Interview with Em Elle
My name is Em Elle and I was born and raised in Calgary. My parents are Chinese immigrants to Canada so they always were very strict about pushing us (me, my sister and brother) to excel in school, piano and other things that “good Chinese girls do.”
I graduated from high school and enrolled in The University of Calgary. I had a double major in Education and Psychology with the intention of pursuing a career working with under-priviliged children and youth. While I was in University I did a lot of volunteer work with The Boys and Girls Club of Canada and Read Canada working with their programs for socially disadvantaged children. I received my Bachelor of Arts With Distinction and immediately left for Japan because I was offered a job teaching at an all boy’s high school.
Coming to Japan was a big shock…I was only 21 years old so only a couple years older then a lot of my students. The school did not expect a “non-white” English teacher so they basically hated me on sight. My first year in Japan was rough, I worked at the high school, had 2 part time jobs but was still dirt poor, slept on the floor, had no tv, fridge and barely enough money to eat everyday. My contract with the school was for a year but after I completed it, I felt that I hadn’t seen or done enough in Japan to call it quits (plus I had no money for a plane ticket home and there was no way I was going to admit to my parents I need money!) so I quit the high school and found a job teaching at a private English school. That wasn’t much better then the high school but it gave me a chance to see and do more in Japan. I continued to work there for 4 years and I decided to open my own English school. Found a place, renovated it myself, started with 3 students and after a couple years built the number up to well over a hundred.
Now that I had my business running smoothly I had time to pursue further interests. I had always been artistic and actually had hoped to to go art school after high school (much to the horror of my parents and they absolutely forbade it!) I began drawing and painting and as luck would have it, met a tattoo artist in Tokyo who inspired me to try tattooing. The decision to start tattooing certainly made my life a lot more uncomfortable. I drew everyday, tattooed pig-skin and graduated onto practicing on my own legs. It took me awhile but I finally got to a level where I felt I could start tattooing people. That was years ago… I have tattooed in Thailand, Canada, and Japan. I am currently setting up a studio in Okinawa, Japan.
As far as modeling goes…that is kind of something that happened. I love it because I have had the opportunity to meet so many creative and interesting people. It really is a chance to step out of reality. I have shot in abandoned waterpark, been tied by a Japanese dominatrix, been lowered in a decaying ship by rope, snuck into factories, stripped in an burnt down strip club, laid freezing on a frozen lake…
In my free time I like to work out (actually, YEARS ago I competed in the Miss Kanagawa Bodybuilding Contest and placed as the first runner up in my first year). It was just something I want to try and I wasn’t thrilled with how my body looked so I stopped. I do kung-fu, like to travel (nothing is better then exploring a brand new place), bake (although I have done some horrible things to food in the name of trying to make it low-fat).
Em, it is an absolute pleasure to talk to you. You have an amazing story. When you first went to Japan you said your students “hated you on sight” because you were not white. Did the students learn to accept you after awhile?
Actually, it wasn’t the students who hated me on sight, it was the Principal and my fellow teachers. I suppose it is a little harsh to say they hated me. I guess I just wasn’t what they expected so instead of dealing with me, they didn’t give me a desk in the staff room and put me in my own little room and tried to ignore the fact that I was there.
You were raised in Canada in a Chinese Family. How was your Japanese when you first arrived?
I didn’t speak a word of it!
Was the lack of money in the beginning due to the high expense of living in Japan or low initial salary?
It was a combination of both. I made minimum wage but my employer took a large percentage of it for “health” and rent.
When you started your own school were your parents finally proud of what you had accomplished?
Yes, but they still hoped I would return to Canada and become a lawyer or doctor.
Are you still involved in the school you ran or have you given it up to pursue tattooing and modeling full time?
The school is running and I am as involved as I can be and try to teach classes when I can. I worked there while I was learning how to tattoo and even the first couple years while I was struggling to master tattooing.
You have always had an interest in the Arts and are actually a very skilled artist. Had you considered other artistic outlets before tattooing?
Since I was a child I was drawing. I also enjoy painting when I have the time.
What was your first tattoo and, looking back on it, what do you think about it?
I can’t believe I am admitting this but I had a flash tribal design on my lower back. Hey, it was awesome way back when….Honestly, I don’t get the whole “tramp stamp” thing…the lower back is a very flattering place for a woman to get tattooed!
Have you designed the ones on your body and can you describe them to us?
I drew the phoenix on the left side of my body and the tattoos on my legs(with the exception of the butterfly) were drawn up and tattooed by me.
What is your favorite part of the job?
I love the artistic element but I think my favorite thing is the people. I have met so many wonderful, crazy, funny people-there is never a dull day.
Are there any famous artists, tattooists or not, that have influenced you down the path of your career?
Too many to name….
What would you recommend to someone wishing to get into the tattoo business?
I think the first thing would be for that person not to think of it as a job. It is much more of a commitment then that and really demanding. You have to really love it. Also I think tattooing is not the sort of thing you pursue like you do with traditional jobs-it just happens…
Where do you see the art of tattooing in 10 or 20 years from now?
I imagine it will keep evolving…look at how far it has come in the last 10-20 years.
Do you think it will ever become fully accepted as an art?
To some it will and to some it won’t.
In the West there is a perception that in Japan only the Yakuza have tattoos and in China tattoos are a sign of being a criminal. Are these false claims?
Traditionally this was the case but that is no longer true.
I want to talk a little about your modeling portfolio. Although you do it on the side it is very impressive and I can easily see it being a full time profession for you. Is it something you would like to do more of?
Actually, I have really cut down on modeling as I have gotten busier.
How did you first get involved in modeling? Where you approached for a certain job?
I got asked to model for someone…blonde, busty, Asian women with tattoos are somewhat hard to find!
Do you find the modeling profession easy and is it very competitive in Japan?
There are still very strong stereotypes of beauty in Japan-thin, white skinned, long black hair young women. It is unfortunate but you don’t often see much variety in the media and there certainly isn’t much of a demand for more alternative types of beauty. I can`t say whether it is competitive or not because I have never really pursued it.
What styles or types of modeling do you enjoy?
I like shoots that are different. “Pretty-girl-in-the-park” pictures are great but I think there are a lot of models better suited for that type of photoshoot. If I get to meet creative people, go to an unusual location and do something new, I am happy.
You described some very interesting scenarios in your modeling. Is there any that you had to turn down?
Anything too gory, degrading or blantly sexual.
Health and fitness is obviously very important to you. What do you do to stay in shape?
I am a high strung person so I need to start almost every day with a workout to clear my mind (while mentally planning my day….) I used to do a lot of weights, especially when I was competing in body building but I have really cut down on that. Lately, I have just been busy with the usual gym work outs. I keep meaning to get back into kung fu or boxing but there never seems to be enough time…
Is your diet easier to manage in Japan as opposed to the West?
The Japanese diet is a lot healthier and portions are not as ridiculous. That being said, the majority of food available in North American can be found in Japan. I guess it is up to you what you put in your mouth!
Any interest in competing again?
I am uber-competitive so the thought of preparing myself to kick butt does appeal to me! I don’t want to compete in body building again-I just didn’t like how it made my body look.
After all you have accomplished do you think you have your parents approval?
I don’t know if that is possible with Chinese parents!
What strikes me about you is a sense of adventure and a willingness to take risks. Is that accurate and how would you describe yourself to other?
Thank you! I like to think that I am always open to new experiences. Isn’t that what life is about…experiencing the world? Describe myself…as tempting as it is to make myself sound completley awesome, I will let people come to their own conclusions as to how to describe me…
What do you do (beside work out) for fun in your free time?
Free time…what’s that? When I can find time, I like to travel, go places I have never gone to before, eat, buy shoes…
You have traveled quite a bit. Any favorite or new places you would like to travel to?
Where DON`T I want to travel to? I would love to spend the rest of my life just traveling from place to place.
Where would you like to see yourself doing 5 years from now?
Doing new things and meeting great people.