Twin Cities tattoo artists leery of push to reopen shops

“Obviously, yes, I would love to go back to work," says Emi Nijiya, who owns Jackalope Tattoo. "But I couldn’t live with myself knowing that I had exposed somebody, or vice versa.”

“Obviously, yes, I would love to go back to work," says Emi Nijiya, who owns Jackalope Tattoo. "But I couldn’t live with myself knowing that I had exposed somebody, or vice versa.” Ashley Berry Photography

Lana Bosak misses tattooing. So. Goddamn. Much.

They miss their coworkers and clients. They miss going to the shop. They definitely miss having a source of income.

But Bosak, who most recently worked at Tailorbird Tattoo in Nokomis, thinks that as we’re staying socially distant to try and flatten that COVID-19 curve, the safest thing for them and those they tattoo is to keep the guns away for now.

“I’m grateful for my clients and the connections I’ve formed with them,” Bosak says. “I care about them. I’m willing to undergo hard times to keep them safe.”

So when a letter started circulating to Twin Cities tattooers last week about what precautions and new protocols could be used to get shops open again—a letter that included a link to the MN Senate Republicans site, where artists could urge lawmakers to let them reopen—Bosak was concerned. They weren’t the only one.

“Basically, there were some tattoo artists organizing to contact the Republican party to try to get us reopened,” says Emi Nijiya, who owns Standish’s Jackalope Tattoo. “They were saying because we have extra capability with understanding bloodborne pathogens and universal precautions, et cetera, that we were more capable of handling the virus.”

Now, no disrespect to the tattoo artists of the Twin Cities, but... folks?

“None of us know how to deal with this virus,” Nijiya says. “Even medical providers don’t know quite what they’re dealing with at this point.”

“The training on bloodborne pathogens tattoo artists are required to take is online and takes a few hours,” independent tattooer Helen Sevig explains. It teaches artists how to avoid cross-contamination and practice universal precautions, but Sevig says it’s not nearly comprehensive enough for, you know, a global respiratory pandemic.

The letter echoed the language in a recent Move On petition: Tattoo artists already take sanitation seriously, they could wear masks and gloves upon reopening, and they’d be working one-on-one with clients.

But tattooers see big problems with reopening right now. One of the CDC’s major bullet points in stopping the spread of COVID-19 is keeping at least six feet of distance between yourself and others. “Which, unless you’re a Wacky Wavy Inflatable Tube Arm Man, I don’t know how that works to tattoo someone,” says Amo Azure, another of Jackalope’s artists.

Nijiya notes that those pushing for places to open up again would need personal protective equipment—especially masks and gloves, which are in short supply even for those in the medical field. “Why should we, a community that isn’t [made up of] essential workers, have access to that?”

“Other places in the nation have put moratoriums on elective surgeries to reserve desperately needed medical supplies,” adds Azure. “And I’m supposed to in good conscience take those supplies?”

It’s become a source of conflict in the tattooing community; Nijiya actually left social media because of the fights that were breaking out.

“The artists that want to open back up are leaders in our industry, great tattooers, good people,” says Matt Ward (a.k.a. Pookhi) who owns Uptown’s Peregrine Tattoo. “I have immense respect for them.”

“Artists are at each other’s throats because they don’t agree,” Nijiya says. “The last thing we need to be doing right now is separating ourselves from each other … but the amount of pressure the financial restraints are putting on people is making them act in ways they normally wouldn’t. They don’t know what to do, because how else are they going to put food in their mouths?”

The problem is that the majority of tattooers, like many other independent contractors and self-employed workers, haven’t received unemployment. Even those who work for a shop are generally classified as independent contractors, meaning until recently they’ve been ineligible for financial support (and those applications are moving sloooowly—no one's heard of an artist being approved yet). PPP funds are gone.

Nijiya has personally applied for about five financial support programs since mid-March and not one has come through; Pookhi filed for a PPP loan along with other SBA loans and several grants, and he’s applied for unemployment. Nothing. And if tattoo shops were to reopen, it would remove their access to the few government programs that do exist to support small businesses.

May 4 is coming up, and Nijiya doesn’t think tattoo shops are even close to being able to reopen. Could they keep fewer than 10 people in the shop? Yes. Take temperatures at the door? Sure. But so many Twin Cities tattoo shops are tiny spaces, with no way to keep six feet of distance between clients, and there’s no way of knowing if someone’s asymptomatic. Lots of artists think we’re simply not ready yet.

“I would feel comfortable returning to work when the CDC and medical professionals declare there has been an effective way to manage the spread or curve,” Sevig says. Until we can test widely and with greater accuracy, though: “I will only assume every client I see is a carrier.”

Artists say to stay closed they’ll need help from the government, whether that’s in the form of loans or mortgage and rent breaks, which would be huge.

In the meantime, some artists are selling gift certificates, and you can pick up original artwork, prints, and shirts from others. Bosak says they’ve had clients asking if they can prepay for appointments (yes)—and they’d like to kindly encourage you to come get tattooed when such a thing is safe and reasonable again.

“It’s scary because as a community we’re not on the same page, and I think people that don’t feel safe going back to work are nervous that the people pushing to get us open again are going to succeed,” Nijiya says. “Obviously, yes, I would love to go back to work. But I couldn’t live with myself knowing that I had exposed somebody, or vice versa.”

“If people want to help tattooers, piercers, hairdressers, massage therapists… tell the state to give us actual relief funding and not group us in as ‘gig workers,’” Pookhi says. “This isn’t a gig. We do this work full time. I don’t want to be forced to open up my shop and risk my health and the health of others in the middle of a pandemic just to make ends meet.”