Kot Bonkers’s illustrations are equal parts funny and horrifying in a peek-through-your-fingers, can’t-look-away type of way.
The lines and colors are reminiscent of Picasso, if Picasso rendered images of iMessage screenshots and embarrassing Tinder profiles. They’re the kinds of illustrations that people get printed onto T-shirts, the type of designs Urban Outfitters and Forever 21 love to steal in order to package and market irony (no shade). It’s the relaxed type of self-expression most strive for, but can’t without seeming like we tried too hard.
Because many of us lack Kot Bonkers’s ability to not think.
Looking through the Lithuania-based artist’s work, I wonder how she hasn’t garnered more attention online. It’s art that appeals directly to the sensibilities typical of Gen Y: visceral, socially relevant, funny, and available to see on most major social media platforms (you can follow her on Instagram, Tumblr, and Facebook).
Bonkers has been making art for as long as she can remember. And it has always remained a hobby, something done purely for pleasure. Trying to live off of her art takes away from the fun of it, she tells me in our phone interview.
“I did try to make money [off of my illustrations],” she says, “but it just became another thing that became superficial…[when you freelance,] you lose the little thing that you made for yourself. It loses its purpose if you do that.”
Between taking care of her mother, her many cats (who loudly joined us for our interview), and working in IT in the city, Bonkers has plenty of material to draw from when creating.
And that’s the next question I ask: “What inspires you?” She says, “I don’t really think about it.” Looking at her Instagram, laden with images of women and relating to women, I ask her if she’s a feminist. Again, she tells me it doesn’t cross her mind.
“It just comes out…It’s just my personal perspective.”
I push on the feminist question. The motifs of bare vaginas, women’s hairy legs, and the annoying parts of dating are so common in her art that I can’t help but think she must be a feminist.
I project. I assume that the act of her drawing an image of a woman shaving means that Bonkers’s every thought while making the drawing revolves around her own feminism. But she very gently sets me straight.
Again, she tells me that her art “just comes out.” She talks about the burden of representation. When viewers are aware that an artist belongs to an oppressed group, they tend to assume that all their art is directly related to that oppression and that their art represents that oppressed group. According to the burden of representation, all art made by a woman is female art. Kot Bonkers staunchly rejects this.
“It’s just self-expression,” she says of her art. “It doesn’t have to be put in one particular box. When you label it, it limits the artist.”
Any social commentary Bonkers makes in her art is latent, an inevitable side effect of being immersed in a certain society. Her illustrations are interesting because she herself is interesting. Her humor requires little thought. It comes to her organically.
Bonkers tells me that she wants readers to know that, despite her scathing illustrations, she harbors no ill-will for men. “I don’t want to ever appear as someone who generalizes about men and say they’re wrong,” she says.
(Except maybe Donald Trump.)
She’s subdued in a way that many people who make feminist (or feminist-esque) art are not. The hallmark of the young social commenter is passion, which is necessary and largely advantageous. But this kind of passion is at times calculated; mostly sincere, occasionally concerted. There is an element of relaxation in Bonkers’s illustrations that make them more alluring, more believable. It’s intuitive.
After all, irony is best when it happens on its own. It’s funnier that way.
I was surprised by the quietness of Bonkers’s voice, how calm she is one the phone. It’s exactly the opposite of her work. I can’t place her accent, an unusual combination of different sounds–like her drawings, an amalgamation of all the places she’s been.
Bonkers’s geographical origins aren’t typical. When I ask the artist where she’s from, she pauses for a second before saying, “Nowhere, really.” Then she tells me about her Serbian father, Lithuanian diplomat mother, and nomadic upbringing that makes her origins unclear even to her.
Her tone is also soft when she tells me how her necessary-evil of a job, though by no means her passion, gives her fuel to make the vivid images that my eyes remain transfixed on throughout most of our conversation.
Bonkers speaks to the working-class struggle that is prevalent both here in the U.S. and in Lithuania.
“In most jobs where you have a boss…you can’t really speak your mind honestly and fully,” she says. “You have to suppress yourself to a certain extent. Self-expression is not there. You always have to comb yourself.”
“Art is a way for you to be free in times when your freedom is being suppressed. In the time that I’m living, I feel suppressed every day,” she says. “Funny drawings express those things that need to be let out and put out in one type of way.”
When I (again) bring up her experience as a female artist, she mentions Instagram, and how her account was deleted due to their censorship policies. Her art often uses images of naked women’s bodies, especially the nipple, and Instagram is notoriously wary about the female nipple. This is the time when she becomes the most animated in her replies.
“I would understand this if both female and male topless photos were taken [down], but that’s not the case,” she says of the censorship. “There’s a clear double standard.”
Recently, Instagram users have taken to addressing this double standard. Bonkers mentions how, in an act of protest, people are posting photos of male nipples Photoshopped onto women’s bodies. On July 8, actor Matt McGorry posted a topless photo of himself with famously-censored female nipples superimposed over his own. The image has nearly 100,000 likes and has yet to be taken down.
“[Instagram is] deleting 2-D drawings of nipples,” Bonkers says incredulously. “Those are drawings.”
“It makes no sense. Why are we still holding onto it?” she continues. “Is the world going to fall apart if [women] don’t censor their nipples anymore?
The sole benefit of the situation, she says, is the visibility that the issue is getting. Celebrities like McGorry, Rumer Willis, and Miley Cyrus are vocal about online censorship, and viral campaigns like #FreeTheNipple are making people talk about how people–including artists–are limited by these types of restrictions.
“It’s good that people are talking about [the censorship]. People are talking about the whole nipple thing, questioning why Instagram is doing it,” she says.
According to Bonkers, this kind of censorship represents a larger issue.
“Even as an artist, you can’t self-express anymore. Even on social media you’re being shut down for certain things if [it breaks the policies]. Even if you have lots of followers, they’ll shut you down because you’re violating some kind of [rule].”
I don’t ask Bonkers for an umpteenth time how she doesn’t consider herself a feminist (this all seems so incredibly feminist to me) because I don’t want to sound like a broken record. I understand now that there is a way to be a woman, and care about women, and not consciously or deliberately ascribe to any particular mindset. That maybe feminism can be implicit, and not a conscious decision, or something that an artist must represent.
Before she goes, Bonkers tells me again that she doesn’t want to be labeled in a particular way.