With all the tattoo related products available to the ‘consumer’ these days, it is always a moment of pure joy when you come across something that is original and fresh. Recently, I had one of these moments when I first saw the art of Ellen Greene. Ellen falls into the category of collector and lover of tattoo iconography, rather than tattoo artist, and her work is heavily inspired by the tattoo world, specifically the flash of the old school tattooists.
Ellen was born and raised in Lawrence, Kansas. “A town,” she says, “full of contradictions. Frat boys, Christian evangelists, ex-hippie hobos, gutter punks, artists and rock stars all called Lawrence their home. From tattoo culture and punk rock to new wave feminism, mysticism and fashion - each subculture carved deep aesthetic grooves into this red-headed misfit who understood that creating art could help me cope with a world wrecked with anxiety.”
After graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute, Ellen set off for Chicago and it is from here that she now runs her art studio. When you look at Ellen’s artwork, it is easy to see her influences and passion in life; tattoos. “Universally recognised iconic imagery forms the foundation of traditional tattoo art. No one needs to explain what a heart or a star means. These symbols have been drawn the world over and speak deeply to humans throughout civilization. Traditional American tattoos are ultimately connected to sailor culture and acted as talismans within that culture.
Clipper ships ensured a safe homeward journey, a Hula girl was for your time in Hawaii and sparrows were put on your chest when you had completed so many miles at sea. The power of the tattoo rested in their symbolic function more than their fashion or aesthetic. Tattoos are an essential expression of our humanity, reminding us of our unique and universal feelings of love, fear, sadness, defiance, desire and joy that we all experience in our lives.”
But as with all truly original artists, Ellen likes to take stereotypical images and twists them to reflect changing societies or to bring out deeper meanings that lie beneath them. “We project ideals of masculinity upon the soldier. He should be tough, he should be brave and he should be handsome. He is our archetype of a hero. These masculine ideals are reflected in the macho images used in military tattoos. I am particularly intrigued by the sailor tattoos. Clipper ships stand with an erect mast on a courageous voyage home. The bald eagle, with its talons spread, is an aggressive predator. The stars and stripes, symbolising a homeland where a sweetheart waits piously until her hero comes home. These are ideals I look to twist and distort in a search for an authentic voice. Just as I use terms like ‘slut’ or ‘whore’ over aggressively feminine pin-ups, I use terms like ‘faggot’ or ‘sissy’ in banners with images of sailors and boxer boys with rosy lips and cheeks.
“This is not shock for shock's sake. It’s about the way images and words are used to control people’s sexual expression and create cultural gender norms. These are the archetypes of male and female in our culture that I look to undermine and create anew!
“I’m fascinated by building on an older style, like the pin-up, who many say was perfected by Sailor Jerry, who mixed skull, dagger and snake motifs together with a busty beauty. He combined both masculine and feminine icons to create pin-ups that were bordering on dangerous. ‘Man’s Ruin’ was a common banner placed across an ample butt. I like to push this hybrid pin-up one step further and draw deeper, darker, more overtly sexual figures evoking a dark goddess figure who are life-givers and life-destroyers, not merely sexual toys.
"The punk rock feminism of the Riot Grrrls was an early influence on me. There exists an aggression and anger in my pin-ups that reflects these principles, as well as from my own personal experiences. I was such a shy and soft-spoken ‘good’ girl reared on Midwestern '80s pop culture. But what I was drawn to as an adolescent; the freak scene, the art kids, the queers and losers; put me on the outside of ‘normal’ in my Kansas hometown. The music and DIY aesthetics of bands like Hole, Bikini Kill and The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, gave me courage to carry on. I still tap this vein of emotion when drawing my pin-ups. They dare you to call them a bitch!”
Ellen’s latest creation to combine all these influences and ideas, are her gloves. But they are not just gloves; they are brilliant pieces of art that catch your eye the minute you see them, forcing you to look at tattoo iconography in a completely new way. “My work explores the contrast between two opposing traditions. White gloves have long been known as an article of women’s clothing, while the art of tattooing has been regarded as traditionally a male pursuit. The white gloves evoke a sense of purity and of formality, while the art of tattooing may suggest carnal sexuality and rebellion. The tension between the two helps define my personal aesthetic, as well as my original tattoo-inspired designs which adorn these vintage gloves.
“I bought my first pair of gloves purely out of a sensual longing. The leather was so buttery and smooth, a slight beige colour with only a faint indication that they had been worn. My imagination ran wild with all the people and things these gloves mush have touched. These gloves, I knew, were worn for special formal occasions like weddings, funerals and dances. Certainly these gloves were present at rituals tapping into the strongest human emotions.
“I didn’t paint on the gloves immediately; they hung around my studio as odd objects often do. It was much later that I was overcome with an urge, not a thought or concept, but an urge, to paint on the gloves. I was immediately shocked and pleased by the way the image changed the gloves from a recognizably wearable item into something else. They transcended their objectivity; they spoke about the emotion that I felt was inside them when I first held the gloves.
“I see the gloves more as paintings than fashionable – they aren’t wearable. They come beautifully framed in a way that the gloves are not glued or pinned in, thus keeping the glove as an object intact. The frames are designed and fabricated by my husband, David. My studio is right above my husband’s custom metal design shop so we get to collaborate on a lot of my projects. I do paint wearable gloves but they will all be very limited in their editions and the first ones will be available only through my solo show in September here in Chicago. The show is at Firecat Projects. Firecat is Tony Fitzpatrick's new gallery. Tony is a well-know artist who wanted to showcase new talent in what was once his storefront studio. He was the first one to really push me to do the gloves. I had always made them, but I felt they were kind of secondary to my paintings. Tony was the first one to say, ‘You've got to make the gloves your focus – make MORE gloves!’ And when Tony Fitzpatrick tells you to do something, it’s good to listen.
“I have tattoos and love it when a tattoo artist digs my work but I define myself as a painter. Tattoos, history, folk art, Riot Grrrl, circus freak shows, fashion; these are all points of inspiration for me, with tattoos being the most obvious because I explore all these other ideas, through the language of the tattoo imagery. I like the freedom of painting vs. doing tattoos on clients. In the paintings on gloves I can imagine a tattoo no one in their right mind would ever get, in a place that cannot be hidden – the hands. It’s this tension between the formal fashion and the sexual deviant truths of tattoo imagery that really keeps me fascinated!
“People are often surprised by my work because I seem so ‘nice’. But you know, it is very much an artistic expression and not who I am. That line gets so easily blurred! However my work does come from experience and personal internal work, so in that case I contradict myself! I am my art!”
Ellen’s work is controversial and there is no doubt that it will offend some people, but they are beautiful works of art. And is it not the role of the artist to mix mediums, push boundaries and challenge how society looks at itself? Either way, love it or hate it, there is more to Ellen’s work than shock value, there is a love and passion for tattoos and its history and iconography, and it is these values that keep her work fresh and original.
Ellen’s show opens September 16, 2011 at Firecat Projects in Chicago.