Prolific NY-based street artist ELLE has a joint show with Martha Cooper opening at Mecka Gallery, Brooklyn, on Saturday 26th April. The show is a collaborative effort involving some rare, unusual photos from Martha, combined with some heavyweight, multi-disciplinary artwork from ELLE. Expect fire-extinguisher mayhem, screen-printed paper catwalk dresses and poignant pictures of kids playing in the streets. We caught up with ELLE to chat about her artwork, inspirations and that awkward moment when your arresting officer asks you out on a date.
VNA: So, ELLE, can you tell us a little bit more about your show?
ELLE: Mecka Gallery in Brooklyn invited me to come do an exhibit with them, they’ve had 3 shows so far, it’s a really big gallery warehouse space. I came and looked at the space and it’s really, really large, like 2,000 square feet, so I spoke with the gallery about potentially doing it with someone else. I’d just been to Art Basel and run into Martha Cooper a couple of times when she was out photographing a wall of mine. So I wrote her an email, saying ‘Hey, I hope you don’t think this is super presumptuous, but I’d love to do a show with you in the space, something alternative and creative.’ She was like, ‘I’d totally love to’, so she came to the space and we threw around ideas.
We ended up deciding to go off her pictures from her book called ‘Street Play’, which are her less known images from the late 70s and early 80s. The images are of New York back in the day and it looked really grimy and war-torn almost, it’s of all these kids playing and being super creative. I feel like they’re less well known than a lot of her graffiti photos, but it was a really good jump off point for us because we talked a bit and were trying to work out what would make it special and unique and different.
She’s done so many graffiti shows in the past and could do a show with whoever she wanted, so for me, I was like, what do I have to bring to the table. I’m the younger, newer version of graffiti and she’s been there since the inception, basically, documenting New York City trains and then when it went onto the streets, you know, everything. I’m not the best bomber, I’m not the best graffiti artist. My technical skills aren’t really there yet, there are so many people that are better than me at that. So what I really had to bring was new age graffiti, I thought about the lexicon of what I actually do and it’s wheat-pasting and fire extinguishers, which were perfect, because you can get the abstract.
I kind of liked the fact of Martha documenting the beginnings of graffiti, then us documenting the change not only of the scenery of graffiti in New York City, but of how graffiti has changed, how fire extinguishers were never really a tool and now they are. I really liked the idea of how you could parallel it to Jackson Pollock’s abstract art and bring it into the fine are and conceptual art realm. So Martha and I decided to go ahead and use those images and use fire extinguishers for the most part.
Then I still wanted to tie in my wheat-pastes, for 2 reasons; one there were her images we could print out and there were my wheat-pastes, for a lot of my work, it’s figurative, so I was kind of thinking we’re women, so wanted to use images of my powerful street-warrior woman, but we decided to go with the more simple iconography and focus more on the evolution of graffiti and us being women together creating this in different generations. So hand silk-screened images of my wheat-pastes and transferred her images on top of those and then made sculptures out of those which are wearable.
So the idea is that Martha is going to wear one of these outfits, which is a Haz-Mat suit and she’s going to be photographing me in another one of my outfits and I’ll be painting the walls inside the space with a fire extinguisher, which are covered with mine and Martha Cooper’s images. We’re creating a kind of performance together where the two of us are creating art within our art.
VNA: How do you feel about your position within the New York Graffiti scene?
ELLE: I’ve only been in it for about 5 or 6 years and I know so many people who are so much better than me, I still have so much to learn. I feel like it’s a huge honour to be doing the show with Martha, who’s been in the game so long. I have a tonne of work to do to improve my craft and I hope that one day it can become as good as some of the major players in the game.
VNA: From here you’re bringing your work into the gallery from the streets, how does that transition sit with you?
ELLE: With this space in particular, as a big warehouse, we took on the exhibition because we wanted to do something alternative and not just hang pictures on a white wall. It’s cool in a way because it gives us the potential to do something different. I’m creating these six sculptures, these dresses, and a haz-mat suit. That’s questioning different things, you know, is this street art, is this graffiti? It’s very womanly, in one sense, and it’s totally not, in another. I like working in and out of the studio and making things wherever I am.
VNA: Going forward, do you feel you need to take your work more into the galleries to get recognition?
ELLE: No, I think I need to work harder on the street. I really care about people that are getting up really hard, I care about people like Rambo, who’s killing it on the billboards. I want people that are working really hard to respect that I’m working really hard too, because I think it’s really easy at this point to skip into galleries and push your work around. I think the hard part is to maintain the work balance, if you’re going to work in the studio and call yourself a street or graffiti artist, graffiti artist is specific, you can’t just be doing legal murals and stuff. If you say I was a street artist, that’s different. Because it is amazing and fun and spontaneous and it’s a gift to people to be able to put your work out on the street and I hope I can continue doing that.
VNA: Do you feel you need to expand your horizons abroad too?
ELLE: Not necessarily for exhibiting, but to put up work. I love travelling and I think it’s really important, if you’re going to be a street artist, you can’t only have work on one block. You have a message or an icon or whatever. One of the most amazing experiences for me was going to India and running into BNE stickers all over about 5 years ago. It was incredible, that was so fucking cool. Part of the reason I love graffiti and street art is when you’re travelling, you’ll see a familiar face, it’s like running into a friend abroad. That’s one of the coolest things, it’s like finding a treasure. That’s so much cooler to me than seeing someone hit that wall on the block that everyone hits.
VNA: Obviously there is a slight shift in balance; you’re a woman on the streets in a very male-dominated world. I kind of feel there’s a bit of a change in perspective in the way that people are thinking about it and there seem to be a lot more girls getting into it, would you agree?
ELLE: I think it’s cool that there are more women getting into it and I would totally encourage that. I understand the stigmas; girls aren’t supposed to be running round the streets at night and going to jail, because it’s dirty. Also, your arresting officer might try and give you his number and take you on a date… That’s happened. But you know, it’s important that women have that presence on the street so it’s not just men, men, men, they’re all around me. I chose the name ELLE because it means woman in French and also I think my graffiti is more girly than I am, intentionally. There’s 17, who’s a hardcore writer in New York, she’s a female and she kicks ass, but anyone who doesn’t know her wouldn’t know she’s a woman. I want my work to be identifiably female.
VNA: But do you do that without wanting to make it too girly? Like all pink and Hello Kitty?
ELLE: Nah man, let’s make it Hello Kitty! More glitter! Hot pink, let’s go for it, why not?!
VNA: You do seem to strike the balance between female empowerment and femininity…
ELLE: Cool, I hope so! I want to be able to match the men in the game, while obviously maintaining the female presence. So if a guy paints a billboard, I want to do that too, we can do that too. Us ladies are up there too. For me it’s a challenge and I want to meet that challenge.
VNA: I know you’ve been in a few scrapes, what’s the most awkward or ridiculous situation you’ve been in when you’re out painting? I mean, apart from getting hit on by your arresting officer…
ELLE: Hahaha, I had a guy chase me while he was jacking off when I was wheatpasting once.
VNA: Yeah, sorry about that…
ELLE: Haha, um, obviously my arresting officer who asked me out on a date was kind of outrageous. He was holding my hand while he was giving me finger prints in jail, and he was like ‘I’m so happy to be holding your hand right now while we’re doing this’. I was like, what the fuck?! Can I do this by myself? And he was like, ‘No.’ That’s the disadvantage of being a woman in the game right now. Yeah, those were a couple of high notes…
VNA: What’s coming up for you after the show at Mecka?
ELLE: I’m not sure, a little relaxation, some travel and heading to LA to do some work. I have a few group shows lined up, there’s a really cool rug show called Back Against The Wall happening on right now. It’s a street-inspired carpets, Reader, COST and a bunch of other really cool artists are in it. The rugs are made in Tibet and hand-dyed, it’s really cool.
VNA: So long as it’s slave-labour free?
ELLE: Oh god! I hope so! Cancel my rug! Hahaha. I have a bunch of other groups shows lined up too, so we’ll see what happens…
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