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The COVID-19 pandemic has been doubly destructive to our society. The deadly virus that has killed over 45,000 Americans is not only a medical crisis, but also an economic disaster as people stay home to avoid spreading the virus even further. With 26 million people filing for unemployment in the last month, there is an immense pressure on state governors to lift stay-at-home orders to allow people to earn a living again.

On Friday, Georgia will reopen many of the businesses that have been closed under lockdown—nail salons, barber shops, bowling alleys, gyms and tattoo shops. The move has been widely panned by experts, scientists and even President Trump as many consider it to be premature.

The order puts business owners in a very tough spot as they have to weigh their economic livelihood against the safety of their employees and clients. Considering how hard the tattoo industry has been hit and the limbo that contract workers have been placed in with most state’s unemployment laws, one could assume that shop owners are feeling even more pressure than most.

Inked reached out to over a dozen tattoo shops in Georgia to see what they were planning to do. Of those that responded, only one shop was planning on resuming business immediately—Golden Anchor Tattoo in Atlanta.

Theo Walker, owner of Golden Anchor, explained that the shop will be reopening on Friday, albeit with some pretty strict guidelines (see above). Walker spoke with his entire crew before making the decision. In the end, it came down to finances. “While I have a decent amount of savings where I can ride this out longer, I know my team is not in the same position as I am financially,” Walker says. “I did not want to blow through my whole savings when I am willing to work and I have clients willing to pay. More importantly, I did not want my artists missing rent payments or getting behind on bills because they are not able to work.”

The artists at Golden Anchor are far from the only artists feeling an economic pinch. Almost everybody we spoke with brought up problems with the state’s unemployment system. Jasmine Maskell of Atlanta’s Timeless Tattoo, a shop that will remain closed, explained to us how tattooers have been left without a safety net.

“Unemployment for contract workers did not open up until last Monday in the state of Georgia and has not paid out yet,” Maskell says. “I have serious doubts that it ever will at this point. It’s hard not to think that this was a factor in some of these non-essential businesses being allowed to open first. This was a huge slap in the face.” 

Many shop owners, including Russ Abbott of Ink & Dagger Tattoo in Roswell, are looking at the lifting of regulations with a healthy amount of skepticism. The economic toll, while a consideration, isn’t the only worry. “Exactly the opposite,” Abbott says when asked if he felt pressured to open. “At this point I feel that not working is firmly rooted in a desire to keep the business and employees safe.”

“We voluntarily closed the studio a couple of weeks before it was mandatory in Georgia to do so,” Abbott continues. “At the time, this situation was very scary and we were afraid that our government was moving too slowly for the public good. Now that we have curiously been given the ‘green light’ to open, we are once again seeing evidence that decisions are being made which are not necessarily putting health and safety as the top priority.”

One of the few bright spots that we’ve seen during this pandemic is the way that the tattoo community rushed to the aid of hospitals. Many of the items needed by medical professionals during this time happen to be very common in tattoo shops—gloves, masks, disinfectant wipes, madacide, etc. This is yet another factor that must be considered before reopening.

“The time will come when there is a decline in cases as well as a surplus in PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) that are required to tattoo,” Vincent Villalvazo, owner of Mystic Owl Tattoo in Marietta, explains. “All of the necessary items we needed to operate pre-global pandemic are the same supplies healthcare workers need. Now, we will need even more to protect everyone in our studio.” 

Whether or not this is the proper time to reopen businesses like hair salons and tattoo parlors is up for debate, with the parameters of that debate changing wildly based on your location. Eventually, tattoo shops are going to be reopening, but don’t think that things are going to return exactly back to how they were. Artists are now trying to figure out what the new normal is going to be.

“We will be following the CDC’s advice on best practices,” Maskell explains. “No more than 10 people will be in the studio. All clients will be appointment only and no longer allowed to bring friends. We will also require that the temperature of the clients and artists/staff be taken as they walk into the building. Anyone entering the building will be required to wear a face mask.”

“I think we’ve all accepted that masks will become a regular part of our already extensive regimen of PPE and safety practices,” Abbott adds. “We have other ideas that we are looking at for the future.”

Another question to ask is even if the tattoo shops are open, are customers going to want to get tattooed? “I think people may be slow to indulge in something like getting a tattoo, but I don't think for long,” Jimmy Butcher, owner of The Butcher Tattoo Studio in Savannah, says. “When this is all over, the most normal thing people will want to do is treat themselves to the things they absolutely could not access during the lockdown.” 

Perhaps the thing that makes the decision to open (and how to open) most difficult for tattooers is the simple fact that, by and large, they love their jobs. You don’t become a tattoo artist for a paycheck or simple job stability, you do it for the love of the art.

“I miss creating art on my wonderful clients,” Villalvazo says. “I miss their conversation and good company, I miss my amazing team of artists and staff. As much as I would love to see them, I must do my part to keep them safe, so I may see them for many more years to come.”

“Everything,” Walker responds when asked what he misses. “The freedom to just go to the shop, that feeling of seeing a walk-in come through the doors, that buzzing sound of the machines, doing sick tattoos and, of course, making money.”

Reading Walker’s words you can feel why the artists at Golden Anchor are so eager to return to work. “It’s been a frustrating time for everyone in the country,” Walker says. “While not everyone may agree with our decision, we hope that they can at least understand it and accept it.”

Whether or not your favorite tattoo shop has chosen to return to business or if they will be staying closed, we must do what we can to support our community. “To those that are eager to support a struggling tattooer at this time,” Abbott says, “I urge you to engage with your favorite tattooers on social media, buy their artwork and prints that they may offer for sale and stay safe so you can come to the tattoo studio later this year.”

The tattoo industry is operating without a map right now with no surefire way to reopen safely. Many eyes will be on the state of Georgia in the coming weeks to see if the steps taken by the state government were prudent. Let’s hope that it’s not a decision that was made too soon.