Illustration

Astrid Elisabeth: Drawing is Free Therapy

November 06, 2017

Astrid Elisabeth crafts elegant illustrations that depict the essence and form of the human body. As both an illustrator and tattoo artist, Astrid doesn't limit herself to a surface, she can make her colorful pastel work on paper and then translate her style to tattoos, a craft that she's gained a substantial following for. It's a delicate and precarious balance, one that she executes masterfully. 

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Your work seems to center on primarily bodies, has that always been a huge theme in your work or did that work its way in later on?
I love the human body. Drawing it makes me feel like I’ve given birth to another person. Flesh and guts give me this visceral pleasure. I think people will always be able to identify with a figure or a face, whether it’s just a projection or they’re reminded of someone they know. I love drawing saggy breasts, both as a reflection of my own and, honestly, because it gives me more space when I color them in. I didn’t think it was a big deal until a stranger thanked me for the representation. I also love drawing larger bodies. There is so much more to explore in terms of line and shape. I get a lot of reference photos through risky internet searches, mostly from strange, intimate, disposable camera-quality situations. Sometimes I wonder who the people are behind the homemade porn I find, and I wish that I could thank them for the contorted body angles. I draw what feels good aesthetically and emotionally. Especially if it makes me laugh.

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How did you get involved in doing tattoos? Was your work primarily done in black and white and that just translated well to tattoos?
I taught myself how to tattoo by practicing on my own skin. Then on the skin of brave friends who liked my artwork enough to accept that the application would be... amateur. I wanted to do an apprenticeship, but the opportunity wasn't there and I'm both impatient and stubborn. There's a lot of toxic bro culture in the tattoo scene, and it was hard to find a place where I could exist as a queer woman who wanted to tattoo in my own style. I took it seriously, though, got my bloodborne pathogen license, made sure I had sharps containers and quality equipment, etc. I know of some stick and poke artists who will tattoo twelve people in a row at a house show in a dark room, and that's not something I support. It is also a terrible career for a perfectionist, and I struggle knowing that mistakes, however small, are permanent. It's difficult to hear a client tell you that they're going to go scuba diving right when you're finished with a piece, even though they signed a form that said they must avoid water for three weeks. Once someone leaves the shop, the healing process is out of your hands.

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I love your use of bright, almost pastel colors, especially when used on paper. When did you start incorporating this into your work? Have you worked this into your tattoos as well?
I’ve been making art my entire life, but as a teenager, I slowly morphed into a “clinical” artist that only cared about realism. I was unwilling to use anything but pencil on white paper. While it’s an amazing way to learn how to draw accurately, it was a stagnant time where replicating an image was more important than being imaginative or emotional. I eventually hit a wall and realized that the work I was creating was impressive from a technical standpoint, but ultimately meaningless. I think artists can get easily trapped in the photorealism game. I knew I needed a huge change, and that change came when a professor in college told me to do a project on brown paper with white charcoal. It sounds anticlimactic, but it really made me wake up and remember that art is about exploring and being uncomfortable, not making something look "real". I started buying paper in flesh tones and colored pencils in all the colors I had always thought I hated. I stopped using references and relearned how to draw from my mind, like I used to as a child. It's way harder to invent than it is to reproduce.

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It seems like being a tattoo artist is one of the best ways to go about being a working artist. What are some challenges and benefits to being a tattoo artist while making drawings and paintings outside of your tattoo work.
I’ll never be able to tattoo the way that I draw, mostly because my drawings are heavy in pastels and whites. It’s not something that will translate to skin or last. I like to keep the two separate for this reason, and because I had to strip down my drawings into just line work, I feel like I inadvertently found an additional style. It is interesting to see the shift in the tattoo industry these days. Clients appear to be moving away from pre-made or traditional flash, and towards a more abstract representation of their ideas. Some people even tell me to draw whatever I want simply because they are looking for a piece of "art" instead of symbolism that represents a personal narrative. Still, I would never recommend an artist picks up tattooing just to make money. Beyond the obvious reasons, you’re often dealing with people’s most intimate thoughts, feelings, and traumas, and it’s up to you to create something meaningful to put on their body forever. Often without any real context from the client, just an innate trust that you will bring their idea to life. And you’ll be doing it several times a week. Every week.

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How has transitioning from New York to the San Francisco Bay been? What are some benefits of being here and some things you miss about New York?
I started tattooing while living in New York City, and was waiting to transition from my living room into a real shop. However, being self taught means most shops won't take you, so I had to sit around and hope for an invitation. This hope became a reality when I was invited to guest at Modern Electric in Oakland, which was extra serendipitous because I'm actually Bay Area born and raised. Loyal to my soil, they say, although BART has nothing on the subway, and bars close at 2 AM here. I'll get back to New York next Fall, but I'm loving this extended visit home where I'm lucky enough to be surrounded by some of the most amazing, talented, and hardworking women tattoo artists in the game.

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What are some future goals for your work? Are there any other mediums that you've been eyeing?
Honestly, I drew every day for three years when I first moved to New York, and tattooing has thrown a huge wrench in that. There are so many more boobs I need to draw. I have so much more commentary about relationships with narcissists and sociopaths. About customers from hell during my years in the service industry. About being sexually harassed. About lizards and teeth. So many more thoughts about food porn. Drawing is free therapy, for better or for worse. You can’t really tattoo your issues on clients, so my goal is to get back on track with putting my feelings on paper. It's all about finding the time.

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Do you have any shows coming up for your work?
I do not! The internet blesses those of us who are both lazy and introverted, and also punishes those of us who are both lazy and introverted. But my tattoos are on permanent display on many bodies, possibly in a city near you, and that will always feel pretty amazing.