LOCAL UP-AND-COMING bartender and hand poked tattoo artist Elena Vann, 28, is someone who knows that life happens to you when you're least expecting it to. Vann, who is of mixed Venezuelan, German and Cherokee decent, has been a staple bartender at Montrose's Toasted Coconut since it first opened a couple of years ago and has been giving "stick-and-poke" tattoos — a form of analog, non-electric tattooing that uses a single needle instead of a tattoo machine — to both her friends and paying customers since she was still in high school.
If you've been to a dive bar in Houston, you've likely unwittingly spotted one of her tattoos lovingly embedded on the arm of a Lonestar-sipping hipster. And if you've been to the Toasted Coconut, you've likely supped on — or thrown back — one or two of her boozy, fruit-forward libations.
Vann, a born-and-raised Houstonian, has had a circuitous journey to her current gig in Houston's food and beverage industry — a journey that took her from her native Houston to New York, and then to Berlin and Paris before taking her back home again to Houston. But the cocktail-slinging pro, who is a new brand ambassador for Venezuelan liquor brand Santa Teresa and is a member of Speed Rack Advisory Squad's mentorship program for bourgeoning bartenders, is quite happy with where she has landed.
"I was terrified when I made the leap to bartend full time," she says. "But we're so lucky in Houston to have the kind of community and tightness we have within this industry. There's a certain caliber of bartenders and industry workers here."
Before her current gig as a bartender and brand ambassador, Vann thought she was going to have a career in international urban policy. After graduating from UT in Austin with a degree in international relations and global studies, Vann worked for a bit in New York for the Council on Foreign Relations, the nonpartisan think tank that publishes Foreign Affairs — the go-to, airport-sold mag for readers who want to look smart while traveling by air. But after she was offered an au pair job for a couple living in Berlin, shortly before the untimely passing of her father, Vann couldn't resist the chance to satiate her wanderlust.
"Within two weeks of my dad passing away — I was only 22 at the time — I was in a new country where I knew no one. I just kind of threw myself into it," she says.
Vann eventually found her way to Paris, where she had studied abroad during undergrad, and worked another au pair job before enrolling in university there to get her master's in urban policy. Since she was already fluent in French by the time she arrived in Paris, she had little difficulty settling into French life.
"I never lost my connection to Houston though," says Vann, who would come back to Houston for a few weeks every summer while living in Paris. "Every year I spent away from Houston, my love for the city would grow more and more and I would just proselytize to people overseas about the city."
Although she had planned on spending the last semester of her master's program doing an externship in Cairo, a city she had spent much time studying, Vann rapidly shifted the focus of her studies when Harvey hit Houston and she found herself doing virtual relief work — from Paris — for victims of the hurricane.
"I would see someone express a need on social media — for sandwiches to feed people with or for a boat or a vehicle — and I would see someone else who had those things, and I would put them in touch," says Vann. "I lost a lot of sleep and nearly lost my mind, but it was in that moment that I realized I needed to spend my externship in Houston. I wanted to come back home and give back to my city."
After landing back in Houston seven months after Harvey, Vann busied herself with an internship with the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service. She describes the experience, which allowed her to complete the externship requirement of her master's program, as an eye opening one that led to many sleepless nights.
"It takes a seriously hard person to work in climate justice in Houston," she muses. "Even though I started my work seven months after Harvey, there was still so much that hadn't been done."
After completing the internship and her degree, Vann returned briefly to Paris to close out her chapter in France before making her way back to Houston, where she kept herself busy while applying for urban policy jobs by bartending — first at Fabian's Latin Flavors and then at now-defunct El Segundo — before the bourgeoning bartender, who was having second thoughts on working in urban policy due to the mentally draining aspect of the work, had an epiphany.
"I had this moment of clarity where I realized I was half-assing the job search and also half-assing bartending, and I don't ever want to half-ass anything," she says. "I decided to take the leap and go full-on into bartending because it was the first thing I had done that felt validating — people were supportive of me and they believed in me. My actions spoke for themselves, and I felt like I didn't have to prove myself to anyone."
Vann, now three years into bartending full time, is starting to make a name for herself in the local beverage industry through both her bartending gig at the Toasted Coconut — where she has a drink on the menu, the Captain's Grog, named in honor of her late father, who was a boat captain — and through her gig as a liquor rep. She's also continuing to work as a hand-poked tattoo artist and is a frequent fixture at local pop-up shops where people stand in line — often long ones — for the chance to get artfully poked by her tattoo needles.
"I've never felt more confident in myself," she says. "And it's taken a while to get to this point."
"Before my dad passed away, his favorite quote was the John Lennon quote, 'Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans,'" she continues. "It never really made sense to me until the moment he passed away. You may have an idea of what you think you're doing, and then life we be like — psyke!"