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Lockdown despair: Inside Australia’s struggling tattoo industry

Lance Vilbro and Samantha Bradley, Sydney-based tattoo artists.
Lance Vilbro and Samantha Bradley are two Sydney-based tattoo artists want more clarity on when their industry can re-open (Source: Instagram @monju_tattoo / Instagram @_kikutattoo_)

Last year, Lance Vilbro and Samantha Bradley were only given a week and a half notice that tattoo studios were going to be shut down - leaving them out of work.

That was when the first wave of COVID-19 lockdowns swept Australia, and for an industry often seen as “taboo” it was just the start of the problems.

Vilbro works in Sydney-based studio Little Tokyo and has been tattooing for over 10 years.

Specialising in traditional Japanese style, many of his clients work with him on large pieces that go well into the thousands of dollars.

“We tried to get through as many clients as possible so we could get ourselves a little better set up because we didn’t know how long it was going to be or how long we were going to have to wait for JobKeeper,” Vilbro said.

“I was able to get JobKeeper approved in the end but it took a while to come through, so by the time it did I was down to my last $100."

Then, as the country came to grips with keeping the virus out of the community cafes, restaurants, hairdressers, pubs, retailers were all about to start opening - but not tattoo parlours.

“We’re always the first to go and the last to come back. We were categorised the same as brothels and massage parlours,” Vilbro said.

“And for the amount of health and safety stuff we have to abide by, even before COVID, with sterilising the shop everyday and having medical certifications and everything, it can feel a little deflating.”

Tattoo parlours and artists have extremely strict guidelines they need to follow to be certified.

For an artist, you need to be certified within your state by completing an application process, you then have to pay the certification fee and have your fingerprints recorded at your local police station.

A tattoo license will cost you $664 for one year, $808 for three years or $906 for five years.

For a studio, the guidelines are even more stringent, including extremely thorough health and safety requirements.

For example, tattoo parlours are required to uphold virtually the same hygiene standards as medical practitioners.

This includes single use equipment, proper steralisation stations and at least 12 months of records of all steralisation procedures and each station must be completely cleaned between clients.

And while of course there is blood, and obviously risk involved, Vilbro argues tattoo parlours are one of the cleanest and safest establishments you can be in - or at least certainly cleaner than your local pub.

One of Lance Vilbro's artworks (left) and Vilbro tattooing a client (right)
An example of Lance Vilbro's (pictured) artworks (Source: provided)

“We have to wear gloves, we have to wear aprons, everything is done on a completely sterile non-porous disposable surface,” he said.

“And when we were open our clients were really good about the guidelines. If anyone felt under the weather they told us and we rescheduled. It’s a real community and you get to know your clients so well.”

With the newest round of lockdowns starting to show the light at the end of the tunnel for most, Vilbro and Bradley are still left feeling uncertain about when their industry will be able to operate.

“It does feel a bit unfair that we don’t get to have the same certainty about when we’ll be able to open,” Bradley said.

“It’s so ingrained in our society that tattooing is somehow a ‘bad’ industry. But you have so many people nowadays who are getting tattooed that never would have done it 10 years ago. It’s very much in the mainstream now, so it’s strange that the government is so behind in those feelings.”

As of 2020, it was estimated that around one in four Aussies has a tattoo and the percentage of women with tattoos (31 per cent) well exceeds men (19 per cent).

Bradley is newer to the industry, and is based in Sydney’s Thirteen Feet Tattoo studio.

She mostly does smaller pieces and walk-ins, so she doesn’t have the benefit of a long list of clients ready to finish their pieces when things do open up again.

“Everyone is struggling financially, so there obviously is that fear when we do go back that clients may not be able to commit to tattoos that they had scheduled in before the lockdowns,” Bradley said.

“So, there is that concern that we may lose some work because of this. It’s a tough situation.”

Sydney-based tattoo artist Samantha Bradley and examples of her artwork.
Samantha Bradley (pictured) specialises in smaller pieces and walk-ins (Source: Instagram @_kikutattoo_)

But, as is the case with many Aussies, lockdowns have led to ingenuity and Bradley said the sense of community has really come through.

“There are so many artists who have been selling their prints and merchandise and it’s been really nice to see clients and followers getting behind it,” she said.

Bradley said she has been spending her lockdown trying to stay creative, but not necessarily in the ways you might think.

“It’s all about balance. I try to make sure I get out every day to get some fresh air and I’ve been doing a lot of cooking which is a great creative outlet. It doesn’t have to be tattoo related to keep you feeling creative,” she said.

“But it can be hard. It’s easy to keep a routine when you know when you’re going back but with no date it can be tough to have a plan.”

For now, the government hasn’t indicated a specific date when lockdowns will be lifted but they are aiming for the magic 70 per cent vaccination rate number.

At that point, they have said restrictions will be eased but have not yet been clear about which businesses will be able to operate.

But, when they do, Vilbro and Bradley are ready to get back into it.

“When the last lockdown eased I started working Sundays as well as Saturdays because a lot of people didn’t have the annual leave anymore,” Vilbro said.

“You just gotta work around people and do what you can to work with your clients.”

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