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Local tattoo shops struggle during COVID-19 closures

The chairs are empty for Beth Swilling, owner and resident “mom” at Mom’s Custom Tattoo & Body Piercing in Spokane’s Kendall Yards area. Swilling’s business has a mix of employees and independent contractors, so some of the people who work for her can collect unemployment while others can’t. Since closing because of Gov. Jay Inslee’s order to contain the COVID-19 virus, Swelling has put up paper on her windows. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
The chairs are empty for Beth Swilling, owner and resident “mom” at Mom’s Custom Tattoo & Body Piercing in Spokane’s Kendall Yards area. Swilling’s business has a mix of employees and independent contractors, so some of the people who work for her can collect unemployment while others can’t. Since closing because of Gov. Jay Inslee’s order to contain the COVID-19 virus, Swelling has put up paper on her windows. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

At Mom’s Custom Tattoo & Body Piercing in Kendall Yards, owner and resident “mom” Beth Swilling has worked for the past five years to create a “safe space” for her customers.

As the COVID-19 pandemic shut down businesses across America this month, Swilling’s space wasn’t considered safe anymore.

Mom’s Tattoo has about 10 employees, a mix of tattoo artists and piercers, who are now out of work. Most of Swilling’s employees work directly for her but a few are contractors. Swilling said she has worked hard to create an environment in which her employees feel supported to grow in their craft and customers feel like their vision is turned into a reality.

Part of creating that environment has been consistency, Swilling said.

“Contractors, they own their own business,” Swilling said. “They have a lot of autonomy, and that is what is the predominant model in the tattoo industry.”

When Swilling opened her shop five years ago, she wanted to do things differently. She focused on hiring safe, accredited piercers who used the highest quality metals and followed industry best practices for sterilization.

She said an issue in the tattoo and piercing community is the transient nature of shops and the people who work in them. By hiring employees instead of only contractors, Swilling has been able to create a stable culture in her shop where customers can return again and again to see their favorite artist or buy new jewelry for their piercings.

“It’s very difficult to get them as employees,” Swilling said. “This could change everything for the tattoo industry on that level, and for owners that would be nice.”

Under the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order from Gov. Jay Inslee, most of the people on Swilling’s full-time payroll were able to apply for unemployment.

The paperwork and additional expense of having full-time employees, especially the minimum-wage employees who work behind the extensive jewelry counter at Mom’s, is a struggle for Swilling as a small-business owner, she said. Being an employer means saving for sick leave, medical leave and insurance.

However, the benefits far outweigh the struggles, she said.

“I believe in it,” Swilling said. “Even if it’s a struggle I believe in it.”

Not all tattoo artists want to work as employees and prefer the independence of being able to be a guest artist at different shops, something Swilling said she respects.

“I think tattoo artists should have the choice,” Swilling said.

Another major focus at Mom’s has been providing safe and hygienic body art.

“We’ve been spending five years trying to educate the community on why safe piercing is so important,” Swilling said. “We follow some really pretty stringent cross-contamination prevention procedures – a lot of PPE (personal protective equipment).”

Piercers at Mom’s are members of the Association of Professional Piercers, which issues guidelines and industry best practices for piercing.

So while Swilling felt good about having her shop open in the early stages of the pandemic, once nonessential business closures were mandated, Swilling said she was ready to follow the law.

Not all tattoo artists feel the same, and Swilling said she has seen posts across social media in which tattooers are saying they are “going to work anyway.”

“I completely empathize with that response,” Swilling said. “For some people, it’s like ‘You are just taking food away from me. You know this is the way that I support my family and you just took it all away.’ ”

Tattooing has been an underground art for centuries, Swilling said, and it’s not a surprising thought that it would return to that history.

However, by licensing shops and bringing the art form into the light, Swilling said, that has been mediated in recent years.

With the crisis, Swilling hopes her community will support the “problem-solving” that Inslee and other government officials are doing.

The pandemic comes at a bad time for Mom’s. The shop temporarily closed for an expansion over the summer, and while Swilling said she’s pleased with the new and improved space, she’s feeling that big investment right now.

“There’s definitely some hardship,” Swilling said. “I’m trying to figure out ways to get through that.”

The pandemic also comes during tax-return season, a time that “saves” tattoo shops, Swilling said.

“It’s one of those things that people will do when they have a little bit of extra money,” Swilling said.

The community has embraced Mom’s during the closure, Swilling said.

Greenstone, the company that owns much of Kendall Yards, forgave April rent, Swilling said.

“It’s probably the most generous thing that anybody could ever do,” Swilling said. “It was a gift not given lightly.”

Customers have called the shop to buy gift cards and asked about other ways they can support Mom’s artists. Swilling said checking in with artists on social media and seeing if they are taking commissions or selling pieces while they are unable to tattoo is a great way to support her employees and contractors.

Not all tattoo shops are as large as Mom’s. At All American Tattoo on North Monroe Street, Tom Morris is owner, operator and artist.

Morris has been tattooing in Spokane for 28 years and has been on Monroe for 15.

As coronavirus started to spread, Morris said his clients “weren’t shying away or anything.” But Morris had to reschedule all of his appointments when nonessential businesses were required to close.

As a longtime artist, Morris is booked months in advance, meaning clients set to get tattoos during the closure had already been waiting to get their new art.

“The sooner this can be done the better,” Morris said.

Morris is considered high risk for having serious complications if he were to contract COVID-19. He has had a tracheotomy and Gulf War syndrome, a term medical professionals use to describe nonspecific symptoms related to serving in the Gulf War.

However, Morris said he’s not worried about the coronavirus.

“I just choose not to live my life that way,” Morris said.

As for All American Tattoo, Morris said he’s paying for maintenance on the property without making any money. He also recently paid his taxes “on a business I can’t open and on a property I can’t use.”

“I wonder whether the cure is worse that the disease,” Morris said. “I know so many people that aren’t working right now.”

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