Artists in Residence: ELLE in
Inspired by iconic Polo imagery, three artists took to the streets of their beloved cities to create large-scale murals that reflect both their neighborhoods and their signature style
New York City
ELLE is waiting out a statute of limitations. Until then, we will only know the street art muralist—who made her name doing illegal graffiti—as ELLE. The moniker is the French word for “she,” the artist explains over the phone from her partner’s farm in Northern California, where she retreated to from New York during the COVID-19 pandemic, and where she’s been painting canvases outdoors for the past few months.
“I don’t release my legal name publicly,” she says. “I think there’s a 10-year window until you're good, so I’m just playing it safe. It’s so crazy because a lot of the people that I met in New York in the last 10 years only know me as ELLE. I don’t really have anyone that calls me by my real name anymore. My mom even sometimes calls me ELLE.”
She chose her nom de plume when she first started wheatpasting (making art posters and adhering them to walls with a sticky glue made of flour and water) and painting billboards illegally in New York, but those early days, filled with arrests, have long passed. She chose the name because there were so few women street artists in her crew, and the inclination to represent women is still there. Most of her murals now feature a woman’s face—or seemingly several women’s faces spliced and collaged together—looking rebellious and tough and vibrant.
“They are representative,” ELLE confirms. “They are super multicultural. It’s not a portrait of any one individual, but more so that they’re representative of ‘the female.’”
And they’re always done with a skilled touch that evidences ELLE’s artistic background. She started doing sketches in high school, but opted for a food science and technology track at UC Davis in Northern California before realizing she “didn’t want to be in a basement for the rest of her life.” So she changed course, and graduated with an art history degree, and then went onto study painting in Brandeis University’s post-grad art program. But the school’s syllabus focused on painters whose use of color didn’t suit her own saturated style.
Frustrated with the curriculum, ELLE dropped out and moved to New York, where she took up odd jobs and bartending gigs. But New York’s vibrant street art scene started to call out immediately.
“I was really disillusioned with art school,” she says. “Everything I made ended up rolled up under my bed, and nobody ever saw it, and it never lived. It was so beautiful to see work on the street in New York, and people taking photos of it, and other artists collaborating with it. All of a sudden the artwork was taking on a life of its own. That whole aspect of artwork on the street being there for anyone to walk by and interact with was really exciting to me.”
She started wheatpasting intricate drawings around the city, but would quickly become frustrated when a poster she made over several days would get power-washed off soon after she pasted it up. So she started painting graffiti with spray paint, climbing billboards. Soon, word spread of her prowess with a spray can, and she had a two-person gallery show with street art legend Martha Cooper at Mecka Gallery, leading the spray paint company Liquitex to sponsor her by giving her as many cans as she needed.
“I started asking people if I could paint their walls,” she reminisces. “I was just walking around painting any wall that I could. People would be like, ‘Is it gonna cost?’ And I’d be like, ‘I’ll do it for free. I have this free spray paint and I want to paint the wall.’ Then I started getting invited out to Berlin and different places to actually paint murals and so it kind of snowballed into what I do today. I never really expected this to be a job; I just kept following these weird passions. When I was doing graffiti, I was going to jail; it wasn’t necessarily taking me on a path that was going to go anywhere good. But fortunately it did.”
Now she has studios in New York and LA, and is one of the most sought-after muralists in the world, with artwork in places like New York, LA, Berlin, Amsterdam, London, and Mexico City, among others. A museum exhibition in Amsterdam at the beginning of 2021 is next on the agenda.
But first, she’ll head from the Northern California plein air farm studio to New York to paint the Polo collaboration. The work for Ralph Lauren is actually four pieces: three smaller murals in front of a larger-scale painting on the side of a building, each with one of ELLE’s signature women. The front three pieces feature a polo horse activated by Snapchat AR so that a pony blasts out of the painting and allows users to toggle the colors in the image. The larger hero piece, as ELLE calls it, depicts a strong woman in front of an abstract neon background, almost evoking a kind of ’80s influence.
“I like to play with fluorescent lighting and different lighting hitting the faces of the women,” ELLE says about the piece. “You can’t tell what ethnicity the person is. It’s just really cool colors. So she’s got some braids, she’s got some cool earrings, and she’s made up of a bunch of different layered faces.”
In the end, it’s ELLE’s style that shines through.
“These murals are done in the same style that I typically do my work in,” she says. “I like to consider them a sort of poem that tells a story of a really beautiful, powerful woman. And typically they’re very colorful, as well. And so I was on the same page as Ralph Lauren. When I heard, ‘Make something really vibrant and colorful with a woman in it.’ I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. This is already my work, essentially.’”
- Photographs by Nika Kramer