Tattoo artists impacted by pandemic, some question industry restrictions

Tri-Cities tattoo shops wait for Phase 2 to reopen

Tattoo shops are closed until phase 2 of Washington’s reopening plan but when artists do get back to work, they assume their shops will look similar to before the pandemic.

“Everyone will have to wear a mask,” Kody Flannery, owner of Monarch Tattoo in downtown Kennewick said about the guidelines to reopen. “The only thing that’s really going to change is just beefing up our cleaning schedule, you know, from every day to a few times a day.” Flannery closed his shop in March after Gov. Inslee announced his stay at home order.

“I was actually down here with the client and you could see it leading up to it and then Governor Inslee made this proclamation that, all right guys, it’s time to take this a little bit more seriously and do what we can. I told my client, so that’s it for today. We got to shut up shop and I have to do a bunch of chores now to get ready for this.”

Flannery tells KAPP-KVEW he was lucky enough to get on unemployment but understands not all tattoo artists are in the same position. Artists are normally independent contractors, renting space in a tattoo parlor, that don’t qualify for unemployment benefits. Washington and the federal government have made exceptions for those workers during the pandemic through the CARES Act. Flannery acknowledges the frustration of being unemployed and having to turn away business, but realizes many people can relate at this time.

Other tattoo artists in the Mid Columbia are in the same mindset as Flannery – everyone is in the same situation and it’ll be over soon.

Mel Sprinkle is an artist and peircer located in the Tri-Cities. She and her husband are opening Powers Tattoo Company in Kennewick. The couple is set to open June 1 but the stay at home order could delay that date and has already made the opening process difficult. She says they weren’t able to hire a construction crew to help with a remodel so they have done the work themselves. Although she and her husband have been out of work since mid-March and are receiving unemployment, their new business isn’t eligible for benefits.

“We’re pretty much just left in the dark in terms of the government assistance,” she said, “It’s most definitely very stressful and the fear of the unknown of how things are going to work out.”

While the stay at home order is in effect, Monarch Tattoo and Powers Tattoo Company are going through remodels. Both owners say this is the time to make the improvements they need. When they are able to open their doors though, they don’t think following health guidelines will be difficult. Tattoo artists are trained annually on bloodborne pathogens, infectious microorganisms in human blood that can cause disease in humans. These pathogens include types of hepatitis and HIV. Artists must follow U.S. Department of Health guidelines when running their shop and interacting with clients. Flannery and Mel discussed the protocol they already worked under before the pandemic but understand COVID-19 is different.

“The main difference here is this is an airborne disease, right?” Flannery said, “Someone spits or somebody coughs,  you got it. Whereas with what we do, it’s mostly a contact thing, so the masks are going to help with that.” He explains the bloodborne pathogen training artists undergo and the best practices, universal precautions and prevention.

“We all wear PPE already, aprons, gloves, arm sleeves, stuff like that. I’m not going to see a huge change in what we do, aside from just having to do what we do more,” Flannery said.

Mel agrees with Flannery. She sees her new shop looking the same with extensive cleaning measures in place.

“We’re already really great on our cleansing, newness and wiping everything down, not toughing our faces and constantly washing our hands,” Mel said, “All of that is already embedded in us because we’ve been doing it for so long, but there’s extra precautions and new regulations that are going to be coming out to open. Luckily I’ve been doing this for 11 years so it’s just mainly just like adapting to the new rules that they’re putting out. The state of Washington has a lot of really, really great piercers in the industry and they’ve been super helpful with their information as to what we needed and how to get it.”

With training and knowledge on infections and shop sterilization as a daily chore, some artists are questioning why they are seen on the same pillar as retail and salons. “Slipo”, the owner of Symbolic Tattoo Co in Pasco tells KAPP-KVEW as professionals in the industry, they know what they are doing, despite the pandemic.

“If you are a professional in this business, we are closer to a hospital clinic than a fast food joint as far as the daily operations and cleanliness of the environment, so its a bit insulting to be put in the same box of crayons as normal retail or even hair salons,” he said. “Slipo” comments on the misuse of gloves in large retails stores and fast food restaurants. He explains workers are not using them as a tool to stop the spread of germs, but instead touch several surfaces with the same glove and continue to wear it.

“Slipo” moved to the Tri-Cities less than a year ago to open his shop in Pasco. Symbolic Tattoo Co opened in January, just months before it was forced to close. He tells KAPP-KVEW that he thankfully doesn’t have much overhead to pay for during the pandemic, but previously being in a larger shop with more workers shows him how straining this situation could be on him.

“It’s been definitely a challenge especially seeing a lot of my friends and colleagues around the world and other states reopening and we are still here waiting on the governor’s ok to open,” he said.

Nearby counties, like Umatilla County just across the Oregon border, and other southeastern Washington counties have already moved to reopen tattoo shops. Those areas are an hour or less outside of the Tri-Cities.

“I’m not frustrated about it,” Flannery said, “Those places are opening sooner because they weren’t hit as hard as we were. It’s fair, you know, there’s a lower risk there so they can get started earlier. We’re on track to get started pretty soon. Tt’s frustrating in general to be out of work, a lot of people can relate to that. Aside from that, you’ve got to understand the situation and be realistic about stuff. In six months, we’re going to be like, COVID what?”