2021 is here and California remains deeply embedded in a public health and safety crisis as it fumbles a slow and chaotic vaccine rollout. The state’s tattoo shops have been forced to close their doors for the greater part of 2020 under shifting local laws aimed at curbing the ongoing pandemic. Their categorization as non-essential businesses has left shop owners and artists with few options, with many resorting to other means of income and fundraising while tattooing remains on hold. We asked a few shops how they've been affected by the restrictions and the pandemic as a whole.
Veteran Bay Area tattoo artist Sirimontra opened O Tattoo in Oakland, CA recently in the summer of 2019. Siri, along with Léa, Suki, Void, Mochi and Story form the shop’s tight all-femme crew of artists—a welcome change in an industry that’s long been steeped in a tradition of male-dominance and exclusivity.
O Tattoo shuttered its doors along with other tattoo shops under statewide Stay at Home orders from March through much of 2020. The state orders came just days after San Francisco and Los Angeles had each effectively enacted local bans on tattooing. Bay Area tattoo shops were allowed to open briefly from October to early December under tighter health restrictions—hardly enough time for artists and shops to build momentum under adjusted business models. An err of caution and uncertainties around the risk of exposure to the virus fueled a somewhat slow roll-out of tattoo shops, offering limited availability for clients eager to break back out into public life.
Aside from the limited and slow roll-out, little changed functionally during the brief span of operation. In an industry that's long been practicing a high level of sanitation and care, tattooers stand to be more prepared to adjust to heightened health and safety guidelines than most public businesses. “We've always had to maintain all those safety guidelines anyway", says Siri. "The things that I miss most, like being able to hug your own client thank you or getting to see people smile,” emphasizing the unfortunate loss of intimacy between tattooers and clients. “It can be hard when they want to bring friends with them or want to get a matching tattoo but can’t come in at the same time”, says Story.
Tattoo fiends like myself scrambled for appointments. My regular visits to nearby tattoo shops to witness the artists’ latest work on their usual array of clients mostly became a look at sketches for future commissions or flash pages as artists used their shops like more conventional art studios.
During their brief re-opening, tattooers and clients Inside Berkeley’s Modern Electric continued to fill the air with lively discussions and comradery even without additional guests around the shop, albeit with masks and social distancing. After getting tested for Covid-19 and confirming the negative results, I was lucky enough to land coveted appointments with both Lael and Aaron Nassberg, two of the shop’s artists. As the shop’s long-time owner, Nassberg’s experienced career in tattooing hails from a proud line of influential queer tattooers, including Phil Sparrow, a pioneer of the American Traditional style. Lael’s apprenticeship barely ended as the pandemic began, but their rapidly-growing skill and craft and exuberant queer energy stands as a fitting testiment to the shop’s lineage and good evidence that there’s plenty of momentum in this lasting industry and no shortage of talent.
The ongoing tradition between skilled mentors and apprentices is central to tattooing’s lasting resilience, with Covid-19 serving as a mere momentary challenge to the industry as a whole.
“Tattooing has been really well self-regulated for so long,” says Nassberg, who personally drafted Modern Electric's new health and safety guidelines, including a rule that all clients are required to get tested for Covid-19 prior to appointments. Nassberg adds, “a tattoo parlor is one of the safest places you can be in any kind of health consideration. I know that we keep better hygiene than lots of doctor’s offices I’ve been to,” relaying a story about having to assert that a local doctor should put on clean gloves after handling non-sterile surfaces before touching him. While tattoo shops are known for their high level of cleanliness, restaurants across the country are constantly fined or shuttered for health code violations.
Cancellation of months worth of appointments has meant the loss of thousands of dollars in income for most tattooers, putting increased economic pressure on an industry that has been given few options under state or city guidelines. Many shops have been making ends meet via public support in the form of GoFundMe pages, commissioned artworks, or projects like Modern Electric’s beautifully hand-bound art book featuring select works from the shop’s artists.
The artists at O Tattoo, who have also started a GoFundMe, have been staying busy even during closures. “Tattoo artists have been around forever, it’s always been such a coveted art form” says Story. “I have an Etsy store, and we’re all artists, so I’ve just been doing commissions and whatnot.", Suki adds. The two of them organized a successful street fair and picnic along with other local businesses in Berkeley to support themselves and offer solidarity within the community. “Anything we can make, we sold,” says Suki. Siri also has an Etsy store, and Mochi has returned to her dog-training business as well as designing and making costumes, to an ever-growing pool of cos-players, to make ends meet.
In Southern California, shops and artists have been challenging regulations head-on. A state judge struck down a lawsuit spearheaded by three tattoo shop owners in the greater Los Angeles area that asserted their right to remain open, despite the plaintiffs citing the reduced risk of exposure and stringent health oversight by the city and state compared to other industries.
San Diego-based tattoo artists Bill Canales, Aaron Della Vedova, and Mike Raymond have formed PACT, The Professional Association of California Tattooers. ”A registered 501c Non-Profit organization founded by tattooers and shop owners to advocate for the empowerment and fair treatment of the California tattoo industry.”, via pactofficial.org. Illuminating the lack of organization among the thousands of shops in the state, PACT is actively encouraging industry-wide solidarity with aims to “develop a strong network of political activists and generate funds to lobby for our industry on a state and local level."
"This year has been quite the challenge in so many ways,” says Canales, founder and owner of San Diego's Full Circle Tattoo. “Open, close, open, close. Frustrating to say the least." Along with the other shop owners/artists embedded in the industry, PACT is working closely with an attorney experienced in advocating for barbers and beauty salon workers in the state, which is useful under state and local laws aimed at freelance work that also targets tattooers.
The PACT logo: the California flags grizzly bear holding a flag attached to a tattoo needle.
“As an industry, if we don’t try to be a part of the solution then we are bound to fail” says Canales. “We need to speak up and take action where it matters and if someone doesn’t tell [state legislators in] Sacramento what we want they will tell us what we want." The organization is actively seeking volunteers and donations, and most importantly memberships from other California tattooers. "Anyone can help our efforts,” Bill asserts, “anyone that has ever been tattooed or is a fan of tattoo art or art in general."
“I know some artists that have just opened up private studios in a way to avoid any Covid situations that can shut down a whole shop,” adds Canales. A bleak but cautionary example of the importance of leveraging power back into the hands of the shops and artists working through and beyond this pandemic as it challenges industries, workers, and everyday people worldwide.
Despite an overwhelmingly difficult year for tattooing and the rest of the world, the hard work and ceaseless efforts of dedicated individuals will undoubtedly carry the tattoo industry forward and beyond these trying times as we navigate the inevitable end to this pandemic. The love of the craft from the creators to the collectors is too great to fail in the face of its many challenges.
Though we’ve had a steady year of hardship globally, we hope that unforeseen potential and innovation may emerge in the face of obstacles. As it often has historically, being pushed beyond our comfort zone can lead to exciting shifts in styles of tattooing or other art forms. If you can, help out the artists at your nearby shop by supporting their creative side-projects, seeking out calls for donations, or putting down a deposit towards your next tattoo!