Ink, Inc.

The tattoo industry continues to flourish — despite the challenges created by the pandemic

By Matt Morrissette

Much as you don’t meet many feline enthusiasts who have just one cat, one doesn’t encounter many tattooed folks who have been inked only once. It’s more of a lifestyle choice by which one identifies their tribe. 

Over the past two decades, the belief that tattoos could damage one’s chances in the “straight world” has diminished radically, with celebrity chefs, tech CEOs, the obvious rock & rollers, and the guy working in the next cubicle all displaying a plethora of visible tattoos. 

But like any customer service-oriented business necessitating personal contact, the tattoo industry was thrown into upheaval by the pandemic and the mandatory periods of closure and personal space restrictions that came with it. But unlike similar industries, the tattoo business has rebounded quickly. In fact, it’s booming.

According to IBIS World (a trusted world-wide industry research organization), the $1.4 billion per year tattoo industry exceeded its 2021 projection of 23% growth in market size. The causes are numerous: stimulus checks burning holes in pockets; pandemic boredom; the general feeling of “why not” that came with world-wide cataclysm; the simple fact of having to wait on previously scheduled tattoo plans.

According to lifelong tattoo artist Pat McCutcheon (former owner of Oddity Bar, current proprietor of Hereditary Tattoo in Wilmington), things have been surprisingly steady since his new shop opened in the heart of the pandemic in July 2020. 

“We opened when shops were able to reopen at limited capacity after the mandatory closures,” he said. “Luckily, our shop is a large, two-story building with multiple private studios so we were able to accommodate clients safely by appointment only and a strict mask policy. 

“Over the past two years, demand for tattoos remained constant, with our artists continuously booked about a month in advance. Maybe people were seeking a sense of permanence by getting tattooed during a time of uncertainty, or perhaps it was just a good distraction from the daily stress of the pandemic.”

Tina Marabito, owner of well-established Poppycock Tattoo in downtown Wilmington, echoes the theme of industry rebound. 

”Things are definitely on the uptick since the pandemic,” she said. “We are strictly appointment-only due to the overwhelming amount of people booking with us. Our appointments are currently booked five to six months out. 

“We have a lot more clients coming back for multiple tattoos within the year, plus a bunch of tattoo virgins. I think maybe people are just feeling that they should do the things that they had held off on. Life is short and there’s no time to procrastinate.” 

Another part of the industry equation is the tattoo artists themselves. Since most artists are independent contractors, many were not eligible for standard unemployment. So, they made ends meet by selling prints and other merchandise featuring their artwork — among other hustles — while waiting for programs like Pandemic Unemployment Assistance to kick in. 

Rachel Truskolawski, a six-year veteran of the regional tattoo scene known for her fine line and blackwork tattoos specializing in nature and fantasy-oriented themes, is happy to be back in the game and busy. But she remains cautious as the pandemic seemingly winds down. 

“I am currently an appointment-only artist at Hereditary Tattoo, and since being able to return to work, I’m only taking one client a day to limit my contact with people since tattooing is such an intimate process,” she said. “Luckily enough, it seems Covid cases have been on the decline and a lot of shops in the area are taking walk-ins again.” 

Truskowlaski has also noticed some new trends among both her repeat customers (75% of her clientele) and newbies alike.

“Tattoos are becoming much more widely accepted and there are definitely some new trends that are happening,” she said. “Infinity symbols, quotes, Roman numerals and small finger tattoos have always been popular among clients, but a least favorite among artists. However, now you have a lot of people that want their hands and faces tattooed before they even get their arms or legs covered.” 

Tattoo enthusiasts are also among the most rabid and loyal customers. It’s not unusual to find an individual covered from head to toe in the work of a single shop or artist. For the more ink-addicted and financially secure among the faithful, having multi-sitting tattoos worked on simultaneously at different shops is commonplace. 

In the case of local photographer David Heitur (whose first tattoo -— a tribal chameleon he got at age 18 – has gone the way of the coverup), the pandemic was simply a forced break in his tattoo life. 

“Fortunately, I didn’t have anything scheduled when the shutdown began, and I didn’t stop working, so when things opened back up, I definitely made up for it,” he said. 

“Before Christmas of 2021 and into this year, I was getting my back worked on every two weeks at one shop while popping into another for three other pieces.”

Rachel Sauer, a veteran Wilmington bartender, was first tattooed at 17 and, like most in the culture, she has no intention of stopping. Citing a tattoo of her dog as her favorite (Heitur also cites his tattoo of his dog, Louie, as his), she finds meaning in all her tattoos, even the not-so-good one. 

“All of my tattoos are dedications to either people or pets I have loved, or movies and books that have impacted me in such a way that I wanted to proudly display them,” she said. “I do have one dud. It’s an octopus that somehow ended up with only one eye and six legs. I’ve never been motivated to change it because it makes me laugh.”

In the late 1980s, Delaware guitarist and songwriter Mark Thousands discovered his musical heroes, The Cro-Mags, were heavily tattooed when he saw a poster of the New York punk/hardcore band. His lifelong journey of getting tattooed began soon after, both to emulate his musical influences and to mark himself as an artist and outsider.

“My motivations for getting tattooed were definitely rooted in art and music,” he said. “The band looked otherworldly to me because they were pretty covered in tattoos, but it had an aesthetic to it that seemed different than say a biker aesthetic; it was definitely more of a street vibe.” 

With legions of the already-tattooed planning their next piece, and hordes of young folks coming of age in an era in which tattoos and piercings no longer illicit widespread shock and disgust, the tattoo industry has not just rebounded from the uncertainty of the last two years, it has grown. And in this new era of daily cultural shifts and seeming impermanence, what could be more grounding than committing to a piece of living art on one’s body?