kitra is a romanian bucharest-based toy designer/illustrator/artist. his stuff is heavily inspired by romanian folklore. and he’s not afraid to playfully experiment with concepts, colours and media.
but, whether it’s a japanese kawai mascot with a romani language touch or a flowery expletive on a skate board, he always finds a way to contrast things and make the open-minded smile. this is him wearing an orthodox priest gown and blessing us all with his clown balloon cross. amen!
he was a great surprise for me. read on to see what i found.
i am nicu. nicu duta aka kitra.
why kitra? (chitra is romanian slang for cheap person)
i started using kitra as my stage name about one year ago. but the whole kitra story is quite old. it started in targoviste, where i was born. i was working and saving my earnings in order to go to college, to be able to afford a dorm room and so on. i wanted to come to bucharest, to the university of fine arts.
so i graduated from high school as an electrician. but i got lost for a long time before i got to college. i got lost for about five years. in the meantime, i worked on a construction site, i mounted double glazed windows, i sold shampoo and stuff at a street stand.
this was after high school?
my last year of high school. i was also going to this arts club. i was drawing there, but then i gave it up. for a couple of years, i had a series of jobs. and then i remembered i used to do something that relaxed me in the evenings. so i went back and kept on drawing. my teacher noticed me and asked me if i had ever considered going to the university of arts. i thought that i didn’t think i had any chance. but he said that i should try it nonetheless.
when i worked for the double glazed company, beside the factory work, we sometimes got to mount the windows. and we came to bucharest to fit this church downtown. and i was fascinated by the city, i saw that unirii underground passage…i was smitten! and i started thinking: what if i started saving up so i could come and live here one day? so i did it. but it was a shock for me. because i used to be manelist (a fan of an underground gypsy music genre and lifestyle).
but why shocked? the city is full of such people.
oh, not that. i meant when i started going to college. i was wearing sharp toed boots and i was using gel to style my hair. i went there for 5 years: 3 years for college and 2 for the masters afterwards.
anyway, while i was saving up for college, my friends were trying to get me to hang out with them. and i was telling them i couldn’t afford it. so they called me cheap – chitra.
so, when it came to me choosing a stage name, i went for it. i wanted a dissociation between nicu duta and kitra.
so you started going to university, wearing your boots and your gelled hair…
yeah. so there was a bit of culture clash going on. i was different. my colleagues were more artsy, into rock, more interesting.
and what happened? did you change or did they?
i changed. i change a lot. i had to. i had a lot of shit in my head. i came decided not to let people influence me. just like a regular manelist, you know. just mind your own path and don’t let the others fool you.
and i was trying to make sense of everything. what was up with that weird rock music?
and i never left my room before fixing my hair up with gel. or washing up my sneakers so that they looked ok. because i was ashamed.
but one day i just said to myself: what if i changed it all? and i shaved my head.
had something happen?
no, nothing specific. i just wanted to see what happened if i changed. before, i was thinking that if i shaved it all, i’d be ugly, i would no longer have that cool hair, the girls wouldn’t like me anymore. but after i shaved my hair, i changed little by little.
also, i had met this guy, titi. he’s the one i’m doing the toys with. he was a great influence, he was one of my colleagues. he was in sculpture, while i was in graphics. he was telling me things. he was educated, even if he was a simple man from the country side. well, it doesn’t matter where you are from. he guided me.
in the dorm room, we were about 10. well, that’s how you begin, it depends. anyway, i was nearly left out. but i insisted: i told them i’d sleep anywhere. that it was my right. i was going to the university, they had to find me something. so, they put me in a dorm room with 10 other guys.
but i enjoy looking back. those things were very important to me. my background is…my father did time, my parents were divorced…
when i got in the university, i couldn’t believe it. i went back four times to check it again. i was so happy. i called my sister, she started crying on the phone.
so, were you the first in your family to go to college?
certainly, the first ever in my entire family.
i don’t want to sound like a cliche but… a lot of good things have happened to me.
subcarpati is a romanian music act. as they also rely on the romanian traditional heritage, kitra was the logical choice for their visual identity.
so, after i started going to university, there was a whole different mess. i wanted a job.
you wanted to work at the same time?
yeah. i didn’t have any money. i was having a hard time with the professors, they wanted me to choose between the job and school. but i told them that i didn’t really have a choice. i was so broke i had to eat liver paste on bread, with a tomato perhaps.
so i applied everywhere. somebody told me: there’s this type shop hiring. there, a woman wanted to send me on my way to wait for them to call me. but i told her i just wanted to work and earn some money. not go home and die of hunger while waiting for their answer. she asked: are you any good at this? i said no, but i was certain that i could learn it in 3 days. so i started working that same day. i was cutting paper, fitting it into some machines, etc. so, a type shop has two areas. one for the computers where the dtp people do interesting things. and the floor, where the actual printing operations take place. i was doing physical jobs like measuring and perforating, etc. i couldn’t believe they hired me…
and when did you work?
i started at 1 pm. i had to run from school to work. i worked as late as 2 am, then sleep, then school again. it was a difficult period. but it was good for me.
for how long did you work there?
for about two years. that’s when my passion for computers started. i was seeing those people working on their computers. after hours, i was snooping to see what it was all about. and then, we got an assignment at school and i loved doing it and discovering all the possibilities.
i saved for about a year and i got my first laptop. i was obsessed. i was doing everything: photoshop, illustrator, flash tutorials.
at some point, my type shop job ended and i started doing random jobs. business cards, brochures. i was pretty clueless when i first started. they gave me a test, but i was useless. but they hired me anyway. that’s where i learned photoshop. afterwards, i took a break for a year or two.
from the art stuff?
no, from everything.
did you work?
so, what where you doing?
i don’t know. not much, really. i was spending time in the dorm. whenever i work, i save up. i like to have some nest egg. so i lived off those savings. i was in my 2nd or 3rd year.
i graduated and i took another break, for a year. i just wanted to do nothing, to calm down. because college had been a great battle for me. (…)
i just couldn’t focus. i didn’t understand why the professor wanted me to give up some of my things. he said i was too detailed. i wanted to see what was up with me, what was going on. so i rented a place and then i started the masters. in part, i did it because i wanted to stay in the dorm again. if i was still in school, i could.
was the masters in graphics, too?
yeah. i graduated that, too. i got a job at bricostore. i was doing packaging for them.
i was living with titi at the time. and we wanted to do something cool and great, something to get our names out there. we wanted the girls to stop us in the street and tell us how great we were. we really had no other goal. or perhaps titi did, he’s more grounded.
we were talking and talking and one evening i told him: since i do all these illustrations, wouldn’t it be cool if they came to life? we really thought it was a cool idea, a breakthrough. we believed we were the first to think about taking 2d to 3d.
and that was when?
but you had the internet.
yeah, but i was too stupid. i had no idea about these art toys. and then, browsing, i found out that we hadn’t been the first ones with that great idea. still, we liked the idea so we started to work on it.
what did you use?
clay, then plaster and so on.
and now? do you cast the toys?
it’s resin now. and we have two silicone moulds. our first gig was street delivery. i was very stressed, very embarrassed. we had the toys on a table in the street. i don’t know why i was so embarrassed. at first, we were calling ourselves kiddo. we even made a suitcase: we sprayed kiddo on it. and we had a shape. it was also called kiddo. because back then we didn’t know the difference between a brand and a product.
was it a lot like what you’re doing now?
it was a lot like munny, a famous toy. but we couldn’t tell at the time. it was not intentional, we just got carried away, i guess. anyway, people liked us. they liked the stand and the toys. we were glad. we thought that we should follow this. if people appreciated it, it was a good sign.
then, there were some articles. all of them underlined the similarities between our toy and munny. so we decided to come up with something that was more us. we tried a new shapes and we did sando. of course, sando wasn’t that personal either, it had some influences. and then we did bucur. i’m pretty proud of bucur, i really like it. we wanted to combine geometric with organic shapes. and the feedback was good, too. we got a good review on probably the most important related blog. it’s a platform: you upload your toy and they review it. and now we’re psyched. we want to do even more.
do you have a job or are you an independent artist?
i work in an advertising agency. and then there’s kitra and eldercut. kitra is for the illustration stuff. and eldercut is for the toys.
but toy design is my soul project. i like it that we started off with some goals and now we have a completely different agenda. we are thinking about shapes and we are going further away from the commercial. it’s less cute and mainstream, but it’s more personal. and bucur is another step towards our maturity. both me and titi, we hope to become a reference.
where do you get your inspiration from?
i think that lately i became more mature. i remember things and draw from them. for instance, when i went back home, there was this nasty, kitschy table cloth with a floral pattern. but i thought it was awesome.
do you end up using that kind of thing?
i’d like to. i don’t work as much as i’d like. i’m a bit busy with work, i find it difficult to focus.
are you organized like that?
no. i have lots of lists, but it’s not really working. i try to mobilize myself but then stuff happens and…i don’t know.
but it’s important to be in your own film. it’s great or it sucks, it’s your own. i’m experimenting a lot. i realize i’m playing a lot. even with kitra, or eldercut, i see them as experiments, like child’s play.
also, i’m inspired by other artists. i love constantin brancusi, takashi murakami, friends with you, kaws, yayoi kusama. in romania, i like noper, ghica popa, sinboy, saddo, aitch, pisica patrata, matei branea. i like saddo and aitch and i’m also frustrated by them, but it’s some kind of good frustration. they both get a lot of work done.
but you would probably work too if you didn’t have your job.
yes, i think so too. but not i’m not working so much and i’m frustrated somehow.
do you ever think that it may go away if you don’t work at it?
not really. i have always had this self confidence. it’s not pride, i just feel it. i feel that someday i’m going to do great things.
i like about myself that i managed to create something in a fairly short time. when i was in my first year at fine arts, just talking to saddo, branea, sinboy , pisica patrata and noper was a thing in itself. they were like gods for me. it was great if they only said hi to me. and now we’re friends, talking and hanging out.
but they’re cool, they wouldn’t make you feel weird or anything.
and i guess you would be the same if somebody said the same to you.
yeah, i guess i’d be embarrassed if somebody told me they worshiped me.
do you have any hobbies?
i don’t know. i never think about that
any hidden talents?
i’m a good dancer. i can dance.
when i asked about future plans, i meant more like an upcoming show or something.
i may have a show in paris later this year.
also, i’m currently working on another show with some new shapes i’m making now.
and i was recently in london, at this toy convention. it was a good experience, being part of this first european toycon. i was there with bucur and some little skulls i made. there were many british artists and manufacturers. some of the toys were awesome, very interesting. i would have bought some, but i ran out of money. i hope that next year i’ll have my own stand, because this time around we were part of the mintyfresh stand, a dutch toy manufacturer and retailer.
when will the paris show open?
it’s not settled yet. i have it all on paper, but they are now waiting for me to tell them what i will exhibit. it’s difficult to get organized and make my idea come to life. i want to find as many romanian craftsmen as possible and give bucur to them. they will paint it like an easter egg or like an icon, dress it up in traditional clothes, i have no idea. also, i must figure out travel and accommodation expenses, sponsors, etc.
do you have an agent?
favourite places in the world?
i have always dreamt of new york seen from a sky scraper, at night.
i was asking about a place you’ve already seen.
ah! my favourite place is the street. i love the street, i like to watch people. they relax me.
thank you, nicu!
photo and video credits: google search, nicu duta