Kelley99 is a Seattle-based illustrator and “proud activist of the F-Word.” DIY badass with her own art tattooed all over her body, this punk princess is a full-time free spirit dreamer. Kelley sat down with Luna Luna to talk about art, Girl Power, and embracing the beautiful dichotomy that comes with being human.
Let’s start at the beginning. Where did your artistic journey begin? What led you to illustration?
I like the idea of an artistic journey. I think the moment we are put on this planet we begin a series of journeys, including an artistic one, the destination being whatever the fuck you want it to be or look like. That being said, illustration came into my life late in the game. I had already decided that I belonged in the art world but I was having problems with the idea of creating art for art’s sake. My specific journey is not that at all. It is to create art for the sake of telling a story. And dude, I have a lot of stories to tell…
Much of your work deals with an isolated character: a single figure and a lot of negative space. What inspired this choice? Is “isolation” the right word to be using when talking about these pieces?
You know, honestly, that wasn’t even something I realized I did until looking back at my body of work a couple years ago. Somehow my eye and my hand just have to tell the story that way, that’s how it looks in my head. There is often a single character -usually female- placed on the page without an environment or detailed background. This is my way of drawing your eye to what is of utmost importance. It’s a style of storytelling really, a diction of detail and a cadence of composition. It’s all so very Egon Schiele -an undeniable inspiration for me.
A series of your images also have text. What influenced writing on your portraits?
My small and yet significant affair with comic books and graphic novels has clearly had an affect on my understanding of narrative (shout out to my boys Daniel Clowes, Jamie Hewlett, and Jeff Lemire–all creators of some of the dopest comics ever illustrated)! Because of this “hobby” I love art that incorporates text, I love the point of view it gives the work. Sometimes I like to do blind writing exercises where I close my eyes and just write in my sketchbook. Although to be honest most of the time my eyes are closed because I’m laying out under the sun and forgot my sunglasses. I also keep a journal -well more like 8 journals including my sketchbooks that I use to write down sentences and vignettes in, and that’s where I pull a lot of my writing material from. Actually, I started writing on my work because I was frustrated with the idea that people might not be getting what I’m trying to say, and fuck that is such a reality for me!
Do you consider yourself an illustrator or a storyteller?
I’d be honored to be seen as a storyteller. I’ve met honest to goddess Storytellers before in my travels and I can confidently say I’m not quite there yet. Those are people that know what’s up. Mad respect to those old souls. I mean, I’d like to think I am an old soul but I’ve found that after all is shake’n and stirred I still carry too much fear with me; what can I say, we all have our pasts. My problem is I feel like my art pieces are always a part of the story, never quite a full tragedy or comedy. For the past 2 years I have been highly interested in my origin story, so a lot of my art is told from the perspective of my child-self. Honestly, I am still trying to figure out the story because I am always in the middle of it and my art is my way of taking a step back and trying to figure out where I am in this crazy labyrinth of Life. My illustrations are all parts of the map, key and all. The day I have completed that map is the day I have become someone with a story to tell. Funny story: it was only recently that I realized this so I haven’t been very good at the whole collecting thing. The work I have managed to archive is a percent of my entirety of work and therefore my story. Henry Darger is a role model and over all inspiration of mine when it comes to that artistic process. Almost his entire collection of work is the fictional—I say that with a heavy heart- history of these girls called the Vivian sisters who work endlessly to protect their fellow youth from their ever-imminent enslavement by the Glandelinians who are a bunch of lame adults trying to seriously harsh their mellow. I mean not like “go to bed on time before 9” type shit, but like torture and kidnapping type of harsh. Darger literally illustrated an entire history of wars and complete timeline of a world he either made up -or quite possibly lived in- over 6 decades worth of art documented on scrolls, books, and scrap paper. Quite the Storyteller I’d have to say.
You’ve used your art for survival. Talk to us about your adventure in Sweden: being stranded in a foreign country and selling your art to get by. How’d that work out?
Well, first a bit of backstory. I lived in Seattle where I worked as a barista and starving artist. It was quite an experience and certainly has a lot to do with my narrative. My twin sister lived in Sweden last year studying at a program called YIP (the Youth Initiative Program), where she actually took a course on storytelling and relayed it to me via Skype, fuck yeah modern technology. Anyway, after a really shitty year and quick visit to hell it was imperative I spend the summer with my sister since it is quite true nothing is more powerful than the healing abilities of a sister. I took the little money I had made via my emerging art career in Seattle and the cash earned from working at that coffee shop and began the adventure known as my summer in Sweden 2013. I actually had to cancel my first ever solo art show so I could make my flight. C’est la vie, eh? Haha! Long story shorter I got left in Sweden for a month due to a booking error. My sister was back in the States and I started the couch surfing life. I met a lot of amazing people whose memories with I wouldn’t trade for the world. A lot of them were artists which was nice to be back in a mutual creative energy that we could all feed off. The comic book pages I illustrated as well as a couple other pieces were a product of this creative communication. Expectedly, I ran out of money and after meeting an up-and-coming musician in Stockholm he offered to busk with me where I could sell my art on the sidewalk and he could play his music, which would have been awesome for me because he is a fabulous musician and people want to hear him play, drawing attention and time for people to give my art a moment to look through. Art is hard to sell on the streets because it is easily ignored. You have to physically put the art in front of someone’s face for them to stop and let it affect them, hence my love for everything street art. We never did end up busking together, but like I said a couple of really rad pieces came from that chapter in my life. I had a show when I returned to the States and showed these pieces in it. They were a hit and each one of them sold. Now I am back to being a poor starving artist as they say and to which I will always respond “C’est la vie.”
You’re also a tattoo artist. Or should I say DIY tattoo artist? We love the work you’ve done on yourself—especially the girl on your arm, very Le Petit Prince. Tell us more about that and your inked inspirations.
Very true! DIY or Die is the punk princess in me. All in all I think I’ve counted 11 self-given tattoos on my body. I love tattoo culture and the art that comes out of it, traditional and otherwise. But my passion is stick-n-pokes. I learned how to do it from a friend during our last night at this art school we attended what feels like a lifetime ago. It was very art school punk. We locked ourselves in one of the dorm rooms and gave each other various types of DIY ink jobs. I was interested in the stick n poke process and so began my practice as a tattoo artist! Though, to be fair, if I were to ever go into a tattoo shop and share such a story they would have a heart attack and then a good laugh at my expense. A lot of professional tattoo artists do not dig the underground tattoo arts as a lot of shitty tattoos come from it, which I have my fair share of especially because I got to where I am today by practicing on myself for the past 4 years.
Actually I found myself featured on a blog dedicated to showcasing crappy stick n pokes about 3 years ago, I think it’s called fucknosticknpokes. Still makes me smile. I have to say since then I’ve been featured on a couple more appreciative blogs like fyeahstick-n-poke (emphasis on the yeah). But the tattoo you mentioned, the little girl on my arm, was done with a tattoo machine. I didn’t have a liner because my boyfriend at the time stepped on the only one we had, so I loaded the machine with a 3 round shader and went at it. I absolutely love that tattoo. I’ve gotten a lot of people asking me if it was a stamp or if I had drawn it on with a pen since the shader gave it that kind of feel. I used to think I was going to go over it with a liner when I had the chance, but I don’t think I can bring myself to do that anymore. I got it because I wanted this tattoo inspired by an illustration of a little girl I did a while ago, and the creative process of how it came to be gives it such a young, inexperienced, and somehow naive feel to it. It’s time I embraced that little girl in me rather than continue to cover her up and feel ashamed about her youth.
Not to mention the masochism that comes along with sticking yourself with a needle could be seen as pretty adolescent. But my thesis statement as an artist has always been everything considered Beautiful has come from a very grotesque and often ugly process of becoming. No pain no gain.
This past year you’ve been part of a couple awesome feminist group shows: Becoming, a show about a feminist coming of age, and Pussy Party, a show celebrating pussy power. You’re a proud feminist, and we love it! How do you wed feminism and your art?
Damn straight I am a proud activist of the f-word! I cannot even escape it in my work. I draw a lot of women and I love the nude figure—not that that makes it inherently feminist, but I am all about Beauty and I only wish to create things that are Beautiful in the world. That being said, I do not believe in sugar coating shit. There are a lot of ugly things I have portrayed in my art and I do not want to take away from that. But I believe in the power of Beauty. I really do. I wouldn’t be alive if I didn’t. Feminism to me is all about the empowerment of the feminine. It is not about man vs. woman. We live under a Patriarchy which gives all the power to the inherently masculine values and the traditional holders of such values. To them feminine is weak. It’s a diss. You do not want to be called a girl. I mean hello they can’t even throw a ball! And under the patriarchy girls are only cool if they are “one of the guys”. She can geek out, play poker, smoke cigars, drink whiskey, and can fuck like a rockstar.
My art is about giving power to the feminine. Girls can be pretty with flowers in their hair and the most dangerous cat-eyes you’ve ever seen and she’ll still take a stinkier shit than you. As an artist I celebrate Beauty. As a girl I celebrate being inherently powerful because I am a holder of that Beauty. Girls deal with so much shit for being girls. So do feminine guys. Let feminism restore the balance. We all have feminine and masculine parts in us. Neither part is weaker than the other. We need both to smash the patriarchy. When we segregate the two in us we create self-hate. We are afraid of the part of us that we feel we need to hide. Fear leads to hate. Fuck hate. One of the rules to happiness: Fear less. Love more. That is my feminist battle cry.
And since we are on the topic of feminism: what are your feelings on feminism in the 21st century? How would you do it differently? Not to get too off topic, here.
I am a modern feminist in that I do not believe in the out-dated feminist beliefs like men are the root of all evil and bullshit like women have to follow some handbook in order to earn the title “Feminist”. I follow the Guerilla Girls movement and most currently the Riot Grrrl movement, which I find are heavy influences in my most recent work. Riot Grrrl is an underground movement based in the punk rock from the 90’s. It has its flaws as everything does, most notably the exclusion of WOC, which is honestly more than a flaw.
Feminism isn’t going anywhere unless we acknowledge all women in the world. But I do appreciate the punk rock feel to Riot Grrrl. It marries the masculine genre and feel of punk with the empowerment of all things feminine. Courtney Love is a great example of what I am trying to say. She continues to be seen as this monster crack whore for doing what male rockstars have been doing for ages. She doesn’t give a shit. She ain’t stopping for no one. As Rachel Shukert said once in her essay Nice Girls, “It took a special kind of guts to be a fuck-up as a woman.” Nicki Minaj is budding role model for me in feminism. She is a woman who has managed to climb to the top of a man’s industry and continues to fight for what she believes in. I respect women who are loud, in your face, vulgar, an agent of her own body, and able to communicate themselves however they chose to -artistically or not. I may not be all of those things yet but that’s where I wanna be. If it means being a failed female in the eyes of the patriarchy, I’m with Courtney and Minaj, the rest can eat it.
Artist to audience, is there anything else you’d like to add? Some words of wisdom, perhaps?
Embrace both parts in yourself. Yin and yang. Anima and animus. Sinner and saint. Rockstar and wall flower. Artist and audience. Explore both sides and get to know them whether it be through sports, fashion, writing, singing, drugs, meditation, or silent observation. Do not let anyone ever tell you who you are or who you are supposed to be. Study your passion and keep it alive. The most Beautiful people know Love. They also know everything it took to get there. We all have a story and we all have the right to tell it.
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