Get ready for the pandemic tattoo boom

You're not the only one who wants a tattoo right now. Canadian artists are fully booked as studios reopen.

You're not the only one who wants a tattoo right now. Canadian artists are fully booked as studios reopen

Canadian tattoo artist Guen Douglas poses during a photo session at the "Mondial du Tatouage" Tattoo Convention at the Grand Halle de la Villette in Paris on Feb. 14, 2019. (Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images)

For eight months, Kate Doucette has kept her tattoo studio closed, and for eight months, she's been watching her inbox fill with appointment requests. "Honestly, it has not stopped since we've been shut down," says Doucette (a.k.a. Kate Somebody), owner of Toronto Tattoohaus, an all-female shop that she founded five years ago. 

The messages keep piling up, she says — "and piling and piling and piling." But her super-keen clients won't have to wait much longer. Last week, Ontario announced that it will enter Step 2 of its reopening plan on June 30, and that means personal care services — including tattoo studios such as Doucette's — will be permitted to resume business for the first time since November 2020. 

"I feel very excited. I'm a little nervous," says Doucette, who's already booked for two months solid. She could have filled even more pages in her planner, but that would be tempting fate, she explains; you never know if another wave could be coming. 

To sustain Tattoohaus over a record-breaking lockdown, Doucette drew on her personal emergency fund and relied on government rent subsidies. But when things reopen, she says that all signs point to an industry upswing. Her bookings are high and the Tattoohaus social media accounts have only kept growing throughout the pandemic year. 

Like other studios in the area, Toronto Tattoohaus has been locked down since November 2020. (Kate Doucette)

"It just shows me that it's time to make a move, and you know, expand," she says. To meet the anticipated demand, she intends to hire two additional tattoo artists for her shop, upping the usual four booths to six.

And while she waits for reopening — and the boom — to finally hit, other tattoo artists around the country are already experiencing a rush of business. In Edmonton, where a month-long lockdown lifted at the beginning of June, Aberdeen Hill, co-founder of Pansy Poke Collective, says he's seeing more demand than ever.

Fox Runner Tattoo is just a few blocks from Pansy Poke's Whyte Avenue HQ. There, owner Brent Smith is getting so many requests that he's changed his usual booking system to accommodate them. In any other year, he wouldn't plan any longer than three months in advance; he's currently booked through December. 

"If I kept my books open, I think I would be booked up to next year," says Émy Noemie, co-owner of Pls Hurt Me, another Edmonton shop. In her experience, summer is always prime tattoo time, but she thinks there's something's different about this June.

Tattoo by Brent Smith of Fox Runner Tattoo. (Brent Smith)

Who wants a pandemic tattoo?

Noemie says it's mostly new clients who are coming through her studio right now, though other artists are processing a backlog of requests. In St. John's, Laura Casey reopened her shop, Lady Lo's Custom Tattoos, in March. She's largely seeing clients who were forced to wait or reschedule because of lockdown, and it was the same situation last summer when her business emerged from the first wave. The pandemic has hopefully taught late-comers a lesson in patience. Says Casey: "I have essentially been saying no for the last year."

As for what people want, the trends aren't clear. This isn't like spring 2020, when everyone baked the same thing (sourdough), wore the same thing (tie-dyed sweatsuits) and watched the same thing (Tiger King). The tattoos themselves remain as unique as the people requesting them. And if remote work has freed us from the tyranny of conservative dress codes, #WFH office drones aren't stampeding into shops demanding full sleeves and face tatts — though all the time they've spent waiting might have inspired a handful of folks to supersize their plans. Doucette says several people on her waitlist have circled back to request additional work. 

If I kept my books open, I think I would be booked up to next year.- Émy Noemie, tattoo artist

Smith's clients, however, are thinking smaller. This June, he's been getting heaps of requests for tiny designs. "We call them Pinterest tattoos," he chuckles — trifles hidden on the back of the neck or above the elbow. They're so small that a person could be inked and out in less than an hour, which might hint at one reason for the current tattoo explosion.

Treat yourself ... to something permanent

"Now that things are opening up, people just want to get out and do stuff," says Smith. And at Noemie's studio, she says clients are dressing the part. They can't go out like they used to, but they feel comfortable getting a tattoo, she says. "You ask them, like, 'Are you going somewhere after this?' And they're like, 'No, I just got dressed for you.' It's so cute," she chuckles. 

"A tattoo is something you can do for yourself," says Smith — though most Me Day treats don't last as long as this one. "It can be something small and immediate you can do for yourself that kind of gives you that little nudge towards normalcy." And for people who've been steadily employed all this time — working from home and saving the dollars they used to blow on holidays and whatever else — last year's Punta Cana fund is being diverted into next week's tattoo. "There honestly does not seem to be a shortage of disposable income right now," says Smith. 

"Personally, I wouldn't want to be spending money on tattoos; I'd rather keep it for groceries. We might be locked down again, right?" says Noemie. "It is really, really busy because of COVID. I don't even really understand."

Why we get inked

To Deborah Davidson, the current demand for tattoos is no mystery. "It doesn't surprise me at all," says Davidson, an associate professor of sociology at York University who's especially interested in why we get inked.

A tattoo is "a kind of living history," she says. It's a marker, a literal marker, of something significant to the person getting it. Maybe it's in memory of a loved one — or an animal, a place, an experience. The staggering number of COVID-19 fatalities will surely be reflected in memorial tattoos, she says, but there are other drivers. "It could be about something accomplished, some kind of life transition, something hoped for that's still to be achieved," she explains. "And people often get them as reminders — not only to themselves, but reminders to share their stories."

What stories are their tattoos telling during a pandemic, though? Davidson thinks that question could open a whole new lane of research for her, and she looks forward to starting that investigation. "I can't imagine anybody that hasn't lost something in this," she says. "And they'll want to show that, and they'll want it to be talked about and they'll want to recognize it."

Telling pandemic stories

At the outset of the pandemic, Victoria Moore was already in mourning. Cleo, her emotional support dog, had died that past October. "During the pandemic, my anxiety has obviously been skyrocketing," says Moore, who lives in Gander, N.L. "My emotional support dog was my biggest support throughout my anxiety. So not having my dog during this flare up has been incredibly, incredibly difficult for me on top of the grief of losing her." 

Earlier this spring, Moore travelled to Lady Lo's Custom Tattoos in St. John's. She'd wanted a tattoo for a long time, something that would cloak the scars on her arm, an emotionally painful record of self-harm. It's a service that Casey offers through Two Arrows, a non-profit initiative that she founded. Moore was a recent applicant, and she asked for a tattoo of Cleo. "I thought having a piece of her with me would help me, which is why I wanted the portrait. And it has helped because now I feel like I carry her with me everywhere. There's nowhere I'm going to go that she's not going to be, so it's definitely helping my anxiety. I know it's only been a few days, but like, I'm on top of the moon about it really."

Victoria Moore went to Laura Casey of Lady Lo's Custom Tattoos for this tribute to her late dog, Cleo. She says she's already thinking about getting another tattoo. (Laura Casey)

Adam Hefferman, another client of Casey's, has been in and out of Lady Lo's Custom Tattoos several times over the course of the pandemic. He's having a sleeve completed, so there's a practical reason behind the repeat visits. But there's an emotional need driving his tattoos, too. "The pandemic has been very stressful for many people," says Hefferman, "I think especially those in the teaching profession." (He teaches high school chemistry.) "As somebody who sometimes struggles with anxiety, it's the only time that my brain turns off, because I can't focus on anything but the needle." His tattoo doesn't explicitly tap into that narrative; it's a bounty of shellfish and blueberries and chokecherries — a sort of salute to Newfoundland terroir. But it's nevertheless a part of the story he now wears on his arm. 

Jeff Piercey's newest tattoo is also personal, and probably doesn't read as a pandemic tattoo to anyone who sees it, but it captures a special moment — one inspired by a song he'd sing to his children at bedtime. "They are getting older now, and don't need me to sing it as often. It's a tattoo for all of us to remember that time together," he writes, and he texted Casey "about five minutes after the shops opened up," asking to get it done. "While I did have the idea before the pandemic, the lockdown brought us so much closer together and it seemed an even more important thing to commemorate."

It's a pandemic cliché to suggest that the lockdown gave folks plenty of time to think, but Hill sees evidence of it all the time at Pansy Poke Co. "I think a lot of people have been thinking and doing a lot of self-actualizing," says Hill. The shop is queer-owned and operated, and Hill estimates that half of his pandemic clientele have requested tattoos that commemorate some recent turning point or moment of personal growth. Many of his new clients, for example, have recently come out as trans or non-binary and want a tattoo to mark the moment. 

I can't imagine anybody that hasn't lost something in this [pandemic]. And they'll want to show that, and they'll want it to be talked about and they'll want to recognize it.- Deborah Davidson, associate professor, Department of Sociology at York University

Hill's sat for a few pandemic tattoos, too. The first one, he says, was "kind of like a little gift to myself" — a Pierrot-style clown to celebrate being back at work. Like all of his most recent tattoos, it was done by artists at other Edmonton studios, and in a way, those pieces remind him of what he and his colleagues have experienced through COVID-19. 

Pansy Poke Co. moved into its current space in March 2021, nearly a year after its originally scheduled opening. According to Hill, the business was too new to qualify for emergency funding. He personally survived off other part-time gigs and merch sales. But during the lean times, he was heartened to see the local tattoo community watch out for one another: sharing information, contributing to fundraisers, even just shouting each other out on Instagram. 

Aberdeen Hill tattoos a client at Pansy Poke Collective. The Edmonton shop reopened in June. (Courtesy of Aberdeen Hill/Photo credit: A.)

"The reason that I've been getting tattooed and kind of going back to the same people is that tattoo artists have had to be so much more connected," says Hill. "I have definitely felt in the past, especially being a queer trans person, that a lot of the tattoo artists here, they don't talk to each other; they're not friends; they stay within their shop and they keep their secrets to themselves. Nobody shares any trade secrets." That changed this year, he says, as shops were closed and tattoo artists reached out to one another to navigate their next steps.

Despite the financial hits, Hill is confident. The demand he's seen this June is a positive sign; there'll be enough business to rebound, he thinks. Doucette feels the same, and is even considering a move to a larger venue if the rush of summer business persists. 

"I think as soon as we get back into it, we will be able to make up for that loss, for sure," says Doucette. "Everybody's so excited to get back in there and just start doing what we love."


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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