Jill Bonny has been tattooing in the Bay Area since 2000. Four years ago, she started her own shop in the Haight-Ashbury, Studio Kazoku, which specializes in Japanese-style tattooing.
But California’s shutdowns have made it extremely difficult for Bonny and other tattoo artists to keep their shops open. In 2020, tattoo and piercing shops had to close for seven consecutive months, and endured a few other closures besides. Bonny went through all of her savings to keep her shop afloat, and did some commissioned paintings on the side for extra money.
“It was very difficult,” Bonny said. “Nobody was able to prepare for it, there was no warning. So maybe people could hang on for a month or two, paying their rent and bills during the closures, but eight months, you know, you did start to see some businesses folding at that point.”
Paul King, owner of tattoo and piercing shop Cold Steel America, says his shop was only able to survive on funds he had been saving for five years to spend on a move to a new location. Doug Hardy, the son of influential tattoo artist Ed Hardy, who works at his father’s shop Tattoo City, said they’ve barely been able to stay afloat throughout the pandemic, and he took a second job to prepare in case of another shutdown.
In response to the pandemic, Bonny has become an advocate for tattoo and piercing shops across The City. After reaching out to other tattoo artists and parlors, she eventually established a coalition called The Unified Tattoo and Body Art Shops of San Francisco.
“It’s been very rough, and that’s why I eventually started advocating, because it really became like, no one’s helping us, no one’s speaking up for us, no one’s defending us,” Bonny said.
Bonny first obtained a list of all the registered tattoo, piercing and microblading shops in San Francisco. She and her staff contacted as many as possible via email and phone in efforts to determine which local officials had been reached.
“It’s so grassroots, it’s ridiculous,” Bonny laughed.
Bonny helped shops with applications for loans and grants, and worked with them to push supervisors for a clear path forward for their businesses. She also writes statement outlines for people to read at supervisor board meetings and even was nominated by the group to write a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Bonny also emailed the Board of Supervisors, urging support of legislation waiving tattoo registration and licensing fees, and recruited other shops to do the same. The supervisors unanimously approved the legislation March 3.
The legislation was introduced by Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who said, “It’s fundamentally unfair to view our small businesses as ATMs during this period of economic hardship.”
“My legislation will help not only tattoo shops, but also restaurants, hair and nail salons, massage establishments, gyms, entertainment venues and more — some of our hardest hit industries,” Stefani said in an email. “Small business is the backbone of our local economy, and we need to support them in any way we can.”
Shops typically have to pay $1,710 annually to operate, and artists additionally have to pay a $125 licensing fee. While waived fees helps every tattoo artist and shop to some degree, the impact can vary, King said.
“An independent tattoo artist that is having to pay both their practitioner fee and their facility fee, and they work for themselves, you’re talking probably like that $2,000 could be half their gross income for the month,” King said. “Because it’s the same, they’re paying the same thing that I am now, with like 10 people in my facility versus one person, they’re paying the same.”
Some tattoo and piercing shop owners also are frustrated that they’re categorized in the same group as masseurs, estheticians and nail technicians, who don’t have to undergo the same intensive training.
“These things don’t have the same training, and they don’t have the same focuses for things such as cross contamination,” King said. “We’re doing bloodborne pathogens training annually. We’re working with personal protection equipment our whole lives, like I’ve been working with it for 30 years. In the procedural room, we’ve always treated everyone like they have an infection, you know, like we plan for hepatitis and HIV, and pivoting to planning for airborne [diseases] isn’t that difficult for us.”
San Francisco reentered the red tier March 3, which allows tattoo parlors to operate at 25% capacity with restrictions in place.
Through all the difficulties and closures, tattoo artists have continued to fight to stay alive in San Francisco.
“Tattooing has always been part of San Francisco,” Hardy said. “I mean, even back to the Barbary Coast days, there were tattoo shops here … it’s always been a part of the bohemian and creative part of the City.”
Working alongside other tattoo artists to advocate for themselves has been an eye-opening experience for Bonny.
“I’ve just been really proud to motivate my group and to motivate tattooers to stand up for ourselves,” Bonny said. “Because … I think people have felt the satisfaction of going and speaking there, you know, coming through with facts, but also being personal, and really being able to speak our case and really see the support of the supervisors.”