Virginia Elwood is a full-time artist at what is considered one of the top tattoo studios in the country, New York Adorned. So you know what that makes her? Right! One of the top tattoo artists in the world. She’s probably best known for her exceptional portraiture work for which she is far too modest. She also recently launched a line of beautiful and cool commuter cycling clothing which is doing quite well. Virginia lives in Brooklyn. We met Virginia because she tattooed one of our editors, and we knew we wanted to talk more.
stated: Please describe your work in a sentence or two. You can be serious, fun, cynical, ambitious…anything you like, of course.
VIRGINIA ELWOOD: Wow, this question was actually pretty hard! There are so many things that interest me, it was hard to condense into one paragraph. I hope my answer will do? Let me know if it’s the worst answer you’ve ever heard.] I’m lucky to have many things I enjoy working on. My tattooing is based largely on American folk art with some black and grey realism thrown in. Through my eco-friendly apparel line, Pedaler Clothing, I try to help cyclists be comfortable and good-looking on their bikes. And in my spare time I write fiction and rock climb.
stated: The first time you put ink on someone (surely the way I put that is not how anyone working as an artist would put it… “Put ink on someone…” come on, that has to be a huge tell. Anyway, the first time has to be incredibly exciting. Can you describe it?
VIRGINIA ELWOOD: Giving my first tattoo was unplanned. I had already been apprenticing for a year and knew it was coming soon… but it still took me by surprise. The shop I learned at in Boston (Fat Ram’s Pumpkin Tattoo) had a guest artist in town named Dave Shoemaker. I had a date planned for that night with someone I had already stood up twice. I was telling Dave about this, and I believe he thought it would be funny to be a no-show for the date a third time… so he had me draw a small traditional rose over and over until it was “perfect.” Then he dropped the bomb that I was going to tattoo it on him that evening. I couldn’t say no, even though I would look like an ass for standing my date up again…it would of been way worse to lose face in front of Ram and Dave. That rose tattoo would take me about 20 minutes to complete now, but we were there for about three stressful hours that night. Dave just kept telling me “not to worry, that no one would ever see it” because he was planning on tattooing black over both of his arms. That was in 2001 or 2002 and last time I saw Dave, the tattoo was still there.
stated: And did you know then that you would be a tattoo artist?
VIRGINIA: I was never really the “art kid” growing up—I wanted to be a professional dancer or a writer. I drew when I could but it was never a huge passion for me. I was always pretty good at rendering things, but not so great at creating something out of thin air. I think I tend to have a disdain for things that come naturally to me and am more proud of things that I’ve struggled to accomplish.
stated And pardon my ignorance, but doing portraiture surely has to be the most difficult tattoo work. Can you describe what specific tattoo techniques are required to do portraiture well?
VIRGINIA: It’s all smoke and mirrors.
stated: Like magic?
VIRGINIA: You need to have your technique down, you need to be able to look at something and copy it well, and it helps to have a basic understanding of facial anatomy.
stated: Why bike clothing?
VIRGINIA: My business partner Trinity and I are both cycling commuters. We were both finding ourselves altering our clothing to make it easier to ride in… and one night, over a bottle of wine, we dreamed up Pedaler.
stated: Wine is at the source of all great ideas. Can you share with us the kernel of the idea, and the evolution of how you made it happen?
VIRGINIA: The idea was to make sustainable clothing for cycling commuters…so not spandex and jerseys, but clothing that looked more like streetwear, but cut in ways to facilitate riding your bike. The tops are all bamboo and everything else is US-sourced fabric (when possible). It’s tough being the little guy because you have to meet fabric companies minimums to buy their fabrics. So we would often design something based on a certain fabric, only to find out they won’t sell to us because we are too small. It’s like putting together a puzzle whose pieces keep changing. Luckily Trinity is a dynamo—she really drives the company. Everything is sewn in Southern California.
NOAH ASKED VIRGINIA:
Fellow stated artist and Broadway song & dance man, Noah Racey (who thought Virginia’s work was “@#$%ing unreal,”) asked her the following about her work…
NOAH: If your pictures could do one thing, what is a (non-realistic) fantasy of what your artwork could do as opposed to simply sitting there as a painting on someone’s body?
VIRGINIA: Tattoos only hurt when they are being applied to the skin—once they are healed there is no more pain. If the tattoos I’ve done could do something other than sit in the skin, I think they would start to hurt the wearer again every time they are an asshole to someone else…(not that any of my clients would ever be assholes). They only have to correct the behavior or apologize; they wouldn’t be able to tell anyone about the pain… That way I won’t lose any business!