Takashi Murakami, Yayoi Kusama, and Kaws are renowned contemporary artists and brands that combine “trippy” artwork and consumer goods seamlessly. Philadelphia-based artist Anhia Zaira Santana, better known as Distortedd, draws on them as role models of success to further establish herself as a household name with her psychedelic artistry platformed on versatile mediums. Santana is barreling towards her lofty aspirations by already amassing more than 130,000 followers on Instagram with the boost of recognition from musicians such as Erykah Badu and Action Bronson, as well as collaborations with Jhené Aiko and Lil Baby. Additionally, she’s accumulated several brand partnerships under her belt: Reebok, Polaroid, Mishka, and Foot Locker, to name a few. And most recently, her talent was recognized by the NFL.
Despite having a childhood interest in drawing, Santana never considered pursuing art as a career. Instead, she followed her mother’s encouragement and obtained a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. It wasn’t until completing her studies that she rediscovered her creative side amongst Philadelphia’s underground and graffiti skateboard culture. “I started exploring more of my talent in drawing after college because my boyfriend at the time had a clothing brand, and I designed the shirts with him,” Santana shared with Remezcla.
Her artistic journey began with finger drawing on an iPad, progressing to painting and animation, and now delving into 3D model renderings of toy characters based on her artwork. As a self-taught artist, Santana attributes her continuous experimentation and growth to the discipline she cultivated in college, which has propelled her career to its current success. “I treated it like a job in the beginning. I made it a point to create artwork every day and set deadlines for myself – finish the piece, then post it online.” Her commitment paid off as she caught the attention of rapper Action Bronson: “[He] saw my work one day and gave me a shout-out, then my following grew from there,” she recalled.
Now, the Distortedd persona that has steadily garnered Santana wide recognition can be best described as whimsical with anime influences and surrealist twists on well-known pop culture references accompanied by hypnotic cyclops characters born from her imagination. Santana credits the time she can let loose and have a space to “be” and recharge as the formative moments where the inspiration for new art strikes. She finds that Rock music and Indie bands such as Tame Impala help her harness her creative energy to produce the psychedelic edge she has branded her art with.
Her unique approach to art caught the attention of Footlocker last year, landing the artist a partnership with the retail giant and fostering a full circle moment for Santana to design clothing once again. She teamed up with her friend, polymath creative Jennifer Mota, to produce a photo shoot showcasing elements of their Dominican-American heritage, Philadelphia influence, and culture of hair braiding. “The shoot came natural to us because we got the opportunity to express Dominican womanhood and togetherness: like how protective hair care often creates community and the references to our childhood with the hair bolitas,” said Mota to describe the shoot.
Santana augmented Mota’s statement with her take, “I went to cosmetology school in high school, so I would braid a lot. That’s how I made my money before selling art. The concept for the shoot was about aspects of Dominican culture on the East Coast, like going to bodegas, hair salons, and wearing braids [similar to] how my mom would do my hair as a kid–we call them dookie braids, one big braid at the top and two in the back. Then we shot it at a salon and bodega that Jennifer’s aunt and dad own, so it felt natural to be around that environment and what I was familiar with growing up.”
But Footlocker was just one stepping stone as Santana’s creative and culturally-driven vision continues to gain traction. Most recently, she became one of the inaugural brands under the Leaders Program by the National Football League, securing an NFL license to produce and sell merchandise featuring official league marks and logos. This partnership marks another significant milestone in her journey, further expanding her reach beyond the realms of art and fashion. “We are thrilled to welcome Distortedd, who is a leader in her respective industry, as one of the first NFL partners in the program to share our vast platform and fandom with,” said Xaimara Coss, director of licensing at the NFL.
Reflecting on her path, Santana recognizes the profound impact of staying true to her identity and the support received in doing so. “The more you show up as your true self, [the more] you find your way. It was just me showing up as myself constantly, and I was able to find my supporters, who I appreciate so much,” she shared. With determination to continue distorting the realm of possibilities and evolve her craft, the trippy artist is poised to keep ascending– from the Philadelphia underground scene to being counted as a household name among her favorite contemporary greats.