Tyler Harrington removed all cobwebs, dust and debris from State of Grace Tattoo during the 178-day period he was prohibited from practicing his art at State of Grace Tattoo. The retro figurines and whimsical decor of his artist’s booth used to evoke his sense of nostalgia.
They look more like an era gone by, rather than a reminder of the past.
On Sept. 9, the steady hum of Harrington’s tattoo machine returned to the previously shuttered parlor perched above Shuei-Do Manju Shop, Nikkei Traditions and Kaita Restaurant in San Jose’s historic Japantown.
There is plenty of work for him to keep his feet busy. Harrington said that potential clients flood his email inbox when Santa Clara County health officials declared earlier this month, that tattoo shops will be allowed to reopen.
The South Bay’s Covid-19 cases have reduced from “widespread” into the “substantial” tier of California’s blueprint for reopening the economy, which allowed businesses within the personal care, fitness and retail industries to start seeing clients and customers—as long as facilities are sufficiently sanitized. Artists who had been scraping by with underground appointments or another side-hustle can now confidently look forward, says Takahiro “Taki” Kitamura, who owns State of Grace.
“There’s been no lag in people that wish to get tattooed, however we’re all trying to find that balance for all of us between freedom and safety,” he says. “Truthfully, when we’re at work, aside from wearing the extra [protective gear], which you get used to, it feels like nothing’s changed.”
After all, there’s no business as usual anymore. Clients and artists must now have their appointments temperature checked, hand sanitized, and sign release forms. Both clients and artists wear face masks, aprons, or shields. Although tattoo shops spent months shuttered, the industry is luckier than some—like estheticians and restaurants—that also can’t let customers inside, a rule that has rankled many business owners in the South Bay.
Despite the strict new mandates, Harrington says he’s booked out—and he’s not alone. State of Grace will get a minimum of 10 emails every day, plus calls and Instagram direct messages to snag an appointment with the shop’s seven artists. Artist Colin Baker has 250 people to reschedule when he’s not corralling his young son for distance learning. The already years-long waitlist to go under Horitomo’s needle has resumed.
Harrington admits the 0-to-60mph restart is jarring, however he’s “super grateful” to be welcomed back with open arms he says, his voice barely muffled through his black filtered mask. “The most important argument that we had was we were never open, so we were never part of the problem.”
Public health officials declared tattoo parlors ineligible and closed them shortly after the outbreak. Even during the pandemic, tattoos weren’t considered to be essential. There was no way to lobby for change, so tattooists were forced to spend the next months creating prints and selling merch.
That’s what Harrington did.
Santa Clara County’s emergency shutdown of mid-March caused the veteran artist to move into quarantine. With his feline companion, the cat sphinx, he switched from inking on skin to inking on paper. He binged murder mystery podcasts and went on a “Covid portray spree” that resulted in 169 pieces.
He livened up Vans shoes, painted an ode to Superbad’s McLovin and in a single piece brings Baby Yoda to life. Another image captures the tension and movement of Shibari bondage. His 49,000 Instagram followers were elated at his dedication to art.
Harrington says that the paintings were a way for him to keep his head above water in the face so much uncertainty. “You don’t notice how much you miss it till it’s gone,” he says. “This is my life. This is the only reason I’m in San Jose. To have that all taken away … we’re just super grateful to be back.”
The tattoo industry knows that public health officials may reverse the decision. Earlier this summer season, the county green-lit tattoo shops to reopen—only to rescind it 24 hours later.
“Thank god I wasn’t there,” says Harrington, who delayed appointments at State of Grace to catch up on client designs. “The guys here were excited to get back to work, and then halfway through the day, got that message, ‘Close by midnight.’ … It is all weird.”
Questions on the future of tattooing spur Harrington’s anxieties about how much time he has left in San Jose with out regular work. Even with income from his paintings, commissions and guest tattooing throughout jaunts to his hometown, Santa Rosa, his revenue didn’t assure he could afford rent at his San Jose apartment.
Kitamura—a conventional Japanese tattoo artist who’s in charge of managing the business—says he kept busy in recent months by busting chops of local politicians with the power to speed up reopening in so-called non-essential sectors. The pandemic inspired Kitamura’s first foray into civic engagement with a spot on Councilman Raul Peralez’s Greater Downtown Economic Recovery Task Force.
“He has introduced that frankness … where he isn’t afraid to talk his mind, say something that perhaps others are thinking however they’re just not sharing,” Peralez says of Kitamura’s influence on the advisory body.
Kitamura stated that tattoo shops with reputable reputation are well-suited for the coming pandemic. State of Grace already had a stockpile of personal protective gear and the shop’s artists have been already educated about blood-borne pathogens to avoid exposure to viruses like Hepatitis B and C, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.
Peralez says Kitamura’s insight was invaluable, as elected officials don’t know the ins and outs of running a tattoo shop. However even with the task force recommendations, the reopening of tattoo parlors was at the mercy of the county’s Covid-19 case count.
Santa Clara County is the primary location for the new coronavirus. In April, the case number spiked and then fell through May.
From a maximum of 400 Covid-19 negatives per day, a second wave gradually dwindled to an average of just 119 each month. California’s “red-tier” status—which allows businesses resembling tattooing to open—could be lost if these infection rates worsen within the fall, potentially threatening business’ income and revenue.
In comparison with lingering anxieties about browsing the aisles of Safeway, walking around with no masks and dining indoors before 2021, getting ink stabbed into one’s skin is a relatively relaxing event for some. Kitamura believes body art is a symbol of freedom and expression in a world where so many things seem uncertain.
“After everything’s been taken away—our right to work, addictions are happening, promoting possessions—you can’t foreclose a tattoo, can’t repossess a tattoo,” he says. “It’s yours.”