The pandemic has had a great deal of impact on everybody. Its made a lot of people try not to take life so seriouslyso theyve decided to do something impulsively that they maybe wouldnt even have thought about doing before.
Thats how Nahuel Hilal, the owner and founder of Iris Tattoo in Miami, says he views the spike in business at his shop over the past year.
Despite shutting down for over two months at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last springand then reopening at 50% percent capacity for the rest of the yearHilal says that Iris still met its projected revenue for 2020. This year, the studio is on pace to double that amount.
Iris isnt alone in seeing a boom in tattoo demand since the pandemic began. In the wake of a long stretch of time where a combination of shop closures and concerns over contracting COVID-19 kept many from getting inked, the lifting of coronavirus restrictions has resulted in a rush on tattoos. According to IBIS World analysts, the $1.4 billion tattoo artist industry is expected to increase its market size by 23.2% in 2021a faster growth rate than that of the consumer goods and services sector as a whole.
Amid the ongoing tattoo boom, Hilal tells TIME that the pandemic seems to have lowered inhibitions surrounding tattoos.
[It motivated] a lot of people to put something on their bodies that lasts forever, he says. Theres a lot of meaning behind things that people were maybe leaving for later in life [before the pandemic].
A tattoo artist at Atelier Eva
Courtesy Atticus Radley
Clients at Iris Tattoo in Miami
Courtesy Iris Tattoo
The current success of the tattoo business stands in marked contrast to the pandemic rebound struggles of some other consumer-driven industries, like movie theaters and restaurants. Although the movie business is mounting a slow revival now that theaters are back open, Variety reported in July that the 2021 box office is still down 81% from pre-pandemic times.
Similarly, the pandemic has pummeled the restaurant business. A report from the National Restaurant Association found that over the past year 90,000 establishments have permanently, or long-term, closed. As business returned to pre-pandemic levels, the Delta variant brought more challenges, all the while restaurants are struggling to find and retain enough employees to handle a full house.
At Three Kings Tattoo, which has locations in New York City, Long Island, Los Angeles, North Carolina and London, owner Matthew Marcus says that business is booming.
Theres definitely been a huge increase in people getting tattooed, he tells TIME. Its to the point where [artists] are getting overworked. And its not just us. Ive talked to shop owners and other tattooers all across the country, and even the world.
Having opened Three Kings in 2008, Marcus says the current tattoo boom reminds him of how business took off amid the Great Recession. The first interview we ever did was about opening up in the middle of the worst economic collapse [since the Great Depression], he says. This has felt very similar to that.
Marcus attributes the surge in tattoo demand during these periods of crisis to peoples increased YOLO mentality and desire to do something for themselves in a time when not as many options for instant gratification have been available.
Tattoo shops were one of the only businesses open when most things were closed in the past year. So, to me, this is people substituting [getting a tattoo] for the things they would normally do to make themselves feel goodfrom the small stuff, like going to the movies or a bookstore or bowling, to the larger things like taking road trips and going on vacation. All of that was taken away.
Clients and tattoo artists at Three Kings Tattoo
Courtesy Three Kings Tattoo
But the surge in tattoo demand hasnt come without its challenges. No stranger to gloves and disinfectants, the tattoo industry was more prepared than most to implement COVID-19 health protocols. However Marcus says that shortages of crucial safety suppliesand the subsequent increased prices of those supplieswere definitely noticeable.
Were finally just seeing supplies come back, he says. But there was a huge shortage for a while so everybody was kind of just going day to day, week to week. And the companies we buy from have just been price gouging like crazy, which is naturally what happens when theres a shortage. But theres a supply shortage in almost every sector of society, so it was no surprise that it hit ours as well.
Nonetheless, the tattoo industry appears to be buoyed by the nature of the service it provides. At a time when many people are experiencing hardship, loneliness and loss, getting tattooed seems to be providing some solace. Since opening Atelier Eva in Brooklyn in November 2020, husband and wife co-founders Peter Jenkins and Eva Karabudak say that clients have been leaning into the zen aspects of the tattoo process.
[Appointments] used to be more stressful and now theyre more chill, says Karabudak, who previously worked as an artist at New Yorks Bang Bang Tattoo. Some people have even been falling asleep.
For some, getting tattooed even doubles as a form of therapy. Tattooing is a very therapeutic experience, Marcus says. Its an exchange of energy.
In some ways, with friends and family no longer allowed to join customers at many studios, the pandemic has led to an even more intimate tattooing experience. Not to mention sometimes an easier one for the tattoo artist.
A tattoo artist at Iris
Courtesy Iris Tattoo
Tattooing is such a delicate balance between artists and client, Marcus says, adding that its important for the person whos getting tattooed to ultimately be making the decisions about how its going to look. Sometimes having that third voice there is more problematic than not when somebodys trying to make a decision for themselves.
Even when state restrictions were lifted to the point that guests could accompany customers again, Nahuel says that Iris decided to maintain its new no-guest policy. Its made life a lot easier for artists and it also makes the experience a lot more personal for the client, he says. When its just one person walking in and the artist is expecting them, it allows for a lot more focus on that person at that given time.
With people frequently hoping to make up for time lost to the pandemic, Hilal says that many customers desire to get tattoos has been fueled by what theyve experienced over the course of the past year and a half.
We had a client whod been living abroad and she decided to move back to Miami from Europe as soon as they lifted the travel bans because her siblings and parents were there, he says. [The pandemic] had made her realize that her career was not more important than her family. And all five of them, mom, dad and siblings, came [to the studio] together to get matching tattoos after that.
Karabudak has also experienced requests of this nature. She says that one of her first clients at Atelier Eva had been holding off on getting a tattoo in memory of his late grandmother for several years before the pandemic hit.
People keep telling me, Ive been waiting for this for a long time,' she says. I think this is the right time to get it.'
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