Nova Scotia

Dedicated clients keep tattoo shops in business during COVID-19

Tattoo shops in Nova Scotia have found ways to survive during the COVID-19 pandemic, but not without some adjustments.

Some shops say they've had to hike prices and take on fewer clients in the past year

Shop owner Emily Kane receives a tattoo from her apprentice, Laurel B, in Antigonish, N.S., in February 2021. (Submitted by Emily Kane)

Tattoo shops in Nova Scotia have found ways to survive during the COVID-19 pandemic, but not without some adjustments.

A number of shops are taking on fewer clients, declining to do smaller, cheaper pieces, and raising hourly rates in order to stay safe and in business.

Megan Green, owner of Quiet Canary in north-end Halifax, said buying personal protective equipment has been a challenge from the get-go, both in terms of its cost and availability.

"Things seem to have stabilized more now in regards to [PPE] availability, but the prices have gone up by as much as 250 per cent for some items, which definitely makes a single-use environment more expensive," said Green.

Among first to close

Tattoo shops were some of the first businesses to close at the beginning of the pandemic, shutting down March 19.

About 60 artists across the province banded together last year to submit a reopening plan to the provincial Health Department and shops were given the green light to open their doors again June 5. As non-essential services, they were some of the last to reopen after the province's first lockdown.

The plan included making masks mandatory, ensuring physical distancing where possible and screening clients before their appointments. Sanitization protocols, including wiping down work stations before and after tattooing and disposing of used needles, were in effect before the pandemic.

Emily Kane, a tattoo artist at Folklore Tattoo in Antigonish, said she had doubts about running the business during a pandemic.

"I was unsure if I would continue in the industry, as I had recently expanded into a new location and the expenses were much higher with a lower ability to service clients," she said.

Clients still eager for tattoos

In an industry that relies heavily on trust, communication and close contact, dedicated clients undeterred by long wait lists and higher prices are keeping the industry alive by consistently filling up artists' appointment books.

By having fewer clients for longer hours, artists can limit the amount of people they have contact with in their shops.

"I've seen some artists saying that they're only taking larger projects on, which are, of course, more expensive," said Lizzie Baker, who's been tattooed at a Halifax shop since the pandemic began.

Samara Best lives in Halifax, where they design their own tattoos. Best said it's a little harder to book an appointment these days, but it's reassuring to know the shops have implemented procedures to make their spaces safe.

"I feel very at ease going into a tattoo shop, because I know that they take precautions before I get there," said Best.

'Shoulders down' only

At Folklore Tattoo, Kane said she is only seeing up to two clients a day in order to keep the risk low of possible exposure to COVID-19. Consultations are done online and tattoos are by appointment only.

"Body placements are shoulders down. I am no longer comfortable working up in people's faces, necks and behind ears," said Kane, whose shop also employs a junior artist and an apprentice.

The studio's minimum cost for a tattoo has increased to $140 from $90, and Kane said she is no longer doing tattoos smaller in size than a loonie. Micro tattoos take less than an hour to complete but require the same amount of single-use materials as larger pieces, making them not worth the cost to the shop.

Locked-door policy

Keeping going isn't without its challenges, however.

Folklore Tattoo shut down voluntarily on March 18, 2020, as the pandemic arrived in the province. (Submitted by Emily Kane)

Kane only books 10 weeks ahead because if COVID-19 cases spike, those appointments have to be rescheduled.

The shop also keeps its door locked so prospective clients are unable to just pop in and ask questions — something that hasn't been great for business, she said, because it may make an artist seem inaccessible.

Another change that Kane said has negatively affected the business is that clients can no longer be accompanied by a support person while they're getting tattooed.

"A great deal of business is lost when you don't meet the client's friends and family, who often become paying clients soon after a successfully witnessed tattoo," she said.

Dale Lemieux of Halifax, who was tattooed a few weeks ago, said he and a friend managed to get around the rule by booking tattoos with different artists, albeit at the same shop, at the same time.

Baker acknowledged the difficulties facing the industry and praised the artists who've made the experience of getting a tattoo a positive one, even in the middle of a pandemic.

"It's still definitely been worth it for me," she said.

 

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