Great Lakes Tattoo’s Mario Desa likens new operations to the NBA bubble to ensure the safety of both guests and staff. Credit: courtesy Mario Desa

Finding a new tattoo artist is a lot like dating. You don’t want to hop in the chair with just anyone, and a lot of social media stalking is involved to see past relationships—or clients. Potentially, with a little bit of luck and some research, you could find a staple tattooer who matches your style and consistently executes clean tattoos. Ah, relationship goals.

Since moving to Chicago last fall, I’ve been feverously searching for tattoo artists on Instagram. It’s not like you can comfortably walk up to anyone with sleeves at the grocery store and ask who their artist is with COVID-19 on the prowl. Instead, I’ve been scouring the Internet for professionals boasting clean lines and punched in color. If you’re unsure what to look for, I’d advise you to binge-watch Ink Master on Netflix to be schooled by seasoned tattooing vets Oliver Peck and Chris Nunez.

Once you’ve found your perfect match, what does the process look like for booking your appointment and possible consultation before you make your way into the shop for new ink? Whether you’re new to Chicagoland or just on the hunt for a new tattooer, we’ve rounded up a few local artists to give the lowdown on some things to keep in mind before you get in the chair during a pandemic.

“We’ve been operating like the NBA bubble,” explains Mario Desa of Great Lakes Tattoo. That means no visiting tattoo artists, masks for all, not allowing guests to accompany customers, and splitting the staff of nine into two groups, rotating days to work allowing for ample space to socially distance.

Another major shift for GLT is pivoting from accepting walk-ins to operating as appointment only through the shop’s website. The magic of operating as a street shop, Desa explains, is that you can encounter all walks of life on any given day. The artist recalls the days pre-COVID where the shop would be filled with anywhere from 30-40 people including staff, customers, and guests. Now GLT allows no more than ten people max at a time with the door remaining locked until an appointment arrives.

This summer marks 24 years in the industry for Desa, and he’s looking forward to the return of true tattoo shop culture, with buzzing machines, new faces popping by for consultations, and having his entire GLT squad on the clock at once.

“It’s like the social club in a way, now it feels like a neutered version of the tattoo shop.”

While new operations have proved to offer less than favorable vibes, Desa is thankful that no employee of Great Lakes Tattoo or anyone in their respected households has tested positive for coronavirus.

“Makes us feel good that we’re doing the right thing,” he says. “It proves that protocols work, masks work.”

Jennifer Trok of Deluxe Tattoo echoes Desa’s sentiment on the change in shop culture. While Trok misses the days of spending lunches and late nights with her coworkers, she understands the importance of following protocols for the safety of those around her as well as her livelihood. Due to city shutdowns, Trok was forced to celebrate her 20-year anniversary without a tattoo gun in hand. Now that the shop is back up and running, she’s happy to book appointments via email (jennifertrok@yahoo.com) and has guests fill out a short COVID questionnaire covering health, travel, and exposure.

Wish Me Luck Tattoo owner, Faith (who prefers to use only her first name), on the other hand, launched her shop in November 2020 in Logan Square. Because the shop made its debut mid-pandemic, Faith was unable to host a soft or even grand opening event to celebrate, but that didn’t stop outlets from spreading the news of Chicago’s first Black, queer and trans-owned shop. Over the last few months, Faith has been featured by Block Club Chicago, Black Information Network, and Fox 32.

Growing up in LA street shops, Faith was used to people coming in and picking flash off the wall or from her portfolio just minutes before putting needle to skin.

“But now it’s a little more interesting in that I’m not meeting people until they’re at the shop for their appointment,” she says.

Rather than build an entire business model for a COVID-free world, the shop owner’s approach is all about work-life balance, with COVID safety protocols baked in. Wish Me Luck is comprised of four artists total.

“Each artist is required to take three days off a week,” Faith says. “Pandemic or no pandemic.”

Having the pandemic in mind while building out the shop, Faith made sure to incorporate ventilation systems as well as generous dimensions for each workstation (12 foot by 8 foot) with sufficient aisle space between each allowing for comfortable movement.

And while this is a new venture for the artist who possesses 15 years of experience, Faith is taking on the challenges of tattooing during the pandemic like a professional.

“It’s wild but I think we’ve figured out a good system for client care and our own care,” she says. “All of us [are] testing bi-weekly minimum. I test weekly.”

When it comes to booking an appointment at Wish Me Luck, you’ll be required to put down a deposit, which will be honored if rescheduling is needed. No guests are allowed, and masks are required before, during, and after tattooing. All artists will be wearing masks and doing temperature checks upon entry. If you have any symptoms, have tested positive, or have been around someone who has, rescheduling is a must. While the shop doesn’t need hard evidence that you’ve tested negative before sitting in the chair, it’s not a good look to risk someone’s health for some new ink.

“We’re going by the honor system,” Faith says. “We’re trying to make a living.”

Walk-in tattoos aren’t typically on the agenda at Black Atlas Studio, so not much about how they operate has changed.Credit: courtesy Angel Antonio

A steady stream of income has been even harder to come by since the arrival of COVID-19. With shutdowns and regulations being in constant flux, many service industry workers have felt the devastating effects firsthand.

“My team and I are grateful that we’re able to work when a lot of people we know in the service industry cannot,” says Black Atlas Studio owner Angel Antonio.

Antonio and his team of four run a custom shop, which means walk-in type tattoos aren’t on the agenda. So other than enforcing masks, social distancing, and limiting occupants, the Black Atlas artists have been operating as usual—for the most part.

Tattooing for a decade, Antonio specializes in realism and portrait tattoos. Before you try to hop in Antonio’s chair, his schedule is booked solid for the next year—which actually gives you more time to plot out your ink.

And while it does feel like we’re nearing the light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to harsh regulations, Antonio and the Black Atlas crew, as well as fellow shops, will be pulling out all the stops when it comes to ensuring the safety of their teams and customers. Your responsibility as a client is to stay out of the chair if you’re feeling any symptoms or have been exposed to someone who has tested positive. It’s a small sacrifice to make for forever ink and not jeopardize someone’s livelihood.   v