Ruslan “Russ” Karablin has been a made man in streetwear culture, fashion, and art for more than 20 years, since creating the brand SSUR in 1990 in response to the high demand for his paintings. By applying graphics inspired by his artwork to T-shirts, he made it possible for both consumers and collectors to own his work. Now he directs his pioneering point of view toward an erotic pictorial starring Lena Nicole and Penthouse Pet Layla Sin.
Was there any hesitation on your part when Penthouse called you about this opportunity?
Quite the opposite. I was very excited about being involved in this. I’ve always been into pinups and the magazine itself. I’ve always considered myself to be pretty open-minded and liberal. It seemed like a great opportunity.
You had a personal connection with Penthouse growing up?
I did. With the magazine itself and the photo layouts. Also with the film Caligula. That widened the connection and made me even more into the Penthouse brand.
Was this exciting to you because of the cachet of working with Penthouse, or was it about the opportunity Penthouse afforded you?
I think it was a little bit of both. The opportunity to oversee a production and be able to handpick the models, the location, the context, and all of that. And the fact that it was for Penthouse magazine? It’s iconic.
Were you looking for something specific when you were casting models?
You know, I’m pretty diversified in that capacity. There’s always inspiration, things that are appealing to me visually, sensually, and so on. Smells, sights, sounds, and tastes. A beautiful woman is a beautiful woman, and they come in all forms, so the canvas was pretty wide. There are definitely types of women that appeal to me more, but I’m pretty open when it comes to that. All natural is the best.
What was it about Layla and Lena in particular that popped for you?
They reminded me of women I’ve had in the past.
Ha! Did they live up to the memory?
Yeah. They were both pretty chill. Layla was cool. She smiled a lot and was pretty sporting about it all. Lena was a little more fussy, but everything turned out good. We became friendlier toward the end of the shoot. In the last picture they were superfriendly.
Did your process start with the models?
No. It started with the setting. In my eye, before I choose anything else, the setting is in my head. Then come the details like two women on a bed, the relaxed atmosphere, and all of that other stuff. I had a vision of it.
What was it about this particular setting that resonated with you?
I’ve often seen old photos, black-and-whites, of naked women in an opium den–like environment. It was always appealing, the way it looked. Not of this world, but more of an old-world feel.
Were you trying to tell a story, or was it more about creating a vibe?
I was trying to make it visually stimulating more than anything else. The story was about two women hanging around a palace, sneaking around, and getting into each other.
Sounds like some deep-seated fantasy of yours.
It had to come from somewhere. So, yeah.
And you tapped into your inner porn director by encouraging the girls to get a little naughty.
I just felt like I should go big or go home. If the opportunity presented itself and everybody was open to it without making it distasteful … it just seemed artistic.
Do you think you pushed the narrative far enough?
There were moments when the models were more into it than other moments, I guess because it was cold out, but I achieved what I set out to do.
Looking at the photos, are they an accurate reflection of your vision?
Yeah, I would say so. And as we went on they became more so. At first I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect or how the photos would turn out. Looking through the photos at the end, I am definitely proud of them.
You were nervous?
I’m kind of slow to warm up.
Slow to warm up in general, or was it because of the personal nature of the shoot?
It was the subject matter. It was a new experience. It was because of who was involved.
What helped you turn the corner?
Everyone was very welcoming and really just let me do what I wanted to do. They made it clear they were there to support my vision, and that made it a lot easier to warm up.
Do you have a favorite photo or moment?
The photo where they are crossing hands and touching. That definitely stood out. It is a very sexy photo. It seemed like they weren’t acting. Throughout the shoot there were several moments when I was like, Yeah, this is great.
In hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently?
We had to get things done pretty quickly and turn it around, so you always see things. I could have done this or I could have done that.
Anything in particular?
Making it more artistic. Maybe adding a 3-D component to the shoot or something cool like that. Making it more visually fantastic. I would add more girls into the mix and create that feeling of a harem, choices.
That ties right into what you were saying about how you don’t have a specific type of woman.
If you had gone with the harem idea, what would the first new girl you cast look like?
I like voluptuous women. Natural. Good boobies. Curves. Curves are always nice to touch. For me it’s not about ethnicity or skin tone; it’s about variety.
I heard a rumor about a horse at the shoot….
Yes. I’ve seen some beautiful photos of women outdoors and on horses, and that was very sexy to me. I saw an old Pirelli calendar; a girl who I was seeing was in the calendar, so I noticed it a lot more than any of the other Pirelli calendars. And it happened to be on a farm. Naked girls, horse in the background, and it just seemed … nice.
It’s interesting that your concept was such a departure from what people must expect from you in the streetwear industry.
You always want your audience to look forward to seeing what you do next. To be sort of off-kilter. I guess the other option would have been to shoot beautiful girls in the ’hood rolling blunts? I don’t know. I think people appreciate that I don’t pigeonhole myself. That’s also why I created three different clothing brands: They each fit a different personality or feeling or mood that I represent. And it was the same for me with the photo shoot.