Whether because of pockets deepened slightly by stimulus checks, pent-up existential angst, or boredom, people are getting more ink these days, according to several local shop owners and national data.
“Everything’s so uncertain right now,” said Beth Barrington, owner of Lucky Horseshoe Tattoo. “People have a different mindset right now.”
Part of that mindset seems to be seizing the day through the eternal medium of tattoo ink. Barrington said she has seen “steadily increasing” business at Lucky Horseshoe, the N. Main Street shop she co-owns with husband Thomas Barrington.
“It’s definitely been busier,” Angie Griffin said.
Griffin had just finished adorning a cop’s thigh with a pink frosted donut on a Tuesday afternoon. She and shopmate Nate Barron agreed that over the past year, they have had more appointments than usual, a welcome change after the uncertainty that came with recent lockdowns.
National data back up the anecdotes. At the end of July, the global business research from IBIS World put out a report on the tattoo industry in the United States. By the firm’s estimates, the $1.4 billion industry is set to grow 23.2% in 2021.
“It’s happening even with the lesser-known artists,” said Josh Gonzalez, owner of Ink817 Tattoo Co. on Camp Bowie Boulevard on a busy Saturday. “A common theme I hear from people is they felt stifled during quarantine. A common theme seems to be wanting to grasp life … . People feel like, ‘Screw sitting at home. I’m getting a tattoo!’”
That night, Brenda Tufino and Shannon Johnson were waiting in the lobby for some fresh ink.
Both are heavily tatted, but this was the new couple’s first time to get one together.
“Now that the shops are open again, I’ve been trying to get some more,” Tufino said.
Tattoo shops and artists faced months of uncertainty during the pandemic.
During the initial lockdown of spring 2020, shops had to close down entirely. And they stayed that way for about two months.
Some artists used the time to kick back. Barron said it was his “first paid vacation in 20 years,” as he was able to secure unemployment while out of work.
Not everyone had that option.
A few chairs down at Lucky Horseshoe, Gil Gonzales was working on a Nordic-inspired piece for client Jeff Mahan.
“I kept tattooing,” Gonzales said. “It was just do or die.”
He worked at a San Antonio shop at the time. He said he had a few close calls but ultimately faced no legal repercussions for staying in the chair during the lockdown.
For tat-lover Nichol Mathison, tattoo shops felt like a safe space to be during the pandemic, given the sanitation measures artists take year-round.
“It’s sterile, it’s safe,” she said. “I know I find comfort in that.”
Mathison had come with friend Ronni Riley to sit in Jeramy Kitchens’ chair at the acclaimed Sleepy Hollow Tattoos on Bledsoe Street.
Mathison showed off two recent pieces from the shop owner: a depiction of a mother and child and a realistic koala, both memorials to the infant she lost earlier this year.
“I needed a way to heal and to honor my son,” she said. “I feel like these tattoos help me heal. I can look down and feel proud and smile.”
A few doors down, Kyle Gurley was also honoring his family through artwork. Eddy Herrera had just finished up a small buck’s head on Gurley’s upper arm. Gurley said the piece referenced his grandfather’s ranch he visited while growing up.
Herrera began tattooing about six years ago. What brought him to the business?
“Not wanting to work for the man anymore,” he said with a laugh.
Tattoo artists are usually independent contractors, basically running their own small business out of a shop. Lucky Horseshoe’s Barrington said she thinks this has made tattoo shops immune to the staffing issues ravaging other industries and has contributed to growth.
“But with our business, you never know,” she said. “Tomorrow’s another day, so we gotta take it while we can.”