it’s too hard to ignore. So that’s what I was doing. That’s how I made a career out of it. I’m hoping that I can get bigger and bigger and bigger because I’m nowhere near where I want to be at.
Outside of your artwork, you have a really unique personal style. How did that develop?
When I was kid I was always around boys and stuff, like my brothers. I was always a tomboy. That’s a big part of my aesthetic, and it’s never going to change. I’ve held onto that forever.
Also, I grew up in the city, that’s a big part of how i carry myself. I grew up in the hood. That whole trap thing, that’s a big part of the whole wave. Me being from the block.
I see you and Madeintyo flirting all up and down my timeline. What has it been like dating a rapper?
It’s pretty interesting. I don’t see him as a rapper—like, he can do everything. I see him as an artist. He can make beats, he can compose music, he writes, he does a lot. It’s been really cool. He’s a real dope person. It’s just, like, when you have a relationship out in public, it can be nerve-wracking because everyone’s paying close attention to what you’re doing. It’s cool but you have to be careful at the same time. It’s like a house of cards, everything can just come falling down.
It’s really inspirational though. I think we make the perfect match, in my opinion.
How do you feel you inspire each other?
He inspires me a lot. He gives me really good advice, and I respect his input. He’ll give me his honest opinion too. Sometimes people are scared to tell you the tough things, but he’s not, and I appreciate that.
He has a bunch of music that he hasn’t even released yet that he’s shown me. I’m lucky because I get to hear it. Of course I love it.
When you’re not creating art, what are you doing?
I’m relaxing, I’m chillin’ in my crib, writing down ideas, traveling, hanging out with Tyo. I spend a lot of time with my dogs. I read a lot. I like reading comic books and watching documentaries. I like to learn a lot, I study a lot of artists like Frida [Kahlo], Andy [Warhol]. I’ll watch the same documentary over and over to absorb as much as I can get. I constantly think about ways to better myself as an artist.
What’s your favorite documentary?
My favorite documentary right now is The Radiant Child, about Basquiat. I think a lot of artists can relate to him. When you’re an artist and you choose this as your career, it brings a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress, a lot of pressure and I can relate to him. A lot.
What’s your best piece of advice for women coming up in the art world right now?
Carry yourself like a man—don’t act like one, but carry yourself like a man. Walk in there and wherever you go, crush it. You’ve got to be aggressive. You can’t be soft spoken or silent. If you feel something, say it. If not, people are going to walk all over you.
If you want something, as a female, you have to take it because no one is going to give it to you. You have to work twice as hard. If you see another artist that’s putting out two pieces of work, you have to put out four or five. That’s just how it is. I think that’s where respect comes from—witnessing hard work and passion. Don’t take no shit from nobody. You’ve gotta be aggressive, strong minded, positive, passionate, caring, but you can’t be too soft. Don’t let nobody walk all over you.