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No ink spilled – tattoo studios struggle during Covid

With the constant closing and reopening of tattoo studios, artists no longer know where they stand. James Molloy gets the insight of some industry professionals
Pictured above: AWOL Tattoo Galway. Photo courtesy of AWOL

With the nation currently in yet another lockdown in a bid to curb the spread of Covid, one industry that has taken a significant battering since March 2020 with the constant closing and reopening is the tattooing industry. the industry is very much at the mercy of the virus as tattoo studios remain deserted and the artists are left idle with no clear idea of when they can return to work.

The tattoo industry in Ireland has been shrouded in uncertainty since the beginning of the pandemic last March. Tattoo shops are usually the last to open and the first to close, leaving industry professionals in the dark when it comes to the stability of their profession. 

As a result, the artists and shops have faced many obstacles, from economic costs to rescheduling appointments and adapting to new guidelines when they are permitted to open.

“The constant stop start of lockdowns has affected us a lot behind the scenes. Not everyone gets a rent break unfortunately”

Shane Boulger

“We are last to be allowed to go back to work, we are getting completely f****d over,” says Joe Murphy, an artist working in Live Fast tattoo. “As soon as we are allowed open it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is work lined up. We can’t book appointments because we have no idea of a date we can return to work.” 

“This past year has been surreal for small businesses,” says Áine Wall, co-owner of AWOL tattoo in Galway. “It’s been very stressful. Very difficult. The constant closing and reopening has made our business life extremely challenging… We had to completely redesign the studio too, add more dividing walls etc, costing us a lot of money. 

“Not to mention the fact that we still have overheads like rent, bills and tax bills while we are closed,” Wall continues. “Our bank account is basically haemorrhaging money. It’s such an uncertain time for small businesses and many have not or will not survive.”

Another to voice his concerns about the current situation is Shane Boulger, a tattoo artist working out of Dublin’s Life’s Too Short tattoo studio.

“The constant stop start of lockdowns has affected us a lot behind the scenes. It’s not as simple as just stop and start. We have individual clients to contact and reschedule, studio owners have multiple overheads to clear as not everyone gets a rent break unfortunately.”

Boulger has clients that have been waiting almost a year to be tattooed, and he feels somewhat responsible for their plight as his clients could be waiting months for their appointment. 

“I can’t help but feel like I’m letting these people down each time I have to contact them and let them know our situation has changed again. My inbox is full of people messaging for tattoo house calls, even going as far as inviting themselves to my house for a ‘nixer’ — something I would never do, definitely not during a pandemic.”

“I can’t help but feel like I’m letting these people down each time I have to contact them and let them know our situation has changed again”

Boulger

When shops are permitted to open there are further guidelines and regulations imposed that studios must adapt to, such as reconfiguring the layout of their spaces with barriers to ensure the safety of both employees and clients. Social distancing is limiting the number of clients allowed in the shop and walk-ins are a thing of the past, as all tattoos must be booked in advance leading to the back-log mentioned by Boulger.

He also believes that “tattooing has become a little bit less personal and the process isn’t as enjoyable for the client with masks, screens and barriers.” He adds that “social distancing and limiting bodies in the shop has affected me in a few ways. The number of days I work is down.”

However, he does acknowledge this is necessary as a means to help stop the spread and continue to work around Covid-19.

In addition, he mentioned that while he is currently out of work it has given him more time to work on another project, allowing him to diversify and adapt during Covid, to earn another stream of income while he waits for the studios to reopen.

“I have been working on another project that I can run alongside my tattooing, but it’s not ready yet – similar to prints/ T-shirts/ hoodies with what I would call tattoo flash art in my style.”

Closed tattoo studio Dublin City. Photo by James Molloy

Many other artists and studios have also decided to diversify their businesses by means of gift cards, selling prints of artwork, merchandising and running competitions such as raffles in order to promote their brand and raise funds.

With recent speculation suggesting that the current lockdown will last until late April or early May, presumably a gradual reopening of the economy can take place thereafter. The tattoo community wonders when studios can reopen and whether or not they will be the last industry to be allowed to rejoin the Irish economy. 

Furthermore, with the mounting costs, owners of studios must factor in the possibility of permanent closure or cutting back on overhead costs.

The next few months will be decisive for the survival of the tattoo industry in Ireland as we know it. The sooner things can return to a level approaching normality, the better for all those affiliated to tattooing in Ireland.

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