I got my first tattoo on my 19th birthday. I had known for a while that I wanted a piece of meaningful script and, after a heavily tattooed work friend recommended his artist at Black Widow Tattoo, I took the leap and skipped my afternoon lecture to finally get it done.

Black Widow made the experience comfortable, and the piece turned out exactly as I had hoped. Much to my father’s dismay, I became enthralled by Toronto’s tattoo industry and collected another seven pieces in the two years since.

Not only is tattooing a form of self-expression, but it is also a form of self-care. I, like many others, look forward to the day of each appointment with jittery excitement. Each session becomes an excuse to take myself out for a meal, put my hectic schedule on pause, and rest. 

Unfortunately, however, COVID-19 has put my tattoo plans on hold for much of the past year, and I am certainly not alone. Municipal lockdowns closed the doors of tattoo shops in Toronto for much of 2020 and have left the industry wounded in its wake.

The provincial status of tattoo parlours as “Personal Service Settings” makes them some of the first businesses to close and the last to open. 

B, the artist who — quite coincidentally — tattooed a small gothic “B” on my ankle in 2019, has worked seven months in the past year when they usually work 11. Sleestak, the man behind two of my most recent additions, has worked only five. According to Black Widow, shops have been “forced to postpone months of appointments,” leaving both artists and customers at bay. 

“Thankfully, our clients have been so understanding and patient,” wrote Jackson Trinh, the shop manager. “Unfortunately, bills aren’t as forgiving,” for Black Widow and independent artists alike.

While all businesses have felt the brunt of COVID-19 closures, tattoo shops and artists have faced some of the worst repercussions. Yet, as I spoke with artists and shop owners, the mood was less somber than one might expect. Many have taken this time to work on themselves and find other artistic outlets.

“We tell ourselves all the time ‘lockdown doesn’t mean downtime,’ ” wrote Trinh. “As much as we’d like to get back to tattooing, being away from the shop has allowed us the time to sharpen our skillset. We’ve used this time to draw/paint new flash, explore different medias, and promote new artwork to our clients.” 

The same goes for Sleestak, one of the minds behind the West Queen West independent studio, Grateful House. “I’ve had more time to do murals, canvases, tattoo family members that normally have to wait a long time. I’ve also done colabs [sic] with companies [designing] clothing, jewelry & home decor.” 

Others have seen change in a more personal realm. “The time that COVID has given me to be with myself with no obligation to work has benefited me in so many ways,” wrote B. “I was able to seek therapy, I am communicating more honestly and openly with my family, I’ve reconnected with friends… and my physical health has never been better. I am realizing how much of myself I give to work without any time to pause and reap the benefits of my labor.”

It may not be common knowledge to those outside of the industry, but tattoo artists work long, physically demanding hours on a regular basis to support their career. “[I’ve] more or less just focused on myself,” said artist Mr. Koo. The time away from work has allowed him to focus on more personal projects and take a pause from his 10-hour days.

Beyond its surface-level effects, this period of social turbulence has led many artists to stray from the conventional structure of the tattoo industry. “A number of shops in the city have been forced to close down, and more artists are opening private studios or leaving the industry altogether,” wrote B, who works out of a collective studio themself. 

Sleestak had similar thoughts. “Private studios like mine have become more popular over the past few years and this pandemic will push more people in that direction for sure.” 

As partial owner of a studio, Mr. Koo expressed concern about the opportunities for international artists to work amidst travel restrictions and closures. “We want to bring in foreign ideas, foreign designs that Toronto hasn’t seen yet but it’s difficult to do that while we can’t even open up.” 

As for the customer experience, B noted that things are —thankfully — mostly the same. “I used to go for a handshake when a new client would arrive, or a hug if it’s a regular, but now opt for an awkwardly distanced hello and an air-hug… but otherwise interaction is normal.”

For those outside of the industry like myself, one question remains: how can we support local artists and tattoo shops when lockdowns have limited the opportunities to get a new piece? Everyone I spoke to seemed to be in consensus: social media engagement is the simplest and most meaningful way. 

B recommended to “share their posts on your story, comment on their art, and like their pics!” However, Mr. Koo, whose fine-line tattoos have garnered a considerable social media following, noted the difficulty of maintaining followers when he is not able to create new work. 

If you have some extra income or a friend’s birthday is coming up, Black Widow recommends “purchasing [a shop or artist’s] merch, prints, and gift cards.” One of its resident artists, “Vince (@chenztattoo) released a series of custom tattooed lighters featuring floral and macabre designs done with single needle,” which is hands down the coolest merch that I have seen. 

While the industry is suffering, artists appear to be making the most of these circumstances like we all are these days. When asked his plans for the future, Sleestak responded, “Keep on keeping on.” Simple, yet oddly insightful; his words are a good reminder for us all.