I am delighted to have a chance to go talk to and photograph the lovely Virginia Elwood, a seasoned NYC tattooer, very well respected and loved by many. Together with Stephanie Tamez (and Scott Campbell) she owns the outstanding Saved Tattoo, in Brooklyn, NY, a wonderful shop, that openly welcomes everybody, and it is home to a roster of amazingly talented tattooers. Virginia is not only a well known tattooer, she is also a creative powerhouse, a painter and owner of the line “It’s For Me”: t-shirts, totes, scarves and more, adorned with her tattoo inspired designs. She is also as bright and kind as it gets, even when trying to be honest and straightforward, even when she has her own opinions on things and is not scared of sharing them… even then, her integrity and passions are filtered with grace. It’s a real pleasure to work with her on many levels.
Virginia’s work is easily recognizable, a mix of bright traditional style, folk art and textile patterns: she has appeared in all the most important magazines, blogs, art shows, conventions etc. but at the end, in all her beauty, kindness and talent, she is just a tattoo artist and a really down to earth person, balancing life and work… like everybody else. Let’s get to know her a little better!
Where are you from and what was your first encounter with tattoos?
I grew up in Rochester NY. I wish my first encounter with tattoos was something cool, but in reality it was my mom who first introduced me to them. She was getting radiation for cancer and the Doctors tattooed Xs on the spots that needed to be treated. I’m sure I also saw some neighborhood dudes with tattoos when I was a kid, but I think my moms unintentional tattoos had the biggest impact on me.
Was becoming a tattooer an easy choice for you? Did you ever find judgmental people on your way?
I feel like tattooing kept tapping me on the shoulder until one day it finally punched me in the face. It’s what I was meant to do with my life. I used to draw “tattoos” on kids in the lunchroom in early high school and got my first real one at 16. I met Fat Ram (of Fat Ram’s Pumpkin Tattoo) in Boston just as tattooing was becoming legalized there and basically harassed him until he agreed to teach me to tattoo. I did find judgmental people on the way, but I think a combination of being naive and driven kept me from really observing the opposition.
I’m not a tattooer who found a personal style or success early on, but I was willing to work hard and do anything that walked in…
and I think that gave me a pass. I’ve also been really fortunate to work with really excellent and supportive men and women along the way.
How many years tattooing?
Your style is bright, colorful and old school inspired… how would you describe it? What inspires you?
Ram always told me the mark of a good tattooer was being able to handle any client, any design and any situation. I really took that to heart and didn’t think of myself an “artist” or even consider specializing in a particular style until at least 8 years in. Before I even knew what “traditional tattooing” was, I was attracted to the boldness and simplicity of that style. It just felt like it was something that could last forever and, especially when I was younger, I really needed to feel anchored to a tradition. My mom was an artist and a crafts woman so folk art and the tradition of making things by hand was heavily ingrained in me from an early age. I’m not the most skilled illustrator, so I realized I needed to work with what I have while continuing to push my drawing skills. I think it was important for me to spend those years studying and trying to understand before attempting to try my own style. Folk art and textiles have always been a huge source of inspiration for me.
You and Stephanie are a power couple of the tattoo world, but with totally different styles in tattooing… How you influence each other? And how you separate work and private life?
I can say for sure that neither Stephanie or I would ever think of ourselves as a power couple haha! We both really love what we do and that keeps us connected and grounded. Stephanie and I have different styles, but a similar ethos surrounding tattooing. It’s wonderful to have a partner who is as obsessed with tattooing and making art as I am. Stephanie and I both understand each others need to be constantly creating… we understand that it’s not a 9-5 thing. Sometimes you need to stay up all night painting. She’s inspired me to explore making art outside of tattooing and in turn I feel like that’s helped my tattoos.
Tell us about your line called “It’s For Me”… Where does this name come from?
Back in the mid 2000’s I noticed clients were starting to ask for tattoos to face them instead of the outside viewer. If I asked why, they would always say because “it’s for me”. Traditionally, tattooers are taught to place images on a client to be readable to the audience. The result is that the customer has an upside down view of their own tattoos. When the ‘it’s for me’ trend started, some tattooers weren’t into it partly because any tattoo you get is automatically for you. I never had any judgement on this either way, but it was interesting to observe how clients and tattooers navigated and negotiated this request. I love artwork and tattoos that have a sense of humor, so I started making T-shirts and tote bags and signing a lot of my artwork with an upside down “It’s For Me”. A few years later when I started to get more heavily into textile design, I decided to call my company It’s For Me as a way to pay homage to my tattoo roots. I also noticed that most of the “it’s for me” clients were young women. When I was in my early 20’s I don’t think I would of had the courage to ask a tattooer to do something out of the norm. Maybe that’s because I was already so into the culture and was always told to respect what the artist thought was best. Realizing that I personally would never impose my will on someone else was an eye opener for me… so “It’s for me” becomes a way to express everyone freedom of choice, in tattooing as well.
What did you learn in all those years tattooing? And how do you think the industry has changed? Who inspires you the most?
It’s hard to reflect on what I’ve learned in all of these years of tattooing because I still think of myself having so much to learn. I do know that pretty much everything good in my life has come from tattooing in some way. You give to the tattoo gods and hopefully they give back to you. I think the consumption of tattoos by the wider public has changed dramatically over the past 20 years, but the reasons most people get tattooed seem to be unchanging. Social media didn’t exist when I started and the internet wasn’t widely used yet, so information was passed more intimately. I see the pros and the cons of this. I remember my teacher (Fat Ram of Pumpkin Tattoo) telling me never to send my work into a magazine until I had been tattooing for at least ten years… I always stuck to that, but the internet totally changed that rule. Maybe it’s naive, but I still believe that word of mouth is the most sustainable way to keep busy long term. There are phenomenal tattooers out there (that you’ve maybe never heard of on instagram) crushing it everyday. The tattooers who inspire me most are the folks that figure out what works for them while still being open and flexible to new ways.
What’s your personal passions/fun things to do in life?
I really love having a creatively productive day in my art studio with my dog Tito by my side.
Photos by Elvia Iannaccone Gezlev