The Queen of the South - Conversation with Elisheba Israel Mrozik

Published February 3rd 2023
Interview by Jay Sanchez

Throughout history we’ve been taught about the great Queens that have ruled amongst us in past civilizations. None compared to the empress Elisheba Israel Mrozik; who just happens to live and rule in her magical kingdom of North Nashville. The Queen has been an active member of the North Nashville community and the local Art scene since her arrival in Nashville back in 2006. A native of Memphis, TN who not only proudly embraces her rich heritage, but also continues to infuse positivity for her entire community through her extraordinary work. A trailblazer: she’s not only Nashville’s first black tattoo artist, but also the first to own a tattoo shop in the Middle Tennessee area. Her genius graces galleries, buildings, and skin not only locally but all around the world.

I had the absolute honor and privilege of chopping it up with Elisheba in her studio back in late 2022. This conversation took me on a ride I was yet to experience as a writer for NumberInc Magazine. A ride that will give you a greater understanding of one of the city’s most prolific Artist, a greater understanding of the greatness and power of The Queen of the South. Elisheba touched on her early beginnings back in North Memphis, her unique experiences as a painter and tattoo artist, and her overall motivation to continue to be the powerful element many do not like to acknowledge.

Raw, Uncensored, Unapologetic…

“Gratitude, exuberant joy and prosperity in spite of you, your father, and your forefathers.”

—Elisheba Israel Mrozik

Jay Sanchez: It’s an absolute pleasure to be here in your studio Elisheba. This interview has been at the top of my list for quite some time now. It’s an honor to be having this conversation with someone as talented and respected as you.

Elisheba Mrozik: I appreciate your interest in documenting this conversation, it’s long overdue my brother.

Jay Sanchez: I totally agree with you Queen. I’ve been following your work since 2011 and let me just say that never in a million years did I see this conversation happening. Now, here we are locking in this conversation in collaboration with NumberInc Magazine. I want to take the reader on a unique trajectory with this one. Let’s take this conversation back to those early days back in Memphis, Tennessee.

Elisheba Mrozik: Yea North Memphis mane, home of Three Six Mafia. Uncle Carl’s house over on Argyle to be more exact. I also lived in East Memphis. That was on the other side of town. This gave me access to quality education that otherwise wouldn’t be offered to me in the hood.

Jay Sanchez: What was that upbringing like? How were you interacting as a young creative?

Elisheba Mrozik: When I started at Germantown Elementary, I was one of five black kids in an all-white school. My identity got really fucked up mane, folks back home calling me Oreo just because of the school I went to. Those early years were a bit mind boggling, mom was just attempting to give me the best opportunities by putting me in that school. I was always being creative one way or another. Once I got to middle school I returned to Memphis City school system, which at that time was providing a more engaging art program. In middle school I cut back on my drawing and painting because I was intrigued by other forms of expression, so I became a theater kid. Once I got to high school, I decided to get back to drawing and painting, theater was not allowing me to have a full creative process. In the quest to find my identity this was extremely important to me because I wanted to be in control of my own narrative. The women before me had only accomplished so much, it’s always been important to live as no woman in my family did before.

Jay Sanchez: You’ve touched on identity. Why was this important to you at such a young age?

Elisheba Mrozik: My mother was an extremely cultural influence on me. “She would always take me to museums, expose me to art, and above all celebrate our black culture. Going to an all-white school was very instrumental in me seeking my greater identity. I was a fucken weird kid that enjoyed a lot of shit I was being exposed to by kids that looked differently. It was difficult to fit in with my own community and those I went to school with. I have never felt anything less of who I am, A Black Woman. “To me being a black woman is political, my existence is political.” I was an only child living with a single mom, and to make shit worse she was critical of everything I did. She did her best to keep me straight while giving me tools for greater success, mom was tough on me for real. Regardless, my focus was always on creating and flourishing as an artist. Me seeking greater identity never had anything to do with me feeling any lesser because I was black, I’m fucken proud to be who I am… “I know I’m black, my name black as fuck mane.” I was selling drawings to these kids paying big money for dinosaurs or whatever they needed me to draw. I knew then that this was going to be my career growing up, so I took my ass to college to further my education. My mother was completely against me making it a career, she didn’t see it reasonable or possible to succeed in life as an artist. Fast forward I got my BFA from Memphis College of Art, I been determined since day one brother.

JS: Those words gave me chills sister. I applaud your determination Elisheba; you were destined to be the creative genius you are today, nonetheless. Now, how did you end up in Nashville? What brought you to the city?

EM: Opportunity brother. I graduated from college in 2006, I wasn’t fully engaged in the art community at this time. Although I was doing a lot of freelance work around town, my work wasn’t hanging in galleries nor was I as active as I should’ve been. I had a daughter that required me to be more responsible. Life was just pulling me in a different direction, so I applied for a few jobs eventually landing a management position with Game Crazy here in Nashville. I also did some substitute teaching for some time. That period in my life was really focused on new beginnings and a new life for my daughter and me. So just like that I brought my ass down to Nashville, this by far was the craziest shit I’ve done since my trip to Japan.

JS: Oh shit, hold on! You’ve done what? Please take the reader on that journey on how you ended up taking a trip to Japan.

EM: I saw this commercial back when I was 16 years old about studying abroad so I took down the information. I asked my mother about going and of course she shut that shit down. Nobody in Memphis wanted to be in Japan more than me bro, people around me were giving me all kinds of shit for being such a geek who loved video games and loved dressing up like anime characters. So, behind my mother’s back I signed up for the trip! My mother had no choice but to allow me to go for 6 weeks, it was so surreal. Upon my arrival I met the prime minister, then got sent off to the family I would be staying with during my stay in Japan. This shit was dope on so many levels.

JS: I love Japanese culture sister; My goal is to make that trip one day; explore the country, experience their rich culture, and ride around Tokyo in the Mario Kart excursion. What was that experience like for you? You’re a Memphis girl visiting Japan.

EM: Shit was a trip. One day I’m walking down the street just minding my business, I saw this Japanese couple in a scooter, they stopped and drove back towards me. Once they pulled up beside me on the street, they asked me if I was from Harlem and if I had a gun as if I was fucken Nino Brown my dude. Their concept of being black was only what they had seen on TV I assumed. The entire world seems to have this idea or concept of what black people are or should be. I got to experience something that most of us in Memphis couldn’t even imagine. And even though I encountered some oblivious interactions with locals, Japan holds a special place in my heart.

JS: This conversation has some powerful layers that I see necessary if we went ahead and touched on Queen. Typically, I like to give the reader the origin story and greater understanding of the artist I’m conversing with. Let’s take this conversation on a more unconventional path. Considering all we’re still experiencing in the black and brown communities you said something earlier that really fucked me up; you said your existence alone was “political”. Could you please speak more on this statement?

EM: Look mane, the art community doesn’t fuck with me like many may think they do. People are still baffled by my rawness and how I choose to express myself artistically. I get told all the time “why do you only paint black women?” I never hear any white artist getting asked why they only paint white people. The world has been taught to hate our black skin; it’s my duty to not only celebrate my skin color, but also celebrate my greatness as a black woman. Black people are the most hated people in the world, yet they are the most copied and exploited. My work aims at expressing our beauty, rich culture, and overall changing the reaction towards the black community into something positive. Let me ask you a question brother, do you know the root of black hate?

JS: I know that it goes back a few centuries, heavily rooted in Portugal. You can totally school me on more specific’s sister.

EM: Gomes Eanes De Zurara; this Portuguese chronicler influenced the development of black hate and the colonialist ideas that continue to affect black or brown communities till this very day. This individual is credited for writing the first ideas focused on black hate in history. Whenever you get the chance to read the book “The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea” Prince Henry was determined to capitalize on slave trade and free labor. The richness and greatness of all the people of Africa was diminished by these writings and compared to only servitude. They figured out how to capitalize by kidnapping African families for their own benefit, and although this was back in the 1450’s the concept in De Zurara’s writings is still visible this very day. My work will always reflect these emotions, this is the reason why my existence is political. Through my entire journey in the Art world, I have learned to recognize those that are sincerely for me. I can recognize when someone is for the greater good of not only my community, but all those less fortunate as well. To say the least; I can smell a bandwagon punk motherfucker across the railroad tracks. We’re changing the narrative with the support of those who sincerely are for this elevation. My intent is to continue to create work that embodies this energy, maybe that’s the reason why I’m just now having my first solo show (laughs). I’m too outspoken and that shit makes people nervous.

JS: For some reason your comment made me think of the hypocrisy once spoken by Thomas Jefferson and I quote “No person living wishes more sincerely than I do to see racial equality proven” This comes from a piece of shit whose slave ownership is estimated at 600 brothers and sisters tortured and raped in the name of wealth. I might get canceled for this one Queen (laughs). With that being said, let’s talk about Elisheba who is also an extraordinary tattoo artist; the first Black, Female, Owner of a shop in the Middle Tennessee area. Tell us about the journey in becoming one of the most prolific tattoo artists this city has ever seen.

EM: I appreciate you and NumberInc for given me the platform to be more candid with my words, this conversation can easily be taken in so many routes. My experience as a tattoo artist is also testament to the lack of understanding and representation of the black community.

JS: Are you saying that your journey as a tattoo artist has also been political?

EM: Most definitely! Have you ever seen any white supremacist without any tattoos?

Just think about that brother.

(She takes a break to speak to her son) “Django I love the picture you’re drawing; those colors are amazing”

EM: My Journey started in 2010, I saw this piece created by the amazing Dmitriy Samohin who’s heavy on my mind with everything going on in the Ukraine. This specific piece was of a black person, until that very day I had never seen a tattoo of a person of color look so fucken amazing. This got me really interested in becoming a tattoo artist, but I knew that I had to do something that was unique to who I am. I finally decided that I was going to seek an apprenticeship at one of the many tattoo shops here in town but had no fucken idea of how this new venture was going to end. I’m only 26 at this time; I’m a fat, black, female trying to enter this world that was not representative of me one fucken bit. So, as I start visiting these shops, people looking at me like I’m crazy ignoring me and shit, these motherfuckers were rude as fuck. “Mind you I was showing up at the shops very professional minded; I had the resume, I had the portfolio, I was ready.” These places wouldn’t even take the time to tattoo me because my skin was too dark. Out of all the shops I visited only one took the time to talk, listen, and even consider my apprenticeship. I am talking about “Zero black tattoo artists in the Middle Tennessee area, so difficult to just get the apprenticeship.” It was like pulling teeth, but this shop gave me the shot at an apprenticeship in January of 2011.

JS: Do we want to shout out this specific shop?

EM: Nah, fuck them. They don’t even exist anymore.

JS: Understood fam.

EM: During this time, I was still doing a lot of freelance artist work, I was even hitting the anime conventions doing my thang. I’m literally out there hustling to make ends meet because this apprenticeship was not paying me anything. The energy in that shop was not welcoming from day one, almost felt like motherfuckers were not for me. Not a month later the apprenticeship was over! These motherfuckers dropped me for taking off on a weekend that was already scheduled on the calendar, my best friend was getting married, and I was in the wedding. Shit was really fucked up mane; I’m over here busting my ass consistently doing what was required of me, I was literally their bitch bro. The shop flipped the script on me every way possible. Had to reach out to the owners, who gave zero fucks about the entire situation.

JS: You obviously had a target on your back fam. Do you think this was all done with bad intentions?

EM: Most definitely; I was breaking into an industry that was not accustomed to the likes of individuals as myself. The target was on my back from day one. I’m loud and outspoken, I don’t put up with anybody’s bull shit bro.

JS: People hate what they can’t conquer, fear what they don’t understand. It’s obvious that at that time you were breaking normality Elisheba. What are your thoughts and feelings once this unfortunate event takes place? How do you move beyond that point?

EM: I was literally infuriated with this entire situation; I showed up to pick up my belongings and was banned from coming inside fam. They knew I came to fuck somebody up; North Memphis was out on display that night fam. Thankfully my good friend walked in the establishment to remove all my items. The very next day I started seeking a place to continue and finish my apprenticeship. Unfortunately, nobody would give me the opportunity. I knew this other artist who reached out around this same time, he once owned a tattoo shop in a different state. So, after having this conversation with him I started doing all the research I possibly could. In the process I found out I didn’t need to be a licensed tattoo artist in order to own a shop, this shit really changed the entire journey. “None of these motherfuckers would give me an apprenticeship, so I took my 3K from my income tax return and got shit popping. I put an add on Craigslist, had a female tattoo artist reply. She had 14 years of experience; I gave her a spot in my shop, and she gave me the opportunity to apprentice under her for a year. I was out from my previous apprenticeship in late February early March, One Drop Ink became a reality on Jefferson St. around May of that same year. These shops in Nashville literally thought I wasn’t capable of being a tattoo artist, I don’t do too well with someone telling me I’m not capable of doing something. I became the first black tattoo artist in the Ville, the first black shop owner, and to make shit more interesting I’m also a woman. All this was unintentional, I just wanted to be a tattoo artist.

JS: Hearing your experience creates personal disappointment in the body art community here in Nashville. At the same time, I’m thankful to hear that you were able to break barriers on a high level, and to make shit more gangsta your shop has now been open for almost 12 years Queen. Like it or not; you’re a trailblazer for your powerful accomplishment.

EM: I’m thankful to all those people who’ve been supporting One Drop Ink since day one. I’m blessed to have a wonderful husband who’s been supportive in all my ventures. I’ve got the most amazing and beautiful children ever. My brother Ol Skool Mike has been down with me for years as well. Like I said, many people don’t really like to mingle with me, and that includes people within my community as well. I went to an artist talk not long ago, I approached the artist whom I was interested in connecting with on a creative level. This individual ran away so fucken fast; a fellow black artist could not envision the possibility of even conversing with me. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the work is not quite done yet. I just had my first solo show, and I’ve got something else happening at Vanderbilt in early February. My focus is still aimed at doing the best I can for my community, we are pushing conversations meant to be confrontational. The conversation I’m creating through my work is one that’s necessary, especially now. “Gratitude,  exuberant joy and prosperity in spite of you, your father, and your forefathers.”

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