It’s been a long two months of lockdown for most of us in the United States, but it’s been especially hard on the tattoo industry. For many, there is a light at the end of the tunnel as states have started to reopen for business. Just don’t expect everything to go back to the way it was anytime soon or, potentially, ever. The world has changed tremendously since mid-March. To get an idea of how this new reality is going to work, we spoke with Durb Morrison.
Morrison has his hands in many different facets of the tattoo industry, and as such, he is in a unique position to give us a broad view of what people are experiencing. First and foremost, he’s a tattooer with three decades of experience in his craft. As the owner of Redtree Tattoo in Columbus, Ohio, he operates a shop employing 10 other artists. Morrison also knows the supply side of the tattoo industry, as the owner of True Tattoo Supply Company. Morrison also has his finger on the pulse of the convention industry, as the man behind the Hell City Tattoo Festivals.
On the eve of reopening his shop, Morrison found the time to speak with us about the many challenges that lay ahead for the tattoo industry.
The state of Ohio is allowing tattoo shops to open May 15. How do you feel about getting back to work?
There's mixed reactions, I think with artists. I'm glad that people are able to get back to work given the proper safety measures and precautions and protocols. Then there's the other view that people are thinking business opens too soon. You know, the way I look at tattooing, we've already been taking universal precautions for years and years. We got through bloodborne pathogens training, we understand, cross-contamination and virus spreading and all that. Now we need to be trained in airborne pathogens. I think artists that know cross-contamination and how to prevent the spread of a lot of stuff are going to be less likely to spread anything around or to be put in any dangerous situations than a normal person that's had a job that they haven't even had to think about any of that.
So, the way I look at it with tattooing opening again is that it's very safe as long as the artists are using the protocols to help stop the spread of the virus. I'm telling my artists, the main thing it comes down to is communication. Communicating the new procedures to the client. Making sure when the clients enter the studio they sanitize and put the mask on, that they sanitize anything they bring in with them and containment. We talked today, a big part about containment with a lot of my artists is that when you do get the client in there and they’re masked and you bring them into your room, you must keep them contained. They don't get to walk around, you know. Done are the days of clients, or of me even, being able to go in when my artists are working on somebody and just kind of moseying it and being like, “Hey what you guys working on?” You can't even do that anymore. You can't expose your artists, clients, yourself anymore.
Do you think you’ll be able to do that? One of the things I worry about is that right now you take all these precautions, but you've been tattooing for 30 years. I’m afraid that after a little time, muscle memory and old habits will just take over. How are you going to enforce that they don’t?
When we talked today, I was like, this may be it for a year or two. We may have to operate like this for a year or two. We’re all only doing one client per day. Since we're not doing multiple tattoos, we're trying to just really just focus on that one client. I have 10 artists, so they all have one client in there, that's while maintaining social distancing and making sure everybody's gloved up and masked up and all that stuff.
Only 20 people a day? That’s not too terrible.
Yeah. I mean it's more than a lot of us have been dealing with lately, but it's not terrible if you bring them in one at a time, you bring them in properly and everybody sanitizes as they come in. There is no other way right now, so you can't lax on it. Even when my artists were walking in today for the meeting, two of them didn't have a mask on. I was like, really put a mask on and I made everybody in the meeting have masks on too and I go, this is what it's like. I have to set the example as the guy with the mask on.
Having a responsible tattoo crew and having these meetings and putting everybody in the same point, that's what's going to keep it going long term. You have to understand that artists really, truly care about people. That's one of the things that we all love about our jobs. We don't want to put anybody in jeopardy. I think the long term is just, it's a new norm. There is no other way to do it.
When Georgia started opening up, we talked to a bunch of artists there as that was happening and a lot of them were very reluctant to open. But even those that wanted to stay close, were feeling economic pressures. Were the economics pushing you towards making this decision?
For me personally, if they said stay closed, we'd stay closed. We're not rushing. We've spent the last month putting together the precautions and the protocols we’ll follow, and preparing our studio with the plexiglass walls and sanitation areas when you walk in so we’d be ready when the state allowed us to reopen.
You mentioned putting up plexiglass, so you've sort of had to renovate to some degree?
Yeah. We've had to add things and add areas that weren't there. Mainly, you know, meaning the sanitation areas, signage and stuff like that. The plexiglass is just an added precautionary thing. We've got a lot of protocols and changes around the shop to the point where other artists are looking at them now and being like, damn Durb’s way ahead of the game.
Has it been hard to get a hold of gloves, masks, madacide and other supplies?
When this hit, it took everybody by storm. It hit the manufacturers by storm. You know, they're not used to everybody in the world wearing masks and gloves all of a sudden. The average Joe that never needed a mask or a box of gloves does now, so the manufacturers were overwhelmed too. Manufacturers that have been supplying select industries like the medical industry, tattoo industry, dental industry, now they're supplying the general public. We’ve definitely noticed that getting in our pallets of gloves takes a little bit longer and there's no promises of when or if you're going to get it.
Are you confident that once you’ve reopened for business that this will be it, business will be back? Or are you preparing for another lockdown?
We've all spoken about another possible lockdown. If a virus spreads again, which given their history, it's kind of a telltale sign at will. So we're all prepared. This time, at least, we’ll all know that this could happen and have an idea of what to do. Nobody had a fucking clue that a pandemic was going to happen. I think next time if we’re locked down again people will be a little bit more prepared. We're prepared to shut that down and reopen again with all the protocols that we currently have.
Tattooers in every state seem to be experiencing things differently, have artists in Ohio been able to get assistance and unemployment?
Somewhat. Some of them got relief checks and stuff like that. Then some of them know, got on unemployment too. I think it was a combination of stuff. My main goal through all this was to really just make sure that when it was time for my artists to come back, as a studio owner, to make sure that everything was done. Some studio owner’s posts were like, “we'll be open within the next few weeks as we bring our studio up to regulation.” I'm already up to regulations. I've been waiting for the day to reopen, you know, and just making sure it was smooth. Not just for myself, but for my artists. I want them to be able to get back to work.
It’s not just your livelihood at stake, it’s their livelihood too.
Exactly. And I want them to realize too that I'm taking care of them.
Awesome. It sounds like you’ve got your shop ready to go, so let’s turn the focus to conventions. How does the future look for them?
I think eventually they're going to start happening again... in 2021. The reason I canceled mine is I don't want to spend the money to have a crowd of like a hundred people there. And I fucking pay for it. So financially, I had to make the wise decision to just cancel all the way into next year. My personal feelings are that I think people are shocked by this, and I think when they come back financially it's going to take a moment for everybody to even get confident enough to spend money again to go jump on a plane to go to Phoenix, Arizona for a convention. And stay in a hotel that, you know, they're already partly afraid of. How do you maintain those traditions at a tattoo convention? Like you gotta compete up on the stage. You got to, you know, be in a crowd when there's like a freak show, you know, you can't ever stand six feet apart. And have like 40 people on your main stage, and seminars...
How are artists even going to have the proper space to work or bring in clients? Or have walk-ups?
I've already thought about all this too cause I'm like, okay, when I do Hell City next year, next April, what is it still an issue? We're not going to postpone next year, we're going to try it, even if it's a little weird. But I'm going to maybe set an example for some other shows.
And with how much of the work that needs to be done ahead of time, it’s going to be heard to gauge whether or not things are going to be completely ready.
People don't realize the amount of work that goes into a convention. And let me tell you this dude, we were a month away from doing Hell City, Columbus, our big one that we do. We were done. Everything was organized. I was literally two weeks away from kicking my feet up and just advertising. Then it hit, we're going to cancel that shit and now we're, you know, slowly giving booth refunds and presale ticket refunds. I've been keeping my cool, you know, a lot of people were like, “Oh man, this really sucks.” I'm like, yeah, you know what I got here. Both my conventions got closed. It's not the lost money, it's the fact that I don't have the potential to make that money to put into the company.
All finances aside, you’re also missing out on a hell of a lot of fun.
Yeah. I love the tattoo family is what I call it all together. And Hell City’s a bit like a family reunion for a lot of people.
What have you missed most while you’ve been on lockdown?
One of my favorite things about tattooing is just the camaraderie. You know, I'm sure it's gonna be different when we can all hang out. But I'm looking forward to all the artists, you know, being able to create, again, big tattoos, connect back with their clients. A lot of people, I mean, that's their livelihood, that's their lifestyle. They crave tattooing and interacting with their clients and having good conversations and being these therapists that we are while we tattoo people. It's why we're tattoo artists. What I miss the most is just being a tattoo artist.
Do you have any idea what your first tattoo back is going to be?
Hmmmm. Oh, okay. Yeah. My wife—Cervena Fox—is looking at me right now. She’s telling me that I’m redoing her arm. She has an old fox sleeve from Bez who did it originally, we're probably gonna go in this weekend and tattoo her, so that'll probably be my first one back.