Virginia Elwood 

Boise might not seem like a counterculture mecca, but tattoo artist Virginia Elwood is making her mark, not only on the Gem State, but on the nation. After tattooing professionally for four years, Elwood was tapped by TLC cable network to join the cast of Miami Ink as a guest artist.

Elwood, who moved to Boise just more than a year ago from Boston, recently finished filming two episodes of the popular series based around a group of artists in a Miami tattoo shop. Taking a break from her day job at Inkvision in Boise, Elwood talked to BW about life, art and ink.

What drew you to tattooing?

It was a business decision. I was an artist and wanted to do it for a living and didn't want to bartend for the rest of my life—which is what I was doing, which is fine. But I just needed something more, and that provided me with that ability to make art every day and actually be able to support myself. That's a big goal of mine. Illustration and corporate stuff definitely wasn't going to do it for me, and I knew it.

What was it like to go from illustration to tattooing?

The process, the transition, was pretty challenging. I wasn't a professional illustrator, so it's not like I had this career and then switched. But I really feel I didn't learn how to draw until I started tattooing. You have to produce artwork at such an incredible rate, you get the hang of it. I think I draw way more than people who are artists, just because I have to every day.

Why tattooing?

Well, I had tattoos already. I got my first one when I was really young, 15 or 16, and I was a dancer and that's a no-no. You're not supposed to have any tattoos, and I definitely got in a lot of trouble for it. It sounds so silly, because it's not like this really at all any more, but I kind of really like the outlaw aspect of it. It just wasn't a conventional thing to do.

What was your first tattoo?

It's almost covered up. It was a tribal pot leaf—I'm not kidding—on my shoulder.

How do you deal with someone who is unsure about a tattoo?

If people aren't sure, I just don't tattoo them. As you work longer in the industry, you kind of are able to read people a little bit better.

Was it hard to learn the actual, physical, process of tattooing?

Oh yeah, You're still learning every day you work. There's no right way to do it even though there's a kajillion very, very wrong ways. There's no handbook and everyone tattoos differently. I apprenticed for two and a half, almost three years under someone, and it wasn't until the past few years that I finally started to understand some of the things he taught me. You really have to apply it, and you will always keep learning.

What's your favorite kind of tattooing?

I really love doing portraits. But I love doing tattoos that look more traditional, American-type things. I love combining realism with those, making it a nice juxtaposition. Black and white portraits, color portraits, anything.

Has a client ever come to you with a really unusual idea?

Yeah, all the time.

Is there one that stands out?

Recently, this guy wanted a potato with a realistic face—a beard and eyebrows and a mouth—not Mr. Potato Head, but like an actual, real face. He wanted it to have an arm with a hand holding a fork, with another potato on the fork, and a little blurb that said, "Tater Up," and that was weird. But then what made it weirder for me, is that he wanted it coming out of what looked like a flesh-zipper on his skin. He wanted to look like his flesh was unzippering to accommodate the potato.

Do you get to travel a lot?

I love to travel. You just learn and it's inspiring. I kind of have wanderlust. It's hard to just stay in one spot. Being able to travel as much as I do, I hope, cures that because I own a house here. I most recently went to New York and Boston and then to Paris to work, and this is just since April. God, I travel a lot. I've been to Miami twice, I leave tomorrow for California, and then I'll be in New York for a week after that, all for work.

How did you end up on Miami Ink?

They contacted me just before I left for Paris and asked me if I'd audition, and I initially kind of said no ... But then it was, "Of course I'm going to try, it would be silly of me not to." So I came home from Paris on a Tuesday night at like 1 in the morning, and I woke up at 6 the next morning and went into the tattoo shop ... I had a couple of friends just film a fake interview, me pretending to talk to a client, me giving a consultation. I overnighted it to them, and literally, within four days, I was down in Miami filming an interview.

Has the show helped or hurt tattooing?

In a way, Miami Ink has really helped tattooing, quite a bit. I have a lot more clients—women in their 40s and 50s—getting their first tattoo ever. They never would have gotten it before. So I think it's actually really, really helped. I can't say that it's hurt the industry at all. Industries change and grow. In the tattoo world, a lot of people have really old-school, traditional ideals. This is a very hidden and secret art, and you don't tell just anybody how to do it, you don't talk about it. I'm certainly not old-school, but I definitely understand where those people are coming from.

Is the industry changing as it becomes more mainstream?

Absolutely. I think that as tattooing grows in popularity, as it has for the last 10 years or so, and it grows in acceptability, you have more people trying to capitalize on it ... There's lots of people learning to tattoo that really have no business ever even drawing a stick figure on someone with a marker. But I think that the benefit to it becoming so mainstream is that people, it seems, are actually learning what a good tattoo looks like.

Is there any tattoo that you wouldn't do?

Like tattooing genitals—not so much. I'd have to charge a really high handling fee. It would be $500 for the tattoo, and $1,000 for the handling fee.

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