Keron McHugh is booked solid the next 14 months with people eager for ink and the slightest semblance of permanence.
The artist was in demand even before the pandemic forced him to shutter the Cardinal Skin Art & Gallery—the Mebane, North Carolina, tattoo studio, art gallery and community space he opened nearly four years ago—so it was not unusual for his appointment book to be full months ahead. But the tattoo queries kept coming even during the shop’s closure in the early stages of the coronavirus crisis, McHugh said, and it’s been “a nonstop wave” ever since.
Tattoo businesses are in the midst of a revival after the coronavirus recession and pandemic-fueled closures. Bookings and revenue are surging as Americans look for expressive and therapeutic outlets in a year marked by isolation and loss. And with nearly half of Americans already sporting at least one tattoo, according to market researchers IBISWorld, and an expanding coterie of tatted artists and athletes, any lingering stigmas about skin art have largely dissipated.
Amy Gaeta of Madison, Wisconsin., just got her 14th tattoo—her fifth within the last year. The 28-year-old grad student says she was drawn to body art because, “as a very small woman with a history of chronic illnesses and health issues,” she felt as though she didn’t have control of her body.
She says she’s been reflecting on what it took to survive the most difficult moments of her life. “All my tattoos are tributes to these ideas and things that have kept me going.”
Her most recent rendering is a nod to her high school obsession with the feminist punk movement and what she calls “the angry emo girl” phase of her life. “A couple of months ago I was like, ‘I need a riot grrrl tattoo,’ ” she said. “I felt out of control. I felt like there was nothing I could do to change the world that was burning, so I went back to what has inspired me before.”
Zoë Brookes, 34, was new to tattooing and settling in at Parlour Tattoo in Seattle when it shuttered at the onset of the pandemic. It had only been a few months since she left the video game industry and liquidated her 401(k) to cover her unpaid apprenticeship.
She became a full-time artist in September, one month after Parlour reopened, which meant she could start charging clients for her work. Since then, she’s been booked for weeks or months in advance, providing what many of her customers view as a form of therapy. Among her clients, Brookes notes, were several LGBTQ+ clients looking to channel their frustration with a flurry of state bills attempting to undermine their access to health care, sports and bathrooms.
A lot of people are overwhelmed, “and getting a tattoo is a great way to sort of reclaim your space, your time, your body,” she said. “You’re also kind of dealing with people’s trauma all day long because you’re seeing people who haven’t been touched in months or a year.”
25,000 U.S. businesses
Tattoos have had many evolutions: In certain cultures, they are believed to have healing powers; in others they can have more pragmatic applications. In the 1700s, for example, sailors were tattooed with their initials for identification, or with small images as a journal of their sea travels. Tattooing was illegal and underground in a number of states and cities—including New York City starting in 1961 because of a reported hepatitis B outbreak—until the 1990s.
But the public display of tattoos, particularly by women and individuals from higher socioeconomic classes, has woven in and out of social acceptance amid shifting cultural and religious values. Stiff professional etiquette that once frowned upon employees or job candidates with visible tattoos has eased in many workplaces.
They’ve long been embraced by the biggest names in pop culture, from Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga to David Beckham and LeBron James. Actors have gotten inked to commemorate their roles in the “Avengers,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Game of Thrones” and other film and TV productions. And tattoos even have a place in the more buttoned-up world of politics. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has one, as did George P. Shultz, secretary of state during the Reagan era.
Today, the U.S. tattoo industry comprises 25,000 businesses and more than 30,000 artists, IBISWorld data shows, and generates $1.1 billion a year in revenue.
“We have no lobbyist, no union, no formal trade representatives of any kind,” McHugh said. “We’re a baby industry, and that whole illegal, concealed mentality is probably why we’ll be the last industry to really organize.”
Industry regulation differs by state, with a wide range of training and licensing requirements. McHugh’s tattooing apprenticeship was in a maximum-security federal prison, and he said that understanding the roots of how prison art has shaped mainstream tattooing inspired him to share his skills and service with his community.
“Tattooing is an outlaw kind of lifestyle for the majority of the people in the industry,” McHugh said. “That informs a lot of the culture and a lot of the tattoo artist industry and their relation to government bodies and lawmakers.”
Tattoo artists say they adapted easily to COVID-era safety precautions because they already were diligent about cleaning surfaces and taking steps to prevent cross-contamination. Since reopening, many shops have also added temperature checks, required face coverings, reduced capacity and begun offering video consultations. And many artists say walk-in appointments—once a main source of business—are likely to be a thing of the past.
The industry is made up of artists who own shops at which subcontracting artists rent space and work through commissions, and many of the artists weren’t eligible for federal pandemic assistance.
Tattoos typically cost $150 per hour or more. A large or complicated design, which can take hours or multiple sessions to complete, can run thousands of dollars. McHugh, for instance, will book sessions back to back and makes, on average, $1,500 per day.
McHugh, 32, notes that he’s been doing more memorial tattoos—in fact he’s done more in the past year than the past decade—all commemorating people lost to suicide or drug overdose. Current events have also influenced designs: During the summer, after the murder of George Floyd galvanized a national reckoning on racial justice, he began offering free coverups of tattoos with racist imagery, gang signs or scars. Dozens of inquiries poured in.
“I get very mentally invested in my work,” he said. “Folks walk out of here, they’re different. They’re not just physically different with the tattoo on their skin. They’re emotionally different with how they feel about themselves and their life experiences.”
Getting back on track
Ryan Freeman, 29, was tattooing in Auburn, Alabama., when the pandemic sent him home until July. He had to dip into savings to continue supporting his family, which put his dream of opening up his own shop on hold.
Then, in August, he took a leap and moved to Athens, Georgia, with his partner and two children. He rented a slot at Truths & Roses Tattoo, and many of his customers followed. “I’m still just as busy as ever,” he said.
Korina Bonilla, who manages and tattoos at Fury 13 Tattoo in Alexandria, Virginia., learned the craft from her seven-artist staff. She and her husband opened Fury 13 in 2018—he owns the barbershop side and she manages the tattoo business.
Both businesses closed two weeks before Virginia announced a temporary pandemic closure, and at the time, Bonilla thought it would be just a two- or three-week break. And then it wasn’t. She said it was hard to keep up with rent and utilities without income, until the business received a grant from the city of Alexandria at the end of 2020 that covered the expenses.
“We’re hoping that by the end of summer we’ll get back to that point of where we were before COVID,” Bonilla said. “I feel like we’re starting to get back on track.”
Rachel Tilling, 32, who lives in Washington, D.C., sat on the waiting list for months starting in March 2020, when tattoo shops got swept into lockdown orders. The appointment she had when the pandemic closed Rick’s Tattoos in Arlington was pushed into the fall because she was worried about coronavirus exposure.
She’d found her artist on Instagram after searching for one who could tattoo in a “black, sketchy, with watercolor splashes underneath” style. Tilling rescheduled the sessions for August and September to get the mermaid tattoo she got when she was 18 refreshed, with additions to the nautical scene: a great white shark and a narwhal.
“I teach scuba diving, and underwater to me is just like freedom, and there’s a beauty in things like sharks that people seem to have a fear of. But to me, they’re beautiful and powerful,” Tilling said. She also studies the impact of climate change on polar regions, hence the narwhal.
But a few weeks ago, she got Princess Leia inked on her foot—a “nerdy” expression of her appreciation for the “Star Wars” fandom and strong female characters.
Kaity Radde, 21, a student at Indiana University, has been mulling over her first tattoo for the past year. “Early in the pandemic, I was in a sort of tough place mentally and spiritually,” she said, when she came across the writings of Daniel Berrigan, “and it became a big part of my life.”
Berrigan was a Jesuit priest who preached pacifism and participated in civil rights and antiwar protests starting in the 1960s until his last arrest in 2012, a few years before he died. Radde said she came across a photo of him handcuffed at a Vietnam War demonstration, grinning with one hand making a peace sign. She sketched out a line drawing of the image, focusing on the juxtaposition of his hands, and in February sent it to a tattoo artist at Cry Babies Electric Tattooing in Bloomington.
The first available appointment was May 28, but she doesn’t mind the wait; it’ll give her enough time to reach full immunity after her second vaccine. And though she says she’s a little nervous about how much it might hurt, “I’m excited.”