Interview with Tattoo Artist Emily North of Em16

We were recently introduced to the work of Emily North by Nina Kossoff, a creative at NYC ad agency. Immediately impressed with em’s art and process, we wanted to introduce em and Em 16 to our readers. *Feature image by Photo by Micheal Cheng.

Photo by Sara Huneke

dapperQ: Please tell us a bit about yourself and Em 16 Studio.

em: My name is em. I’ve been active in the NYC queer activist community since 1997 when I moved here from New Jersey for art school. I became involved in Dumba, a queer collective space in Brooklyn, and co-founded and edited an art zine, riffRAG, with Felix Endara and Eleanor Whitney. For my first ten years in the city, I worked as a case manager for LGBTQ nonprofits such as Green Chimneys and The Door, and then later worked as a graphic designer for a feminist legal firm.

While I loved graphic design, I didn’t love sitting in front of a computer. I missed working with people and making my own art. I decided to go back to school for my MFA so I’d have time to develop my art and gain the credentials to teach college. On my way out of my MFA program, I was offered an opportunity to learn to tattoo. I could not turn it down knowing how difficult it was to obtain an apprenticeship. This was in 2009, just when the economy was crashing, so it ended up being a great way to have another working skill.

em16 Tattoos, my studio, is a licensed private tattoo studio in Bedstuy, Brooklyn. I opened the space a year ago after 7 years of tattooing at shops. Contrary to what you might experience in a regular walk-in shop, we are committed to maintaining a safe space: blatantly feminist, anti-racism, queer-friendly, and body-positive. I work closely with my clients through the intimate experience of getting tattooed and host an array of queer, POC, and feminist guest tattoo artists. I also offer optional vegan tattoo procedures. I have a profile on Yelp and regularly post new work on Wnstagram. My website is www.em16.com.

dapperQ: Do you have any tattoos yourself? How many? What was your first tattoo? Can you tell us a bit about the first experience?

em: I have 16-20 tattoos, depending on whether you count cover-ups and additions. I was not heavily tattooed when I started because frankly, I didn’t have the money, but I’ve acquired half of my tattoos through trades with friends the last few years.

My first tattoo is a human heart on my left shoulder that I received from Fineline Tattoo in 1998. I had a student coupon for 10% off. I can admit I did all of the things that I now know drive tattoo artists nuts– I asked to move the stencil 3 times, edited minute details of the drawing, and later called the studio because I felt sick (it was probably just nerves). Having been there helps me to be empathetic with clients who are getting tattooed for the first time and have similar anxieties. It sounds unwise to use a coupon for a tattoo, but in 1998 tattooing had only been legal in NYC for about 1.5 years, so there were very few shops and artists. I actually ended up with a really great artist who is still tattooing today!

These days, there are so many more options though, both with who tattoos you and what style they specialize in. Instagram is a great way to research tattooers before you get work done. I still strongly believe that the tattoo world has a ways to go in terms of incubating opportunities for queer, POC, and female artists, but looking back, we have also come a long way.

dapperQ: What was the first piece you tattooed on someone else?

em: Before my apprenticeship started, my girlfriend at the time encouraged me to go to Unimax, a local tattoo supply shop that used to be open to anyone, and buy equipment to start tattooing her. She was excited (and I suspect she wanted free tattoos!0. We set out to tattoo a small pi symbol on her, but after the first line, we both freaked out and decided to stop. A month or two later, we finished the tattoo. It’s funny to think of all of the tattoos I have out there– I haven’t seen her in eight years and wonder if she’s covered it up by now.

dapperQ:  Can you talk a little bit about your journey to your current style? What kind of stuff did you start out doing?

em: NYC has always had a heavily American Traditional influence, but I’ve always felt alienated from that style. It was simply my gut instinct to rebel against constant pressure to work in an American Traditional style while I was learning. It hasn’t always been a queer-friendly or feminist style and most of all, I am an artist who has drawn original art since I was a kid. I wasn’t that interested in copying existing work.

When I started out, I was interested in learning watercolor style tattooing, but couldn’t find artists who could teach me. Eventually I unexpectedly found myself making black ink etching style work. I love that this work echoes the linework of my fine art and really love focusing on lines. I tattoo a lot of botanical imagery– organic forms work great with the shape of the body. I love doing large scale work that really fits on the composition of the human body, but New Yorkers love small tattoos, so I do a lot of smaller stuff if clients want it.

dapperQ: What inspires your work?

em: I am partly inspired by aesthetics and even more so inspired by the dire need for more queer-friendly, anti-racism focused, feminist tattoo shops. I love talking with clients, working with people, and am really inspired by the amazing interactions and conversations I have while tattooing someone. I find this piece very interesting– I have always been a maker, but I have also always been very interested in the political side of art-making. With tattoos, you really can’t remove the person from the art.

Recently, I had the opportunity to do a live tattoo performance as part of a show I had some paintings in at SOHO20, a feminist gallery in Bushwick. I decided to tattoo and hold a structured conversation with a close artist friend of mine, Awilda Rodríguez Lora. In an exchange of conversation and art-making, we honored our ancestors and questioned the temporality of art and life. Conversation topics consisted of re-conceiving “still-life”, the body as a siphon for history, mapping POC and queer lineage, and the heritage of mental illness. This piece took place at SOHO20 Gallery and was broadcasted live on Facebook.

dapperQ: Your website mentions that you are “committed to maintaining a safe space: feminist, anti-racism, queer-friendly, and body-positive.” Can you tell us a bit about how you curate a safe space and a about what clients can expect at your studio? How do you understand and approach your clientele different from the ways a mainstream studio does?

em: Well, first off, my commitment comes first and foremost from me and constant work on myself. I’ve had many years of training as both a crisis counselor and continue to work to improve myself around my own “stuff” around race and identity. To live in this society it’s naive for any of us to say that we are not at times (racist, sexist, ableist, sizist, etc). As a white individual in America I must constantly be on top of my privilege and how that guides me through the world.

On a practical level, there are literally signs posted in the studio about what will not be tolerated, including racism, sexism, body negativity, drug use, etc. At first I hesitated around posting signs– we all have bad experiences with “passive aggressive notes”– but since I have done so, clients have expressed that they are grateful. So many of us have a bad impression of tattoo shops based on past experiences.Photo by Amar Puri

When I host outside artists, I pick folks whose values align with the studio and I make sure they see a list of studio guidelines. I’ve realized that you can’t expect that anyone holds the same values as you. We are still in the process of reclaiming this artform, and like many forms of nascent activism, it’s important to put our intentions out there.

 

dapperQ: Your site also mentions that you use vegan tattoo procedures. Can you elaborate on that for those of us who may not be familiar with the relationship between tattoos and the treatment of animals?

em: Some inks use animal based glycerin, stencil paper and ointment use lanolin from sheep, gel strips on razors are made with animal based gelatin.

dapperQ: What can our readers expect next from you?

em: This year I’m taking on an apprentice and I would like to expand the space to host regular artists in order to go beyond what I can offer myself. On a personal level, I’m working on creating more space and time for my fine arts work. Being a first year business owner, my art has been neglected, and life is too short for this to happen for too long!

Find Em16 on Instagram here.

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