‘If we can’t reopen, we will probably be out of business’: Tattoo studio owners wonder if they will survive COVID-19

Grant Lubbock, tattoo artist runs Red Barron Ink with his wife Giselle. They wonder if they will survive Covid-19.

The first year doing tattoos in New York, Red Baron Ink on the Lower East Side, suffered an immediate set-back – Hurricane Sandy flooded their new store.

Today, a different kind of invisible hurricane is hitting their new store on West 14th Street, forcing them and other tattoo artists to close their doors and wait this out – COVID-19. Giselle Azcona-Lubbock and her husband Grant are worried.

With no reopening date in sight, Lubbock says they just want to survive. They were able to pay their landlord 60 percent of the $9,000 rent, but what about this next month? They applied for SBA loans, were approved for $16,000, but got $2,000. They applied for employee retention loans and received $2,000. They still retain their manager on salary – but many of the freelancers, part of the gig economy, are on their own.

They are applying for the new round of stimulus as a small business, but they don’t know if it will be enough.

Luckily, their landlord is generous and has cut them slack, but for how long they wonder? So many questions: How does a tattoo artist social distance? Yes, they wear masks and use gloves, but keeping six feet from their customers is impossible as it is in a barbershop, nail salon and other personal care businesses.

“Do people need a tattoo, a piercing, a haircut or perfect nails to survive no, absolutely not,” Lubbock sighed. “It is not our intention to downplay the work of essential workers during this pandemic. But we do not wish to be forgotten, as we have been there for people when they need us. When people want to show off their new tattoo or hair color, when people simply want to look and feel good that’s where us non-essential workers come in.”

Lubbock understands the danger at this time, she had an aunt die from COVID-19 in a New Jersey nursing home. One of her artists had two parents in the hospital with coronavirus.

So she and her husband worry that while they are healthy, the 8-year-old business may not survive. She said the closing of 14th Street to vehicle traffic has reduced street traffic to her store. Luckily, they had put off a decision to expand to another location – otherwise there would’ve been two rents to worry about.

“Thank God we didn’t do that, there would’ve been bills from two locations and the expansion would’ve put us completely out of business and as you know, New York City rent is ridiculous,” Lubbock said. “When we went looking for our current location, there was nothing out there for less than $7,000 a month and then you have to come up with three months’ rent in advance. After paying taxes we take home about 10 percent of the earnings. But that is the risk you take being your own boss.”

Lubbock’s husband Grant is a transplant from California and has been working hard to keep the business running. That first year with Hurricane Sandy was challenging as the Lower East Side floods caused heavy damage to that store. But she worries that this new hurricane may not be survivable.

“We cannot be open – our business is face to face with people so it makes it really tough,” Lubbock says. “If we can’t reopen, we will probably be out of business and in the street.”

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