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The pandemic tattoo craze is here

Tattoo studios are booked and busy after periods of monthslong closures.

A masked woman tattoos a man’s arm.
Though many tattoo artists’ schedules are filling up, some are still crawling out of debt after months of closures.
Stevica Mrdja/EyeEm via Getty Images

Tiffany Garcia has tattooed thousands of people over her two-decade career, but she remains intrigued by the first-timers. Since the spring, more clients without any history of tattoos have arrived at Garcia’s studio in Torrance, California.

It isn’t just young people. Some are middle-aged or divorced, or recently lost someone dear to them. “It felt like people were trying to find themselves or fulfill a purpose with tattoos,” Garcia told me. “I’ve had clients say they never thought to get one in their life.”

Across the country, tattoo artists like Garcia say they are witnessing a boom in bookings, catalyzed by stretches of business inactivity during the pandemic. People have spent the past year declaring their desire to get inked, whether to memorialize the unprecedented circumstances they’ve lived through or to embrace a new vehicle for self-expression after months of social inhibition. The changes in workplace culture toward remote employment are also a boon: Fewer workers will have to contend with the corporate stigma against visible body art.

Garcia’s shop, which has six working tattooists (including her), is booked through July and into August. But the studio’s packed schedule doesn’t mean the artists and the shop are financially in the clear. “We are still digging our way out of the pandemic,” Garcia said. “A lot of artists are self-employed, independent contractors, or booth renters, and they couldn’t qualify for unemployment. I had an artist who lived upstairs from the shop lose his apartment, and I am paying back my debts.”

Many shop owners and artists had to take on loans to hang onto their businesses. Rent was still due, after all, even as Garcia’s business remained closed from March through October 2020. Her studio didn’t qualify for PPP aid; she said she applied many times as an independent contractor and uploaded the required documentation. “Every time I got an email requesting W-2 forms and another tax document that I don’t have, as I’m not an employer with employees,” Garcia said. “No matter how much I called or emailed, I never got answers and eventually received an email stating that my application has been canceled.”

Garcia eventually secured an SBA loan that has to be paid back with interest (a PPP loan is potentially forgivable, while the SBA loan Garcia received isn’t). The enthusiasm from clients has been helpful, though, and with each passing day, Garcia’s anxiety about her debt eases.

This newfound security, however, comes after a yearslong cycle of openings and closures that devastated a maturing industry. Tattoo shops in the United States, where 30 percent of Americans have at least one tattoo, generate around $1 billion in revenue annually. The art form is more mainstream than ever, especially among young people: Roughly 50 percent of US millennials have some form of body art.

Today, there are more than 30,000 working artists and about 20,000 studios in the US. Yet, the body art industry does not have significant power, and there are few professional resources for struggling businesses and artists. For decades, the lack of clear state regulations surrounding body art have hurt the broader perception of the industry; representatives from the National Tattoo Association have actually spent years advocating for more regulation to benefit clients and tattoo businesses.

“We have no lobbyist, no union, no formal trade representatives of any kind,” North Carolina artist Keron McHugh told the Washington Post, adding that tattooing is a “baby industry.”

Tattoo studios in California have been under intermittent lockdown since March, with a few weeks of activity during summer 2020 before another period of monthslong closures. In August, barbershops, nail salons, and beauty parlors were given the green light to open, but tattoo parlors were left out, despite the state previously categorizing them all as “personal care services.”

“What people might not realize is, as tattoo artists, we have to study topics like bloodborne pathogens,” Garcia said. “We learn how to avoid cross-contamination, and we learn about airborne and vector-borne diseases. We’ve always had face masks on hand even before the pandemic, since we work so closely with clients. We’ve been prepared for this.”

Garcia is part of a cohort of shop owners in Torrance, Long Beach, and Thousand Oaks who filed a lawsuit against the state of California in October seeking to reopen, arguing tattoo studios face stricter regulations and pose the same semblance of risk. (California allowed tattoo shops and massage parlors to reopen toward the end of that month.) Tattoo artists have had to fend for themselves, Garcia said, as an industry with little to no formal lobbying power. Thus, it feels more like a community than an industry. Most artists seem to revel in the freedom and flexibility the profession allows. Still, tattooists and piercers have to contend with the prevailing stigma that their work is less sanitary than other personal care services. And when it came to a catastrophe such as the pandemic, their livelihoods felt neglected.

Now that business is back on track in the US, clients are pouring in, though at a different rate. Precautionary measures such as indoor capacity limits mean artists can no longer tattoo at the same pace they used to, juggling both appointments and walk-ins; still, social media, especially Instagram, has helped many artists gain visibility even during lockdown. Some were able to build a dedicated audience, schedule appointments months ahead of time, and share their body of work.

“My experience is that people are still hungry and couldn’t wait to reschedule, even if it’s six to eight months down from their initial appointment,” said Chloé Besson, a Denver-based artist who opened her own studio during the pandemic. “The excitement gave me a little bit of confirmation that it made sense to move forward with opening my shop.”

Besson felt there was momentum: People wanted to support other artists, small-business owners, and causes they cared about. Over the summer, she raffled off several tattoo designs and raised $14,000 in donations to Black Lives Matter and other Black community organizations. “It seemed like people wanted to step up and put money into something they cared about,” Besson said. This specific type of activism and fundraising feels new, born out of the political circumstances of the past year. Besson’s work and inclusive mission attract clients with a similar mindset — she isn’t sure if people are drawn to her work, her politics, or a mix of both. “I think people are responsive to artists who are honest about the state of their business and aren’t afraid to take a stance,” Besson said.

Morgan Dodd, a 26-year-old talent manager in New York City, entered a handful of tattoo raffles in summer 2020, some from artists with whom she wasn’t too familiar. “I just started following a lot more artists, and it was fun to see their work,” she said. One of Dodd’s first pandemic tattoos was from a donation flash sheet; an artist would post premade designs on Instagram, and proceeds earned from those tattoos would be donated to a nonprofit.

“I originally had an appointment with an artist who was doing a donation flash, so I just thought, ‘Why not?’ and bought myself another design,” she said. Dodd entered the pandemic with seven tattoos, and she’s added 12 more to her collection since then. Most of her pieces are selected from a book of premade flash designs, since most of the artists she follows don’t offer custom pieces.

In May, Dodd spontaneously decided to get a tattoo of the character No Face from the movie Spirited Away at her first rooftop party of 2021. A tattoo artist had set up a booth with a portable printer and transfer paper, and was eager to draw the character. “It felt like such a special moment because all my friends and I were vaccinated, and I wanted to commemorate that,” Dodd said. Most clients, though, likely won’t have such an impromptu tattoo session as Dodd did. Besson’s books are currently closed, but she predicted she can fill up slots through the end of the year. And there are myriad reasons why tattoos are so relevant, whether or not they’re directly related to the pandemic.

“Tattoos are a way for me to decorate my body and reconnect with myself during this time,” Dodd said. “For me, it’s mostly about the story and the moment of when I got the tattoo and where I was at in my life.”