Artist Spotlight - Em Whiteseth
A client of Em "Elmpixe" Whiteseth told her about Ink Defense all-natural tattoo care products. That bit of sharing has led to a fantastic professional relationship between Ink Defense and Em. Em brings a strong background in art and a passion of caring deeply for their clients and her craft.
Tell us about your tattooing career.
EW: Eight years ago, I completed tattoo school at Captain Jacks, after which I worked in a few different shops in Portland and in May 2018, I opened my own private studio, elmpixie tattoos. In 2020, I had to move studios but kept the private nature of my workspace.
What is your favorite style of tattooing?
EW: I love having the opportunity to do big, colorful pieces with lots of different textural components. I like including moments of traditional or neo traditional tattooing but then also recreating paint and ink textures in the same piece, with color as well as black. I wouldn’t say that my style falls into only one particular category of tattooing, considering I am always challenging myself to try new techniques in tattoos, and the majority of my work is heavily customized to the client.
What makes you different as a tattoo artist?
EW: I have done arts and crafts my whole life in a very well rounded way. I have a sculpture degree from New York and even in school I focused a lot of my time doing multimedia work, with metal, paint, fabric, clay and others, often combining them into one piece. My art background absolutely influences my tattooing every day. It gave me a background in color theory and an excellent three dimensional eye which are both invaluable in this career. In school I also delved deeply into watercolor, which requires a lot of attention, practice and patience. If it wasn’t for those years of painting, there’s no way I could do the kind of paint textures I create in skin.
What has been your most interesting experience as an artist?
EW: Probably curating this small business. I think that the experience I offer my clients is special. As a queer person who lives with chronic pain, I try every day to create a space that I would want to feel safe and comfortable in, which is not all tattoo shops. My studio is ADA compliant, body positive, neuro-divergent friendly, queer/trans safe and no kind of bigotry, racism or discrimination is tolerated. I love that this has really given me an opportunity to serve my own queer community, as well as hopefully making a space where any marginalized human would feel safe getting the tattoo of their dreams.
Have you done guest spots or attended tattoo conventions?
EW: I have guested in a few shops in New York City, on Long Island, and Seattle and in California. I’ve done the Portland Tattoo Convention and I had plans for more when Covid hit. I’m excited for more travel tattooing in the future! It’s great to build and maintain connections with other artists, and to tattoo people who normally wouldn’t be able to get tattooed by me.
Did you have a teacher who helped you refine your style?
EW: No, I am pretty much entirely self taught. I learned a very basic set of tattooing skills in school and then had to figure out the rest on my own. I knew right away I wanted to apply painterly techniques into my tattooing, so I learned some by getting tattooed by artists that I admire, by watching and asking questions. I also learned by watching videos of other artists tattooing, religiously followed tattooists I liked on social media, and in the few years I did work in shops, I spent hours just observing other artists working to better understand different application techniques and styles. Kirsten Holliday, who tattoos at Wonderland Tattoo, has been tattooing me personally for the past few years, and I continue to learn from her, regardless of if we are talking about tattooing or just life in general. My style continues to change, and I think it gets better as I continue to grow as an artist.
Sometimes being a tattoo artist, things can be challenging. Can you share with us any experiences you have had in your career that impacted you or your clients?
The Bad customer
EW: At the first shop I worked at out of school, a man came into the shop with home-altered clothing reading “no homo” all over it. He then asked me to tattoo “no homo” across his forehead. I said no and asked him to leave. It was a shocking experience early on in my career.
The Bad shop
EW: At another shop I worked at, one of the two owners of the shop regularly made inappropriate comments about his clients (primarily young women) in front of them. He made homophobic and transphobic comments openly without shame or remorse, at times directed at myself or my own clients. That environment was incredibly problematic. This business etiquette (or lack thereof) and shop environment was the final straw for me to start my own business and open my own studio.
What should a client think about before getting a tattoo?
EW: Find a portfolio where at least 75% of the work you see you think “I would love that if it were mine”. Then the key is to trust the artist, trust their personal unique process and be open and flexible. Sometimes aspects of your tattoo idea will need to be changed, but that is not because your idea is “bad,” more likely just because there are other things, maybe that could affect the longevity or readability of your tattoo, and artistic choices and considerations that need to be made in order for the piece to work and flow on your body.
What specific advice for a first timer?
EW: Please don’t get your first tattoo on your ribs. The skin is very stretchy there, it is usually very painful for you, and controlling your breathing is difficult. It isn’t a good representation of how long other tattoos will take, what they will feel like, or how they will look. Also, if you need to know exactly what your tattoo is going to look like with lots of time before you get the tattoo in order to feel comfortable, just get a flash piece from an artist that you love instead of going for something personal and custom. You’re going to get a tattoo that you know the artist wants to do, and you're going know as accurately as possible exactly what it’s going to look like ahead of time.
What is the best way for a client to come to a session?
EW: I encourage all of my clients to stay extra hydrated the day before and the day of the tattoo. Avoid drinking alcohol the night before your tattoo, which causes dehydration. Get plenty of sleep, try to lower your stress, and come with a calm, clear mental state as much as possible. Bring a water bottle and snack, and make sure to not have anything important or pressing to do right after your tattoo appointment. Tattoos are taxing to receive, so make sure you give yourself love, relaxation and good, nourishing food following your tattoo. Take ibuprofen or Tylenol after but not before.
What are the consequences of a client not being prepared for their session?
EW: Not being hydrated, tired, or stressed can affect your pain tolerance and ability to sit still for the tattoo. Keep calm, stay hydrated, and be sensitive to your hormonal cycles as this can also affect your pain tolerance. Not eating before a tattoo can also lead to feeling weak or sick and feeling more pain.
What's the worst damage you have seen on tattoos?
EW: I have worked on a lot of cover-ups, and I have seen scarring from infection due to improper aftercare, or other unknown factors. Picking at scabs when healing pulls ink, scratching too, infection damages ink retention as well. Not taking proper precautions with sunscreen and sun damage can quickly lighten and cause tattoos to fade.
Why is Ink Defense important for your clients?
EW: I advise all of my clients to not use petroleum-based products on their healing tattoos/open wounds. It is inflammatory, pet hair and dirt sticks to it, and it doesn’t breathe enough. Ink Defense Tattoo Cream is aloe based and is meant for healing tattoos, feels soft and light when it goes on, it isn’t greasy, and I love that it smells absolutely amazing. I use it on all of my own tattoos. I actually sell quite a lot of it to my clients, who almost always want to continue using it once they’ve tried it.
Tell us more about you.
EW: I am a passionate homesteader. I live in a small house in St. Johns, Oregon with my spouse, two dogs, four cats, four ducks and three chickens! We also have a large fish tank and over a hundred houseplants. It’s a happy, eclectic crew! When the weather is nice, I like to get out to the nearby rivers and swim and kayak or get on the paddle board. You might find me swimming and sunning at Sauvie Island, kayaking in Tualatin, rockhounding in Corvallis, or running my dogs at 1000 Acres during the summer. I am a queer, gender non-conforming person who wants everyone who walks into my studio to feel safe and heard. My favorite parts of this career are the ability to create art every day and continually challenge myself, as well as giving my community a memorable, comfortable experience.
You have had some recent successes around your tattooing business. Can you share those?
EW: In 2021 I started a TikTok on a whim, and within a few months, I had almost fifty-thousand followers after I posted a video about a rainbow ear cuff that went viral. In the past year, I’ve given about 80 ear cuffs! The real upside to this boost in media followers, is the large number of new clients who want custom work, and are willing to give me tons of artistic freedom.
I also started my own version of a Get What You Get tattoo game which has been really popular. My version of this classic game is a large curio cabinet, filled with over 100 tiny tchotchkes, each one containing a pre-drawn flash design. People seem to really like letting fate choose their tattoo, while also knowing that the designs available were curated by me and fall within my aesthetic. Everyone also gets three additional re-picks, so if you don’t love your first choice, you can choose again! So far, more than fifty percent of people who have played this game have gone ahead with their first choice. The best part of the Get What You Get game is that every time someone pulls a design, I know it’s something that I’m excited to tattoo, an original piece of my art.