More people want tattoos of family amid the coronavirus pandemic, one tattoo studio says. Photos: Awhe Tattoo & Lifestyle Studio in Boksburg
  • Some tattoo artists report a big influx of clients since they have been allowed to open their doors again.  
  • More people want family-related tattoos during the pandemic, and some are seeing more first-timers and older clients willing to be inked during this time.    
  • There have been clients who want coronavirus-related tattoos, including masks.
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Tattoo parlours in South Africa are allowed to do business once again - and many have reopened to full appointment books, eagerly returning regulars, and a few first-timers looking to memorialise their lockdown experiences. 

During South Africa’s lockdown period, government classed tattoo parlours in a similar category to businesses like hairdressers and beauty salons. The close, extended proximity between artist and clients was deemed high risk for transmission of the coronavirus, and because of this, parlours were among the last businesses allowed to reopen under advanced Level 3 lockdown conditions.

This was particularly devastating for the tattoo artists, says Jen Uys from Johannesburg studio Fallen Heroes.

“The very sudden and immediate impact lockdown had was felt most by our artists, who work on a commission basis. So it was a case of no work, no pay,” says Uys. “We applied to every single financial relief fund that was out there and we got nothing back. There was just zero relief.”

“We were closed for almost three months, so our artists were struggling. They weren’t earning an income at all,” says Kai Ramsingh, from Joburg’s Sally Mustang Tattoos.

Because of this, Ramsingh says the parlour has been forced to run a “tighter ship than usual in terms of stocktaking and consumables”.

Although some tattoo artists went underground and continued to work illegally, which presented its own problems with issues around hygiene and medical waste, most waited it out until government legally allowed for them to reopen, with strict new Covid-19 protocols - like mask wearing, screening stations, partitions, and sanitiser.

Tattoo parlours were grouped with businesses like hair and nail salons, but they have always had to deal with additional health concerns given the nature of the business.

“We see the tattooing process quite similar to a medical procedure,” says Uys, “So in terms of that, our standard operating procedures had already been very hygienic to begin with.”

According to several tattoo parlours in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, the extended lockdown appears to have done little to dampen spirits for body art.

“From the moment we were able to tattoo again, we immediately received calls to continue big artworks, and create some new things,” says Ronnie Belcher of Mr Lucky’s Cape Town Tattoo.

 “Our client base is focused, and they supported us throughout lockdown by paying deposits, and they made it clear that as soon as our doors opened again they’ll continue with work or get new stuff.”

Shay Roelofse, from Durban’s Sin on Skin, says they were surprised by the influx of bookings when they were allowed to reopen.

 “For three months we couldn’t open, so for three months we couldn’t make a cent. But once we got back it became a million times better - there was huge demand, surprisingly there were a lot of people eager to get tattoos,” says Roelofse.

Clients kept in contact with Roelofse throughout lockdown, and when the studio was legally allowed to open its doors they were inundated.

“Maybe it was because of the time people had to think of designs, and set their minds on stuff. At the moment we’ve had one or two people chat about certain things related to Covid - some people are thinking of getting mask tattoos or small things like that - but it hasn’t become trendy, per se.”

Awhe Tattoo’s Theunis Coetzee says he’s noticed people are less concerned about committing to tattoos.

“Before lockdown people seemed a lot more nervous about getting tattoos - we had a lot more cancellations prior to the hard lockdown than what we’re having now,” he says. “We’ve had a long list of people waiting to have tattoos from the moment we were allowed to reopen.”

Ramsingh, from Sally Mustang Tattoos, says they’ve also noticed some interesting trends - including an increase in tattoo appointments for older first-timers.

“Normally our first-tattoo clients are 18 or 19, but we’ve had more people in their mid-30s, mid-40s coming in for a tattoo. We’ve also had more people getting very personal tattoos recently, like things they’ve experienced during or because of the lockdown,” says Ramsingh.

Coetzee says he thinks “for now everybody’s trying to put Covid-19 behind them; people just want to stay away from any topic regarding our current situation at the moment, and remember how it was to live”.

Still, he suspects the requests for coronavirus-related tattoos are likely to arrive eventually.

Fallen Heroes’ Uys says they’ve also not yet noticed any new trends in the tattooing world post-lockdown, but is dreading the day that literal coronavirus tattoos become popular.

“My prediction is that we’re going to get a lot of little virus symbols coming out in the future,” she says, “But I hope not - I hope it’s not like the infinity symbol that becomes a trend.”

Uys says if anything they’ve noticed an increase in family-related tattoos - and some symbolic pieces coming in that reflect the times, including a growling lion with a scratched face and watery eyes, that for her symbolised “the strength and the suffering and the fear all in one - we’re all scared, but we all have to continue fighting”.

Uys says another recent tattoo, by the studio’s Lauren Peachfish - of a skeleton emerging from a body - also speaks vividly to holding on to life, and of the times.

Photo: Lauren Peachfish

 Uys believes that it’s still too early to know how this will impact on tattooing trends - but that the lockdown period has had a lasting impact on the industry.

 “The last few months have really been us as a family trying to stand together and support each other through these times, which is still ongoing as we adjust to the new normal,” says Uys. “And this period will definitely change the way we move forward as a business.”

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