[NSFW] What's a Female Artist to Do When Her Art Goes Viral—without Credit?
A Q&A with 'Sweet Dreams' artist Sabrina Elliott about drawing strong women, finding unexpected inspiration, and the work she wants to protect from becoming clickbait.
Sabrina Elliott, Sweet Dreams. Images courtesy the artist
A girl collapsed on a bed; a woman’s other-wordly face; a feminine, embodied dare. The women in Sabrina Elliott's paintings aren't shy, and neither is their author. Whether she's recreating a famous icon or creating a new character, Elliott crafts women protagonists (and other creatures) marked by boldness, eroticism, and usually a pair of deeply expressive eyes. And she doesn't stop at paintings—her designs emerge through zines, wood etchings, ceramics, and enamel pins.
With a love for odd kitsch, the 26-year-old Portland-based artist has a resume that spans mediums. As a publication illustrator, she's appeared in articles about everything from spooky Portland bars to Colorado cannabis laws. Her drawings have also leapt to life on book covers, in a comic anthology about weird sex, and two personal zines published by Valley Cruise Press. Each Elliott-crafted image (no matter the material) keeps it dark, a bit zany, and touched with a little anime influence—perfect material to be dragged, dropped, and reshared without credit to the artist, which is exactly what happened to one of her more recognizable images.
Elliott spoke with The Creators Project about her inspirations, goals, and the dilemmas plaguing her pursuits as an artist.
The Creators Project: What’s been inspiring your work lately?
Sabrina Elliott: I’ve had a period of complete growth since college and got back into painting seriously this last year. When I went to the Anime Expo in LA this summer, I witnessed all these amazing artists. They were young and talented, and their work was in so many different creative mediums. I came away with so much inspiration and really kicked it into gear, coming up with more paintings and projects.
When I’m not working on those, I have a small day job at an amazing store down the street called Hello Good Morning. The owner collects vintage kitsch and international toys—I buy lots of it as inspiration for new work. I love the handmade colorful oddity of stuff like that.
You hold a job during the week and still have enough time for your art?
Yes—it’s a great balance. I had three day jobs when I lived in NYC, which was killing me. It helps that my day job is charming and visually stimulating.
It also enables more creativity in my work. I’m experimenting with pins, prints, stickers, Shrinky Dinks, ceramics, and enamel pins. It may not be the best thing to be a “jack of all trades master of none,” but I think, to develop your potential, it’s good to have fun and explore different mediums that get you thinking outside the box.
What will we see from you in the near future?
I still enjoy doing illustrations professionally from time to time, but long term, my heart and desires are set on gallery shows and expanding my store. I’m going to have a show here in Portland at Pony Club Gallery this October, and that will be my first official solo exhibit, showing my recent paintings and some brand new stuff.
Frankly, I can’t wait to see more of your illustrations of women. What inspires that?
I just think that women are so powerful and beautiful. Not that men aren’t—they’re extremely lovely, in a different way—but I just see women as magical. I’m inspired by my strong female friendships and my partnership with my girlfriend, Tina Lugo. I see some of myself in my paintings, too.
You know Studio Ghibli films? They feature these women who are simply strong, they’re powerful examples for young women. I want to depict strong women in a similar way. Strength isn’t gendered. Power, magic, friendship—women have those things just as much as romantic intrigue. I wish blockbusters explored it more. It’s too bad Marvel shies away from that sometimes, because they think it “doesn’t do well,” but I just don’t think that’s true.
It comes through in your work. Sweet Dreams is one of my favorite pieces.
That was originally the cover for a personal zine, Infinite Tenderness, by Valley Cruise Press. It included all of my strongest work from right after I graduated. But here’s the thing: it’s my most popular image, and I’m glad it’s resonating with so many people, but now, two years later, it’s been shared and manipulated by so many—usually without permission or credit.
That seems like a dilemma—your work is popular, but your name isn’t attached to it...
Right. I posted the final image on my website when the zine was done in 2014—that image has around 250,000 reposts now. But it’s been turned into memes, my signature’s been cut out, and it’s captioned with things like “all females sleep like this.” One of the hardest things to watch was when “9Gag” posted that image on their Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, everywhere, without credit, as a meme. Millions of people “liked” it and shared it. I tried contacting them but they’re notorious for not giving artists credit.
Isn’t some part of that illegal?
It’s super tricky when you get into it. But I am currently looking into legally copyrighting that image so it’s official. It’s not as bad for me as it is for others—I have a friend dealing with a famous clothing line outright copying her work—that’s intense. Thankfully no one so far is stealing and selling my design. But they shouldn’t be repurposing either. I can see “Sweet Dreams” getting worse over time across the internet; it’s screen-capped over and over and the quality keeps deteriorating.
It was never meant to be a meme. My work is purposeful and personal. I put my heart and soul into it and I love that people find it relatable, but I’m trying to make it as an artist. When work is distributed without credit, it’s a blow to artists, their sales, and small businesses. And when something made with love and conscious thought is just turned into a mass-produced meme with no regard for the artist or what they’re trying to do—that hurts.
Do you think it’s intentional or malicious at times?
There are some commenters who say things like “no one cares who the artist is” when followers try to tag my name and credit me, but for the most part it isn’t malicious. At this point, many users and celebrities are reposting it, and I’m sure they’re not trying to purposefully further the problem. I’m more sad about the original re-posters who started this. I truly believe those people who found it first saw the original credit and information. And they purposefully re-posted it without it. Now it’s harder for people to find the source.
Does anyone try to?
Yes, thankfully! The few that do are great. I love getting emails saying, “It took me forever to find you but I’m so glad I did—I’m sorry I didn’t credit you before, I love your work, thank you.” It’s refreshing.
So what makes it all worthwhile to you?
When someone understands that I’m an independent artist (and a small business) and they want to help me out, that’s real support. And when artists make something so well-loved, it’s nice to be recognized for it. But ultimately, if something personal to me becomes personal to someone else in a really positive way, I love to hear it. It encourages me. We make a connection through the art, and it feels honoring and sweet. I’m all about doing exactly that—I’m not in it for the likes.