Inspired by the unique flavor of multicultural neighborhoods around the world, street artist ELLE creates evocative murals that celebrate local lifestyles and traditions. Appearing in places as diverse as Melbourne and Malaysia, her lush, collage-style works avoid traditional portraiture by incorporating a kaleidoscope of colorful facial features. “I…take into account the ethnicity, fabric, language, and culture of the individuals who live near my art,” she explains. “I want them to identify with my artwork, and think of it as a gift to them and to the neighborhood.”
Early in her career, ELLE—a pseudonym taken from the French word for “girl—noted a lack of diversity within street art circles, an imbalance she set out to correct. Painted as a love letter, her public works are an homage to women of all races, creeds, and backgrounds, from Ruth Bader Ginsburg to multicultural graffiti artists: “I decided that I wanted to imbue the public with powerful women; and so my work represents the powerful female, in the style of colorful collage.”
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
ELLE discusses traveling around the world to paint, letting your artistic visions run wild, and the importance of aligning work with your value system.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Elle Streetart: I was taking two months this winter to hide away in an airbnb in Kauai where I would comb the beach for driftwood daily and make abstract sculptures and stained glass in my makeshift studio. It was there in that studio that I stumbled upon two of my now favorite books: The first being The Artist's Way, and the second prose by Thich Nhat Hanh. You can't go wrong with any of his books.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
ES: Wangechi Mutu or Saya Woolfalk. They are both such an inspiration.
What do you wish you learned in art school but weren’t taught?
ES: I wish that I had learned glass blowing and bending neon. I'm working on learning both of these skills soon!
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?
ES: I think the best advice that I have received and that I could give to another artist is that if you continue to work on your craft, no one can stop you from creating the work that you want to create.
What does success mean to you as an artist?
ES: Being a successful artist means being given the opportunities that let your wildest visions come to fruition. For me, currently, that is producing large-scale sculptures. Let's see if I can make it happen!
What role does the artist have in society?
ES: I believe it is my job to empower, imbue beauty, and to question society.
If you had to pick one, would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist? Why?
ES: I would rather be historically significant. Although commercial gigs are fun financially—and also have the capacity to do larger scale projects often—there is something about being historically significant that means that you, as an artist, have touched on a nerve or broken a ceiling, or created something magical and new that is a contribution to the human race that will not be forgotten. I would love for my art to have such an impact—to touch on heartstrings and resonate deeply with individuals and society as a whole.
What’s your relationship with money?
ES: I believe that money will flow if I'm working hard enough and creating what I'm supposed to be creating.
Have you ever turned down an opportunity? Why?
ES: Yes. If a proposed project does not align with my values or "brand," then I will turn it down. For example, I try to live as environmentally friendly as I can, so I would not collaborate with a single-use plastic water bottle company. This also applies to my ideas on feminism, empowerment, etc. If a company does not align well with my art and beliefs, then I will not work with them.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
ES: I'm working on designing some sculptures. I've been wanting to create sculptures for many years, and I feel as though I'm finally in a place to start creating them. I am super excited for this!
How does your geographical location affect your work and/or success?
ES: I am lucky that I am able to travel all over the world in order to paint. I get invited out to amazing places that I would not otherwise have been. I was invited to paint in Penang Malaysia, for example, and it was the most extraordinary place with the most generous people I have ever met.
Please share with us a real-life art-world horror story.
ES: I was once putting street art up in the middle of the night, on my bike, in Miami, by myself. A man approached me in his car and told me that he wanted to chop off my feet. I jumped on my bike and rode as fast as I could to an open bodega and ran inside. I'm happy to say that I still have both feet intact.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
Want to be featured in Q+Art? Email email@example.com with a short introduction and a link to your online portfolio or three images of your work.