One tattoo artist’s journey to healing as a cancer survivor

One tattoo artist’s journey to healing as a cancer survivor

By: Maude Lipsett and Renee Melia

As we waited outside the shop, the narrow pedestrian street was busy with people tasked with completing their own daily endeavours. Yvet approached, keys in hand to open the studio doors and let us in. Inside, the once quiet studio was filled and echoed with the sounds of our voices. 

The room smelt strongly of bleach which overwhelmed our nostrils and chairs were stacked on a table mere metres from the front desk, all indications of a closed studio.

Yvet Van Opijnen is a 30 year old tattoo artist from Zeist, Netherlands. She is currently working at Utca studio in Utrecht where she continues to grow as an artist. Upon our introduction, her confidence made the environment welcoming and comfortable, open to conversation and a joke or two. Her dark attire covered her from shoulders to toe, but her black and grey tattooed arms were not missed through the sheer sleeves of her top. 

Background, family, and support 

Throughout her teenage years, Yvet was determined to ink her skin despite her parents’ hesitation. Though, like anyone anticipating the day when their kid says they want a tattoo, they had to come around to the idea. 

“My mom still didn’t like it, so I told her, I’m gonna do it anyways, you can help me with the design or I’m going to do it without you,” Yvet said. 

Yvet’s mum helped her conceptualise the final tattoo design and they came to the conclusion of what Yvet calls a ‘snow crystal style mandala’. “I did come home with more snowflakes around it, she didn’t know this,” Yvet said in a mischievous smile. 

Since a young age the artist has said she always felt a drive towards creativity, starting out with coloured pencils and playing a lot of music. Her parents embraced her artistic spirit by providing her with musical instruments, art supplies, and a safe space to create and make mistakes. 

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree as Yvet’s mother is a therapist specialising in the use of creative methods to encourage her clients to express themselves without using words. Yvet said this meant there were often art items or supplies around the house for siblings and herself to experiment with. At 17, Yvet’s uncle enrolled her in a painting course to encourage her to find her own style. 

But despite learning to master her craft in drawing and painting, Yvet needed to start from a blank canvas when beginning to tattoo. It was a career she always had in the back of her mind, but doubts in her ability prevented her from pursuing it any earlier.

“Since I was younger, I always loved tattoos, I already knew that I wanted to get a lot of tattoos. It was something in mind [to pursue a career as a tattoo artist], but I never went that road until I met him,” she said. Yvet credits her now ex-boyfriend for encouraging her to begin as a tattoo artist as he was a tattooist and saw her potential. 

“Everyone was always very supportive. Some believed in me more than I believed in myself,” she said with a sense of gratitude and pride. Including her close friend Ylana Leijdendeckers (28), who she met  in Lisbon in 2018. As co-workers they met and spent time working in media marketing together, “from the first moment on, I think we really connected,” Ylana said. 

Speaking about her support for Yvet she said, “from [when] I knew her she was always startled to become a tattoo artist. So I always supported it”. Ylana added that in the beginning, Yvet would practise using a needle on the skin of an orange, “at some point I told her I also have a little bit of skin if you want to practise one time and she did and was very happy with it,” she chuckled. 

Further describing her close friend she concluded:

“All I can say is that she’s a very positive person…she would never ever judge you and always make you feel safe. That’s what I really like about her,” Ylana explains, “I think she is like that in general with life, she will always try to help you or other people. She’s a very kind person,” she concluded. 

Yvet always appreciates the support of her work “there is always someone that will enjoy your art,” she said “My mum is very happy to tell everyone that I’m a tattoo artist,” she concluded. 

Where did the tattoo aspiration start? 

Still relatively new to the industry, Yvet started putting ink to skin in 2019 entrusted by her ex-boyfriend who let her use himself as a canvas, “you have to learn by doing it,” she adds.  

Living in Portugal at the time, her former partner worked in a tattoo studio and often had her swing by and observe. At that time, Yvet learned through drawing and visually learning in the studio environment. 

“Only when I moved back to the Netherlands I really made a home studio and I started to tattoo a bit more often,” she added that it wasn’t a typical route when starting an apprenticeship because she wasn’t learning from one person, “I figured out most myself,” she said. 

Utca currently works with appointments and walk-ins and Yvet’s fineline style is quite popular at the moment. She added that the style she works on depends on her clients choice, “It’s very much fineline but what I like to do is more neotraditional, dotwork and ornamental. I’m still figuring out my exact style,” she said.  

The number of tattoo parlors have doubled over the last seven years in the Netherlands according to figures released by the National Institute for Public Health and Environment (RIVM). 

Tattoo artists have described seeing different clientele coming from different professions, Yvet notes that her colleagues have noticed a visible shift in client demographic. “It’s just way more acceptance and in different types of jobs. You can also have tattoos that are visible…that was unheard of some years ago,” she said. 

“I think it doesn’t change me as a person that I have a lot of tattoos. For me, I don’t even see tattoos. If I see a person, it’s just a part of them, it’s not something separate. I don’t see a reason to judge anyone for it”.  

Support in Health

“I was 24 when I found out that I had cervical cancer,” she said quite matter of factly. Yvet was living in Portugal at the time and was on the precipice of a new job in her previous professional field of marketing. 

“It was the third day of Christmas that the doctor called me while I was home in the Netherlands, and said, I don’t want you to go to Portugal, because I want to see you tomorrow,” she explained. 

By February of 2018 she had a full hysterectomy, which left her in recovery for three months and forced her to relinquish the new job opportunity. This period was very tough on her and her family. 

“I didn’t feel like I had to support them a lot, but I did know that they were having a harder time than I was,” she said “I think they tried to keep those emotions away from me, they didn’t want to influence me with their sadness but I knew they were having a bad time,” she continued.

Yvet explained that she was extremely fortunate and was able to keep her ovaries, as the cancer had not spread to them, saving her from forced early menopause. Though, she had several lymph nodes removed from my lower abdomen to avoid any risk of cancer in her lymphatic system. This necessary overzealousness resulted in lymphedema, a life long incurable condition which for Yvet, is a direct result of her cancer. Lymphedema is a swelling brought on by the body’s accumulation of lymph fluid as it cannot drain without the presence of lymph nodes. 

Upon moving back to Portugal, Yvet was met with new challenges. “I couldn’t walk very well, because my legs were swelling…so that was a whole new chapter that I had to tackle with lymphedema,” she explained. 

Though she is now five years cancer free, the effects of this chapter of her life will follow her forever. She now wears compression socks on her legs to help the lymphatic drainage, she is given a replacement pair every six months and will be wearing them for the rest of her life.

Despite these challenges, Yvet remains strong in her positive outlook. “I have lymphedema and I had cancer, I cannot have children anymore, but I’m cancer free,” she said “it changed my whole daily routine, it’s really something that influences my everyday life. It is a part of me.” she concluded.

“I was happy when I found out that I had cancer, that I lived the way I did,” says Yvet, she continues to add to her striking comment by stating in that moment she believed, “I lived to the fullest, and I tried to make the best of everything. Because if this is the end, then I don’t regret how I lived here”. 

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