artist Niko karamyan Fulfills Fantasies The photographer-director-actor-model on coming of age online and the best music to play on set
Words by Tierney Finster
Photos by Jess Calleiro
Niko Karamyan (@nikotheikon) treats life like a vacation. In doing so, he’s infused his career as a professional creator with so much love, humor and passion that it hardly feels like work at all.
Last year, Karamyan photographed his first magazine cover (Wonderland), appeared on his first billboard (an American Apparel ad shot on location in Barbados) and acted in his first television show (The Assassination of Gianni Versace, alongside Penelope Cruz, no less). Karamyan says the joy he feels while directing and taking photos is the same joy he feels while acting and modeling.
As an artist, Karamyan has produced work for the likes of MOCAtv and DIS Magazine. He was the co-recipient of the 89+ Re Rebaudengo Grant, which was awarded during the 89+ Marathon, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist at the Serpentine Galleries in London,and shown work at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Torino, Italy. Karamyan’s also spoken about visual identity at the Digital Life Design conference in Munich, Germany.
For many, Karamyan remains most recognizable as a trendsetter and cultural forecaster with impeccable style and sublime taste, the kind of person who always seems to be visiting incredible new places while wearing incredible new outfits.
Karamyan tells TRASH about the mantra that emboldens his work, cultivating good vibes on set and lifting dialogue from The Matrix as a child to make a short film. He also shares his legendary dance moves with us.
THANK YOU FOR BEING A TRASH ANGEL. WILL YOU TELL US ABOUT A MOMENT OF CREATIVE TRANSCENDENCE THAT MADE YOU FEEL LIKE YOU “EARNED YOUR HALO?”
This feeling happens with every image I make or project I do. It’s what keeps me going.
WHAT ARE THE FIRST THINGS YOU DID WHEN YOU WOKE UP THIS MORNING?
I woke up to my alarm. I don’t usually like to set an alarm, but I knew I was going to be shooting with TRASH. I laid in bed a little bit. I like to take it slow when I wake up and set the tone for the day. Not feeling rushed or stressed. I shaved, brushed my teeth and then came to a garden.
CAN YOU SHOW US A TRASH VIDEO OF YOU IN THE GARDEN?
WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS HAS TAUGHT YOU?
Vibes are everything. Who you’re working with, the energy of the situation, the harmony between you all. I prefer working with friends.
YOU’ve got great dance moves. CAN YOU SHOW US a few IN A TRASH VIDEO?
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR IMPROVING THE VIBE ON SET?
Be direct and kind.
WHAT IS ONE TRICK THAT ALWAYS IMPROVES YOUR SHOOTS?
Before I do anything, I say “With confidence.” That’s always when I get it done, whether I’m modeling or shooting photos or anything else.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE IMAGES TO CAPTURE?
The ones that seem impossible to get. Like real life, intimate, honest, raw moments. People dancing and being silly.
WHAT’S THE MOST BEAUTIFUL PLACE YOU’VE FILMED LATELY?
Cuba was so beautiful. I basically recorded my whole trip on video. Buildings, people in the streets, dancing, cars, ocean. Everything there is so vivid. I recorded a really breathtaking beach sunset there that I’m still thinking about.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS TRYING TO GET BETTER AT SHOOTING VIDEO?
It’s all in the frame. It’s good to challenge yourself.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM EXPLORING SO MANY TYPES OF ARTISTIC EXPRESSION?
Keep doing whatever you want, whatever you feel called to do. Just do it all. You don’t have to do one thing or stay in one lane.
WHAT WAS FILMING SCENES WITH PENELOPE CRUZ LIKE ON SET OF THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANI VERSACE?
It was perfect. Amazing. So good. It felt like, “This is it, you’re in it.” It was extremely affirming. Something that seemed so distant to me was suddenly my reality. I was right there, with everyone, with Penelope. The energy was great. I had never had a television role before, let alone dialogue directed towards Penelope Cruz and a huge crew watching us. It was such a big, busy production environment with everyone busy working, and then when it’s time to shoot, everyone falls into their places and it gets so quiet. I had a dialect coach for my Italian accent too, which was a first and so fun.
HOW HAS WORKING WITH SO MANY DIRECTORS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS AS A MODEL AND ACTOR INFORMED THE WAY YOU APPROACH MODELS AND ACTORS AS A PHOTOGRAPHER?
I love a connection. You have to establish some kind of connection before, during and after the shoot, because it’s such a vulnerable thing to share ourselves like that. I love when directors make effort to know me and can really see me. I love when directors know what about me they want to emphasize and bring out in the project.
WHAT INSPIRES YOUR AESTHETIC SENSIBILITY?
I think it comes from my life experience, growing up in Los Angeles and taking in the media I did. So many music videos. Specifically, how bright, vivid, golden and gorgeous L.A. is. That really informs my eye. I want everything to look like that.
WHAT’S SOMETHING YOU LOVE ABOUT THE PROCESS OF MAKING SOMETHING?
I love making videos and taking photos on location in nature. Natural environments inspire my work a lot. When I first began taking photos at 13 or 14, they were always of trees in my parents' backyard.
I also love casting. Being able to see someone’s qualities and build something around how they inspire you is amazing. I love looking at someone and imagining what they’d look good in or where I could see them.
WHAT IS AN EXAMPLE OF SOMETHING YOU MADE AS A KID THAT SUGGESTS HOW YOUR WORK WOULD EVOLVE?
I made a film in my parent’s backyard – creating the story, casting it, producing it. That was in middle school, or maybe even the end of elementary school. The title of the film is “Crazy Ladies Outside,” a comedy short. It was influenced by The Matrix quite a bit, in fact we borrowed a large portion of its audio for the film. We definitely didn’t get that all cleared, but someone did that wizardry or sorcery and extracted the audio for us to use. I don’t even know how we would have done that back in those days. My childhood friends Emma and Andrew were in it. I made the film purely for amusement. I just loved it – the costumes, the characters.
WHEN WAS THE FIRST TIME YOU NOTICED YOUR POTENTIAL TO RECEIVE A LOT OF ATTENTION ONLINE FOR STUFF YOU MAKE?
It was when I first got a Myspace. I made a video of me dancing and singing to Cascada’s “Everytime We Touch.” I forget if it was shares, like or just views, but people were loving it and random people were connecting with it and reaching out to me. That was fun and exciting.
HOW HAS CULTIVATING A DIGITAL COMMUNITY THROUGH YOUR ART CHANGED YOUR LIFE?
It has filled it with love, in so many ways.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR approach to fashion LATELY?
Lately, it’s all about color for me. And textures. I like bright, loud colors, soft, saturated colors and textures like silk and waffle.
WHERE’S YOUR FAVORITE PLACE TO GO ON LONG WALKS?
In Malibu. At Malibu Creek and Point Dume.
WILL YOU SHOW US A TRASH VIDEO OF YOU IN MALIBU?
WHAT’S THE MOST GENEROUS THING SOMEONE’S DONE TO SUPPORT YOUR CREATIVE CAREER?
Receiving a grant was pretty generous. Mostly, my best friends for listening to my ideas and playing with me. That’s really generous.
HAVE YOU EVER EXPERIENCED A CREATIVE RUT? IF SO, HOW HAVE YOU OVERCOME that SELF-DOUBT OR LACK OF INSPIRATION?
I feel like creative ruts stem from things that aren’t creative – like your living situation, your financial situation. These things can distract you and make you feel like your art isn’t possible. When really, your art just needs to be left alone and not pressured by any of these other aspects of life. You don’t necessarily need anything to make your art happen, you know? We forget that it all comes from within us.
WHAT’S ONE CREATIVE SKILL YOU’D LOVE TO LEARN?
I’d love to be able to play any musical instrument, to just pick it up and play.
HOW DOES MUSIC IMPACT THE ART YOU MAKE?
Music is everything.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE SONGS TO PLAY ON SET?
"Shygirl” by UCKERS
“Sex with Me” by Shardaysa Jones
“Tu Pum Pum” by Lisa M
“Buttons” by the Pussycat Dolls
“Crystal Waters” by 100% Pure Love
Anything by Azealia Banks!
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE SOUNDS?
Birds. Running water. A creek as it passes over stones. The sound of your head being scratched.
What’s one question you’d like to ask another creator?
How are you?
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