For a progressive movement, street art is largely a man’s game. Like so many other fields, there’s a gender disparity and a glass ceiling that requires chipping away at in order for things to change. ELLE doesn’t chip, she hammers. The 20-something street artist, who launched her career on the down low in New York City six years ago, now stands at the forefront of a scene long dominated by dudes. Earlier this month, The Guardian named her one of three women “redefining street art.” Complex called her one of the top street artists to watch in 2015. Her work — colorful, larger-than-life murals and portraits of female nudes — has appeared on the sides of buildings around the world, while her collages have replaced ads on bus kiosks throughout New York. In the past few years, her once illegal street art has also been embraced by the mainstream art world — appearing at the New Museum and Art Basel. And in 2015, her work will likely be on your own walls — she’s been commissioned by IKEA to create a poster that will be on sale in their stores early this year. Through her work she’s helping to prove that there are no limits to art and no boundaries for the women who create it. Already super inspired by the lady known as ELLE, we threw some questions directly her way about everything from female solidarity to whether Banksy’s actually a woman. Here’s what she had to say:
Hello Giggles (HG): What are the challenges of being a female street artist?
Elle: I would say that the biggest challenge of being a female street artist is not being taken seriously by others on the street. One of the first times I got arrested for graffiti, I was wearing a hoodie and the cop grabbed me by the arm and swung me around and goes “oh my god, you’re a girl!?” Female cops hate me . . . but in all honesty, I think the problem is less on the street, than in the galleries and art world beyond that. The percentages of women represented in the art field are incredibly low compared to that of men. You would think the art world would be ahead of other careers when concerned with equality, but that’s absolutely not the case.
HG: Is there a community of women street artists who support each other?
Elle: Yes and no. Myself and a number of other women are beginning to band together — I think it’s important to give and have support as a minority in any field. A few friends and I, not all street artists, have started a crew called G’ARMY. Essentially this is our Girly Army of Women doing kickass things all over the world. Of these members, Cat King is a DJ, Yasha Young runs an Urban Art Museum in Berlin, Shaney Jo is running Keep A Breast, Vexta is a street artist, and there are more! The idea is to bring together women to encourage each other to be our best and also have a support network. We don’t have official membership or anything — it’s just, you know — Unofficial G’army Girls!
HG: Why do you think street art has traditionally been a man’s medium?
Elle: Street art and graffiti really goes against every notion of a traditionally proper, nice young woman. You’re doing illegal things, you’re out late at night, you’re climbing tall ladders and jumping fences. It’s dirty and can be scary, and you can go to jail by doing it, it’s kind of breaking those stereotypes of what women should be outside doing.
HG: Why did you choose street art — as opposed to other more “traditional” canvases?
Elle: I moved to New York about seven years ago. There were two main reasons I started doing street art, the first one being that I had never really seen it before moving to New York and it really spoke to me. I thought it was so much more powerful than gallery work I was seeing and I thought of it as a beautiful gift from the artist, given to whomever passed by. Secondly, I was living in a closet in New York and had nowhere to put my work. By putting the work up on the street, it allowed me to continue creating and not worry about what to do with the work after the fact! At that time street art was very far away from being a job or career, I just loved making art and couldn’t stop.
HG: Can you tell us about some of the symbolism behind your work, like tell us about the women with the wolf heads?
Elle: Sure. I like to paint and draw powerful, peaceful warrior women. I think we need more of a female presence on the street, and I like to think of these large 10 foot ladies that I put up as guardians of the pedestrians. As far as the animal imagery, it’s based off of a dream I had years ago, where I found a lamb skin and stepped inside of it and was totally at peace. I then asked all of my girlfriends to model for me and asked them what their spirit animal was. To me, it was more about wearing the skin we’re comfortable in, whether that takes a transformation through tattoos, animal skins, sex, and color, or if that means the skin we were born into — ultimately it’s about exuding the female power and peace.
HG: Why do you keep your identity somewhat of a secret?
Elle: I do graffiti as well as street art. We have this police force called Vandal Squad in New York, and it’s their full time job to track down and collect information on graffiti artists so that they can charge them and jail them . . . So, yeah . . . trying to stay incognito is not one of the most important things for me, it just allows me to stay active on the street. As I’m beginning to paint more murals it’s getting harder to keep my identity low key!
HG: As an artist, do you have any thoughts to share on the Charlie Hebdo tragedy in Paris?
Elle: What happened in France is such a tragedy. I think we all are together in the fight for freedom, and that means freedom of speech and freedom of creativity. We need to remember that, after all, it is what these men died for. My heart goes out to the family members of those murdered.
HG: What has been the most challenging work you’ve ever done?
Elle: Hmmm . . . challenging huh? I feel like I’m running into new and different challenges every day! Initially, it was: how not to get caught by cops . . . then how do I work up the nerve to climb up a billboard? Now it’s how do I paint a 10 story building in four days? Will the scale work? This year I got certified to use heavy machinery — lifts, to paint large scale murals.
HG: What needs to change in the art world so women are treated equally?
Elle: Maya Hayuk, who is a fellow artist and muralist, and a few other female contemporaries have been known to not participate in gallery and museum shows unless the institution represents a certain percentage of women. I find this to be incredibly honorable and, I can only imagine, effective. It is so so cool of them to take that stance. Obviously you need to have enough pull in order to be able to demand that, but it, at least, gets gallery owners and people considering the idea.
Elle: Haha . . . that’s a funny question. Sure! Let’s go for it .Banksy, you’re totally a woman, right!? 😉 hehe.