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When will tattoo shops reopen in NYC?

NYC's tattoo parlors are thinking about the best ways to operate in a safe manner.

Emma Orlow
Written by
Emma Orlow

New York City’s tattoo shops are not considered to be essential businesses, which means that all parlors are currently closed. And while they may be some of the last to be granted the green light to reopen again, many tattoo artists and studios are already thinking about the best ways to operate in a safe manner.

Almost a dozen tattooers all told Time Out New York that studios that formerly encouraged walk-ins would be moving to an appointment-only policy—at least until there's a vaccine. Perhaps that means an end to the drunken tattoo mistakes some customers make on a whim?

Josh Agnew of Electric Anvil Tattoo in Crown Heights says that walk-ins accounted for “a huge part of his business.” His tattoo shop has a “you get what you get machine”—essentially a randomized gumball machine filled with different tattoo designs that customers get without knowing in advance. For now, he thinks that feature used by many of his walk-ins (many of which are tourists) will be a thing of that past. 

Licensed tattoo artists, not unlike restaurant workers, are held to high health standards that they already follow and they especially know how to deal with blood-borne pathogens.

Funny enough, besides medical workers, we were probably the most prepared industry for something like this. We are experts in cross contamination and have been wearing gloves and face masks for years!” shares Matty "No Times" Marcus of Three Kings Tattoo. But now, with concern about airborne-contact, people like Todd “Woodz” Woodard from Magic Cobra Tattoo Society, say they’ll also be adding plexiglass in between tables, limit the number of artists working at a time and making sure everyone involved wears masks and washes their hands. They’ll also get rid of waiting areas and you won’t be able to bring a friend or significant other as a tag along.

It’s been recorded that when times are tough financially, bars tend to continue to do well. Similarly, many tattoo artists that we contacted for this piece reported a surprising increase in requests right now (despite the fact that they can’t act on them), be it due to emotional-related reckonings exacerbated by the current climate or simply boredom. 

Tattoo shops have only been legal in New York City since 1997, and business owners say they hope unfair lingering stigmas surrounding the industry don’t factor into how the government allows them to reopen. 

In her free time, Tamara Santibañez, who works at Saved in Williamsburg, hosts community-focused workshops on the physical and emotional labor particular to the job. And during the pandemic, she has found herself “cobbling together information” about the path for reopening, “without much guidance” from city officials. “The issue is more that there's not a lot of firsthand knowledge [of the tattoo process amongst lawmakers], they assume the safety standards of hair stylists will apply to tattoo artists and they don’t necessarily understand the nuances of the industry.” 

Most agree there is no reason to rush reopening. "It would be so irresponsible to use people’s bodies as an experiment," says Vanessa Monday who works at the private studio, Haven in Bushwick. 

Some tattoo parlors with bigger spaces will find it easier to retrofit to the social-distancing constraints, but others will find it harder to reduce their capacities and meet New York’s punishingly high rent costs. Overall, fewer artists working at a time means fewer people who can make a living wage. 

In the meantime, artists such as the queer-indentifying Spencer Shope, who works at Bandit Studio in Dumbo, are hosting raffles to bring in some income. In addition, “somebody bought an $1,000 tattoo upfront,” she says of the deposit which allows her to pocket some money in the interim (she, like so many, have not received any kind of unemployment money to date). 

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With the advent of Instagram, many tattoo artists have turned to running private studios that already focus on the appointment-only model. “I much prefer the intimacy of going back and forth on Instagram with a client beforehand to figure out the design,” says Christian Lord of Lord Tattoo in Greenpoint, which largely services a queer clientele. 

For Lord, who worked previously in a tattoo parlor, the move toward private DIY spaces like his own could be a positive one for the industry. “There’s a lot of bro-culture or heteronormativity in a lot of the big shops... A lot of queer people wouldn't be able to get jobs in their spaces and I think that [the imbalance] could change after COVID,” he says. 

For some people, tattoos are an aesthetic choice but for others, tattoos can be a form of therapy, a way to take ownership of one’s body that may have faced trauma, scars from gender-affirming surgery, or chemotherapy. 

“For the most part, the people I work with are marginalized and tattoos can be an important part of how they control how they are perceived,” says Santibañez. “The most vulnerable people who are experiencing the brunt of COVID may be exactly the people who seek out tattoos after this.”  

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