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Talking Art and Career with Street and Graffiti Artist, Elle Street Art

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Mural on 11th Street and 1st Avenue in the East Village by Elle Street Art

A new mural was going up in my neighborhood. It was colorful, timely, and drew a crowd. The mural was of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the artist was Elle Street Art. I stood on the sidewalk with my East Village neighbors, we cheered on the artist, and some discussed the mural in detail. There were a lot of conflicting ideas. While Ruth Bader Ginsburg is at the center of the mural, there are quite a few symbols around her. It is a hopeful feast for the eyes. To clear things up, Elle was quick to explain the mural on her Instagram.

The flowers to the bottom left are Black Eyed Susans, which represent justice. Above that is the Brooklyn Bridge, signifying Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s childhood borough. Above her head are hits of a crown composed of her many collars. This is also a gentle nod to Biggie, the namesake of her nickname Notorious RBG. The justice of the Supreme Court seemed to enjoy the nickname. To the right of the justice’s heads is the turquoise swath depicting the ceiling of the Library of Congress. In front of it is the statue of Lady Liberty. To her right is the sculpture of the Contemplation of Justice, who sits outside of the Supreme Court house (originally carved by James Earle Fraser). Under the hand of this sculpture are some of the cases that Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued. These cases are Reed v. Reed, United States v. Virginia, Windsor v. US and Hollingsworth, and Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld. The red swath of fabric floating across the painting represents Wonder woman’s cape. Behind the Contemplation of Justice is an interpretation of the tympanum on the Supreme Court. To the right of that is the emblem of the United States, the eagle, holding a banner showing part of a quote by Ruth Bader Ginsburg – “Women belong in all places decisions are being made”. Lastly, there is the installation of Process Pride Flag. This piece was made possible by the public art charity The Lisa Project.

The Ruth Bader Ginsburg mural is far from the biggest the artist has painted. Her biggest work is a 10,000 square foot mural in Red Bank NJ. If you make your way towards Hudson Yards in NYC, you might also like to see Elle’s Hudson Yard’s mural in front of the “Vessel”, which is a 2,900-square-foot semicircular stretch of a wall. As is the case with many mural artists, Elle’s work takes her all over the world. She never seems to stop creating. Ruth Bader Ginsburg inspired and paved a way for young women to move forward in a career that still lacks diversity. Same can be said for street and graffiti art. It is the kind of dream job little girls didn’t necessarily dream about in the past, but thanks to artists like Elle, can now aspire to.

Read our Q & A with Elle Street Art.

Photography by Peter Marquez

Cultivated: Your work is very detailed, bold and powerful. Are you self-taught or did you go to school for art? 

Elle: I did get a bachelors of Fine art and Art Studio degree from UCDavis, and then I dropped out of a Post- Bacc painting program at Brandeis University. I then moved to NY and picked up street art and graffiti. I am mostly self taught with spray paint- although a couple friends (such as Bishop203 and Sye5) gave me some tutorials in the  very beginning.

Cultivated: I read that you are from California, what drew you to New York and did you know you wanted to do graffiti and street art prior to moving? 

Elle: I left California after school. I was already on the east coast going to school at Brandeis- so when I dropped out I figured I should see what New York was all about! I had never really “seen”  streetart or graffiti before moving to NY.

Cultivated: How does one approach doing graffiti art as a beginner, especially as a female? 

Elle: I started with wheatpaste- but I got drawn to graffiti because of the speed with which you could install a piece- and how prolific you could be. I was spending days to a week painting on paper for the wheatpastes- so the speed and possibility of proliferation with graffiti enticed me! I had a few interested situations when I was out by myself and with another girlfriend where a man chased me while jacking off- and another time where a man approached me and told me he wanted to chop off my feet- I would say being out late at night has it’s own issues of safety as a woman sadly.

Photography by Richie Benavidez

Cultivated: What is the hardest part about being a woman in your business and what ways can we start to change things?

Elle: I don’t feel like there is much of a disadvantage as a street artist/muralist. The world that felt much less acceptable to females was illegal spray paint graffiti… but there are many women who are very good and who have broken through the stigmas etc: Miss Reds, Honey, 17 in NY and more.

Cultivated: Your work has taken you to places all over the world, what is your favorite place to work, and how has the pandemic affected your routine? 

Elle: Penang Malaysia was one of my favorite places in the world to paint- it was extra fun because people that lived there were soooo excited about streetart! The pandemic has been very weird- I have had more down time, and time to work on conceptualizing and studio work, which has been great, but I’m used to living on the road, so it has felt a bit stagnant for me in that way. I did manage to do a few fun jobs despite the pandemic still in NY and Cincinnati this past year.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg mural in progress

Cultivated: Your mural of Ruth Bader Ginsburg has gotten a lot of attention, especially from New Yorkers and the press. How long has it taken you to plan the different details and how long did it take to finish? 

Elle: The RBG mural was a great honor to paint. It was commissioned by @IntoActionUS. The mural sketching took me a few weeks, as did the painting of it. I wanted to make sure that I made a tribute to Ruth that I thought she might have liked- something honorable and respectful, while still celebratory and colorful. 

Cultivated: You are an activist for social change: racism, women’s rights, police reform..Do these issues make it into your art on a regular basis or does it depend on the project? 

I feel a bit of a responsibility when I paint large scale public murals. I always want my work to beautify a space- but it’s even cooler when you can say “hey, what do you think about this? Or what are you doing about this issue?” with your work…. Although I would say that my work is quite poetic and different people might interpret it in different ways- there is generally a message or story of some sort behind it.

Cultivated: You started out by doing illegal graffiti. Now that you made it into some of the best galleries, shows and done commissioned public murals, is there a message you’d still like to convey about the way society treats art and artists?  

Elle: I feel very grateful for the role I get to play and the opportunities I get. I have found more of a responsibility to stand up and represent others who have it tougher than me, or don’t have a voice.If  I have a platform and a giant wall- I might as well use it to do some good if I can! This is not to say that I don’t understand the inequality of women artists represented in museums and galleries- but that I, and all of the women out here are working on that, and I think making great progress at the moment. Hopefully the institutions can work with us and we can make some real progress!

The Vessel, Hudson Yards Mural

Cultivated: Any advice for aspiring female street artists? 

Elle: If you work hard enough on the thing you are passionate about, nothing can stop you.

Cultivated: What is the highlight of your career so far and what’s next? 

Elle: Hmm.. that’s a  difficult question. There have been so many highlights. From working with global brands such as Nike and Ikea, to celebrities like Steve Aoiki and Dani Leigh, to painting the wrap around wall at the base of the Vessel in NY- I think the coolest thing about my job is that opportunities pop up out of nowhere and I never could have even dreamt up the opportunities that I have been given thus far. I would say that’s the best part- the unknown of what might happen in the future or what I might be able to do- it’s beyond my wildest dreams!

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