BOW VALLEY – Tattooing as an art form has come a long way over the last few decades.
The tattoo parlours of yesteryear are now studios, and a shift in public perception for the practice has been driven by the work of talented people who have chosen to apply their creations to the human canvas.
It has been nothing short of a cultural transformation. But, tattooing is also a job.
When asked about returning to work after five weeks away, Jay Decay, tattooer and manager at Perfect Image Studio in Banff, echoed a sentiment that is common across the industry.
“Relieved. Very happy to be back,” Decay said. “I found this shutdown to be a little more difficult than the last one to be honest. Mainly because in March when this first kicked off, with everything being unknown, there was genuine concern and fear amongst the community, and people in the shop and customers in general.
“So, it seemed like shutting down was the right thing to do. Obviously, there’s always that concern when anything like this is happening with public health and safety, you want to take every precaution necessary.”
Perfect Image closed a week earlier than mandated in the spring. With a staff member who is asthmatic and at higher risk, and with so many questions about exactly how the novel coronavirus was spread, it simply didn’t make sense to stay open. Decay estimates a $500,000 loss of revenue in 2020 as a result of the shutdowns.
But, on Monday (Jan. 18) the people in the tattoo industry in Alberta were allowed back to work once again after restrictions were eased for personal and wellness services: the same category that includes barber shops, hair salons, nail salons and spas.
Tattoo studios are hoping for a similar bounce back to the one experienced over the summer months.
“It felt just as busy as normal,” said Aaron Brown, who works out of New World Samurai Tattoo Studio in Canmore. “It was kind of hectic, trying to do a lot of rescheduling to get people who had missed their appointments in. But, I don’t think we were any less busy than an average summer, other than the fact that we weren’t allowing walk-in traffic.
“We were still able to do walk-in style appointments. If someone would call or email us, we would book them in that same day, but you had to have an appointment … when we reopened people were excited to get in and get some more work done.”
As part of that reopening, new COVID-19 protocols applied. Masks and social distancing were mandatory, and barriers were required where six feet of spacing could not be maintained. COVID-specific paperwork was added to the intake procedures and there was no longer any socializing allowed in the shops. An appointment was tattooer and client in a designated area only.
“The summer was pretty good,” Brown said, “and we were feeling like there was light at the end of the tunnel, until these recent shut downs.”
A second lockdown was inevitable given the rapid rise in case counts locally. At the end of November active cases in Banff and Lake Louise peaked at 192, and Canmore reached 93. At one point, Banff had one of the highest rates of positive cases per capita in Alberta.
“To be honest, we all kind of saw it coming as the numbers started rising here in Banff,” Decay said. “It got pretty scary to see the numbers that we had in such a small town, with the valley itself being so small that could have gotten out of hand pretty fast. It was nice to see that everybody around here took the right steps and did what was necessary to get those numbers down.”
As numbers began to fall, however, questions have been raised about how decisions on holiday season restrictions were made, and how the rules were enforced in a seemingly uneven fashion depending on the industry.
“It was really frustrating this last time and it didn’t really make much sense to have places like us shut down when they kept malls open and things like that, and people [were] packed on airplanes,” Decay said.
“It didn’t make sense science-wise. And I guess to elaborate on that, as tattooers in this industry for at least 20 years, or more now, we as a collective have been operating under very strict and sterile practices, just like your dentist or doctor would … in fact it’s probably one of the most sterile environments you can be in besides those places.”
Aseptic technique refers to practices used to avoid contamination from pathogens, and it wasn’t much extra work for tattoo studios to add procedures to protect against airborne threats, in addition to their already stringent protections against contact transfer and blood-borne pathogens.
“There has been, as far as I know in Alberta, zero transmission of COVID in tattoo shops,” Decay said. He also noted that the definition of essential services is broad, and somewhat subjective.
“People get tattooed for a myriad of reasons. People get tattooed for reasons such as to heal trauma, to heal emotional pain. It’s almost a form of therapy for some people, so in some sense it could be regarded as essential to certain people. Just the basic fact that this is what some of us do for a living to provide for our families, that’s essential in itself,” Decay said.
Outside of the studio the pandemic has also been a challenge to manage.
“This shutdown was harder to know what was happening,” Brown said. “I almost had to go into vacation mode to just try and not think about it and try and enjoy the time off, because it was getting stressful.
“With the uncertainty it’s been more difficult than usual to get into the right headspace to get creative, just because my creative outlet is always tattooing,” Brown said. “Without having that I’ve been trying to do other things and not necessarily work related. More passion projects and stuff like that … to broaden my artistic horizons a little bit.”
For Brown that includes working on some traditional painting techniques, as well as expanding his skills in the realm of digital artwork, but practical applications for his work remains a part of the process, if only in the background.
“Because now there’s that fear that’s kind of instilled, ‘are we going to shut down again?’ ” Brown said. “So, instead of having other outlets for creating art for the sake of creating art, there’s definitely more drive to create art as a livelihood in the event that we are shut down and are not able to work again.”
For now, it is back to work for employees at the tattoo studios in the Bow Valley, but as is the case for so many who are affected by the coronavirus pandemic, it is an uncertain return to business.
For more information or to book an appointment at one of the studios please call New World Samurai in Canmore, at 403-609-8284, or Perfect Image in Banff, at 403-762-8882.