Em Reid: A Portrait of an Artist in a Regional Town

Photos by Max Zappas

Em Reid’s had some rough luck lately.

It started with breaking her arm and ended, hopefully, with her tattoo gear getting stolen out of the boot of her crimson Toyota Camry when she was in Melbourne partying with the Geelong bands. She’s not letting it get her down though, having already shelled out the three grand for the replacement gear—which she was lucky to find as it’s a limited edition gun—and figures that her bad karma should be spent, taking over the lease of the tattoo shop where she works hopefully being the start of better things. Em Reid’s a name that’s been around for longer than her 26 years would suggest. Growing up on the south coast of NSW, a career as an artist wasn’t an avenue that was wide open for her to explore, but she’s managed to create a name and a business for herself regardless.

Ever-smiling, regardless.

I meet up with Em on a stormy Monday on the south coast. It’s a week after the week of the Melbourne jaunt that resulted in Em’s gear being stolen, and she’s using one of her precious days off to tidy the small weatherboard house that she shares with her boyfriend, Tito, ahead of the next day’s inspection. It’s an artist’s house, the walls tastefully decorated with an eclectic mix of pieces covering various mediums that effortlessly work together. A Ben Frost illustration, bit of Lister—pieces that fit in the canon of what would’ve been hip in the education of an artist in their mid-twenties. There’s a sketch taking pride of place above the TV and piles of art books that form the focal point of the living room, however, that doesn’t quite fit with the contemporary Australian theme. I recognise Aladdin from the Disney movie of the same name, having watched the movie hundreds of times as a child (one of the only VHS’s we had). I can’t quite make out the name at the bottom of the sketch—a face and torso featuring the original drawing outlines. “My dad did that,” Em says, seeing me peering at the drawing. “He worked at a studio in the city that did work for Disney. He worked on Aladdin, The Goofy Movie, and The Lion King.” I’ve known Em for a while and admired her work for longer, but up until this point have never had the story of how it all came about. It’s starting to make sense.

The hallowed pages of the sketchbook.

Em’s earliest memories are of living in the Blue Mountains with her mum and dad, her dad catching the train to work in the city during the week. “My dad used to let me sit next to him and finish his drawings,” she tells me of her artistic introduction. Tragically, in ’96 Em’s dad passed away. “The last film he worked on was The Lion King,” Em tells me smiling, “so it was easy for mum to tell me, ‘Dad’s joined the circle of life.’” Em and her mum then left the mountains for Cronulla, and eventually the south coast. “I was rattled when we moved down here,” she tells me. When it came to choosing a vocation, Em always wanted to follow in her dad’s footsteps. “I always wanted to be an animator,” she tells me. “Still kinda do. They’re just not making those kinds of movies anymore.” I ask her if she studied art to which laughs and replies, “I did a year of horticulture at TAFE, does that count?” When she was old enough, around 18, Em decided that she’d outgrown her south coast home and like so many other kids from up and down the east coast, headed to Sydney to further herself. But it wasn’t to be. “I went ‘fuck this place there’s nothing happening, I’m moving to the city,’ and subsequently spent two years struggling my tits off before crawling back here,” she tells me, her disarming laugh acting as a natural full stop.

One of the good ones.

Em had been producing work throughout this period, her distinctive illustrations with their intricate lines maturing, and on “crawling” back to the coast she set about converting her talent to a regular income. Em had been doing stick and poke tattoos for her friends for years—while she explains this is a bit of faux pas amongst purists—and admits that since she was little she’d been “obsessed with the tattoo shop.” Thus began the transition from illustrator to tattooist. Despite body art very much becoming a regular part of everyday Australian life—I’ve far more inked than clean skin friends—if you want to become a licenced tattooist you still have to do things the old way: by putting in the hours doing whatever it is that your tattoo mentor tells you to do. For free.

Unsurprisingly, Em picked up the tattoo trade quicker than most, and despite only inking full time for a year or so, has got quite the little business going. Currently Em works in a shop on Ulladulla High Street, and after hanging at home for a bit she takes us up for a tour (the shop’s shut on Mondays). The south coast is booming currently, property prices are soaring (relatively) and at the weekends there’s almost as many Range Rovers as utes, but this hasn’t translated its way to the Ulladulla high street yet, thankfully. Looking out the window of The Sinking Ship—the ironically named tattoo shop where Em works—it could be the late 70s. There’s a Chinese restaurant on one side and a “massage” parlour the other, and looking out and down the street you can see the local watering hole The Marlin. The architecture’s dated in a nice way, and nothing’s over a storey high. The wild beginnings of a south swell is filtering its way into the harbour. We riff on the queer business of decorating people permanently for a living, and Em explains that while financially it’s made her life easier—“you get paid on the day rather than having to build up a big collection of work”—the responsibility of the task causes her a lot of stress. She likened holding the gun to handling a steering wheel and knowing that at any moment you’ve got the ability to yank it to the side and swerve the car off the road. “But this time it’s a tattoo gun in your hand and I’m thinking, ‘If I fuck this up then this person is going to have a fucked up tattoo for the rest of their life,’” Em explains, before adding, “And every time they look at it they’ll think of me.” The conversation then trails off to lighter areas of tattooing, like cover-ups and bad homemade ink. “People get so embarrassed when they come into the shop with bad home jobs and I always tell them that I’ve got way more shit ones than I do good ones,” says Em. “I’ve got ‘Holy Shit We’re Alive’ on my thigh. That’s probably the worst.” She laughs.

“I don’t usually show people this bit because it’s kind of confronting.”

Next on Em’s agenda is the second instalment of her studio/gallery Blanc Space. Only this time there’ll be one major difference. When it’s not playing host to bands, exhibitions and generally fulfiling its role as the cultural HQ of the region, the space is going to function as Em’s first tattoo shop. The great thing about the region is that inexpensive rent means that it’s possible for young people to start little businesses without a six-figure injection from mum/dad/one of dad’s dubiously cashed-up associates. “I don’t want to move to Sydney,” Em says. “It might sound lame, but I love walking along the beach to work in the morning.” Every time a young person has the motivation to plant a cultural flag in a regional town for the local community to rally around, it breaks the oppressive monopoly that Australian cities have on the country’s young creatives. Blanc Space mark II isn’t just a good thing for Ulladulla. It’s a good thing for the country.

Em out back of Blanc Space, coming soon.

Browse Em’s work and book yourself in, here.

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