Tattoo boom driven by pandemic life changes

From changes in how people work, to how people spend, tattoo artists in Madison have seen how the pandemic is impacting business
Dave Nielsen works on a sketch for a client at Hand and Eye Tattoo in Madison.
Dave Nielsen works on a sketch for a client at Hand and Eye Tattoo in Madison.(NBC15)
Updated: Oct. 10, 2021 at 10:00 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - While some industries are struggling to bounce back after pandemic shut downs and restrictions, one industry is busier than ever. The phones are ringing off the hook in some tattoo shops in Madison.

“It’s the busiest I’ve ever been in my career,” said Billy McCoy, manager of Steve’s Tattoo. “Our artists are booked out at least a month or so in advance. We have some of them that are booked until December.”

McCoy said tattooing is becoming more acceptable these days, contributing to the popularity and demand of tattoos. But he also attributed an increase in business to the pandemic.

When tattoo shops and other businesses had to close for weeks earlier on in the pandemic, McCoy said his artists did what they could to get by while unable to tattoo, including selling gift cards to the shop and creating art to sell.

Since the shop was able to open up again, he said business has increased.

“There were people that were working in more professional settings and offices and stuff like that that couldn’t necessarily get tattooed in a visible spot,” he said of people seeking tattoos. “Now they’re all working remotely from home and they’re just kind of like, screw it.”

McCoy isn’t the only tattoo artist in the Madison area who’s seen firsthand how the work from home environment has sparked some people to get tattoos.

“Without a joke, people have sat here with their laptop doing work while I’ve been tattooing them,” said Stripe, owner of Ultimate Arts Tattoo.

Stripe also said the flexibility of working from home allows people to “sneak out” for a few hours during the day to get a tattoo, something they would not have been able to do in a traditional office setting.

For some, staying at home more has meant less spending on recreational activities. Coupled with restrictions on events, especially earlier in the pandemic, some people have had spending cash available.

“They’re saving money by not going out to bars and restaurants, traveling, so that money they’re putting into tattoos because it’s permanent, it lasts forever,” McCoy said.

“They’re going to jump on something like this for fun, since they can’t go to a concert, can’t do the bars,” said Stripe.

There’s another pandemic change that the artists credit with increased demand for tattoos.

“The stimulus checks came out,” Stripe said. “That was an explosion. Especially the last ones that came out, that one overflooded our books like crazy. People standing at the door every day trying to get in.”

“First I had to close down for a couple of months, that hit me pretty hard,” said Dave Nielsen, owner of Hand and Eye Tattoo. “Then I came back and it was immediately busy. People had their stimulus checks, they were wanting to spend them.”

While there may be financial motivation for getting tattooed, Nielsen has seen the more emotional side of getting inked.

“It seems like in times of stress, business picks up a little bit,” he said, recalling the surge in demand he saw after September 11th, 2001.

“They want to feel something other than what they’re actually feeling,” Nielsen said of people getting tattooed during emotional or stressful times. “Plus, there’s a little bit of escapism in it, plus a little bit of expression of whatever you’re feeling or whatever you’re going through.”

McCoy said while business is booming now, there are still challenges to face. He said that prices for supplies they need, like gloves and petroleum jelly, supplies healthcare workers also use, have gone up during the pandemic. However, all three artists said they are grateful for the loyalty of clients through the shut down.

“The pandemic put me in a pretty big hole and it’s been busy enough that I see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I’m getting out of that hole very quickly,” said Nielsen.

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