She's Electric

Much buzzed-about American street artist Elle takes on London, and shows at Saatchi, while she's at it.

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Getting arrested and scaling billboards is an occupational hazard for street and graffiti artist Elle. "You've got to be dedicated," she laughs as we grab a coffee (me) and hot cider (her) at Café 1001 on London's Brick Lane. You also have to be flexible: she is supposed to paint a piece of Hanbury Street tomorrow, but it's going to rain (naturally), and the paint is going to run. But no matter, Elle has another project on her hands this week—the opening of the Saatchi Gallery's XX: A Moment In Time exhibition, featuring a series of her new works. Curated by Olly Walker and supported by Yasha Young, it brings together a host of contemporary female street and graffiti artists from around the globe, as part of a larger show, Champagne Life.

Elle in London, February 2016.
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"This show is really huge," says Elle. "I mean, I can't say I ever dreamed I'd be showing with Saatchi," she adds, "so that's really big." The Oakland-born creative studied at the University of California , Davis, then spent some time in France before doing her postgraduate work at Boston's Brandeis University. "I feel really lucky that somehow [graffiti] became a career for me—even though it's not something I always wanted to do," she says, mulling it all over.

Following seven years in New York, she now resides in L.A.—that is, when she's not travelling and painting the walls of the world, her favorites being one in Malaysia, and another in Brooklyn. "I just want to keep travelling and painting," she reasons. "It's really a beautification project."

A Elle piece in New York City, August 2014.
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A self-confessed late bloomer by traditional street art standards, she broke into the scene seven years ago in her early twenties. It was around that time in New York that she found herself inspired by the Chelsea murals of Gaia and Swoon. "I thought it was such a gift," she recalls. And while living with a friend in a closet of an apartment with no space to make art, the street became the ideal canvas and place to do it. "It's so much better than something in your bedroom where no one can see it," Elle says.

Elle working on a commission piece in San Francisco, May 2015.

Since then, she's gone from sneaking out late at night to graffiti "pretty hard" (fire extinguishers have been a more extreme tool of choice in the past; now she prefers a humble spray paint can) to creating huge murals (which is legal as she has to get permission to do them and the time they take means they're no covert operation), being invited to show at galleries and festivals, collaborating on an exhibition with photographer Martha Cooper (a personal highlight of hers), and even teaming up with Ikea.

Brooklyn, New York, May 2014.

Her latest work, however, is inspired by abstract and tropical florals with some figurative pieces, too. "I went to Hawaii a couple of years ago and I was inspired by the colors, and the great plants out there that were the same color as my art, and I was like, 'Whoa this is so seamless,'" she says. "Then I came back to New York and it was so grimy and gross, I thought, 'Wouldn't it be amazing to bring back floral bouquets on a tagged up or gross door?' So, it's a continuation of that.'" The work, a mix of black, white, and gold (even the 24-karat variety), is a combination of hand drawings and stencils in spray paint and acrylic.

Commissioned mural in Penang, Malaysia, November 2014.

How does she her describe her style? "I'm pretty eclectic. I have a pretty bright palette." It's a sentiment echoed in her personal style, too: her fingers are bedecked in trinket-y rings, two spelling out her Elle tag; there's a sweep of pink across the lids of her heavily eye-linered eyes; and her leather jacket is splattered with paint. Elle's not afraid to get her hands dirty, and that has resulted in being arrested on more than one occasion. How many? "A few," she winces. It's not something she advocates, of course. "It's really not fun and I would try at all costs to avoid it, but it comes with the territory."

XX: A Moment In Time runs from February 3 to March 6.  

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