COVID-19 Will Change The Tattoo Industry Forever
While the economy continues to feel the ripple effects of COVID-19, the tattoo industry is bracing for the worst.
Tattooing first responders for free was Myles’ direct link to her community, and in its own way, helped her heal after the devastating attacks. “In the past, we’ve come together to rebuild,” Myles says, noting that her shop has survived many hard times since it opened in 1997. “We’ve been through 9/11, the blackout of 2003, and Hurricane Sandy," she says. "But the coronavirus is scary because it’s something we don’t even understand.”
For artists like Myles, who works in one of at least 47,000 shops across the country, navigating the COVID-19 storm feels scarier than past obstacles. Because of the closeness of tattooing, even as many states gradually begin lifting their shelter-in-place mandates, tattoo artists wonder when they can safely get back to work — and if it will be within the timeframe to save their shops and careers.
How COVID-19 Is Impacting Tattoo Artists
The popularity of tattoos has never been greater. Today, at least 30% of Americans have tattoos, a stat that jumps to 50% among Millennials, and a 2017 survey shows that more women are getting tattoos in the U.S. than men. Overall, the tattoo industry has grown by 6.1% since 2014, and it's now estimated to be a $2 billion dollar per year industry. Still, it wasn't ready for a global pandemic.
“It all happened so fast,” says tattoo artist Terry Downs. “It was business as usual, and then we started to learn more about the virus and dangers in the news. All of a sudden, everything was done.”
“In the past, we’ve come together to rebuild, but the coronavirus is scary because it’s something we don’t even understand.”
To pass the time, Downs has been busy working on fresh designs to attract new clients. “I’ve been drawing a lot and trying to generate as much interest as possible," she says. "When I am able to tattoo, I can hit the ground running."
Most artists we spoke to are taking it day by day, but many still worry about what business will look like after the pandemic. Luckily, independent contractors, including many tattoo artists, may now qualify for assistance, like unemployment benefits, but it doesn't quell the fear of what's to come. "If [people are] struggling to pay bills, they probably won't be racing out to get a tattoo,” Sicklinger says. "They have to rebuild their lives and, even if shops open, there's no guarantee that we'll see the same volume of people who will be financially able to invest in work." As a shop owner, Myles shares similar sentiments. “Our business is in a tourist-heavy area of the city,” she says about her Division Street shop. “Imagine if this thing wipes out tourism.”
I knew my health would be at risk, but I also knew that I had rent and bills I needed to pay...
While most tattoo artists grapple with the uncertainty of their jobs and finances, many of them share one comforting commonality: art. For Maximin, focusing on other passions has helped his creative and mental health while quarantined. “The pandemic has paused a lot of things I had planned for this year,” he says. “But it has allowed me to slow down and reconnect with my first love: painting.”