It’s noon on a Saturday at Richmond Avenue Tattoo, and I’m settling in to get a clutch of genuine Texas bluebonnets tattooed on the back of my knee. My artist, Jared Green, is at the helm today, turning a meaty part of my leg into a celebration of our state flower. The painful yet comforting sensation of getting a tattoo is so addicting, I’ve been paying people for them for two decades.
As an amateur flower photographer, I’d always wanted bluebonnets on my skin somewhere. And I wanted to help support Green, who has done the majority of the work covering my leg, after his business on the southeast edge of Montrose was stalled for three months, leaving him and other artist across the tattoo world to sell gift certificates and original artwork to make ends meet.
I was one of the first clients that Green scheduled appointments with after Gov. Greg Abbott and the State of Texas relaxed public health advisories, including those related to tattoo shops, on May 18, but I was not the only one. It ended up taking several days to get on the books since Green had backlog of appointments, but it’s not like the slab of meat on my leg was going anywhere. “A lot of people were cooped up and sending me their ideas,” says Green as he started the first outline of the bluebonnets. “Couple that with the stimulus money everyone got, and people were pretty ready to come back to the shop.”
Green’s shop, nestled next to Bayou City beer-nerd hotspot D&Q Beer Station along Richmond, took its time reopening so it could adequately sanitize and reimagine the tattoo shop experience for the current times. “The tattooing experience has changed,” he says. “The general walk-in shop basically can't exist in the world of COVID.”
If you weren’t already aware, the process of getting a tattoo is a mildly bloody one, depending on the client. Couple that with the intimate nature of the work, and it’s easy to see why observing social distancing is off the table. Green, along with a handful of other Houston shop owners and artists in town, held Zoom meetings to try and develop a course of action. Already a heavily-regulated industry with cleanliness as the top priority, they knew that to stay open and remain sustainable they would need to hold themselves to new standards.
“We are shifting toward something that feels more like a private studio experience but with a very strict adherence to licensing, professionalism, and exceeding the industry standard,” says Gabe Massey, owner of Battle Royale Tattoo on Telephone Road, who, along with his fellow artists, opened his doors again on June 1 by appointment only. He tells me the quarantine closure allowed himself and others time to reboot their safety measures, like how waivers are now being processed online. “We decided to pull physical portfolios from the storefront as well,” he adds. “I do hope we can bring those back soon—a phone screen really does our handiwork a great disservice.”
Some of these new, self-imposed standards include a strict mask rule for artists and clients alike. Reputable tattoo shops were already constantly sanitizing, but have now ramped up procedures. “Most of the changes at our shop centered around social distancing and removing any potential cross-contamination hazards,” says Massey. “Our lobby is closed, and we have staggered shifts and workstations. Appointment only, and no walk-ups.”
Massey says the chief casualty in the industry, at least among mindful shops, is the notion of the bustling, frenetic, and crowded street shop. Gone are the days of tattoo sessions sometimes turning into communal events; Green says clients are to come alone to their appointments. Green himself always discouraged crowds from amassing in his shops due to the attention to detail needed when working on a client. Much like barbershops and salons, a usually social experience has been toned down for the foreseeable future. “People can say goodbye to just casually walking in and getting a tattoo on a whim,” Green tells me. “It can still happen if we aren't busy and they follow our standards and understand we can't always get to them then and there.”
Some shops might be able to do that with more artists working, he adds, but he feels like the less people in a confined environment the better. He has signage out on his front door explaining the new rules. On top of that, door handles, light switches and other surfaces that people come into regular contact with are sterilized with power disinfectants.
Perhaps surprising to some, Green and Massey both say tattoo requests have not been very topical. No one’s getting coronavirus tattoos—at least in their client pool. This is in contrast to how after Hurricane Harvey many Houstonians were eager to make their city’s survival and unity fodder for permanent artwork on their skin. “I think people really don't want a permanent reminder of these events on their bodies,” says Massey. “That said, if anybody wants a traditional Anthony Fauci portrait, I'm your guy.”
As for my bluebonnets, they are healing nicely and sit next to a portrait of Orbit, the alien mascot of the Astros, and a kindly trash panda. Somewhere, I hope, late First Lady Bird Johnson is nodding in approval.