Safety of tattoos during COVID☝️ 😷
Somewhere in Wyoming while riding in the passenger seat of a Subaru Outback, I decided to get a vacation tattoo.
I know, I know. “A tattoo? In the coronavirus pandemic?”
For me, the key to a decision like this was calculating and managing the risk factors to decide how to keep myself and the people in my pandemic bubble as safe as possible.
Only one of the seven tattoos I currently have was planned. The others, like all the best things in life, were spontaneous, or I was bored that day.
Eight years ago, I was fired from being an assistant for “not being the right fit.” The next day, I had a blue heart tattoo on my back. In 2018, I was hanging with friends in Austin when one said she was too scared to get tattooed alone. Now, I have a thick outline of my Jeep, Lucille, on my left arm. Last Thanksgiving, I was so jazzed after watching “Knives Out” that I decided to get a jellyfish tattoo, signifying resiliency.
For this newest tattoo, the strong feeling was 2020, pandemic-induced depression and a need for normalcy. And the only therapy I knew would work, even if it was only temporary, was a date with a tattooing needle.
My friend and I both tested negative for COVID-19 in the days before our cross-country road trip. Over the course of four days, we drove through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho before arriving at our destination in Spokane, Wash.
We were masked at every stop — from Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo to a buffalo sighting at Yellowstone National Park. In every hotel, we wore masks and sanitized our hands frequently in the lobbies, elevators and hallways. We called in to-go orders at restaurants and stayed distant from other people and their dogs at dog parks.
By the time we made it to Spokane, I was ready to explore the city and find an artist who would tattoo a monarch butterfly on my left tricep. It was another small piece of what will eventually be an incoherent, but interesting, sleeve of tattoos.
I found a shop with experienced artists who all had their own style. When we arrived, the doors were locked and a sign read: “Knock hard for service.” We knocked, and a masked tattoo apprentice opened the door and asked that we use hand sanitizer before he sent out an artist to meet us in the foyer.
The artist, Royale, scheduled a 1 p.m. appointment for the following day; he laid down their COVID-19 safety precautions, which included masks, hand-washing, and the allowed number of people in the shop at any given time. I estimated the appointment would require at least two hours.
Full disclosure: the artist did not wear a mask for the entire appointment. But I did.
We shared limited contact tracing information, which means he told me that he is masked at all times in public and I told him about our trip and my general pandemic principles.
The tattoo process is different for everyone; some people love the way they look, but hate the pain. I, on the other hand, appreciate the feeling of a needle on my skin and trading stories and memories with the artist.
This time, the proximity of another human is what made the experience enjoyable. It reminded me how much I missed the feeling of closeness with strangers — at the mall, in an airport, in a mosh pit — because of necessary social distancing and isolation.
I learned that he had been tattooing for more than 20 years, and lived through the worst of the tattoo trends: culturally-appropriated kanji symbols, barbed wire, lower-back stamps and phrases in Old English. The current trend is neck and hand tattoos for 18-year-old suburban kids, he told me with an annoyed smirk.
The butterfly was bloody and irritated when he was finished, but he packaged the fresh ink with surgery tape to keep it from scabbing and flaking. I tipped him well, thanked him for the laughs and walked out.
When I returned to Houston, I scheduled an appointment for another COVID-19 test. I had no symptoms, but knew that I could still be infected given my travels.
It came back negative. And the butterfly is stunning.