by RS Frost
Russian artist Vladimir Chebakov, also known as ‘Smerdulak’, is responsible for some of the most intricate, desolate and demonic pieces of artwork to ever have graced the cover of an extreme metal album. Full of jagged edges, unsettling characters, and desolate landscapes, Vladimir paints a truly unfriendly picture of a place vastly different from the one in which we exist. Oppressively baron environments are a noticeable recurring theme in his work, in which various otherworldly apparitions and twisted forms dwell.
I made contact with Vladimir and he allowed me to pick his brain on where these images come from, how art has influenced his life, or vice versa, and where his journey into the dark arts began.
- I think I was "in art" always. If you have the right inner attitude, you are able to see art in everything. A big part of having this attitude is thanks to my parents; they have always encouraged my desire for beauty. It is difficult for me to even imagine a situation in which I could not engage in creativity. This is such a thing that you just can't turn off.
My first creative outlet was actually music. I graduated from music school where I studied and played piano, but after graduating, for whatever reason, I did not play music. I gradually began to engage in self-education in the visual arts. Sometimes I paint with acrylics on canvas and canvas MDF panels, although my works now are mostly digital art using Photoshop etc.
With an education in music, and the drive to take up yet another creative outlet, I’m curious as to whether the geographical positioning of your formative years played a part in the style of imagery that you produce?
- I am from the Ural Mountains region of Russia. This is a rather harsh place where in the past people were exiled, where there are still many prison zones, and where the winters are cold and long. Yes, maybe it has somehow influenced the fact that I took up dark art.
The Ural Mountains, sometimes known as Uralskie Gory or the Russian Stone Belt, have long been considered the traditional dividing line between Europe and Asia. The range runs for approximately 2,500 kilometres through Russia to Kazakhstan and is estimated to be 250-300 million years old, making it one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world.
- As I said, this is quite a harsh place to live. Winter begins in early November and lasts almost until April. It is not uncommon there for the temperature to sit around -34-40 degrees. Sometimes the snow would still fall in May and June. But in summer it's warm and actually can get quite hot. My childhood passed near the nuclear power plant. It was built in the 1960s, for which they made an artificial reservoir and flooded several old villages. Do not worry though, there were no people there by that time. The Ural forest is a place you’re best not to go alone. You can easily get lost within the gulf. The Northern Urals are even worse.
Did you hear about the Secret of the Dyatlov Pass? It happened just there. In the Ural Mountains.
The Dyatlov Pass Incident refers to the mysterious death of nine skiers in 1959 that has to this day never been solved. What’s more intriguing is that investigative evidence shows the group had torn their way out of their tents and fled the campsite in sub-zero temperatures in the middle of the night.
After the group's bodies were discovered, an investigation by Soviet Union authorities determined that six had died from hypothermia while the other three showed signs of physical trauma. One victim had a fractured skull and two others had major chest fractures. The body of another team member was missing its tongue and eyes. The investigation concluded that an "unknown compelling force" had caused the deaths.
- As a child, I was both scared and fascinated by our forest. When I was visiting my great-grandmother, in the village, the forest came very close to her house and when dusk fell, it became absolutely clear to me that it was in this forest that Baba Yaga herself lives. Baba Yaga is the terrible witch from fairy tales who steals children and eats them in her hut. All this, of course, greatly stimulated the imagination and ultimately influenced my addiction to the dark side of art. Thanks to childhood and the Urals for that!
Vladimir’s artwork boasts a long list of album covers from all over the globe. My first exposure to his art was the design for KATALEPSY’s 2013 release ‘Autopsychosis’, then again I noticed his unmistakable musings on the cover of VELD’s 2015 album ‘Daemonic: The Art of Dantalian’. In 2017, Vladimir received a healthy dose of exposure with the creation of HIDEOUS DIVINITY’s ‘Adveniens’ cover art.
- As a designer of music albums, I have predominantly worked with many groups from Russia; the most famous of them in the west being pagan/folk metal band ARKONA. Over the years the geography of my clients has slowly expanded. If anyone is interested in exploring my work, you can find a list of projects that I have participated in over the years on Metal Archives.
Said list can be found here.
Having worked with a plethora of artists from numerous countries, have you come across any people, projects or situations that particularly stand out?
- One of the most memorable was probably meeting the musicians of the band ROSSOMAHAAR. Sergey 'Lazar' and Ruslan 'Kniaz'. It was at the very beginning of my career as a designer of music albums and everything of importance happened in this one Moscow forest where metalheads often gathered. It was quite a “cult” place really, where people would come from other cities and regions of Russia.
There were many people there and over the course of the evening I eventually just got the nerve and asked the musicians directly: "You are recording a new album, do you mind if I draw a cover for it?" To my surprise, they immediately agreed. This was my first work at that time.
I also remember working on an album for ARCANAR from Yekaterinburg. Especially a photo session we did in an abandoned building of the medical unit in the city centre. It was pretty fun.
Fortunately, I cannot remember any negative situations in my career. The closest thing to unpleasant I get is the sometimes excessive pickiness of some customers *laughs*.
Is it safe to assume that you also belong to the metalhead populace?
- Well, I love the old bands that started in the late ‘70s and reached the top in the ‘80s. Look at any metalhead’s denim vest; logo patches of my favourite bands are all there! A lot of favourite bands are death metal, black metal, and thrash metal bands. And you know all of them, I'm sure!
You have been at this since the mid-‘90s, have created more than 150 pieces of art for band releases, not to mention a fountainhead of other artworks. Where do you find this seemingly inexhaustible source of motivation?
- It is difficult to single out one thing. Most often, the motivation is the work of masters of amazing art. When you see a masterpiece and you want to do something even remotely as cool! Sometimes the customer can bring motivation to the project by saying things like, "I completely trust you! Let's do something incredible!” Such moments are very motivating, yes. Sometimes also music. The music that creates the necessary mood and helps in the process, that is always very helpful. And movies, of course! Sometimes motivation arises from nothing at all, an empty place. You suddenly need to draw something. For no reason. Yes, this also often happens.
Are there any artists or art movements that have especially influenced or inspired your work? Having spent a considerable amount of time appreciating your offerings before this interview, I can’t help but presume the work of Polish cult legend Zdzisław Beksiński has played a part.
- The master Zdzisław Beksiński was, and will probably always remain, a completely separate phenomenon for me. The list of artists who have influenced me would be very large, because every artist influences you in one way or another. I will not be original if I say that the old European masters, especially the Northern Renaissance, made a great impression. Peter Bruegel the Elder, Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein, Hieronymus Bosch, and many others. I also find inspiration from a number of contemporary artists who work as music album designers also, of course, such as Derek Riggs, Dan Seagrave, and Wes Benscoter.
Given that Vladimir has been involved in graphic arts and digital design for over two decades, I’m curious if he has noticed any major shifts in the way artists and bands work together to come up with a final product that pleases both parties.
- Communication with musical groups has long been simplified, thanks to the development of the Internet. I communicate with almost all of my clients using social networks. Now I almost never use regular e-mail. As for the first contact, usually the groups themselves write to me directly. It is easy and convenient.
I remember that, for the first time when I offered my services in 1997, it was through using the chat group/forum of NUCLEAR BLAST RECORDS. Back then I mostly drew logos for interested groups for a nominal fee. It was very new and exciting for me. Interestingly, one of the clients I had from that time got in contact with me last year and asked if I could send him the logo which I did for him back then, around 1997 or 1998. Bless the Internet and those who invented it!
I feel the need to mention that Vladimir presents as extremely bubbly, happy, and quite a funny man. I’m finding it difficult to correlate this persona with such deep and dark images.
- Well... actually I don't know how. The optimism and cheerfulness of the author do not guarantee that his work will contain kittens, bouquets of flowers and sunny landscapes. I enjoy life because it gives me the opportunity to create exactly what I want. And the dark side of art attracts me the most.
I could be wrong, but I think that many artists working in this genre are quite pleasant people in life, with a wonderful sense of humour and the ability to charge others with optimism. The oppressed state of mind is not always conducive to creativity. However, this does not mean that I am not familiar with the emotions that the audience may have while meeting my works. But I also do not dream nightmares more often than “positive” people.
What plans or goals, if any, do you have for the future that you’d like to share?
- For the future, I look forward to the constant opportunity to express myself. Learn something new. More frequent inspiration. Well and, of course, large fees!
Thank you for your time and insight into your work. I now invite you to offer any closing sentiments you may have.
- I want to thank those who read this interview for their attention to my person. I was pleased to answer the questions, and I hope you were just as pleased to read the answers. I want to wish everyone never to be discouraged and continue to cherish in themselves the most precious thing - a piece of Eternal Darkness that brought us all together!