Virginia Elwood is a tattooist, fine artist, and co-owner of Saved Tattoo with her wife Stephanie Tamez. Elwood is optimistic about the increasing accessibility and diversity of the tattoo world, which herself and her community champions at Saved Tattoo. After being encouraged as an apprentice to take a general approach to learning all sorts of tattoo styles, Elwood now works mainly with emboldened, colorful, designs as well as distinctive, black and white realist pieces.
What is your name, birthplace, and year of birth?
Virginia Lee Elwood, May 24th 1980, Rochester New York.
Where did you grow up? Please describe your upbringing and sociocultural background.
I grew up in Rochester NY. Too far away from NYC to be considered part of the tri-state area, which really bothered me as a kid because I wanted to live in NYC so badly. Both of my parents worked and my brother and I were “latchkey kids”, so we were pretty feral and unsupervised. This led me to become very independent at a young age.
In the 70's and 80's the “American Dream” was still somewhat possible, so my Dad was able to get a job at Xerox even though he wasn't educated. At that time, most corporations were still providing good healthcare, living wages, and educational opportunities to its workers, so my father was able to go to college through a work-sponsored program.
My mother was a social worker and editor by profession and an artist and writer by practice. I credit her as my earliest and biggest creative influence. She was very supportive of me exploring whatever creative practices I wanted–which for me turned out to be dancing. I was pretty serious about it and wanted to do it professionally one day. Unfortunately, my mom was sick for several years and then passed away when I was 13.
My home life wasn't great, so I moved out around 16 and started working full time. If my mom had lived longer I think she would have pushed me to finish high school and go to college. But fortunately, I found tattooing. Tattooing was my art school, it was my support system, my family–it gave me a sense of purpose and direction and a way to support myself as an artist. Tattooing has brought me every single good thing and person in my life and I'm eternally thankful for that.
Where do you currently work? Prior to that, where have you worked?
I've been a co-owner of Saved Tattoo with my wife, Stephanie Tamez, for over six years, and until recently Scott Campbell. Prior to that I was at New York Adorned in Manhattan, Ink Vision in Boise Idaho, and Fat Rams Pumpkin Tattoo in Boston Massachusetts.
How long have you been tattooing?
I never know whether or not to include my apprenticeship in my total time tattooing. I can estimate that I've been tattooing for 16¬–18 years. I always thought I would never forget the exact date I did my first tattoo, but sadly I have. It's all mixed up in the tattoo stew!
What inspired you to learn tattooing, and what did you initially learn how to tattoo?
So many things came together at the right time to inspire me to tattoo. I got my first tattoo in 1996 from a one armed biker in Rochester–it was a tribal pot leaf picked from flash on the wall. The biker had me stretch my own skin because he only had the one hand! I wish I had a photo of it because it's been covered up by my back piece.
I was living on my own at that point and was being exposed to a lot of cool and crazy shit. I had friends who were already tattooing in shops but it hadn't yet clicked in my brain that I could try to learn. I was still pretty hung up on wanting to be a professional dancer, but it's really difficult to do that without some support, either financial or emotional, from your family. Eventually, my practical side won out and I started thinking of how I could make art for a living with no education, connections, or money.
Around 1999 I moved from NYC to Boston and met Ram, who would eventually teach me to tattoo. He was in the process of opening the first legal tattoo shop in Boston and I was taking continuing education classes in drawing at Mass Art. I'd come by the shop while it was under construction and show him my drawings, and eventually got hired to be the shop assistant. I basically just harassed him until he agreed to teach me. I was not a very good artist, but I was willing to work hard.
Were you trained through a formal apprenticeship? Describe the circumstances of learning.
I was extremely fortunate to have had a formal apprenticeship under Fat Ram of Pumpkin Tattoo in Boston. The artists I worked with there early on really influenced me and helped show me the ropes. Thank you Kimberly Reed, Marcus Kuhn, Chad Chesko, Claire Vuillemot, and Josh Mcalear! The apprenticeship was pretty tough and really thorough. Pumpkin Tattoo was a busy shop specializing in custom work, but we also got a ton of walk-ins. I got a very well-rounded idea of what tattooing could look like. Ram taught me how to make needles, cut springs, build and tune machines, mix pigments, deal with clients, draw for tattoos–the list is endless. I still refer back to the notes I took from him and Marcus to remind me of lessons I may have forgotten.
I was always told not to specialize in any style or send photos into magazines until I had been tattooing for ten years. The idea was to help me learn to do everything and anything, because styles come and go over time, and if you wanted longevity you had to be well-rounded. I'm grateful that I came up with this mentality but I'm happy that I did finally gain enough confidence to add my own style into my work.
Have you previously studied art in an institutional setting? If so, what level of training did you reach and in what disciplines?
School was never for me; I hated it right from the start. I wasn't a dummy or anything, I just couldn't focus, didn't like the structure and dynamics, and had a lot of anxiety about tests and homework. I had a lot of exposure to art at home through my mom and remember that art and music classes were the only part of school I could stand. I imagine if my circumstances had been different I would have gone to college, but at the time it wasn't a viable option for me. I started tattooing when I was pretty young and after that school seemed even more unnecessary.
I'm always wanting to learn more to improve and build upon my artistic vocabulary. Over the years I have taken classes in painting, basket weaving, and drawing. I continue to seek out new mediums and techniques in less conventional ways–institutional settings just aren't for me. I think learning in unconventional settings has taught me to be aware of the gaps in my knowledge and to not stress too hard about them.
Did that training help as you learned the mechanics of tattooing? How did you develop your style? How would you describe it? What are your influences?
When I was learning, the mark of an accomplished tattooer was someone who could do all styles really well. There were less tattooers then, and less clients, so to build a following it helped to be very well rounded. This was very helpful for me because I had no formal art training. I basically learned about art and myself as an artist through tattooing.
I'm grateful I came up that way and believe it's served me well. But I think that mindset started to hinder me around year seven or eight of tattooing. I was doing solid tattoos at that point but wasn't excelling much artistically. Working with Darcy Nutt at Ink Vision opened my eyes to what else was possible, but my time at New York Adorned is when I really found myself creatively. My first year or so there was an insane boot camp of constantly tattooing everything that walked in the door. I think I started to get so burned out that I just said "fuck it, I can't find a good reference for what this clients wants, I'm just going to draw it how I want to draw it". This was certainly not a revolutionary way to think but it had honestly never occurred to me before. I assume that art students are challenged in this way early on, but since tattooing was my art school it took me a bit longer to connect the dots. When I began to put more of myself into the tattoos I was doing, clients responded really fast. I went from thinking of myself as only a craftsperson to considering myself as an artist. I've always been drawn to traditional tattoos; my style and approach are very informed by them.
"By incorporating weaving, fiber arts, painting, and a tattoo sensibility, I explore and define my boundaries and process of healing from trauma."
What do you look for in a shop?
If Saved ever closes and I have to find a job at another shop, I'd look for a place that's just like it. At the moment, I work with an incredible group of people. They're all self-motivated, creative, innovative, socially conscious, and forward looking, while still respecting tattoo history and traditions. Plus, we have a lot of fun together which is an important dynamic for me.
Do you have any hobbies outside of tattooing?
Tattooing is truly my main love. I do have interests outside of it, but one tends to inform the other. My wife Stephanie is a prolific artist and has inspired me to become very focused on making fine art. Most of my non-tattoo work is influenced by my interest in and foray into textile design and various forms of weaving. By incorporating weaving, fiber arts, painting, and a tattoo sensibility, I explore and define my boundaries and process of healing from trauma.
If you would be comfortable to, could you expand more on the notion of exploring and defining borders and processes of healing through art and tattoo? In what ways do you think art, tattooing, and other creative practices, are important for processes of healing?
I know it may sound naive but I truly did not understand that what you wrote, drew, or painted could be a reflection of your inner life, and that you could draw conclusions and deeper understandings through them. Everyone deals with trauma in their own ways. In order for young me to cope and survive, I learned to detach myself from the sexual abuse I endured through my childhood and teens. It helped me feel safe to some extent but it also erased my capacity to experience a wide range of emotions. Being cut off from a large portion of myself made it challenging to grow as an artist and a person. I think making art and tattooing has helped me on a path to healing by providing a safe way to explore how my past has influenced my present. I find it less intimidating to make something and analyze it after, as opposed to just straight up talking about painful things with no buffer. Making fine art is how I explore these traumas. Using tattooing would almost feel like a breach of boundaries with a client, and I wouldn’t want to lay that heavy energy on a client or into their tattoo. Just a few years ago I probably would have viewed this question as too personal to answer, but I’ve come a long way and feel comfortable being open about my past now. So many of us are shamed into silence by physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; talking about it has helped me lift some of the stigma.
What inspires you generally?
I recently moved into the woods (about an hour north of Manhattan), and I've found the quiet to be incredibly inspiring and strengthening. I'm inspired by my partner Stephanie, my dog Tito, and by my co-workers at Saved. Being physically active is a great way to help clear my head, which allows creativity to flow more freely. Having a really open conversation with someone is very inspiring, I am very much fed by hearing other people’s experiences and takes on life.
Are any other forms of media, traditional or digital, important to your work?
Folk art, outsider art, naive art, and folk art textiles have been very important in my development as an artist. Being self-taught, I always battled the voice in my head telling me I was an imposter and that I had no right calling myself an artist. Although, I imagine we all do this to some extent, formally educated or not. Getting into those particular styles helped free me from those detrimental thoughts. I started to try and emote through my work, instead of trying to make a super slick design. My background in ballet really helped me with this–I didn't always have the most incredible technique but I was always able to put all of myself into a performance. It took me years to apply that knowledge to my tattooing.
Is traveling important to you? If so, where do you usually travel? Do you have any interesting experiences abroad that you can share?
I was really fortunate that Ram liked traveling and doing conventions. I started working them right away and that had a huge impact on me. I met some amazing people that I'm still friends with today, and was exposed to so many incredible tattoos and styles. This was before social media, so to see what was out there you had to wait for the monthly tattoo magazines to come in or travel and do conventions.
I remember back in 2006 or 2007 Claire Vuillemot and I did a convention just outside of Paris in Vincennes. It was my first time tattooing in Europe and I had no idea what to expect. The convention was in several glass buildings with no air conditioning or shades. It was really hot outside and the effect was basically like tattooing in a green house. I fried my lamp and power supply because I didn't use the correct adapter, and we didn't know anyone there to ask for help. Traditional tattooing was definitely not cool in France at that time and Claire and I kept having people pointing at our portfolios and laughing! No joke, just straight up laughing at us. Claire (understandably) left and spent the weekend sightseeing. While sweating my ass off in the greenhouse, I stayed back and used her power supply to do trash polka style walkups all weekend. Maybe not my most fun travel experience, but it was humbling, and I definitely learned a lot on that trip.
What is the main challenge of tattooing today?
Wow, that’s a big question because there are so many challenges depending on where you're at in your career. I think becoming and then staying relevant is a big deal for most tattooers. I consider myself to be “a lifer”–I do other forms of commercial art, but I can't imagine not tattooing. As social media continues to ramp up it has become more important to me to utilize it as a helpful tool instead of hoping it's a passing trend. I do think that word-of-mouth and good customer service are crucial to getting and keeping clients, and I try to integrate those practices with social media.
One thing I'm very aware of is not making choices based on what I think the audience will respond to.
If I started tattooing today I'm not sure I'd be able to hack it. It seems like a lot of the new tattooers come in already knowing how to draw amazingly well and have an established “brand” or identity. That's not meant to be a dig, it's true that more people who've attended art school want to become tattooers and those skills are taught there. It took me so many years to learn those lessons through tattooing. I imagine with how fast things are moving now, I would not be able to keep up if I was just starting out.
I think it's really challenging that everything is caught on camera and posted on the internet right away. That's a lot of pressure! If you don't speak the internet language, if you suck at social media, or aren't doing really eye-catching work, you'll just get buried. It's important to step back and look at your work, spend some time with it before posting it and opening it up to outside influence. It's important to post healed photos of your work. It's helpful to be honest with yourself and clients about how tattoos age in the body.
There are just so many incredible artists out there doing insane tattoos! I'm blown away every time I look at Instagram! The bar is really being raised and I think that's something that can only help us.
Ideally, how would you like to see tattooing evolve? How do you think it will evolve realistically?
Ideally, I'd like to see tattooing evolve to become even more inclusive and socially conscious. I see that happening already but I think we can always push to do better. Modern tattooing has not historically made room for marginalized groups, which is ironic if you consider that a lot of the early tattooers felt like self-described outsiders. But even if they were outsiders, they were still predominately white and were generally afforded the luxury of choosing to live on the fringes of society without too much fear.
Now that tattoos have become less fringe and more widely accepted, I think a lot of the barriers to entry have been diminished somewhat. When I first started tattooing, I wasn't ‘in the closet’ per se, but I definitely wasn't fully out. I had a lot of fear and not a lot of role models to show me what being a visible queer tattooer could be like. It's not that those pioneers weren't out there (Roxx, Stephanie Tamez, Kari Barba to name just a few), but we didn't have the same access to each other that we do now.
So much has changed for the better in a relatively short amount of time. People of color, folks in the LGBTQ community, and men and women who don't fit into traditional stereotypes are all making room for themselves in tattooing. It's very inspiring to me. It's about time, and I think tattooing is only getting better as a result.
I'm pretty hopeful and optimistic that the positive changes I'm seeing will only continue to grow and take root. But I often have to remind myself that Stephanie and I have (along with our co-workers) built quite a sanctuary and that doesn't reflect all of tattooing.
I'm interested to see how technology, science, pop culture, and the visual arts will continue to impact tattooing. All of those sectors have been creeping in for years, taking from, and in some cases adding to, tattooing in ways we never imagined. So many tattooers are successfully straddling the line between what was always considered low brow and the fine art world. Some are taking their knowledge and experience and applying it to academic research and writing.
I think that anyone who loves tattooing has a strong desire to protect it from outside influence–I know I certainly do. Finding a balance between loving and respecting what tattooing was and being open to the mounting changes is challenging–but my sanity and ability to participate in my favorite thing in the world depends on it.
What do you think some of the effects of an increasing overlap between the art world and tattooing could have on both spheres?
It’s often a good thing (in my opinion) to add more, and different, perspectives to a traditionally “closed ranks” community. If you only have the same types of people making art and tattoos, and the same types buying or collecting them, then there’s not a lot of room for meaningful growth. Creating in an echo chamber doesn’t interest me at all–I want to have my opinions, influences and views challenged. The fine art and tattoo worlds have been historically un-inclusive to people of color, women, the LGBTQ+ community, and outsider artists. Opening the realms of these two worlds to outside influences will hopefully increase the likelihood of visibility for underrepresented artists out there.