The chair remains empty and the needles are set aside at Chris Ferris’s tattoo studio in West Sussex. He officially closed Blackgate Ink on March 23 following Boris Johnson’s lockdown order, but says business slowed prior to that, as clients became increasingly nervous of the Covid-19 threat.
Other small business owners around the country have adapted to stay afloat during this time, rapidly switching to digital models or offering at-home deliveries, but tattoo studio owners like Ferris can do nothing to safeguard their livelihood. Shutting up shop, with no indication of when it will reopen, was “a massive blow”, he says.
“I lost a sense of purpose as tattooing is not a job, it’s a lifestyle,” he tells HuffPost UK. “I got into tattooing to help with my mental health as it gives focus and passion. A lot of other artists I know in the community are also struggling with that side of things.”
Ferris, 30, is married with four children and the primary earner in his family. With the 80% self-employment wage not expected to come in until June, he’s worried about the impact of the months without money coming in.
“This has already started to cripple me with debts towards business phone contracts and rent arrears, which I’ll have to pay at some point when I have an income,” he says. “As for the family, they can’t have the things they usually would, like certain foods, as we have to watch the money being spent.”
Ferris has been using lockdown to do household projects, but says he can’t bear to plan any new tattoo designs. “It feels like false hope as I would be drawing for no reason, sadly,” he says.
Prior to becoming a tattoo artist, Lou Short, 43, worked in health and social care, helping patients with addiction and mental health problems. But after a career change, she opened her own studio, Voodoo Lou’s Tattoo Emporium in Poole, Dorset. She continued to volunteer alongside tattooing, spending evenings supporting terminally ill people.
Now that lockdown has forced her to close her shop, she’s rejoined the NHS, providing pastoral support to a specialist palliative care team who are caring for patients at the end of their life, some of whom have had Covid-19.
“I felt passionately that I wanted to help, with lots of people dying alone or with very limited access to time with relatives because of infection control, it seemed important,” she says.
Although she felt a pull towards healthcare, closing the door of her studio for the foreseeable future was still traumatic. “I felt devastated, powerless and angry, even though I expected it would happen and I knew it was for good reasons,” she says. “When you’re a small business owner and sole trader, you are your business.”
Short is still drawing and developing designs with clients and has already had requests from people wanting to “celebrate surviving or getting through Covid” with a tattoo.
“One of my clients who’s a nurse wants something personal to capture her experience of being on the frontline, we’re discussing designs at the moment, but I’ll create her something really unique,” she adds.
For 36-year-old artist Amanda Rodriguez, the spread of coronavirus meant putting her dreams of opening her own studio on hold. Originally from New York, Rodriguez worked at the famous US studio Three Kings Tattoo, which boasts a celebrity clientele including Lana Del Ray and Lena Headey.
Rodriguez moved to London in April 2019 with the aim of opening her own shop under the brand franchise. She plunged her savings into the project and the shop was set to open in Deptford in April. Realising that could no longer happen was devastating.
“I was massively depressed for about three weeks, I just wallowed in self-pity,” she says. “But I knew I had to just deal with it, because none of us have any control in this situation.”
Rodriguez is hoping the studio will be eligible for the £10,000 grant being offered by the government to help small businesses and start-ups through the pandemic, but she’s yet to have details of that confirmed.
She’s continuing to eat into her savings to cover the rent in the meantime. She’s also worried some studios won’t survive the crisis. “Most tattoo shops don’t operate with large savings, it’s money in and money out,” she says.
Stuck in limbo, Rodriguez has been busy trying to promote the new studio from home and generate some income. She’s been giving out colouring pages of her designs for kids and has run a raffle, where people pay £15 for the chance to win a larger (and more expensive) tattoo when the shop eventually opens.
“I think a lot of people really want to help tattoo artists but they have financial issues themselves, so they might not be able to book an appointment for a large tattoo right now,” she says.
While Rodriguez is new to the UK tattoo scene, Ricky Wilson, 30, who owns The Interbellum Tattoo Lounge in Billericay, Essex, has been working in the industry for 10 years.
Although business has paused for now, Wilson isn’t too worried about the long-term implications, as clients seem “quite determined to get tattooed”.
“Even during the recession, people still kept me busy,” he says. “I still constantly get clients message me saying how much they can’t wait to get back in the chair.”
Wilson has been using lockdown to plan the launch of another business and says the artists who work for him have been taking on commissioned work, including dog portraits and making prints to sell. “One of the artists has been tattooing their boyfriend to tick over!” he jokes.
It remains unclear when any of the artists will be able to return to work. Even once lockdown has lifted, social distancing measures may make their jobs impossible. But they’re hopeful the industry will come back stronger than ever. “If anything, I expect a manic return,” says Wilson. “I think I’ll be working double to get everyone in.”