After 2 months of revenue misery, Reno-Carson tattoo shops see surge in demand

RENO, Nev. — Mark McKinnon knows tattoos are not essential.

In fact, he'll go out of his way to tell you.

“I'm always the one to tell my clients, if it's family, if it's emergency, if you need to pay your power bill, do not get a tattoo,” McKinnon, owner/tattoo artist of Marked Studios, said in a phone interview with the NNBW. “It's not that important — it will wait.”

Despite that, and with the coronavirus pandemic keeping things uncertain for the Northern Nevada economy, business is booming for the Reno-based tattoo studio.

“There are lots of people excited to get back in and finally be able to get the tattoos that they wanted,” McKinnon said.

So much so that the Marked Studios owner said the biggest challenge since reopening on May 29 has been trying to meet the pent-up demand that built up while his doors were closed for two and a half months

“It's been tremendous,” he said. “It was like a floodgate. Everyone was itching to get in, so it's very nice to see it snap back and not have to struggle.”

Marked Studios artist Gaia Marika works on a tattoo on a client's forearm while wearing a face covering.

Some of Marked Studios' eight artists, who were booked months out before COVID hit, have even been inking six days a week to make a dent in their calendars, McKinnon said.

“As far as production level, I would say we're up 20% as far as weekly averages,” said McKinnon, noting the studio is seeing anywhere from 12 to 20 clients a day. “And that's basically all the artists making sure that they get the people that waited for three months in and make their appointments up.”


Thirty miles south in Carson City, Rice Street Tattoo is also trying to chip away at its backlog of clients who are itching to get their skin tatted amid the COVID crisis.

“It's been out of control,” said owner Tony Jackson. “I don't know what it is, but people seem to want it more right now than they did before all of this. Maybe it's because they had no option and they were forced to wait. The demand is definitely high right now.

“I was already booked out a month or two past (late June). I had to bump everybody that had appointments in March, April and May out to September.”

To that end, Jackson, like McKinnon, said his biggest challenge has been managing rescheduled appointments and the high volume of new inquiries.

Rice Street Tattoo owner Tony Jackson, right, works on the shoulder of a client during an appointment in late June inside the Carson City shop.

“Anyone that found out tattoo shops are allowed to open back up have just been bombarding us with emails and social media messages trying to schedule,” he said. “So, it's been pretty overwhelming trying to get caught back up. Arranging that stuff has been a lot to deal with.”

The only big change for Marked Studios and Rice Street Tattoo — and all parlors dotted throughout Nevada — is that artists are donning face coverings as they ink, a requirement under the state's Phase 2 reopening plan.

McKinnon and Jackson said wearing a mask while tattooing has its challenges, but both shops' artists have adapted — for the most part. Jackson noted the three other artists at Rice Street Tattoo wear glasses.

“It's kind of hard to do precision line work with foggy glasses, but for the most part we're all getting by pretty good,” he said. “We're just glad to be back working.”

Added McKinnon: “There are other people (in other industries) that have been wearing their masks for four months. We're just the newbies coming in saying, ‘oh, this is horrible…' We're getting used to it now, it's not so bad.”

Parker Buckley, a tattoo artist at Marked Studios, does work on a piece inside the shop on Moana Lane.

Since wearing gloves and strict cleaning and sanitizing are already baked into the tattoo industry, McKinnon and Jackson said the COVID-related safety guidelines are standard procedure.

Moreover, McKinnon said artists at his 2,300-square-foot shop are already spaced out at least nine feet apart. Jackson said he rearranged his 950-square-foot parlor slightly to spread out his artists' stations.


Although business is on the upswing in tattooing, shops and artists still took a significant financial hit from being out of work.

McKinnon said his studio lost roughly $150,000 in revenue during its shutdown of two-plus months.

However, he noted that because his eight artists are on payroll, his shop qualified for federal coronavirus relief funds (EIDL and PPP) and his artists were able to immediately apply and qualify for unemployment benefits after the shop closed in mid-March.

That's not the case for most tattoo artists in Northern Nevada and beyond. Traditionally, tattoo parlor owners are sole proprietors, and tattooers are independent contractors.

And there are a lot of them — according to market research firm IBIS World, there are more than 50,000 tattoo artists in America.

Rice Street Tattoo artist Albert Rivas wears a face covering as he works on a client's forearm in late June.

That category of worker had to file for the U.S. government's new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program.

Nevada was the last state in the country to set up a system to accept weekly claims from self-employed and gig workers, according to published reports.

The state's Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) launched the system in mid-May and claimants started receiving payments at the end of May.

Jackson was one of the 65,000 Nevadans who applied for the PUA. He said his shop lost “thousands” in revenue from being closed for more than two months.

“Being a sole proprietor and the fact that my guys are contracted, none of us were really able to get any assistance in a reasonable amount of time,” Jackson told the NNBW.

This, Jackson said, is why he is especially relieved that he's seen a rush of business since reopening his doors.

“We're going to stay hopeful that we don't have another shutdown,” he said. “I'm hoping that we're able to keep working regardless of what happens, especially considering our standards and how we're regulated.

“We're just going to keep at it and try to keep up with our messages coming in. If I had the room, I'd hire a couple more people.”


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