Emiel Steenhuizen isn’t your typical tattooist – in fact, he rebels against its clichés with the earnestness and orderliness of a gentleman.
Starts his day at a time more suited to an office schmuck. Keeps records and provides debit, often undercharging out of sympathy, and leaves afternoons free to ponder. Most recently he published a children’s book.
For his next tattoo, the Dutchman wants the word Risotto inked. He’s very fond of the Italian rice-dish, as he is Pinot Noir. Its significance is already seared into his flesh and during his interview with Parloir he routinely refreshed his palette with practiced gulps of it.
Emiel is a gourmand of mouth and mind and tattooing for him is not his sole focus, it is a means to an end, an artistic service that sustains his life and earns him time to spend how he pleases – often on other endeavours, and to be a forever-present dad to daughter Dahl, six, whose work adorns his Amsterdam studio.
“Although I am a tattooer, I don’t really consider myself as one,” the 37-year-old explained, having earlier detailed how every member of his family is artistically inclined – one brother is a singer, another is a school teacher who does lino prints in his spare time, his dad does realistic paintings, his grandfather was a designer “that makes beautiful paintings and etchings” and his mother and sister make stuffed dolls and puppets out of wool.
“I have no idea what I am,” Emiel says. “I’m just a person who makes things. I really like making things. I wrote and illustrated a children’s book. I made commercials and music videos. I make linocuts, paintings, collages. I made a child.”
Emiel is unsure how to define his relationship with tattooing. Parts of the industry, like conventions, he avoids, finding the food-court-frenzy atmosphere, “vulgar and disgusting”.
“I think all the things my dad hated about me becoming a tattooer are illustrated at a tattoo convention,” he opined while reiterating that he does not want to be a “hater of tattooing, because I’m not”.
“I do love tattooing. It is a fun thing. I have no idea what my relationship with tattooing really is. It pays the bills, which is a very important thing in my life. I can feed my daughter, myself. And that’s good. And it pays for time to spend on other things. Because without tattooing I would not have made my children’s book.”
Emiel’s journey into tattooing is as unconventional as his children’s book – Yokka Wants A Tattoo. There was no punk or rock band beginnings he simply stumbled into a salon blindly believing he could barter for a tattoo with his art school drawings.
Instead Emiel got an apprenticeship of sorts. Initially he turned it down, but while bartending thought better of it and returned to the Utrecht parlour.
The experience did nothing to endear him to tattooing with the owner wanting him to pick-up the needle after just three-months.
“I stayed for two years but left with the idea to never tattoo again because I hated it,” Emiel recalls, while conceding he “fucked up lots of people”.
“I hated the way it (the shop) functioned. The people I had to tattoo. The designs I had to do. And I thought that was tattooing. There wasn’t Instagram then so I couldn’t see what other people were doing. The only thing I had was like tattoo magazines with porn girls in them and shitty tattoos. I didn’t know anything.”
At that point, Emiel only had two tattoos himself. One, the type a girl might get on a backpacking trip around Thailand – a tribal salamander on the ankle. At 21 he cycled 1500km from the Netherlands to the south of France and near the finish he thought, “This is a nice moment for a tattoo”. After fingering-through a flash book he chose the amphibian, unaware he could commission a custom design.
“The next day I was on my bike looking down at the steer and I see that the logo of the brand on my steer was a black silhouette of a salamander. So like, subconsciously, I’ve been watching this logo for three weeks. I never paid attention to it but it brainwashed my head. It’s a hideous tattoo. But I’ve still got it.”
Having met a girl Emiel moved to London, literally downing tools – “I even left my tattoo machines at the shop”. She had been awarded a prestigious art scholarship from the Dutch government and Emiel pursued, hoping to realise a “dream to work as a director”.
London was a “very hard city” and Emiel eventually returned home, but not before having a run-in with Tomas Tomas, then working at the now closed Into You Tattoo.
A friend of Emiel’s was visiting and wanted to get a tattoo from Tomas Tomas to continue one Emiel had started on him in his-style. Tomas said no, then after some pleading, ‘yes’. When Emiel’s friend explained he wanted a pattern of bird feathers, the answer changed again.
“Tomas was like, ‘it’s a shit idea I’m not going to do it’,” Emiel recalls. “And that was it for me. It was like, ‘yeah, you see tattoo shops are shit and full of arrogant people’. But now I understand why he didn’t do it because it really was a shit idea.”
Back in Amsterdam Emiel went to Admiral Tattoo Studio to get a tattoo by Lina Stiggson to remember his time in London. Again, he walked out with an apprenticeship.
“She was like, ‘you worked as a tattooer but you stopped… why? It is the best job in the world. You have to go back’.”
Emiel stayed there for eight years, leaving earlier this year to open his own studio.
Now he tattoos a maximum of two people a day. He prefers one, but “I am very bad at saying no”. Opens shop around 9, closes at 1pm: “Then I have the rest of the day to work on my publishing company. My drawings. Thinking. Whatever I like to do. Go home early. Pick up my daughter from school and make a meal. Which I try and do every day.”
Children’s books energise Emiel, partly he thinks, “because it is new and I’m discovering how it works”.
Yokka Wants A Tattoo, as the title suggests, tells the tale of Yokka who wants to commemorate the passing of her pet with a permanent mark.
Four publishers rejected it; it’s assumed, because of parents’ unwillingness to introduce tattooing to their children so young.
Emiel, himself, says his daughter, who’s obsessed with a cheetah Thomas Burkhardt inked on his shoulder, can’t get one until she’s 21. The age he got the salamander.
“But I think by the time she is 21 tattooing will be a very unpopular thing because there has been a fashion of getting heavily tattooed in the decade before her, in her parents decade. So I don’t think tattoos will be a big thing when she’s big. It’s so common now.”
Emiel self-published his book and then set about his next challenge, getting it into bookstores: “If I go to traditional children’s shops or book stores, they’re like ‘nah’, they don’t want to have it. But If I go to children’s concept stores with cool clothing and backpacks, you know, cool toys… they’re like ‘I fucking love it, give me 35” (the book is now available at Museum Voorlinden and Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam).
Emiel is now working on a second book: “The fact that I am my own publisher they don’t have to be a popular children’s book. I can make a stupid one,” he announces, smugly.
But this one has a little bite to it. It’s about a dad with psoriasis the skin condition that causes red, flaky, patches of skin covered with silvery scales. It has ruined Emiel’s skin, and swallowed his tattoos whole, since he was 25.
Emiel started getting the condition after a series of panic attacks.
“So it started 12 years ago and since then it has just been snowballing, worse, worse, worse and at this moment it is the worst,” Emiel explained, lifting up his forearm to show where the condition has completely covered a tattoo he got when his daughter was born. It’s done similar things to apiece from Talley Matthew on his chest.
But the book, like Emiel’s, demeanour and his tattoos, isn’t dark – it’s playful.
“I think it is very interesting,” he explains of the book’s message. “Because I have it. And I hate the fact that I have it. But for my daughter she looks at it in a very different way. She doesn’t know me different than having psoriasis. For her it’s completely normal. She’s not disgusted by it. For her my tattoos are the same as my psoriasis. And she knows things I avoid because of it. Like swimming pools. She knows things I like because of my psoriasis, like good weather.”
The book, Emiel says, will play on this contrast of emotions: “I find it very interesting how she looks at it. I’m going to play on these contrasts in the book. Like, for instance, if I wear shorts, dogs will go to my legs, to lick my psoriasis, that’s what dogs do. They go for the wound and they want to heal it, which is annoying because when I wear shorts dogs will come to me. For me that’s a negative thing. But for my daughter, she adores dogs. And I attract dogs. And she wants to pat them all the time. So I’m going to play with these type of things.”
While Emiel’s ultimate dream is to move to the south of France – his wife-to-be will run a bed and breakfast and sell ceramics while he tattoos, paints and writes books “in the sun, which will be good for my psoriasis” – his more immediate plans are to return to London and work at Liam Sparkes’ parlour, Old Habits Tattoo.
Emiel met Caleb Kilby – who he “really admires” – while doing a guest spot at East River Tattoo in New York and “really wants” to get a tattoo from Clare Frances: “I really like her work. There’s… I don’t know… every tattoo she does is different. It is strong and black but to me it is different. She picks a lot of things up.”
While Emiel may shun the occupational typecast of tattooer, his relationship with tattoos is perhaps more profound than many in the trade due to his psoriasis, which is perfectly illustrated by this anecdote he tells with nonchalance.
“Recently I was tattooing a girl and her mum was present and she was like, ‘I don’t like her to get tattooed because I put her in this world with this perfect skin, now she’s getting tattoos’. I wasn’t put in this world with perfect skin. I’ve got shit skin. My body decides to have weird spots that I don’t agree on. So I really like to get tattoos because I can chose the tattoo. Where it goes. What it looks like, blah, blah, blah.”