An artist spotlight on Elise Ferguson
How did you start doing stick and pokes, and why did you do them?
A friend of mine did stick and pokes, and I had been pretty anti-tattoo and body modification for awhile because I was a strangely moralistic child. I was like, “the body is perfect as nature made it,” and I didn’t wanna alter it. But tattoos became normalized for me and I became less focused on being anti-tattoo. I don’t believe in regretting my tattoos. I feel like each tattoo I have is important to me enough at the time that I want to get it that I feel like when I’m older I’ll appreciate what once seemed very important, even if it’s not anymore.
So, all of my tattoos are on the left side of my body because originally I also kept piercings to one side of my body, but I don’t anymore. I had pierced my left ear, so naturally I kept my piercings to the left side. I guess it was the same thinking, like “The body is beautiful and perfect in many ways, and so I want one half of me to be really pure.” Concepts of purity are really messed up, but I think at that point I wanted that. I think the skin is really beautiful and while marking it is beautiful, it’s also nice to have a full arm that isn’t completely tatted up.
How do you do stick and pokes? What’s the process?
Different people do them differently. There are different levels of sketchiness. For the old school stick and pokes, you wrap thread around a sewing needle and use india ink and stuff like that, but I was worried about sanitation so I got pre-sanitized tattoo needles and gloves, and little ink caps and alcohol swabs. You draw your design right on with the pen or draw it on the transfer paper and then transfer it to your skin with a special marker, and then you take a tiny bit of the ink and trace over the line. It’s poke by poke, so it takes a lot of time. Most of mine I did in sessions. Not many of them took less than an hour. It’s worth the time because it’s so much cheaper than going to a tattoo shop.
How do you decide what tattoos you want? Do you think about the designs for a while?
For a lot of the smaller ones, the day I did them I was like, “Okay, I’m going to do this today,” without much forethought. Most of them I’ve had in my mind for a while before I do them and most of them have significance to me– not that I think tattoos have to have significance. For me, there’s an aesthetic quality to them but I don’t do them for the aesthetics. The aesthetics result from the intention behind them.
The embroidery is something I started doing over break, mainly out of boredom, needing stuff to do and needing an artistic outlet. The embroidery is really interesting, I think, because there’s this whole culture of radical feminist embroidery. It is cool to see this art which has been labeled “feminine” and kind of devalued in that way be brought back in an at least partially empowering way.
Do you think you’re part of the larger embroidery movement or is your interest separate from that?
I don’t think I got into it because of the movement, I think I found out about it because of doing it. And then it got reinforced as another reason why I liked it. And then I made a Democratic Socialist patch, which is one of the radical politics-related things I made. It’s a really interesting medium to explore femininity and what it means to be feminine. Most of my art these days has to do with “femme” images like flowers or the moon. Embroidery has a vocabulary that’s really conducive for that. It has the “french knots” and ways to make roses and stuff. It’s inherently very soft but you can inscribe messages on it that are really hard and the juxtaposition really makes people think.
Do you think there’s any connection between the stick and pokes and embroidery?
There is a certain appeal in having a skill set beyond just sitting down with a paintbrush (which is a skill set too, and something I like to do also). But there are some things you can just kind of whip out and some things where you have to be patient with yourself and learn how to do them. Also, embroidery feels a little more permanent than other forms of art which can feel degradable or fragile. Embroidery feels more durable, kind of like how a tattoo is durable. It’s also a wearable form of expression. The other art I make, I put on my door and stuff but I don’t wear it around and it doesn’t get to speak my truth to the world. But tattoos and embroidery are things I can carry around with me on my person, so they do. There’s also this idea of creating this bigger thing out of a bunch of miniscule movements, like stick and pokes are dot by dot and embroidery is tiny stitch by tiny stitch.
How do you think these skills sort of fit into the digitized world we live in right now? Do you think it slows you down or helps you combat anxiety?
I think it definitely is a meditative process, especially with tattoos which are a mind over matter thing because of the physical pain you are inflicting on yourself. It does slow me down; it just takes a long time to do stuff. With embroidery it does kind of ground you and reminds you how long things used to take and how disposable we consider things now. Back in the day, people used to have to stitch their clothing; it gives you some perspective on how long it would have taken to make a gown, and especially on the people who still do that kind of work in sweatshops all over the world. It makes you realize how much physical labor and especially feminized labor is devalued. Also, with tattoos you have to make a commitment, which I think we’re not so used to now. Like the way social media sets things up, everything is very fleeting and aesthetics are very changeable. To commit to having this be a part of my appearance for the rest of my life is something. But at the same time, a lot of people in our generation are getting tattoos and they seem to bear less weight than they used to in other generations–like the act of getting them. So it’s interesting because we’re increasingly non-committal in some ways but also more willing to get these permanent things on our bodies.
Another connection between embroidery and tattoos is empowerment. The embroidery has that feminist empowering thing, and the tattoos have a lot to do with my relationship to my body, like loving the body and considering it to be beautiful in its own way. It has a lot to do with taking control of the body being like, “This is mine and I can do what I want with it and it’s not for other people to judge.” So it’s kind of addicting for me, because you get that sense of control over yourself and your life when you do it.