Life & Culture

Salvia: the Teenage Drag Artist Distorting Reality in Rural Wales

From her bedroom North Wales, Salvia conjures up some of the most surreal self-portraits and videos on Instagram. Here, she opens up about her unique approach to drag which draws on flowers, deep sea creatures and women in pre-Raphaelite art

Drag artist Salvia’s bedroom at home in North Wales is ground zero for an explosion of otherworldliness that blurs the boundaries of physical and digital distortion. This is where Salvia conjures up the surreal self-portraits and videos that populate her flesh-coloured, mind-altering Instagram account, Photoshopping layers of strange anatomy over her hallucinatory makeup. Existing at the point where drag meets performance art, her practice uses physical identity, fashion and photography to explore the outer reaches of dressing in extremes.

This is a direction that she first took aged 14, trialling less polished variants of the looks she wears today at school or out with friends, then documenting her experiences in public on social media. But it was always only a matter of time before the limitations of what she could achieve mixing makeup, clothes and inanimate objects pushed Salvia towards the infinite possibilities of image-altering software. “I think that part of the reason I use digital manipulation is because I’m not constrained by reality,” she says in an interview with Another Man. “I’d like to push it as far as I can with my body and my face, but it’s not possible to do the things I want in physical form.”

Like a living post-internet art form, as much 3D render as living tissue, Salvia’s unique brand of hyper-real feminine expression is gaining influence online. Still only 16 when she did her first interview for Dazed, positive reactions to her work and its popularity have only intensified since. Distorted drag is now a thing. What attracted her to the world of drag in the first place is the ambiguity and freedom at its core – there’s no way to define drag because it can be anything.

Her love of fashion is built on similar foundations; it’s special because it offers you the chance to warp and play with reality in a way that feels immersive. It integrates art into everyday life, and that’s something that she can relate to – creating something strikingly original but rooted in reality. “It’s like how I don’t really think of Salvia as a character, she’s just me. I only go by a different name because I thought it would be cool if there was a drag queen named after the drug salvia,” she says. “I think everyone is unique in the world of the drag because drag queens are so self-absorbed that we all think our own ideas are the best, and when we take inspiration we usually alter it so much that it becomes something new.”

What started out as an obsession with Alexander McQueen runway shows, and the extreme makeup looks she saw in magazines, evolved into a biomorphic fever dream with Salvia at the centre, experimenting on herself like a digital Dr Moreau. “I have a wide range of influences,” she says. “I think my biggest right now are flowers and deep sea creatures, like squid and blob fish. I have a toy blob fish and she wears a tiara. I’m also really drawn to the women in pre-Raphaelite art.” Looking beyond how she manipulates her identity by grafting animal and plant parts to her body, there is a classical sensitivity to how Salvia composes her images that reflects these diverse inspirations.

This use of jarring contradictions made all the more disturbing by incorporating domestic backdrops, like the family living room and garden – after watching Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water she built a tank out of old glass panels in the backyard. And only adding to her disquieting appeal is how someone so seemingly serene and delicate in person, who creates virtual fantasies from the safety of their room, doesn’t shy away from a spot of DIY, or the gory reality of using physical remains she finds in the countryside in her art. “I’m surrounded by it so I haven’t really got an option. I’ve found cow bones in the past and made handbags and headpieces with them.” Improbable relics of Salvia’s queer future paganism.