An Interview with Elle
Street artist Elle had begun as an illegal street artist who tagged on walls and is now an internationally acclaimed artist who has collaborated with brands such as Reebok, Ikea, Mercedes Benz, Lyft, and Mishka. Her evocative street art has elements of the feminine form, drawing inspiration from flora, fauna, classic Renaissance paintings, and fashion magazine. Elle’s works has subtle and underlying message about nature and the female body.
Jennifer Gutierrez: How did you begin your career as a street artist?
Elle: I dropped out of art School, gave up art and moved to New York. I hated that my art was living in storage units and didn't understand the art establishment. It wasn't until I moved to New York and saw street art for the first time that I fell in love with it. I loved that the art was out in the public for everyone to enjoy - especially those who might not feel comfortable walking into a gallery. The fact that art could engage with passers-by was thrilling to me: it felt like the artwork was able to take on a life of its own. After putting up my first piece on the streets, I was immediately addicted.
Jennifer Gutierrez: What are some of your visual inspirations for your work?
Elle: I create my images as collages in photoshop before painting them. I source the imagery from fashion magazines, National Geographic, Art History, my own artwork, and any imagery I find inspirational and powerful. I create collages that I think of as poetry: everyone who views it will have a different grasp of the meaning.
Jennifer Gutierrez: What were some of your most memorable moments while creating work on the streets?
Elle: One of my favourite moments that happened was when I was putting up wheatpaste on a corner of a little piggy, and another street artist that I had never met came and put a whole crew of foxes jumping over the piglet the next day. I then created a piece over the foxes with a poem asking who it was, and he came back with another poem, and we went on to collaborate on the streets on numerous pieces a few times. I still have no idea who the artist is, and we have never met. In no other places than in the public domain with illegal art could you get interactions like that, it was just fantastic!
Jennifer Gutierrez: As a touring artist, what were some cities that you enjoyed going to? Are there any locations you would like to travel in the future?
Elle: Penang, Malaysia was one of my favourite places to paint. People there were so hospitable and nice, and so excited about the artwork that it made it exceptionally fun! I hope to paint in Japan in the near future. I love it there.
Jennifer Gutierrez: For years, you have lived under anonymity when you began creating start art. Was there a difference between working in obscurity versus working when everyone knows you?
Elle: When I was working illegally, I had gotten arrested a few times, and it was important to hide my identity because in New York, they had a team of police officers called the "Vandal Squad." They kept files and photos of each piece of graffiti created under each alias. If I had been indicted for that it could have been very bad. It wasn't until I started to get flown out to various different cities and countries to paint large walls and doing less illegal work that I was able to be open with my identity. It became harder to hide my identity when painting large multi-story paintings, and also I couldn't exactly go paint a massive piece and sign my name and consecutively tag the same name across the street. So, it became a bit of a choice. But I was really excited about having the opportunity to work on such large pieces, that I chose that over doing illegal work.
Jennifer Gutierrez: The legality and legitimacy of street art and graffiti have always been a debate. As a street artist yourself, what make street art a legal artform? In your view, what is the difference between vandalism and street art?
Elle: Street art and graffiti are legal if you have permission. Most people think that they hate graffiti, but Banksy is an illegal graffiti artist and many people like his work and don't consider that. Graffiti tend to be letter based, and generally there is less of an appreciation for that art.
Jennifer Gutierrez: As a woman creating street art, what are some of the challenges you face?
Elle: There were a number of times that I had very scary interactions while painting illegally on the street. One time a man drove up while I was alone putting a piece up at 2 am and told me that he wanted to chop off my feet. I jumped on my bike and rode away as fast as I could. I don't think that I would have had an experience like that as a man.
Jennifer Gutierrez: You are currently working in organizations that empowers young women. What is the core message that you want to deliver for future generations?
Elle: It's important to let young women know not to be intimidated by a male dominated field. Just because in the past there weren't many women in graffiti and street art, some leaders in the field are now women. Follow your passion no matter what!
Jennifer Gutierrez: Street art has always been used to address political and social issues, and you focus on feminism and global warming. How do you use your art to send a message about societal issues?
I feel a sort of responsibility when painting large scale pieces. I don't like to be super overt or political with my work, but I do like to include subtle messages through my paintings. Like I mentioned before, the collages create poems of sorts and through these, I like to create works on issues about global warming, feminism, life, death and other topics.
Jennifer Gutierrez: You have collaborated with companies such as Reebok and Ikea. Such companies are more open to collaborating with street artists within retail industries. Since you have originally begun creating illegal art, when was the first time you felt that your art was more acceptable?
Elle: Ikea was my first corporate collaboration, and I really enjoyed it. I love being able to do my work more accessible and big brands give me the opportunity to share my work with a broader audience.
Jennifer Gutierrez: Are there artists and brands that you would like to collaborate with in the future?
Elle: I am obsessed with the art of Wengetchi Mutu, Kara Walker, and Kiki Smith. Collaborating with them would be a dream. I also love the idea of collaborating with musicians such as Dani Leigh, Cardi B, Nicki Minaj or fashion brands like Louis Vuitton. I'm inspired by artists and brands that create powerful and beautiful work.
Jennifer Gutierrez: Within your selected works, one could see elements and themes of classical paintings and fashion magazine collages. Forgive Us our Trespasses, and Hallowed be Thy Name has such themes. What do you have to say about the portrayal of women through art history and in fashion magazines?
Elle: I am influenced by things like Renaissance paintings, but I like to take the female gaze back and give it back to the woman in the painting. The women in my paintings are strong and powerful. My paintings take beautiful historical imagery and twist the imagery to make it contemporary.
Jennifer Gutierrez: Are there additional themes that you would like to explore in your art?
Elle: I'm always exploring new things with my work. I'm never sure quite what I'll be investigating, researching or painting next!
Jennifer Gutierrez: Will there be any future projects that you would like to do?
Elle: So many!!
Jennifer Gutierrez: What are some changes that you hope to see within the street art scene?
Elle: Hopefully, we continue to get more and more female artists on the streets!