When Kari Barba was forced to close her two tattoo shops in California last week due to COVID-19, she asked the 20 artists who work for her how long the meager savings in their bank accounts would last them. They all told her the same thing: about a month. After that, she has no idea how they'll survive.
"You have an entire industry of people who can't get any sort of assistance from the government. Someone who receives a regular pay wage, when they lose their job, they can get federal assistance in the form of unemployment, possibly loans, things of that nature. But tattoo artists can't do that," Barba told VICE. "There isn't any system to support us in the case of something like this, where everybody is out of work."
Almost every tattoo artist in America is an independent contractor. In exchange for space in a shop or private studio, they pay 30 to 50 percent of what they make on each tattoo to the parlor. They don't have 401(k)s. Many don't have health insurance. Under current federal law, they're not eligible for unemployment. More than 50,000 people reportedly tattoo full-time in the U.S.—and now that the shops they work in are closed indefinitely, they're in a desperate financial position.
"Most of the people in our industry are living paycheck to paycheck," Christy Lillard, who owns three tattoo shops in Seattle, told VICE. "People are going to lose their homes. They're going to lose their cars. It's going to be devastating to this industry."
With no clear idea of when they'll be able to reopen, tattoo shops and studios across the country are at risk of closing permanently. Emily Kempf, who co-owns Time Being Tattoo in Chicago, told VICE that she and her shop-mates have enough money to pay rent through April. Once the month is up, they'll have to move out. Barba, who opened Outer Limits Tattoo in Long Beach in 1983, said she could only afford rent on the shop and its sister location in Costa Mesa until May. Lillard's three shops in Seattle—Damask Tattoo, Laughing Buddha, and Sea City—are also in jeopardy.
"I've got rents that are coming in at about $20,000 a month that I have personally guaranteed, and I have no way of making money," Lillard said. "If this lasts for three, four months, it will completely bankrupt me."
Tattooing is a competitive industry; securing a spot as a resident artist is difficult, and if the shop you work at goes out of business, it can be devastating. But if most—or even just several—of their local parlors fold at once, tattoo artists could temporarily find themselves without a place to work, leaving them in an unprecedentedly vulnerable situation.
"If a majority of tattoo shops close, I don't know what we're all going to do for a living," Barba said. "This is all I've ever done, it's all I know. A majority of us who have been doing this for a lifetime are not trained in anything else."
Artists and shops are scrambling to bring in some income while they're unable to tattoo. Many are trying to sell original artwork and merchandise, like hats and t-shirts. Some shops are selling gift cards and offering digital consultations. Others, like Bandit, a private studio in Brooklyn, have launched crowdfunding campaigns, giving supporters the option to either donate money or pre-pay for a tattoo they can get once the pandemic ends. But at a time when so many Americans are hurting financially, few are willing to buy anything that isn't essential.
"There's a lot of fear within the community that, because we don't provide a service that people need, when the economy goes to shit, less people are going to want to get tattoos," Bruno Levy, who owns Bandit, told VICE. "If your salary is cut in half, are you going to spend money on food, or are you going to get a tattoo?"
The one thing that might rescue tattoo artists and shops during the coronavirus crisis is a bipartisan, $2 trillion stimulus bill, which passed in the Senate Wednesday, and is primed to pass in the House and be signed into law this week. Among a slew of other measures, it would extend unemployment benefits to independent contractors, and provide $1,200 cash payments to anyone making up to $75,000 a year. Still, there's no guarantee it will cover everyone in the tattoo industry.
The bill includes $350 billion in loans for small businesses, but that money will only go to companies that keep all of their employees on the payroll. Because most tattoo shops don't classify their artists as employees, it's unclear how they stand to benefit. Tattooing is by and large a cash business; a number of artists, especially those who are just starting out, don't report their income to the IRS. These artists, including one who spoke to VICE on the condition of anonymity, won't be able to file for unemployment, and may not receive cash payments.
"As far as the government is concerned, I don't really exist," that tattoo artist said. "I can see myself starting to panic by the end of next month."
For now, tattooers are hoping they can gin up enough money in donations, merch sales, and pre-paid appointments to sustain themselves until they receive help from the government, if that day ever comes. More than anything, they're anxiously awaiting a sure sign that they can get back to work, desperate for the pandemic to subside before their shops have to close for good.
"A part of me has stayed in today, and tried not to think past the summer," Kempf said. "It's so shocking to consider your life getting erased."
Follow Drew Schwartz on Twitter.