‘We want to be viewed as artists’ | Tattoo artists question why they were left out of Phase One reopening plan

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Corey Nichols, owner of Burning Lotus Tattoo in Denham Springs, sits in his shop a few weeks after Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that body art facilities would not be allowed to reopen in Phase One of the state’s reopening plan amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
David Gray | The News

DENHAM SPRINGS, La. (The Livingston Parish News) — A licensed tattoo artist who runs his own shop, Corey Nichols is already used to following strict health code regulations.

So when Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that tattoo parlors would remain closed when the state moved into Phase One of reopening the economy — despite allowing hair and nail salons to resume operations with extra safety precautions — Nichols had one question: Why not us?

“We already have guidelines in place, we’re already gloved, so the only thing would be to add face masks,” Nichols said during a recent interview with The News. “That would be something any tattoo shop would be willing to do. Something could’ve been done, but we were left out.”

Tattoo artists and shop owners have wondered “why not us” ever since Edwards announced that body art facilities would not be allowed to reopen on May 15, when he lifted the state’s stay-at-home order and eased restrictions on businesses amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The new order, among other things, allowed nail and hair salons to operate with extra safety measures and at 25-percent capacity but kept the doors closed on tattoo parlors, preventing Nichols and other tattoo artists from working for more than two months now.

An emergency order, signed by State Health Officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry of the Office of Public Health, has Louisiana tattoo shops closed “until further notice,” citing guidance from the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

Nichols and other tattoo artists are hoping for some good news on June 1, when Edwards is expected to announce if the state will move into Phase Two of reopening the economy. Phase Two would allow more businesses to reopen and ease restrictions on others already in operation.

Still, Nichols said he couldn’t help but “feel small” when the state kept tattoo parlors closed in Phase One despite allowing other businesses with less strict health regulations to open up.

“I just think a lot of people don’t actually know what goes on inside a tattoo shop,” he said. “It made me feel small when that word ‘essential’ was going around and we weren’t considered essential. We are essential. We do a lot for our communities.

“I wish maybe people would hear the voice of some tattooers and see what our process is before they start ruling us out.”

Last month, Dr. Alex Billioux, assistant secretary of the Department of Health, said decisions on what businesses could reopen “were not made arbitrarily.” He added that the state followed guidance from the American Enterprise Institute, as well as Johns Hopkins University, when it came to deciding what could safely reopen.

Combined with discussions with the governor, the Resilient Louisiana Commission, and discussions with individual trade associations, Billioux said the state used a three-point system to determine who would open and who would remain closed during Phase One.

He outlined the three points as:

— Number of customers entering the establishment

— The intensity of the customer and employee interaction

— The ability to modify the customer and employee interaction

Using a tattoo shop as an example, Billioux said that while the shop could be limited to capacity by the governor’s new proclamation, it was the “intensity of contact” and the limited options on modifying that interaction that made the decision to keep tattoo parlors closed “clear.”

Billioux said that tattoo parlor customers and employees, in most cases, would spend well over 15 minutes within 6 feet of each other, and there are almost no ways to modify that interaction using personal protective equipment (PPE) or shields, due to the intimate nature of the process.

But to Travis Crobsy, a tattoo artist for 26 years from Walker who used to run his own shop, that’s no different than a hair or nail salon.

“Once hair and nail salons were opened, we thought we should be in that category,” he said. “In general, our health standards are a lot more stringent than those places just for the licensing we carry and the training we get every year. We deal with blood borne pathogens. From what we’re being told, covid is airborne.

“If nail and hair salons can implement face masks and temperature checks at the door, we can do that as well.”

To Crosby, the decision to keep body art facilities closed likely had more to do with “the stigma” surrounding tattoos and body piercings than it did public safety.

“Generally speaking, people who don’t have tattoos typically look at people with tattoos like criminals and scumbags,” Crosby said. “But the industry doesn’t care if you have tattoos or not. What we want to do is work. We have families and children and grandkids. We’re people, too.”

Nichols, who has owned Burning Lotus Tattoo in Denham Springs for a roughly decade, went through a list of the health regulations and standards he and other artists are already required to meet.

According to Nichols, tattoo artists are trained every year in the prevention of transmission and cross-contamination of blood borne pathogens, diseases, and viruses. That doesn’t include the first aid and CPR regulations they must complete annually.

Whenever clients come into Nichols’ shop for a tattoo, they are required to fill out a form detailing their medical history. He said it wouldn’t be difficult to add in questions related to COVID-19 in addition to doing temperature checks.

Hanging in the front of Nichols’ shop is a commercial body art regulation certificate from the Louisiana Department of Health, who sends agents every year for “a thorough inspection.”

“We already have more health regulations than most other businesses, so it wouldn’t have been hard to add in a few other regulations,” he said. “It just seemed there was something that could’ve been done to work in our favor.”

Even before state officials started closing businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19, Nichols said he already began implementing his own safety measures, such as having all artists wear face masks and limiting the building to one customer per artist (a total of eight people at a given time in separate rooms).

“It’s less than the line at the grocery store,” Nichols said.

Tattoo artists across the state have been speaking out about what they deem “unfair regulations,” whether on social media or to their local media outlets. A petition started by The Sinner’s Luck tattoo and piercing crew in New Iberia has received more than 7,600 signatures.

In the petition, organizers argue that the state’s body art facilities “are disproportionately economically affected” by the COVID-19 shutdown despite being better equipped to deal with “preventing transmission of dangerous pathogens due to the already rigorous health and safety standards and practices established for regular business.”

“There are many businesses which were allowed to reopen in Phase 1 which are not nearly as well trained nor prepared in dealing with transmission of potentially deadly pathogens,” the petition states. “The fact is that no industry is better equipped, trained, and practiced for dealing with the current crisis or is as disproportionately affected economically.”

Despite being unable to work for more than two months, Nichols said he and his artists have tried to remain “positive.” With the extra time, Nichols has picked up on his painting and drawing, something he does “as much as I can.”

But Nichols hopes he’ll be able to combine his love for art with work when the state enters Phase Two. 

“We want to be viewed as artists,” Nichols said. “There’s this stigma that comes with tattoo shops that still lingers. But if you go to restaurants around town, you see our art everywhere. We’ve painted the logos on the walls. We’ve designed the menus. We’ve designed T-shirts for small businesses.

“There’s so much we do. We don’t want to be viewed as just tattooers. In the end, we just want to be viewed as artists.”

David Gray | The News

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