Tattoo artists' worlds changed drastically because of the pandemic. Here's how they're bouncing back

Kayo Sumbillo, an artist at Black Raven Tattoo in California, tattoos a client in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

(CNN)In early 2020, Marie Reverie had just accomplished what she'd thought was her dream.

After six-and-a-half years of tattooing, the Raleigh, North Carolina-based artist had finally secured her own private studio downtown. But before she could even fully move into her new space, Covid-19 hit. Within a matter of weeks, North Carolina -- along with the rest of the country -- was forced to shut down nonessential services. Tattoo shops around the United States locked their doors.
For Reverie, her dream became something like a nightmare. Her new landlords were still asking for rent on the first of the month, but Reverie's income had vanished. She applied for unemployment, but only received about $37 a week from the state. When the federal government eventually approved supplying an additional $600 per week to those on unemployment, she finally -- but just barely -- had some relief.
      As Covid-19 tightened its grip on the United States last year, it ravaged industries that required physical closeness, including massage parlors, salons and, of course, tattoo studios. As Americans hunkered down, distance became a regular part of life. It all came at a cost.

        Artists faced shop closures and financial struggles

          Without the federal assistance, Reverie told CNN she would have lost that downtown studio. And yet, she was one of the luckier ones. She had savings, though she depleted more than half of them while waiting for unemployment. But she still had her husband's income and her family. With their support, she was able to stay afloat for the two months she was closed.
          Of course, that wasn't the case for everyone.
          Stephanie Tamez and Virginia Elwood co-owned Saved Tattoo, a long-standing shop in Brooklyn, New York. They closed the shop about two weeks before lockdown, thinking it would just be temporary. But the months dragged on.
          Tamez and Elwood initially worked out a deal with their landlord, paying half the rent while the shop remained closed. But in July, right when they thought they could reopen, their landlord got nervous. He wanted an essential business in the space, they told CNN, and canceled their deal. Saved Tattoo didn't open its doors again.
          Stephanie Tamez smiles next to an old neon sign in Saved Tattoo.
          Through it all, Elwood told CNN she had been applying for assistance via the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL), but the shop's owners didn't get any assistance until after they'd made the decision to close permanently. They used the funds to help move their equipment into storage, among other things.
          "The real frustrating thing is we now have a loan that we have to pay on a business that's no longer in operation," Elwood said.
          Alysha Howard, a tattoo artist based in Atlanta, started doing pet portraits on the side to make extra money, she told CNN. She saw other friends raffle off their cars or their motorcycles, while others took deposits for future tattoo appointments pending the eventual reopening, all just to make ends meet.
          Being in Georgia, Howard was out of work for only two months, but she still blew through her savings on living expenses alone during that time. When stay-at-home orders eventually lifted, she said she decided to start working at a different tattoo shop, after the one she previously worked at tried to take a higher percentage of her pay to make up for Covid-19 losses.
          Alysha Howard, out of work, started commissioning portraits of pets to make extra cash.
          On the other side of the country, one group of tattooers unsuccessfully sued the state of California in 2020 to allow tattoo shops to reopen.
          Tiffany Mitchell, who has owned Black Raven Tattoo in Torrance, California, since 2017, was part of that group. Though shops in other states may have closed for only a few months, Mitchell told CNN her shop was forced to close for a total of 10 months over the course of the pandemic.
          "We were terrified," Mitchell told CNN. "Not just of the virus, but how we were going to survive."
          In most tattoo shops, the artists working are technically not employees, but independent contractors. It basically allows the artists to work on their own schedules, Mitchell explained, without having to answer to a boss. They then pay a cut to the shop owner.
          Because of that, Mitchell said, she didn't have W-2s to show when trying to apply for PPP loans. She did eventually manage to get a Small Business Administration loan, which allowed her to pay the back rent and other utilities on her shop. But her property manager wasn't very flexible, she said.
          Mitchell stands in full PPE, ready for tattooing.
          "It was extremely traumatizing," she said. "Getting harassed by the property manager and knowing I have no money. My nerves were shot; my hands were trembling; I was scared to go outside. I couldn't relax. A lot of my friends and colleagues were just as scared."
          Mitchell was finally able to reopen Black Raven in January. But when she filed her taxes this year, she was at a $20,000 loss.
          "A lot of people don't realize how much tattoo artists suffered during this," she said, adding that while restaurants could offer "to-go" services, "we couldn't sell anything to go."

          Now reopening, some things are different

          Like everything, tattooing changed a lot during Covid-19. Gone were the days of walk-in visits or in-person consultations. Clients were no longer allowed to bring family members or friends in while they got ink. And though some artists wore masks while tattooing even before the pandemic, now, of course, everyone did.
          A sign hangs at Black Raven Tattoo during the pandemic with instructions for clients.
          But what's also changed, many artists said, has been their mindset. Though stressful, many said this was the first extended break they'd been able to take.
          "I think for most tattooers, we've never really had the opportunity to have a break for that long," Elwood said. "It just made me realize how much I love it. It's my favorite thing to do. ... I love connecting with my clients, I love being in a room with other artists who are doing really creative and innovative things."
          For others, it's allowed a step back. Howard said before the pandemic, she would work on upwards of seven tattoos in one day, including walk-in requests. Going appointment-only during the pandemic allowed her to slow down and do only two or three.
          "It got rid of that hustle mentality of I have to get in every person," she said. "That's been the biggest change, being able to focus on (tattoo projects) I actually want to do."
          Clients have changed, too. Before the pandemic, Reverie told CNN, she would typically get 250 or 350 emails when she opened her books for new clients. The last time she opened them, in September, she received almost 600. And she's not alone -- everyone she knows is booked out at least six months.
          Howard echoed those sentiments, also noting she's seen more clients request large-scale tattoos -- things like sleeves and back pieces. She also said that, in spite of everything, tattooing feels more intimate now.
          "I was doing quite a few memorial tattoos from Covid losses," she said. "It's so emotional, and if my client cries, then chances are I'm going to get emotional, too. So it's everyone sitting around being sad."
          Tamez and Elwood were able to open a new shop in August, and have been tattooing there during the pandemic. Since coming back, Tamez said, they've noticed people seem more reflective.
          Marie Reverie gives a tattoo to Lauren Ellisberg on May 17, 2021. "It's not just about the art and paying bills, it's about the human connection," she told CNN.
          "Everyone has come back with a shifted mindset of what's important to them," Tamez said. "I think a lot of people were faced with that reality, and I think it really affected them, and made them think differently about their future direction."
          That's what happened with Reverie in Raleigh. Her mentality around tattooing has shifted, she said.
          "It's not just about the art and paying bills, it's about the human connection. It's no longer, 'OK, how many hours is this piece going to take, how much time am I going to spend designing this,'" Reverie said. "It's, 'I'm connecting with this human who has gone through this crazy pandemic and somehow we're sitting in this room talking with each other and smiling.'"
            While Reverie says she plans on finishing out her lease on her new downtown studio, she said she's going to keep slowing down. Though she still wants to tattoo, the pandemic gave her space to consider what really mattered and, for her, that meant family.
            The way she tattoos will never be the same as it was before the pandemic. She won't be the same, either.