Interview with Mercedes illustrator Iana Ruok, July 2022

Where are you from?

It’s complicated! My mom is Ukrainian Jewish. During the second world war her family fled to Kyrgyzstan, where my father is from. We also have some Korean heritage. My ancestors have moved around a lot. Interestingly, studies have shown these kinds of people have more risk-taking genes. Americans also generally fit that description.

Where did you grow up?

I lived in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, until I was seven. After the Tulip Revolution in 2005, people like us, who didn’t look the right way, were bullied in school, discriminated against at work, had their homes vandalized. So my parents moved us to Krasnodar, in Russia. We spent a hard year there. My parents were poor and had trouble finding jobs. Food was scarce, treats very rare. That’s where my Mercedes-level obsession with food started. Now, all my friends hate to go grocery shopping with me; I take forever!

How did your family find a way forward?

After that year, we returned to Kyrgyzstan, so that my parents could leave me with my grandparents while they tried to get established in Moscow. I was in second grade. That was hard, but my grandparents sent me to a private school that served caviar at breakfast!

At the end of that year, my mother returned to take me to Moscow. I spent the rest of my childhood there, but we were still in perpetual motion. Every year, a different neighborhood, a different school.

So, it was often quite difficult for me to fit in. Also, because I’m weird. Eventually I embraced my weirdness and found it could even be charming. But back then I was just weird. Like Mercedes, I would lie on the couch depressed. Friends ghosted me. Or my parents separated us, by moving neighborhoods.

When did you embrace your weirdness?

Just last year! When I moved to Bonn I got depressed—coronavirus, money troubles, being alone in a new country. All that finally forced me into therapy.

Why did you move to Germany?

I started university in Moscow—medical school. I hated it. The teachers were always telling you how horrible you were. I was commuting seven, eight hours a day, sleeping four hours a night. I do not recommend doing that. But worst of all I realized I don’t like humans! I just wanted to study biology, not deal with people.

So I literally Googled “English-language biology undergraduate not too expensive” and found something in Bonn. It’s just 300 euros a semester and comes with transportation discounts. It’s great, maybe I’ll be a lifetime student! That’s what I love, learning about new things.

When did you start making art?

I’ve been drawing on paper since I was a small child. In my teenage years, I’d stay up very late listening to an audiobook or a film and drawing drawing drawing. I got my tablet for university and that’s when I started doing digital illustrations. It’s a lot more convenient. I carry my tablet with me at all times, in all weather.

At first the illustrations were just for fun, then I tried to create a great-looking Instagram feed with a specific look. I was terrified at first. I tried to make it anonymous. Instead of using my real name, Iana Tyshchenko, I invented a new name, “Iana Ruok,” after that song “Annie, are you ok?”

But trying to present a certain way got boring, so I gave up on that! I was like, who cares? I love mixing all different styles. And when I went back to just drawing for fun, people started asking me for commissions.

Favorite artist?

Hieronymus Bosch. When I was eighteen, I visited that room devoted to him in Madrid. Very influential. I’d love to draw children’s books like that, like BoJack Horseman, but for kids. Acid-trip type of painting. Children love wild color and fantasy.

You’ve said you identify deeply with Mercedes. Why?

This was my childhood as well! My parents let me do whatever. I was reading all the time.

I love the way she gets into fights and gets bruised all over. This is me, even now. I don’t fight people anymore, but as a child I did have anger issues. I’m still always covered in bruises. I’m really clumsy but I still love climbing up things. From age seven to seventeen, I got thirty-five fractures. I got so many X-rays my mom joked, “One more broken bone and you’ll glow in the dark.”

The book’s love story was heartbreaking. As long as I could remember I’ve had crushes. It started in kindergarten, I think. Also, I could relate to her struggle with her mother. My father has been absent in my life, there’s never been any connection. When I was a child, I was sure I was adopted.

Much of your mother’s family lives in Kiev. What has your experience of the war been?

For a while, we couldn’t reach our family in Kiev, that was scary. Then they started sending us nasty messages, blaming us. I get hatred from both sides. From Russians because I support the Ukrainians. From Ukrainians, who tell me, “You’re from Russia, you don’t deserve to live.” When the war started, I was working in an Amazon warehouse. I had many Ukrainian friends there. Then February 24 came and they started looking at me as if I were the enemy. They told me I had blood on my hands. People are in crisis. It’s understandable.

I’ve also been hit economically. I used to teach English online to Russians. But of course, they pay in rubles and now with the sanctions there’s no way to transfer money. At least I’m safe and my family is safe.

Did the war change your art?

I’ve always used art as an escape. But suddenly everything seemed pointless. To continue, I decided to use just one color – black or dark blue. But then, over time, unconsciously, color started to return.

Read more about Mercedes here.

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