The Journey of Closing, Reopening, and Now Working Amid COVID-19 For Tattoo Artists
Grant Lubbock is a tattoo artist and the founder of Red Baron Ink in New York City. He's sharing what it's been like operating a tattoo shop in the former epicenter of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. This story was told to Jessica Harrington and edited for length and clarity.
At the start of 2020, I had two locations. One was on East 11th Street, between Avenue B and C — that was the first Red Baron, which was in business for eight years, established in 2012 — and the other on West 14th Street. Our lease was up at the 11th Street location at time, and we decided to consolidate the businesses into one shop and get the artists together. We closed the original Red Baron Ink in February, and then COVID-19 hit in March.
I temporarily closed the 14th Street location two weeks before the mandatory shutdown because I wanted to protect my artists and protect the people within our establishment. I knew that this was going to be a problem, obviously, after watching the news and hearing about what was happening in other countries.
Consolidating to one location was a blessing because we saved that money, and we didn't have to try to run two businesses during the virus. I only had the second location for about a year and a half, so we didn't even get to hit a full fiscal two years — I didn't know what my operating profit loss would be. It was a heavy weight on all of us, including all the artists that work here, the manager, and the piercers.
There was a period of time where I kind of shut down for about a month — turned everything off, stopped watching the news. I completely focused on my art and tried to communicate with the artists to do the same thing — to continue to produce and draw designs, to stay creatively active.
What It Took to Reopen Safely
After about a month of COVID-19, I went back into the shop myself and I was able to self-quarantine to rebuild the business from the inside out. Because of the virus, I changed everything within the studio to be touchless and sensor-driven. I took the laundry list of CDC and state recommendations for operations, and I applied it within the shop. Our landlord was also very gracious to help us with a little bit of a rent concession, which was really nice.
When the day came that we were allowed to reopen, which was July 8 because we were phase three, we were ready to rock out and operate safely. We took precautionary measures and made sure that we changed the operations to half-staffed, so we had only three artists operating at a time, about 15-feet apart.
I'm very thankful for all of our clients and everybody who contributes to our business, and we're honored to tattoo and pierce them.
I think that our biggest mistake was being too excited to open. We didn't rush the process, but when it came to communicating to our clients, there were no definitive dates at first — the major and governor would say it was this or that day — so we kept rescheduling and rebooking multiple times.
The clients were more eager to come get tattoos than the artists were to come back to work, to be honest. People truly wanted to feel human again, and they wanted that human interaction.
What It's Like Operating Amid the Coronavirus
The biggest [change] is obviously wearing a mask during the whole process, for both the artist and client. That can be a little heavy as far as being able to breathe and feel comfortable, so we're slowing the process down. We're taking more breaks than we normally would just to make sure the client's hydrated, and they feel good, and are not overheating because your body temperature does rise when you get tattooed.
Tattooing is also not as much of a group event as it used to be. A lot of clients like to bring a friend or they like to bring support while they get a tattoo done. So, unfortunately, we don't allow guests anymore at this time.
Still, I'm very thankful for all of our clients and everybody who contributes to our business, and we're honored to tattoo and pierce them, and have them a part of our family because everybody here at Red Baron, we are family. We're blessed and I thank the universe every day. I'm not really a spiritual person, but I definitely believe that there's a higher power above us and our shop has been blessed. We are pretty much back to normal as if COVID-19 never happened.