Tattoo Paradise in Adams Morgan Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Earlier this year, local tattoo artist Fernando Prudencio heard about a life-changing opportunity: A nearly 1,000-square-foot space was vacant, just a few blocks from his apartment. Prudencio could save on rent while gaining access to a former medical office with private appointment rooms and a large, open room he planned to turn into a gallery. By the time Prudencio put down a deposit, he was already envisioning young artists building avant-garde installations and customers arriving for intricate tattoos. Then, the pandemic hit. “It just knocked me out,” he says.

Prudencio was far from the only tattooer whose plans were derailed by the pandemic. Unable to work during quarantine, tattoo artists in the D.C. area have spent the past few months reevaluating safety measures and awaiting the go-ahead to schedule appointments again. Though some locations may remain closed longer, on Monday, June 22, tattoo shops—along with museums, libraries, gyms, and indoor restaurant seating—were able to legally reopen. 

Unlike most of their Phase Two peers, tattoo shops are already accustomed to sourcing hospital-grade disinfectants and maintaining a sterile environment. Still, patrons should expect additional safety measures—notably, a temporary end to the buzzy excitement of poring over flash art in a crowded lobby while awaiting a spontaneous walk-in appointment. Instead, area shops will be sticking to a stricter schedule of spaced-out appointments and eliminating queues or unnecessary guests.

Tattoo Paradise owner Matt Knopp closed his Maryland and D.C. locations in mid-March. Along with deep cleaning all locations, Knopp purchased touchless thermometers and developed new screening questions for intake forms. When Knopp and his staff reopened last week, they required customers and tattooers to wear masks at all times. 

But Knopp views these changes as an extension of existing safety measures, rather than major disruptions. He’s confident that the industry will recalibrate and endure. “This industry has already had to go through the hepatitis scares and the AIDS epidemic,” Knopp says. “It’s still safe enough to get a tattoo.” 

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David Cavalcante has been tattooing for nearly 20 years, and typically works at Tattoo Paradise four days per week. He shares Knopp’s sense that other industries are scrambling to meet cleanliness standards that are the tattoo industry’s norm. “What people are trying to do now, we’ve been doing that, and more, for years,” he says. “The only difference is that I’m going to be wearing a mask.” 

Still, Knopp does anticipate uneasiness, given the close physical contact tattooing requires. With allergy season in full swing, “a runny nose or a cough or sneeze—it’s gonna be terrifying to people,” he says.

Career tattooers Eric Doyle and his wife, Susan Behney-Doyle, decided not to entertain walk-ins or a crowded lobby long before the pandemic struck. They’d spent more than a decade working in a bustling environment when they visited friends who worked in an appointment-only tattoo shop in Chicago. “It was luxurious,” Doyle recalls. “It’s like you didn’t realize you had a headache until it went away.” 

In 2015, the couple opened Globe Electric in Columbia Heights, where they decided to replicate the model. They typically have a maximum of two customers in the space at any given time. The quiet atmosphere is “an ideal work environment for something with no do-overs,” Doyle says. The pandemic will likely make this type of arrangement the norm: “Now that you’re seeing places reopen in different parts of the world, they’re all kind of being forced to operate the way we operate.”

Imani K. Brown’s career took a similar path. After more than a decade at U Street’s Pinz and Needlez Tattoo Studio, Brown opened Little INKPLAY Shop, an appointment-only tattoo studio in Ivy City. She wanted to create an intimate experience that promoted collaboration with clients. “In certain respects, I was already set up for COVID,” she says. “Clients understand that it’s actually better to have less distraction. Not just for me as the artist—being on skin, it’s permanent—but for them, so they can make their own decisions clearly, [and] know what’s going on with their body.” 

Though the pandemic put appointments on pause, Brown sees tattooing as only one part of her role in clients’ lives. “I’m still the bartender with needles, but I’m just not poking you right now,” she jokes. She primarily serves Black clients, and has spent the past few months checking in: “How are you today? Don’t tell me you’re fine. Tell me, honestly, how you’re doing today.” Often, the conversations are emotional. “The policy for my shop is that it’s a two-way street,” Brown says. “Everything I ask customers, they’re very free to ask me, and I’m not going to hold back.” 

These conversations have helped Brown formulate reopening plans that are sensitive to clients’ anxieties. Once Little INKPLAY Shop reopened, she got permission from a longtime friend to livestream their tattoo appointment, hoping the transparency would soothe clients’ pandemic jitters. She also trusts customers to self-report fevers or other signs of illness, rather than using a touchless thermometer. “I went into the bank, and my first reaction to him putting the monitor to my head was me putting my hands up,” she says. “If I had that reaction and that’s not natural to me, then I’m sure other people would feel some type of way or I could trigger something. I want to be kind.”

Prudencio, Knopp, Cavalcante, and Doyle say they’ve also been in contact with customers throughout the quarantine period. All opted to resume design consultations now that they’re able to arrange appointments again. And along with booking queries and gentle inquiries about reopening, they’ve fielded messages that express a more extreme sense of urgency. 

“The craziest ones are like, ‘Oh, can you just come to my house?’” Knopp says. Another customer offered to pay triple if Knopp broke the shutdown order. (He refused.) Doyle has also fielded emails from people who attempted to make appointments during quarantine. “It’s so hard not to say, ‘You have a computer, obviously, have you checked the news lately?’” Doyle says. 

It would be easy to write the messages off as a symptom of an on-demand consumer culture. But for many, tattoos fulfill deeper needs, sometimes serving as a distinctly healing practice. “Tattooing, for me, is more in the health and wellness sector, as opposed to just arts and entertainment,” Brown says. Similarly, Cavalcante points out that tattoos can serve as a form of self-care. “You remember the time, the day, conversations you had,” he says. “That’s the thing with tattoos—yeah, you don’t need them. But you want them, because it reminds you of an experience.”

Like many of the 45 million workers who have filed for unemployment since the pandemic began, many members of the tattoo industry have felt the financial strain of the past few months. Knopp continued paying his core staff during the shutdown, but tattooers at Tattoo Paradise and other shops typically work as independent contractors, paying a fee for access to a sterile working environment. Cavalcante operates as an LLC, which helped him qualify for unemployment in D.C., and Doyle secured a grant that helped cover expenses. Prudencio managed to defer rent payments for his apartment and delay the start of his new shop’s lease. Brown, who usually tours the U.S. and tattoos in Japan twice every year, has delayed her travels to focus on clients at home. “The plan is, take it easy this year, and make sure business is okay,” she says. 

And, of course, many tattooers dipped into their savings accounts, hoping they would be able to get back to work before the money ran out. 

“We never know when things might get taken away,” Cavalcante says, “and this is a prime example of it.”