Rebeka Chase, left, and Ethan Bennett at their Brass & Briar Studios tattoo shop on Spring Street in Portland, where business is thriving despite the coronavirus pandemic. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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While many business owners cross their fingers for prosperity in the year ahead, Rebeka Chase, co-owner of Brass & Briar Studios, is already booked until 2022.

In the anxious age of social distancing, getting a tattoo might seem like a taboo activity. But nearly 20 years in the industry have taught Chase to expect the opposite. 

“I got into tattooing during a recession and it was absolutely booming,” she said recently. “People get their hair done, their nails done, and (tattoos) when they’re struggling emotionally.”

Cumberland County tattoo parlors were allowed to reopen in mid-June, so Brass & Briar was closed for exactly three months because of the coronavirus pandemic. During that time Chase canceled more than 100 appointments at her Spring Street shop. 

She was booked through 2021 even before the pandemic but said Brass & Briar has received several calls a day requesting walk-in appointments since re-opening.

Ethan Bennett works on a tattoo design at Brass & Briar Studios in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Ethan Bennett, Chase’s business partner and a fellow tattoo artist at Brass & Briar, said for him, getting a new tattoo is something to “cherish” on his body and has helped him get through difficult times. He thinks his clients feel the same way.

“People find comfort in getting tattooed during this time,” he said. “Instead of buying something online, they can better their body or their self-image.”

Like many tattoo shops, Brass & Briar has stopped accepting walk-in or same-day appointments during the pandemic. It has also debuted a more involved client-screening process. Clients from Massachusetts, for instance, must provide a negative COVID-19 test.

Requests for walk-ins often come from tourists who are in town for “two days,” Chase said “Especially because it’s a pandemic, we’re like ‘no thank you.’”

Chase attributes the high demand for her services to social media. She has more than 7,000 followers on InstagramWhen she gets a cancellation, she usually posts about it on her Instagram page, and someone else claims the spot in a few minutes.

Bennett has more than 4,000 Instagram followers and is booked for the first six months of 2021. 

Brass & Briar employs two other tattoo artists, including a cosmetic tattooer, who specializes in services like eyebrow microblading and tattooing fake freckles. 

Chase said screening clients for COVID-19 risk is necessary “just to protect the hive,” but that being health conscious has always been a major part of being a tattoo artist.

State requirements

The state Department of Economic and Community Development last June issued a checklist for establishments that provide tattoos, piercings, and other similar cosmetic services to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The guidelines were updated in October, and require employees to wear face shields and face masks when serving clients. If face shields are not available, the rules say employees should wear goggles.

The rules also specify that supervisors screen their employees using an electronic screener, and by asking questions about how they are feeling and who they have been in contact with. The state’s general guidance for business owners suggests they ask clients the same questions and talk more in-depth about virus risk with immunocompromised clients, those over 65, and others at higher risk for severe complications.

At Brass & Briar, Chase said before getting a tattoo with her, all clients receive an email explaining the shop’s COVID-19 protocol. 

The shop does not require people from Maine, New Hampshire, or Vermont to provide a negative COVID-19 test before getting a tattoo, but does send a questionnaire to all clients about their possible exposure before their appointment. If a client has a higher potential of carrying the virus, due to recent travel or a family member in a risky industry for instance, Brass & Briar asks they provide a negative test result.

Also in Maine, a person must hold a license from the Department of Health and Human Services to practice tattooing. 

COVID-19 restrictions have caused tattoo shops in other states to close and reopen more than once. For instance, in California, a state order went into effect in December closing tattoo parlors in Los Angeles County after they had reopened briefly in October, according to the Los Angeles Times.

A few Southern California tattoo parlor owners sued the state’s governor over the mandated closures, arguing their work is protected under the First Amendment. Last week a federal judge denied their request to temporarily lift restrictions.

Chase said Brass & Briar’s policy has always been that if an employee gets sick, he or she cancels all of their appointments for the day, and if a client comes into the shop “with a sniffle” they or their artist wear a mask.

People in her profession are “extremely exposed” to diseases on a regular basis, Chase said, though she acknowledged niche tattoo artists like her are not as exposed as those who regularly accept walk-in customers.

Being a niche artist means doing larger, more detailed tattoos, and fixes and cover-ups of tattoos done by other artists. Chase typically consults with her clients a year before they get their tattoos done, and charges $250-$300 per hour, with most appointments averaging between two and four hours; some last up to six hours.

“People I tattoo are planners, they know what they want, they’ve seen really bad tattoos, they don’t want to make a mistake,” she said. 

She also has regular blood tests to make sure she is healthy.

“I know I have clients who are HIV positive, and I only ask them to disclose so I know that they’re healthy enough to get a tattoo,” Chase said. “So honestly nothing in any way scares me.”

Weird begets weird

At Black Hen Studio in South Portland, owners Danielle Madore and Carrie Vinette are the shop’s only tattoo artists and are also booked several months in advance. Although they admitted it isn’t a “scientific” observation, they agreed that it’s possible more people want tattoos now than before the pandemic.

“People get tattooed and people do weird things when weird things are happening,” Vinette said.

Black Hen Studio, on Ocean Street in South Portland, was closed for approximately four months during the beginning of the pandemic. Owners Carrie Vinette and Danielle Madore are now booked several months in advance. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

She said her clients have been especially conscious of keeping her and themselves safe, and she thinks the sanitation that is built into tattooing helps keep demand up.

“(We’re) running an environment that is really controlled and it’s sanitary, so everyone that comes in that I’ve talked to is like, ‘I feel so much safer here than restaurants, grocery shopping, (or) whatever,’” Vinette said.

Tattoos have been gaining popularity in the last five years nationally, especially among young people. According to a 2015 survey conducted by The Harris Poll, 47 percent of millennials reported having a tattoo, compared to 36 percent of Gen Xers and only 13 percent of Baby Boomers.

Market research firm IBISWorld projected the U.S. tattoo industry’s revenue would decline by 9.5 percent in 2020 after five years of growth, due in part to temporary closures during COVID-19. The same report, however, said the industry is expected to grow again after the pandemic due to the rebounding economy and “pent-up demand from temporary shop closures.”

Black Hen was closed for almost four months last year because the shop shut its doors before tattoo businesses statewide received the order. Like Chase, Vinette said she and Madore sold their art while the store was closed to help make ends meet.

Chase said tattooers are used to slow periods, and that Brass & Briar also raffled off tattoos by her and Bennett at $20 per ticket while they were closed, which helped keep the business viable.

She got enough personal raffle submissions to do two tattoos with the funds, which made her so happy she cried.

“July was as heavy as ever,” Chase said. “So as soon as we opened it was like the floodgates were opened and everyone wanted to get tattooed.”

‘See you next summer’

Over in Knightville, Vinette and Madore have been staggering their schedules, each coming into the shop every other week to maintain social distancing. 

The combination of increased demand and less availability, however, has posed a challenge. Black Hen has stopped accepting walk-ins, and Vinette said she still has clients scheduled for the next two months who were supposed to be tattooed at the beginning of the shutdown last year.

It can be tough to tell new clients how tight their schedules are at this point.

“It’s hard because (we’ll be so excited about a new tattoo),” Madore said. “(I’ll think) ‘this is going to be a great project, but I’ll see you next summer.’”

Black Hen has also asked clients to cancel appointments if they feel sick, which Madore said makes her feel obligated to reschedule them “sooner rather than later.”

The new norms of living in a pandemic have made other parts of tattooing challenging, too. Interacting with clients with a mask on, for instance, can be awkward.

Certain items essential to tattooing, like gloves and paper towels, are also in high demand all over the world right now, which has led to costly supply shortages.

Madore said a case of 10 boxes of gloves used to cost her around $60. Now, a single box costs about $22, and purchases are limited to five at a time.

Chase said Brass & Briar’s ban on visitors has also had an impact on her clients. The shop used to have a big couch for companions who came along to watch a loved one get tattooed; it has now been replaced with two chairs to promote social distancing.

Ultimately, despite the challenges 2020 produced, Madore and Vinette said they feel optimistic about the year ahead, although Vinette said she feels anxious watching virus cases rise.

“We’re both pretty resilient people and we’ve been open for basically six years now. I don’t think the business is in trouble at all,” she said. “It’s more about figuring out how to move forward in a sustainable way.”