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Tattoo you?
Owners of local tattoo shops talk about the decision to reopen—or stay closed
Tattoo studios are one of the businesses allowed to reopen, and they have a difficult choice to make. Photo courtesy of The Butcher Tattoo Studio.

WHEN Gov. Brian Kemp allowed the reopening of non-essential businesses to begin this past Monday, the announcement raised quite a few eyebrows, particularly due to the inclusion of tattoo studios.

The decision came as a bit of a surprise to even the studio owners themselves.

“I was definitely shocked. It was not what I was expecting,” remembers Kelly Borders of Honor and Grace Tattoo. “I thought we were going to be the last to reopen just because of the services we do.”

“I was surprised, but also not surprised,” says Jenny Butcher of the Butcher Tattoo Studio. “I was shocked that anyone would open up a state, but I thought if anyone’s going to do it, it’s going to be Kemp.”

With Kemp’s order, shops were permitted to open as soon as April 24.

Borders chose to open Honor and Grace on May 1, whereas Jenny and husband Jimmy don’t plan to even consider opening the Butcher until that date. What’s the difference? What factors go into determining whether a shop reopens or stays closed?

A major factor in the choice to reopen, for both the state and for the shops themselves, is the issue of unemployment.

“People are finally being candid about that this may be a lot more about being able to get unemployment,” says Jimmy.

Many of the businesses that are permitted to reopen—restaurants, nail salons, tattoo studios— are either low-paying jobs or staffed by independent contractors. Those are the people most dependent on unemployment and, in some cases, who have yet to receive it.

Borders is one such person who, as of this writing, still hasn’t received her stimulus check and didn’t qualify for the Payroll Protection Program because the shop is so new, she’d just put herself on payroll a month earlier.

The reopening order could also potentially jeopardize employees’ unemployment prospects if their job remains closed.

“We definitely took that into consideration with, now that they’re saying you can go back to work, what’s that going to do to my employees who have already filed for unemployment?” asks Jimmy. “I’m worried that now that businesses are open, insurance companies are going to do the same thing that unemployment offices are going to do and say, ‘Well, you can’t just voluntarily not go to work and make money.’”

“I see a lot of people saying, ‘If you’re afraid or at risk, just don’t go back to work,’” adds Jenny. “The problem is that without unemployment, we don’t have that option. It’s this Mobius strip of selfish and disgusting logic.”

This decision forces people into a difficult choice: remain closed and risk going broke, or reopen and risk your health.

One of the reopening guidelines set forth by the governor’s office is to limit people in the shop and to continue to stay six feet apart from each other, except when performing service. For a shop like the Butcher, who has four full-time artists, that’s not always possible.

At Honor and Grace, it’s a different story. Borders is the only artist working at the shop, and she rotates her two apprentices and two assistants for minimal exposure.

“At max, it’s already four people at a time that are here. It never really gets above 10,” says Borders. “We have a lot of space. We just didn’t have the same issues or concerns that other people had with having multiple artist and multiple clients.”

Borders notes that many of her clients are breast cancer survivors, so there are already extra steps taken to protect their safety, but then, tattoo studios are already clean by design.

“I think most tattoo shops are already doing above and beyond what’s recommended on our health score anyway,” says Borders. “If you don’t get an A on your health score, you’re doing something foul.”

When Borders reopens on May 1, she’ll be doing so while being fully stocked on supplies like a forehead thermometer, masks, and face shields. She also won’t tattoo permanent makeup, a service she typically offers, until much later. That’s well within the reopening guidelines.

“I think it’s important that people know that we’re not opening up because we’re trying to be irresponsible. We just don’t have a choice,” says Borders. “I feel like the people who are really upset about everybody reopening are the people that are financially okay.”

The Butcher’s team has kept in touch via Zoom and made the choice together.

“I was getting notices from my team members who were like, ‘If it’s okay, I’m not going to work,’” recalls Jenny. “I finally had enough people say it that I was like, we’re done. I’m not going to risk anything.”

“We had a meeting [last] Monday and I was ready to say, ‘Listen, I can’t tell you no. If you want to go to work, you can go to work. I can’t say no,’” says Jimmy. “But I didn’t have to because I have a really awesome crew of people that are like, ‘We don’t even want to touch this until we all feel really good about it.’”

The Butcher team will reassess the situation on May 1, though neither Jimmy nor Jenny see that as being a realistic reopening date for them. When that date is, they don’t know. They’ll continue to listen to health officials and make their choice based on what they say.

“All the same information is available to all of us. The people who want to open up and the people who don’t have access to the same information, and none of us are really sure if any of it’s good,” says Jimmy.

Ultimately, though, the decision to reopen tattoo studios means nothing without customers, and every customer has to make that call as well.

“We did not make this decision, so please stop demonizing us over somebody else’s decision,” says Borders. “Just because I’m opening my doors does not mean I don’t care about somebody’s grandma. That’s not what this is. It’s so polarized, and it really makes me sad.”