Tattoo machines
Tattoo machines at Nebraska Electric Tattoo Company.

Tatto businesses around the country closed as part of a nationwide lockdown to help stop the spread of COVID-19 when the pandemic began early 2020.

Among these businesses were tattoo shops. There are nearly 20 tattoo shops in the Lincoln area, all of which were forced to close for two months.

“No one really knew what it (COVID-19) was, so everybody was panicking,” said Rusty Meyer, owner and tattoo artist at Electric Buffalo Tattoo in Lincoln. “I actually closed our shop a week before it was mandated to be close.”

The ability to pay bills and afford necessities was being stretched for many. But for tattoo artists, there were extra concerns that make their experience unique.

“You’re your own boss,” said Athena Butler, tattoo artist at Nebraska Electric Tattoo Company in Lincoln. “You’re in charge of finances; you’re in charge of buying supplies.”

Tattoo artist wages are based on commission from the tattoos they produce.

For Meyer, having money saved up helped him get through the shutdown. But for some, there weren’t many options available.

Aryn Curry, tattoo artist at Nebraska Electric Tattoo Company, lived off of savings but also needed to earn money to stay afloat.

“I did a couple of art commissions,” Curry said.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts eased restrictions on May 4 for many businesses across the state, tattoo shops included. But with the easing of restrictions came new procedures for the artists.

“Tattoo shops are probably one of the safest environments to be in,” Butler said. “Not much has changed.”

In a typical tattoo appointment, the artist wipes down their stations with medical-grade sanitizer before and after the tattoo. They also wrap plastic wrap around cords and the chairs for the clients.

Tattoo artists in Nebraska are also required to have medical certifications such as the bloodborne pathogens certificate, CPR certification, and pass both county and state-level tests to receive their licenses.

Before re-opening, Nebraska Electric Tattoo Company installed plastic screens between each artist’s station to keep as much distance as possible.

Social distancing measures have been taken by shops in order to allow the least amount of people inside the shop at one time.

“We were appointment-only, and we were only doing one appointment a day,” Curry said. “If we opened and there were three of us, we would each have one client so there was only six people in the shop throughout the whole day.”

The procedures for sanitizing did not change much for tattoo artists, though they sanitized more frequently.

“We’re kind of wiping everything down a little bit more than before,” Butler said.

Over the summer, the state government has continued to ease restrictions on businesses, and because of this tattoo shops are allowed to do walk-in tattoos again and have more people inside the shops at a time.

As the restrictions lifted, clients returned.

“There was a steady surge rather than a huge amount of people trying to bust down our doors,” Butler said.

Business has gone back to a familiar, yet new, normal for many tattoo artists. The future is uncertain, but artists remain hopeful.

“Until there’s a for sure cure, we are going to be super cautious,” Curry said. “I can’t see myself tattooing without a mask ever again.”

Casey Christensen is a senior Journalism and Sociology double-major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.