Culture / Society

“I’ve been sober for 13 years but I consider my work to be trippy as hell”: Inside icelandic artist’s Shoplifter’s hair-raising world

By Josefin Forsberg

The artist behind Björk’s iconic Medulla cover look is bringing her technicoloured installations to the furthest reaches of the planet. We catch up with Shoplifter as she arranges her latest acid-trip-esque experience

The red thread for Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir has always been hair. “A neon red thread, really,” she says. Better known as Shoplifter, or Shopi for short – “Hrafnhildur is just a tongue twister from hell” – the Icelandic artist has garnered major accolades over her decades-long career, exhibiting her explosive installations from MoMA in New York to the Venice Biennale.


Her latest work, Crazy, brings Shoplifter to Rome. “The space is like a cloister, this pathway,” she says. “You can own a space without overtaking it and have the existing building evaporate.” As its name suggests, the piece is a no-holds-barred, “beyond psychedelic” installation, a “radioactive rainbow path” devoid of black or brown. “I know it doesn’t sound very healthy, but I wanted it to be a shock to your nervous system,” she says. “I’ve been sober for 13 years, but I consider my work to be trippy as hell. It’s a bit manic and super in its nature. Synthetic nature, really.”

Growing up in Reykjavik, Shoplifter’s kaleidoscopic worldview was far from usual. “I blame it all on boredom,” she says, noting that growing up in the 1970s, she was often left to find her own means of entertainment. “I would do arts and crafts with whatever I could find in my grandparents’ garages. Colourful threads and textiles.”

Watch Vogue Scandinavia's video with Shoplifer here:

In the 1980s, she got a haircut “no one understood” inspired by none other than Boy George. Colourful hair extensions were crucial for the look. “I wanted to stand out. I think that’s been the red thread, the core to my identity,” she says. “My smudgy eyeliner and clothes were a no-no if you wanted to be taken seriously in the art world. It was an insecurity of mine, but I made it a habit to challenge my preconceptions. Most of the time, I’d end up saying ‘f**k that’ and do it my way.”

As is often the case, the influence or importance of certain preferences or experiences – that Boy George hair, for instance– seemed innocuous at the time. From Shoplifter’s current vantage point, these moments fit neatly into a vibrant narrative. “I can see all these stepping stones or influences throughout my life, but I didn’t realise their significance until later because it was just so normal to me,” she says. “I’m 52, and at my age, you start to take stock of your life. When I look back, I’m intrigued by how consistent I have been in my choices. You go with your instincts and somehow end up exactly where you should be.”

When it came time for college, Shoplifter initially studied for a business degree. However, her mother was quick to realise that the “sensible” path was not for her daughter, urging her to attend art school instead. “She wanted me to be happy, and being creative makes me happy,” the artist explains. “Pursuing what you love isn’t easy. It is difficult, a challenge, but it isn’t unbearable because you love it. For me, being creative was an antidote to depression and a way to get through those relentless dark winters in Iceland.”