“I think people world rather see this,” ELLE tells ANIMAL, as she swaps a bus shelter ad with a monochrome self-portrait, swiftly and cheerfully. Just like that, she’s done and we head over to Brooklyn’s MECKA Gallery to meet the legendary street photographer Martha Cooper. Their collaborative art show “Unextinguished” opens this Saturday.
For the show, ELLE took photographs from Street Play, Cooper’s book of ’70s street scenes and portraits of kids, and turned them into paint-splattered collages and wheat paste sculptures shaped like dresses. The two share a great energy.
“Martha, do you consider me a street artist or a graffiti artist?” ELLE asks. “You’re a blend,” Cooper decides, but says what she really finds interesting about ELLE’s work are all her illegal tags and stickers.
ELLE is a California native who has been putting up work in New York for about six years. She has painted with the likes of PIXOTE and RAMBO and other notorious bombers and she’s versatile — she does wheat paste, street advertising takeovers and rollers, but her favorite tool of the trade is a paint-filled fire extinguisher.
“They’re the funnest and most exhilarating,” she says, just before she fires one out with elegant precision.
“Putting your name up is a powerful thing,” Martha Cooper tells ANIMAL. She was born in 1940 in Baltimore and has been taking photos since the age of three. She’s taught with Peace Corps in Thailand, rode a motorcycle from Thailand to England, got an ethnology diploma from Oxford, and, most surprisingly, worked as a staff photographer for the New York Post during the 1970s.
Cooper was introduced to graffiti art pioneer DONDI in the late 70s. Her seminal book Subway Art is often regarded as one of the bibles for the culture, but Cooper doesn’t seem comfortable in that skin alone. Her body of work is much deeper and larger than the outlaw art form. Yet, as she walks through Brooklyn, taking shots of the murals near the gallery, she says, “How can you ever say this isn’t art?”
The two bonded in “Shaolin,” the nickname Wu-Tang gave to their Staten Island stomping grounds, where Cooper was shooting ELLE putting up a giant roller.
It is no secret that the culture in which she works is a male-oriented one. “When I first started getting into graffiti and street art, I noticed a big lack in female presence,” ELLE says. She’s been working overtime to change that.
“‘ELLE’ means ‘she’ in French,” she told us back at her studio. It was a wild mess. Posters, drawings and various canine-themed oddities were sprawled all over the place. “My name and my art tend to be more feminine than I am. I want women to walk around and go, ‘Yeah, there’s a girl! Women power! There she is!”
(Photo: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)
Seems like all the challenges inflicted on her only encourage her, from harassing police officers to superfluous graffiti beef to this one time a dude rolled by and asked her shoe size because he wanted to cut off her feet.
“I’ve been chased by a man jacking off while I was wheatpasting,” ELLE recalls. Cooper cringes. They shrug it off and soon after, both get on with their work.
(Video and lead image: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)