The Tenacity of the Tattoo World

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The strength and persistence of small businesses has been vigorously put to the test over the last few years. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the business world a laundry list of hardships including temporary shutdowns, costly policy changes, and even some shuttered doors. Although the outlook for many has been bleak, I spoke with one business owner who has managed to persevere through adversity. Due to the public nature of this interview, my participant has opted to remain anonymous. For the purposes of this article, we will call him John.

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When I first spoke with John regarding his tattoo studio and the pandemic, it became clear pretty quickly that he had some stories to share. I started off the conversation by asking what his first thoughts were when news broke out about the virus. “I honestly didn’t think too much of it”, John said. “I don’t tend to follow the news much anymore. You see enough on social media about all of the negativity in the world and I try to just shut it out. I didn’t really start to take it seriously until I heard from some friends and family about the shutdowns that businesses could be facing.” This opened the door to my next question: “Was your business affected by any shutdowns?” John’s response was prompt; “Absolutely. Tattoo shops fall under the “Personal Services” category here in Calgary, along with hair salons and things like that, which were some of the first businesses that had to shut down. Since the pandemic started, I have gone through 3 government-enforced closures of my private studio.” You could tell by John’s tone that these were stressful experiences to go through. He went on to explain the details of the pressure and obstacles that these shutdowns had produced.

“I couldn’t operate for weeks at a time. With each shutdown, I had to pack everything up and prepare for the studio to close. In the tattoo industry, we use a lot of supplies that have strict expiry dates like ink and medical supplies. These aren’t cheap and having to worry about things going to waste was definitely in the back of my mind. Not to mention the huge costs that come with rescheduling clients. Most people think I just make a call or send an email and that’s it. It’s so much more than that.”

John explained that there is already a back-and-forth nature when it comes to communication in his job, and that trying to book clients in without a clear picture of the future was extremely frustrating. This is especially true for busy artists like himself who book out months in advance. “I would get everyone booked back in once we knew we could open again, only to have to cancel on a bunch of them again because of the next shutdown. It was infuriating and exhausting. People really underestimate the time that this type of correspondence takes. I also had some clients get pretty annoyed over being shuffled around so much, but it was out of my control.”

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After hearing John bring up the subject of supplies, I became curious about the costs associated with protective equipment for his studio. Many businesses were required to invest in items like masks, barricades, and other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in order to align with the new COVID safety mandates. John explained that while the list of requirements probably looked intimidating to most businesses, tattoo shops are already highly regulated when it comes to health & safety. The only real change that he had to introduce was that both he and his clients had to wear masks during the appointment, which barely increased his costs. “The beginning of the pandemic was an interesting time to try and buy nitrile gloves though, that’s for sure”, John laughed. He explained that government health regulations require tattoo artists to use specific types of disposable items, such as gloves and cleaning supplies. “When the entire world started panicking and buying up the PPE that we typically use, the prices went up and availability went way down. Luckily, most suppliers started to enforce a buying limit per customer, so that helped a lot of us out. I’m also in a private studio on my own, so I don’t have to share my stock with other artists.” He added to these thoughts by saying, “Just being that close to someone during a tattoo when a serious virus is going around, protecting yourself and your client is your biggest priority. If you don’t have the right PPE, you just don’t work. There’s no way around it.”

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We went on to talk about the contagious nature of the virus and I asked if John had experienced any outbreaks.

“I personally caught COVID, which forced me to stay home for a little over a week. I had to contact all of my clients to reschedule, which took more time and ultimately more money. I’ve also had multiple cancellations due to clients catching the virus or being a close contact of someone that tested positive. I even had some clients cancel just out of fear of catching it.”

John went on to explain the difficulty this caused with his deposit policy. “My clients are required to pay a non-refundable deposit in order to book an appointment with me. If they cancel within 48 hours of their appointment, they normally lose it. I always try to be understanding in the event of emergencies, but COVID has made it kind of difficult. A lot of the cancellations that I get because of it are within that time frame. I have to try and take each cancellation on a case-by-case basis when it comes to deposits now, because it can put me in an awkward position.”

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Although John is facing a fresh set of obstacles as a result of the pandemic, business has remained steady overall. “Cancellations and disruptions are going to happen with or without a pandemic,” John explained. “These are just things that you have to deal with being a business owner. I’ve trained for over a decade to become the artist I am today and I have some really great, loyal clients that allow me to keep my doors open. I’ve learned a lot during the pandemic too that I think has helped prepare me mentally should it ever happen again.” John laughed and noted, “I’d better knock on wood saying that.”

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I took some time after speaking with John to reflect on what we had discussed. Our conversation highlighted just how hard small businesses have had to work in order to keep their doors open. It made me empathize further with their struggles as a result of COVID-19 and motivated me to look into some statistics on the matter. According to a recent government survey, over half of Canadian businesses with between 1 to 19 employees had lower total revenues in 2021 than in 2019 (Statistics Canada, 2022). These businesses have also been experiencing severe doubt, with most reporting that they are continuing to expect lower sales as a result of lower demand. Luckily for John, the tattoo industry is estimated to be worth $3 billion (MarketResearch.com, 2018) and demand is continuing to rise. This has helped John remain one of the lucky few to have their services remain both desirable and profitable during this time.

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Another piece of information that stood out during my research was how vital small businesses are to our economy here in Canada. In 2021, small businesses made up 91.8% of all the employer businesses in the country (Statistics Canada, 2022). They are an integral part of our country and should be given the support they need during these times. While John did mention that he was eligible for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) while the studio was closed, I started to wonder what other resources were available for people like himself. The $2,000 taxable benefit hardly seems like much compared to the amount of time that he had to take off work. While browsing the Government of Canada website, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a list of additional support options for business owners in need of assistance. These options include wage and hiring support, rental support, and even an extension to the work-sharing program (Government of Canada, 2022). Although some of these programs have since been closed for submissions, it is encouraging to see that the government recognizes the need for support and has been taking action. It also deepened my admiration for John’s spirit to know that he has not felt the need to rely on any of these other resources.

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While my conversation with John made me reflect heavily on the realistic weight that the pandemic has placed on the business world, it ultimately made me hopeful for the future. There are many small businesses that will continue to find ways to prosper and persist regardless of what the world throws at them. John has employed a skillful combination of adaption, preparation, and sheer fortitude in order to remain a staple in the local business community to this day. I wish him the best of luck with his studio and its continued success.

References

Curtis, D., & Irvine, I. (2017). Principles of Microeconomics. Lyryx.

Government of Canada. (2021, April 30). Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) — Canada.ca. Retrieved May 28, 2022, from https://www.canada.ca/en/services/benefits/ei/cerb-application.html#h2.02

Government of Canada. (2022, May 25). COVID-19: Financial support for people, businesses and organizations. Canada.ca. Retrieved May 28, 2022, from https://www.canada.ca/en/department-finance/economic-response-plan.html#businesses

LaRosa, J. (2018, September 12). Tattoo Parlors & Tattoo Removal is now a booming $3 billion industry. Market Research Blog. Retrieved May 28, 2022, from https://blog.marketresearch.com/tattoo-parlors-tattoo-removal-is-now-a-booming-3-billion-industry

Maloney, G., Lonmo, C., Wood, T., Plett, C., & Ferguson, I. (2022, January 28). Analysis on small businesses in Canada, first quarter of 2022. Retrieved May 28, 2022, from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-621-m/11-621-m2022004-eng.htm