Santa Clara County tattoo artists itching to get back to work
State of Grace tattoo shop owner and artist Takahiro “Taki” Kitamura poses in this contributed photo.

    Before tattoo machines begin to buzz at State of Grace tattoo shop in San Jose’s Japantown, artists’ stations are wiped down, sanitized and wrapped in plastic, while single-use gloves, needles and ink are laid out with freshly washed hands.

    None of that is new protocol for battling COVID-19, according to shop owner and renowned tattooer Takahiro “Taki” Kitamura, who said his shop follows the county’s Public Health Department guidelines before any ink is added to clients’ skin.

    But when his shop is cleared to reopen after shuttering March 15 because of the county’s shelter-in-place order, he plans to protect clients from COVID-19 by taking temperatures, disinfecting phones and requiring solo appointments to reduce gathering. Founded in 2002, State of Grace is now in its 10th year at the 3,000-square-foot location, where Taki thinks there’s plenty of room for social distancing, and wearing masks is a normalized practice for him and other tattooers.

    “The reason I’m pushing for a fast reopening is because I know damn well the tattoo shops can go, and any one business we get open, that’s one more person getting an income to buy something, feed their kids and cycle back into the economy,” Taki told San José Spotlight. “I’m worried because I feel like a lot of the tattoo shops aren’t going to come back. … These aren’t jobs, these are our lives.”

    Despite built-in cleaning and sanitizing practices, tattoo shops remain closed even as the county this week reopened in-person retail, outdoor dining, religious services and more. Taki understands Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody’s responsibility for the region’s safety and her desire to make data-based decisions, but he is frustrated.

    “To be quite frank, I’m 120 percent positive I can operate without getting anyone sick – I really do believe that,” Taki said. “The (cleaning solutions) we use kill hepatitis, so we’re not worried about this. Don’t get me wrong, we are taking COVID seriously, but we’re used to dealing with a host of diseases.”

    County public health officials did not say why tattoo shops remain closed under the new health order or when they might reopen. Other personal care businesses, such as hair salons, also remain shuttered.

    Taki recently joined the Greater Downtown San Jose Economic Recovery Task Force, supported by Councilmember Raul Peralez, to share concerns about the Bay Area’s delayed reopening. Serving as the co-chair of the personal care committee during one of the few city-partnered opportunities for dialogue, Taki has become the de facto lobbyist for tattooers in San Jose, joined by leaders from businesses like gyms, barbershops and hair salons who voice different needs and concerns.

    Taki said he appreciates that Peralez is leading the collaboration to reopen the economy, similar to how the construction industry recently pleaded its case for reopening April 29. Unlike construction, however, Taki said it feels like big businesses with money and influence get considerations, while fewer people go to bat for small businesses like tattooers.

    Even if he has to wait for the next phase of reopening — whenever that arrives — the 46-year-old tattooer said speaking out is his way of supporting other shops that are struggling.

    Taki said he’s seeing artists — in and outside his shop — move toward non-bodily art projects, from designing wine labels to selling original prints. It’s often the only thing artists can do, he said, as they wait on the sidelines and watch other industries open to crowds and lines.

    But side projects often aren’t enough to replace incomes from tattooing.

    Jose “Corrupt” Cervantes has worked at Sacred Oath for two years but has been tattooing since he was 17. Typically booked out three months for appointments, the 33-year-old black and gray realism artist finds himself now working on home improvement projects and keeping his two sons entertained. He’s also worked on commission projects and custom shoes, which he said bring in some cash, but nothing compared to his previous income.

    “Right now, (commission funds) are basically for lunch. It’s really tough,” said Cervantes, who is considering downsizing and selling his truck. “I’m still floating with whatever I have in savings, but it’s running out.”

    He said the continued shelter-in-place extensions make it hard to plan for the future, whether that means getting another job or concentrating on selling custom shoes or shirts. But he doesn’t want to leave the industry, which he said many still see as essential.

    “Yeah, you could live without getting tattooed, of course, but people want to see that change on their body, because in a way it’s kind of like therapy,” Cervantes said. “A lot of the times, customers come in and want matching tattoos with their moms of something special, or grandma’s dying and they want to have a tattoo that represents them. So a lot of our customers, they’ll fight the closure.”

    The artists say there’s been an influx of emails, texts and Instagram messages to get back into tattoo chairs, especially as cabin fever rises.

    “It’s been crazy, like I’ve been getting so many messages asking, ‘When can I come back?’ Honestly, customers don’t care as much as us — we want to be safe,” said Long Nguyen, owner of New Generation Tattoo. “Of course, every tattoo artist is ready to tattoo, but at the same time we just listen to what (public health officials) have to say. It doesn’t matter about the money, as long as we’re all healthy and safe.”

    A recent poll found the majority of county residents put public safety above the economy, but unless Nguyen, Taki and the rest of the industry can reopen businesses soon, they say those hardships will continue.

    “Two and a half months of not working is pretty tough,” Nguyen said. “Especially if you don’t have a savings, you’re living paycheck to paycheck, or if you’re new to tattooing, it hurts.”

    Contact Katie Lauer at [email protected] or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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