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Houston's Ink-Masters Are Tattooing Away Through The Pandemic

Battle Royale Tattoo's Gabriel Massey worked on José Garcia's latest bit of ink this past Wednesday.EXPAND
Battle Royale Tattoo's Gabriel Massey worked on José Garcia's latest bit of ink this past Wednesday.
Photo by Schaefer Edwards

José Garcia came in to Battle Royale Tattoo in East Downtown on Wednesday afternoon to have his trusted ink-master Gabriel Massey add a nice new mandala pattern to his forearm. This visit was just a tad different from his past stops at the shop — both client and artist were wearing facemasks (Massey had to politely remind Garcia to pull his over his nose) and Garcia had to get his temperature checked and sanitize his hands before plopping down onto the table at Massey’s workstation.

When the Houston Press asked Garcia if he was nervous about coming in to have his tattoo done during the pandemic, he replied “Nah man, not at all.”

As to what made him feel so confident, he responded “I mean, just the human condition. We’ve survived always, you know? And I think not only that, but the precautions the city’s taking, the precautions the shop is taking. I mean, even where I go get braided you got to wear a mask.”

Like most small businesses, tattoo parlors have had it tough during the pandemic, having to go through weeks of government-mandated shutdown during the early days of the coronavirus crisis when “non-essential” businesses were closed to convince people to stay home. Now, eight months into this seemingly unending public health crisis, tattoo artists are facing the challenge of providing an up-close-and-personal service in a plague-stricken world.

Massey has taken an extra cautious approach with his shop — he shut Battle Royale down before Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s local stay home order went into effect in late March, and took an extra two weeks to open again on June 1 after Gov. Greg Abbott finally allowed Texas tattoo parlors to reopen on May 18, ten days after barbershops and salons were allowed to open.

During the two-months-and-change that Battle Royale was closed down, gift card and branded merchandise sales helped Massey and his fellow artists get by — in a first, the shop even sold puzzles that feature Massey’s artwork.

While a steady stream of customers have been coming in for tattoos since Battle Royale’s reopening, business still hasn’t recovered to pre-pandemic levels. That’s due in part to the small size of the shop, which became more of an issue once Massey decided to limit the number of artists who could work at one time to make sure clients were spread far enough apart to comply with social distancing guidelines, and because the shop moved to an appointment-only model.

“We’re at best maybe 70 percent of where we were at pre-COVID,” Massey said. “It’s not ideal, I mean we’re keeping the doors open and we’re in a better place than a lot of other small businesses, but it’s certainly not sustainable. But it’s the right thing to do.”

The costs of procuring personal protective equipment like masks and gloves has also been a burden to the bottom line. “We go through boatloads of gloves, and nitrile gloves used to retail somewhere in the ballpark of six to seven dollars a box. They’re running 20 bucks a box or something like that now,” Massey said.

The pandemic came at a particularly bad time for Advent Tattoo Studio & Art Gallery, the Katy parlor co-owned by tattoo artist Mike Woods. COVID-19 scuttled Woods’s plans for the grand opening of Advent’s new location that’s twice the size of his old shop, which his team moved into just three days before Hidalgo’s stay home order went into effect.

Woods used his artistic chops to make some money selling paintings during the shutdown, and said that none of his artists had to quit the businesses while Advent was closed since they all had enough money saved to get by without tattoo work for a couple months. Not all tattoo artists were so lucky or well-prepared to make it through, though.

“I have really close friends of mine that have been tattooing in locations, that have owned locations, for 15, 20 years man, that have closed their doors because of this,” Woods said. “The business just isn’t there. They couldn’t survive the lockdown. It’s really sad to see.”

Since reopening, Advent has required face masks for patrons and artists alike. Luckily, the new shop already had individual artist booths that were spread far enough apart to meet social distancing rules. The shop is still accepting walk-ins on Fridays and Saturdays, Woods said.

While well-known local tattooers like Woods and Massey have been able to keep their appointment books full since reopening, it’s been tougher for less-established artists to make ends meet.

“The younger cats are definitely struggling a little bit more,” Woods said before catching himself. “Well, I don’t want to say struggling, [but] they’re having to hustle a little bit more to get people in.”

Other than the lack of name recognition, younger tattoo artists now also have to deal with a client base that’s even more worried about safety due to the pandemic, which might make folks less likely to opt for a greener artist. “Most people that are interested in getting tattooed, they’re looking for wisdom, they’re looking for people that have been doing it,” Woods said. “Whenever we add the COVID-19 variable, that just makes it even more of a concern… does he or she have enough expertise to keep me safe while still doing a tattoo?”

Unfortunately, not all local tattoo shops are taking the coronavirus as seriously as Battle Royale and Advent, Massey said, even though most parlors and artists are being extremely careful.

“Let’s just say that tattooing has a certain faction that is imbued with toxic bravado and willful ignorance… and so those people are going to kind of do what they want. They might not believe that this is a credible threat,” Massey said. “You know, they might be younger in the industry, and kind of part of parcel to being young might have a sense of invincibility or feel like they’re not going to be threatened by this thing.

“And to a certain degree,” Massey continued, “because tattooing has always been a little bit outside the norms, I think some people just feel like that’s part of the business… kind of being able to do what you want.”

He recommended that health-minded tattoo-seekers should go to artists they know and trust can keep them safe, and if they’re a first-timer who doesn’t have a go-to artist, to ask for recommendations from ink-savvy friends and to check for videos on different shops’ social media accounts to see whether or not they’re distancing clients and being diligent about masks.

Woods contended that the overwhelming majority of tattoo shops are taking coronavirus-related precautions like masks and social distancing seriously, which makes him extra frustrated that Abbott allowed barbershops and nail, hair and tanning salons to open up over a week before tattoo parlors, especially given the extensive sanitation training tattoo artists were already required to go through by the state in order to prevent the spread of blood-based diseases like hepatitis C and HIV that can be transmitted through ill-prepared needles.

“We’re trained in blood-borne pathogens, we’re trained in cross-contamination and making sure that things are clean. We have much more formal training in that aspect than a lot of barbershops and nail salons do, so we were peeved to say the least,” Woods said.

He thinks the delay in allowing tattoo parlors to open is partly due to a lack of education among Austin politicos about the industry, as well as some lingering stereotypes about tattooing being a shady, seedy business that just aren’t true (at least not in 2020).

“I mean, let’s face it: most people in politics don’t have any type of tattoos. They probably weren’t raised around that type of element whenever they were younger, and if you look at the industry as a whole, it’s evolved a lot over the last 10 years...they’re probably not as well-educated on the practices and the standards that we hold ourselves to as well as the state holds us too. So yeah, I think they may have an outdated view on it.”

“Honestly, if Abbott were to come to my studio and see the way that this studio is run and numerous, numerous other studios across Houston and Austin, he would probably have a different view on it,” Woods said.

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If the governor did happen to mosey down to Houston to check out how our tattoo shops are faring during the pandemic, he might be surprised to not see many coronavirus-related tattoos, which Massey said haven’t been as popular as he’d expected.

“Upon reopening, I thought we’d see more of that kind of topical thing because tattooing tends to kind of skew that way, particularly with younger clients, you know. They want stuff that’s kind of topical, meme-worthy stuff,” Massey said.

“I think we’re too close to it still,” he continued, but shared that he’s already been brainstorming some COVID-19-inspired designs for once life has improved enough to where folks are able to look back and laugh about the pandemic.

“I’ll do a Fauci portrait tomorrow if somebody throws it at me, but it ain’t happening yet,” Massey said with a chuckle.

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