Inside the shop, it’s almost like the pandemic never made headlines.
Needles buzz; Marilyn Manson’s cover of “You’re So Vain” bellows overhead. Signs lining the bright orange and yellow walls carry messages meant to get a laugh: “All debts shall be collected” and “Tattoos: Are you sure you want one?”
Follow your eye past a Jason Momoa shrine and ink sketches and you’d find two artists doing what they do best — making permanent art.
“This one’s coming along really well,” one would say to a patron, lying stomach-down on a table as fresh ink became the newest part of her.
But spend a little more time in Shakopee’s Crazy Lady Ink tattoo shop, and signs of COVID-19 creep in. Artist-guest parties are separated by a film screen made with PVC pipe. Voices are slightly muffled by face masks, and cautionary posters remind people how to stay safer.
Not even tattoo shops, which are almost their own little worlds inside another world, are immune from the pandemic.
Al Lindback, owner at Crazy Lady Ink, isn’t new to the business. Three decades ago, he said hello to his tattooing career. But this year? It likely brought a heavier dose of change than he was used to, and at an inopportune time.
“It was a definite inconvenience,” Lindback said of COVID. “It happened to hit when the tattoo shop was just starting to get busy for the season.”
Crazy Lady no longer allows walk-in appointments, and the number of people inside is kept to a minimum. Masks are worn by everyone. Stations are separated by dividers and sanitized with frequency.
The latter, though, isn’t particularly shocking to many tattoo shop owners.
Amelia Westerholm and her husband Thomas run InkHeart Tattoo in Chaska. She said while a lot has obviously changed, some things haven’t.
Licensed tattoo shops already need to adhere to certain cleanliness and disinfection protocols. They have regular training, Westerholm said, to prevent disease spread.
“(COVID) already made us kind of uniquely qualified,” she said. “We really already do a lot of cleaning and disinfecting with each client.”
Amanda Schroeder, artist with The Canvas Tattoo & Piercing Studio in Prior Lake, said the shop’s disinfecting rules look a lot like they did before COVID.
“The cleaning process hasn’t changed at all. We’ve always been very thorough,” said Schroeder, who has been tattooing for four years.
At InkHeart, clients come alone (with exceptions) without the usual support from a friend. People can’t hang out in the waiting room to check out tattoo inspiration books or ask questions.
That fellowship can be a big part of tattooing.
“Prior, people would like to more of hang out and communicate with more of a sense of community. That’s been deeply limited due to COVID,” Schroeder said.
Those links also came in the form of tattoo conventions.
Lindback said he doesn’t usually go, but all the formal conventions he could think of were canceled this year. It can be helpful networking or a chance to showcase work and win awards.
Unlike the perpetuity of tattoos, COVID has adjusted a handful of things for local shops. First up is financials.
Lindback offered a simple summary.
“We did OK,” he said.
Doing alright meant applying for unemployment and getting a bankroll set up before it all went south. He also secured an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL). In the end, Lindback said the shop probably lost a few thousand dollars from having to shut down in the spring.
Typically, tattoo shops might be booked out a few days. Now, Lindback said that time has increased for Crazy Lady Ink since they can only fit in so many people at once.
“We’re definitely booking out farther,” he said. “But we still have plenty of time every week for people to get in.”
For Westerholm over at InkHeart, getting those people in has proved to be quite the challenge.
Just before the pandemic came, Lindback hired an artist and thinks the year could come out financially even if all the staff stay as busy as they are. But even “busy” sounds like an understatement.
Staff started a client waitlist to make up for the 10 weeks InkHeart closed.
“And we had tons (of people) inquiring while closed,” she said.
It’s the same story over in Prior Lake. Financial hurdles are aplenty, but so is an influx of customers.
Before COVID, Schroeder said staff would spend between $5 and $8 on a box of gloves — a necessary tool for these shops. Now, vendors are charging around $14 or more.
“It’s hard, especially when we want to make sure that we’re doing everything as safe as possible to also afford that,” she said.
But customer demand has been making up for those inflated rates, at least somewhat. Schroeder said she’s booked out “for a bit,” as are her coworkers.
Why the increase in clients? It might be twofold, or more.
For starters, people couldn’t get professional tattoos when businesses closed. Folks might also have extra time on their hands and want something to do.
“People are really bored. I’ve seen a lot of people coming in just to do something. There’s no movies to go to. There’s no music to go see and we’ve been really busy because people are really bored and don’t have anything better to do,” Lindback said.
Westerholm thinks it could be more financially incentivized.
“We used to see a lull,” she said of clients around this time.
College students, a sizeable clientele, would head back to school. That’s not necessarily happening this year with some students studying from home.
People would go to fairs or festivals, opening those wallets for that type of entertainment. Those also didn’t happen as much this year. Westerholm said perhaps people have more savings in the bank toward their tattoo funds, for those who kept their jobs.
“Maybe they just have that extra expendable money laying around,” she said.
Along with more tattoos, some owners and artists are seeing certain themes in the tattoo world. Though “in memoriam” tattoos were commonplace before, Schroeder said she’s done a few of those for people who lost loved ones to COVID.
“I’ve also had a few people that have had COVID themselves at one point and talked about how hard it was for them to recover,” she said, noting some would say their symptoms were manageable.
For those thinking of inking, Lindback has some tips around how to get a tattoo in the safest way. He suggests people see what COVID precautions a shop takes and find another place if they’re not doing the best they can.
“It all comes down to individual responsibility. Either you’re going to fall in line and take care of everybody else, or you’re just going to be selfish and say, ‘I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do and if I get it, I get it,’” Lindback said.
He called that polarization a “sad state of affairs,” but tattooing, despite COVID, can be anything but.
His shop is gearing up to move to a new location, and all three shops seem to have plenty of clients streaming in. Even with the pandemic, ink looks like it’s here to stay.
Westerholm said 2020 is an incredibly memorable year. Getting a tattoo during this time could also be seared into someone’s memory, beyond the pain or permanence of it all. After all, if someone gets new body art during this time, Westerholm said they can say one thing for sure:
“I remember I got a tattoo in 2020 during a pandemic,” she imagined a customer saying.
One of these days, Westerholm said maybe she’ll get to do an ironic tattoo like a roll of toilet paper to symbolize the hectic year. But until then, she’ll keep opening up shop and doing business like usual. Well, mostly.