Joe Riley's Las Vegas tattoo shop, Inner Visions, has been closed for two months. He applied for several loans from the Small Business Administration, only to be denied for all of them. As an independent contractor, he's technically eligible for unemployment—but Nevada didn't begin accepting applications for gig workers until May 16, and the state has bungled its attempt to process a flood of more than 40,000 claims. Meanwhile, his shop's landlord has refused to cut him a break on rent.
"That's two months with no income, two months with having to pay all the bills," Riley told VICE. "If it lasts too much longer, I'm going to have to stop paying rent and use whatever little money I have to make sure I have a roof over my head. I've got a six-year-old daughter that I have to take care of."
Nevada's governor, Steve Sisolak, hasn't given any indication as to when tattoo shops in the state might be allowed to reopen. But other close-contact businesses—including hair salons, barbershops, and nail studios—have been open since May 9. For Riley, it's been infuriating to watch them swing open their doors while he's forced to remain closed.
Tattoo artists are required to undergo yearly training on how to prevent disease transmission in their shops, and they're subjected to rigorous scrutiny from their local health departments. Among a host of other measures, they have to wear latex gloves while they work, sterilize their stations between each appointment, and tattoo clients with disposable, single-use needles. If they don't, they're liable to lose their licenses.
Along with Nevada, there are six other states—Connecticut, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Maine—where salons, barbershops, and nail studios have been allowed to reopen, but tattoo shops haven't. Shop owners are baffled as to why they've been excluded from the list of close-contact businesses cleared to return to work. For the most part, their governors haven't set a date for when they'll be able to reopen.
"We've had more training than hairstylists and nail technicians on cross-contamination, blood-borne pathogens, and disease prevention. I don't understand how that is so overlooked," Riley said. "I treat every client like they have a deadly disease, and I take the proper steps to protect myself, the other artists in the shop, and the other clients. We've always used hospital-grade cleaners in the shop. The stuff we use kills the worst of the worst viruses, bacteria—you name it. We're cleaner than most doctor's offices."
In the 27 states that have allowed tattoo shops to reopen, many owners are taking additional precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Randy Randerson, who co-owns Thunderdome Tattoo in Edmond, Oklahoma, requires everyone in his shop to wear a mask. He's no longer taking walk-ins, and clients have to come to their appointments alone. Every station in Thunderdome is spaced at least eight feet apart, and no more than ten people are allowed in the shop at a time. He and his shop-mates regularly wipe down door handles, disinfect the bathroom, and sanitize every surface in the shop with hospital-grade sterilant. Those measures have become standard practice at shops that have reopened.
"It's really hard to convince me that tattoo shops are too close-quarters, or they're not clean enough," Randerson said. "When you're a tattooer, you assume everybody has something. We're going to take the precautions to stop transmission of anything, whether it be airborne or blood-borne."
Bobbi Stark, who owns Keepsake Studio in Lakewood, Colorado, was nervous to return to work when the state let tattoo shops reopen in early May. But she felt she didn't have a choice: Weeks after she'd applied for a small-business loan, she hadn't received it. Even though the CARES Act was expanded to cover unemployment for independent contractors, she and her shop-mates' claims weren't approved. If she stayed closed for much longer, she told VICE, she would lose the business she'd been dreaming of opening since she started tattooing a decade ago.
"I feel like we're being backed in a corner. If you're not going to do anything to help us, then we have to help ourselves," Stark said. "If we learned anything from the first experience [of having to close], it's that they're going to cut our income off completely, not offer us any financial aid or respite for nine weeks, and you're basically totally fucked. There's no financial netting for us, no sort of support at all."
Though she's been out of work for months, Stark isn't rushing to make up for lost business. She's only taking one to two appointments per day, and plans to stick to a limited schedule until the pandemic abates. Most tattoo artists across the country appear to be doing the same thing. Shay Cannon, who owns Liberty Tattoo in Atlanta, told VICE that whereas the shop typically brings in upwards of 50 clients on a busy day, they're now seeing about 50 per week.
"We're only operating at maybe 10 to 20 percent of what we used to do," Cannon said. "It's basically putting some groceries on the table."
For Cannon, Stark, and Randerson, even a small number of appointments each day have meant the difference between saving their shops or going out of business. They've looked on as shops across the country have permanently closed, and wondered aloud why some states have kept tattoo shops shuttered while other close-contact businesses reopen.
"We're not a necessity. We're a luxury item," Cannon said. "But you don't have to have a haircut either. You don't have to have your nails done. You don't have to go to a tanning place. There's so many jobs that fall into that category. We have to get back to work sometime."
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