30-year-old tattoo artist Ellena Donlon works out of Sweet Life Gallery in Birmingham and creates traditional tattoos. We caught up with Elle to chat Korean tigers, as well as what and who inspires her work…
How long have you been tattooing? I started my apprenticeship September 2015. Prior to that I went to the University of the Arts in London studying a degree in Fine Art and I think I graduated in 2012. Graduating was a tough time, I never really enjoyed my degree as I felt I had to stop drawing and painting to make way for more conceptual work to please the tutors, that meant I lost a lot of direction, so I decided to figure things out and move back to my hometown, Birmingham.
What inspired you to join the industry? Did you do anything related to art before? Me and my partner opened up a record shop and as I started to get tattooed again after a good 5 year gap, I realized that tattooing would be my dream job. I started to seek out an apprenticeship, which took a long time, but I persevered it was the only thing I could think of that I wanted to do with myself, and that was worth waiting for.
Can you describe your style? Starting off my apprenticeship my style was very different to what it is now. Then it was purely a case of turning my style of illustrations into tattoos. I’ve only ever really had traditional tattoos on myself, and as my career has progressed my designs have evolved into a stylised version of western traditional.
We love your Korean style tigers and animals, what inspires these? What influences your work? What inspires you? Korean style tigers! They’re so freaky I love them, I have a huge one on my back done by Will Geary who has a crazy good imagination, it’s actually bonkers. I guess I’m drawn to beautiful oddities. I see no point drawing things how they are in real life, the world can be very monochrome it’s up to artists to mix that up, so I guess that’s why I’m drawn to them.
Also you create more traditional women and flora is this inspired by something completely different? I get inspired by a lot of religious imagery particularly from Asia, I love south western tribal art, alchemy and witchcraft and the 70’s! But I must say my biggest push are other tattoos artists. Some of my inspirations are Walter McDonald, Dan Higgs, Robert Ryan, Windle Berry and Gregory Whitehead. All of these people adopt this weirdo traditional style, which is what I hope to one day pursue. I love that surreal style it pushes me to work harder with my own and attempt to think in different ways.
But my true loves are Claudia de Sabe, Rachel Rhatklor, Valerie Vargas, Wendy Pham and Lizzie Renaud. Apart from Wendy Pham these women predominantly tattoo traditional ladies and lady heads. Ladies and flora have always been my favorite subject to draw even before I tattooed, I can draw and tattoo them forever no inspiration even needed, it just cheers me up. I don’t really see my lady heads as a separate thing per se, but they certainly come a bit more naturally to me than my animal or surreal work.
Is there anything you would love to tattoo? I’m desperate to do more famous lady heads. I Would love to do anything from a John Waters’ film, Dolly Parton, Cher, Poison Ivy from the Cramps, the girls from B-52s, Kim Gordon if any of those trigger anyone’s fancy!
Can you tell us about your own tattoo collection. My personal collection is predominately traditional. The thing I love so much about a traditional tattoo is that is gets better with time, like fancy cheese! In my opinion this is the style (alongside Japanese traditional and tribal) that celebrates the body so perfectly, it is timeless yet has still evolved with each decade. I love Dan Higgs, I have tributes from both Nick Baldwin and Teide who are both fans of his work and I think they’re my favorites. Me and my partner are going to LA later this year we’re hoping to get tattoos from Derrick Snodgrass, And I’m saving my hands for Rachel Rhatklor, if I ever get chance to go over to Australia or she guests over here.
Do you have any guest spots planned? I will be guesting at Crooked Claw in Sheffield in April and Death’s Door, Brighton in June, with some other exciting ones in the pipeline!