Despite missed months during the pandemic's early days and current safety protocols, Wilmington artists are busier than ever.
Owen Hassell| Wilmington StarNews
In 2014, tattoo artist Zack Hunter was in a car accident that took his right arm.
His dominant hand now gone, the Wilmington native was lost. Struggles with depression and drug addiction ensued. Hunter decided not to give up, and in five years, worked his way back by teaching himself to tattoo with his left hand.
It's certainly great evidence of overcoming a challenge. Italso makes the current one pale by comparison: The coronavirus pandemic.
"I kind of ride any wave that comes my way," Hunter said. "Whether it's a challenge or not. The pandemic was actually a good thing for me personally having some down time to reflect. Everything else about it is trash.
"You just put your head down and go through it."
Many Wilmington-area tattoo shops were closedduring COVID-19'searly days inMarch 2020. Most weren't reopened until summer or early fall.
Tattoo Artist Zack Hunter talks about working through the pandemic
Tattoo Artist Zack Hunter talks about working through the pandemic
While that down time wasn't good for business, local artists are seeing a big uptick in customers. Many appointment only shops are booked for months, some until the end of 2021.
Upon his reflection, Hunter sensed that potential was coming and took a chance. He connected with an old friend, fellow tattoo artistMichael Caldwell, and formed Sun and Moon Tattoo Sanctuary, which dives into the healing side of tattooing from personal trials and tribulations, including COVID.
The pairopened Sun and Moon early in Januaryon South Front Street at the Old Wilmington City Market.
"Broke, and we're building this place and solely off of 'maybe this will work,'" Hunter said. "The timing couldn't be better since we were told we could tattoo again."
It's worked: Both have bookings through early summer.
Before the pandemic, tattoos hadshed most, if not all, of theirtaboo status.
According to IBISWorld, a worldwideindustry research company, nearly half of Americans have at least one tattoo, led by a spike in popularity from millennials.
The same report noteda slight pandemic-driven decline in 2020 will do little to curb 2021 expectations, citing "some pent-up demand from temporary shop closures."
Sarah Peacock can attest.
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A Wilmington artist for 20 years now working at Artfuel Tattoo Shop and Art Gallery, the recent boom has meant more ink used.
That good news has outweighed early pandemic concerns. While closed, the shop diddefer some mortgage payments, preferringthat toapplying for a Paycheck Protection Plan, or PPP, loan.
All is good now.
"If anything, my personal bookings have gone through the roof," said Peacock, who has appointments through November. "It's as if people have said, numberoneI'm sick of staying indoors and numbertwoI'm not going to let things stop me.
"The flip side has been industries can charge more for supplies. Prices have definitely increased, which is frustrating and understandable."
Where Peacock sees tattoo shops ahead of the curve to prevent COVID-19 spread is in cleanliness.
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"People are more aware of cross contamination, which we're trained in, but the general public has now had a feet-first training in it and are now more aware of their space," Peacock said.
Those efforts areaided by the New Hanover County Health Department, which has provided guidance to better adhere to N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper's Executive Order on top of its routineinspections.
David Howard, interim health director, said there have been no issues with shops since COVID restrictions were put in place. Currently the county has 115 permitted artists and at least 20shops.
Wearing masks, social distancing, more air flow and few instances of multiple people in a shop (one instance caninclude a parent who's given permission for their child to get a tattoo) are all general measures alongsideusual stringent rules on hygiene and equipment.
"To that degree certainly more than perhaps other personal care businesses," Howard said. "With the checklist we go through, there are certainly robust measures in place."
Justin LaNasa, a tattoo artist and owner of Hardwire Tattoo and Body Piercing since 1997 with two Wilmington locations (Independence Mall and North Front Street), accepts walk-ins in a "appointment walk-in" manner.
Customers get temperature checks and asked a series of health questions. LaNasa is certain the added details has cost him some business, butnot much.
Last Saturday he had 15 on a wait list.
"You walk in the door and there's an hour or two wait, we put you on a list, tell you to go get food or walk around, see downtown, then we call you when an artist is ready," said LaNasa, who also owns other Wilmington businesses such as Port City Vapor and downtown attraction Museum of the Bizarre. "Luckily I found some more artists, because I was a person or two short, but I'm sure everyone is feeling the same."
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To help with demand, LaNasa put out an ad for artists that includes a $2,000 signing bonus.
Despite the very encouraging demand, there are a few regularshesitant during COVID to get a new piece of body art, although not enough to cancel.
In one extreme case, Peacockhas had someone postponethree times beginning from an initialMarch 2020 appointment. It'snow slated for September.
"She's definitely afraid to leave her house," Peacock said. "I'm easygoing with it."
While considered a luxury item, a tattoo remains a form ofexpression. And expression sells...and heals.
With people spending more time at home, some pointto tattoos fora stress reliever,therapy, human interaction with their favorite artist --evena chance to address issues brought to the forefront in 2020.
"Like any tattoo, it would usually mark something monumental insomeone's life, and thatincludes the social climate now," Hunter said. "People wantto feel empowered and tattooing does give people a sense of empowerment."
Caldwell recently gave someonea tattoo of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the late Supreme Court Justice known as an empowering figure for women.
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Kristen Peacock (no relation to Sarah) works the front of the Hardwire shop. In the last six months, she's also become a customer and added atleast eight tattoos. One of them recallspandemic hardships.
"With everything shut down it had me down, and I was going through a tough time in my life anyway with moving and a breakup and stuff like that," Kristen Peacock said. "So I got one of a phoenix, the symbol of rebirth, which I thought was meaningful to me.
"I work the front, but I'll sometimes step into the artists' tattoo rooms, and they're talking about their lives, where they come from and how the pandemic has affected them. It's definitely a people business."
When LaNasa started tattooing in Wilmington, he saw around eight shops. Within five years, in the early 2000s, the number doubled and the rise to get inked has remained steady.
Wilmington has three groupsthe longtime artist said are crucial to the business' growth: younger people, tourists and military. And within those groups are doctors, lawyers, professors and more.
As for tattoos' emergence in the mainstream,reality TV shows ("Ink Master") and celebrities have helped. Then there's anotherkey demographic.
"People don't understand how it evolved into what it is now, it's women who pushed it into the park it's in," LaNasa said. "Back in the '90s the small little dolphin and heart took over, and women were getting them. And lower back tattoos."
While the steady rise in popularity pre-pandemic has given it a leg up during COVID, the next question is what's to come when the coronavirus is completely in the rearview mirror.
LaNasa goes beyond tattoos and forecastsa great summer season for all Wilmington businesses as restrictions continue to loosen. As for tattoos, he equates them to "a wave that hasn't leveled out. It's a building wave, almost like a tsunami."
And Hunter is one of many artists ready to ride.
"Once this is 'over with' it'll be an explosion," Hunter said. "It'll be a gold rush of people wanting to get tattoos for a multitude of reasons."
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