Brooklyn tattoo parlors face uncertain future as they reopen with limited capacity

Willie Paredes, one of the owners of Brooklyn Tattoo on Smith Street.
Photo by Kevin Duggan

Tattoo parlors across Brooklyn began inking up customers once more as the city entered the third phase of reopening on July 6 — finally giving a much-needed lifeline to struggling businesses ravaged from months of closures due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

“It was one of the worst things, to have to close your shop and pay rent,” said Leonardo Torres, the owner of Torres Tattoos in Greenwood Heights. “But thank God we’re able to open again and it looks like we’re going to be able to get back on track.”

The city and state permitted tattoo parlors and nail salons, which had been closed since March, to reopen across the Five Boroughs, provided they adhere to several city and state guidelines — including limiting their shops to 50 percent capacity, requiring all patrons wear masks, and regularly disinfecting work stations.

Those businesses now join other so-called personal care services, like hair salons and barber shops, that were reopened during Phase 2 on June 22.

Tattoo artists are well-accustomed to wearing protective gear, which they’d regularly don since before the bug to avoid infections from other diseases like hepatitis and HIV while working with needles — but now they must ask their customers to follow similar safety measures too, according to one Carroll Gardens ink smith.

“A lot of the stuff we had in place just for ourselves, ironically, now we have them for our clients,” said Willie Paredes, one of the owners of Brooklyn Tattoo on Smith Street. “Hand sanitizing and wearing masks has been something for us for a while.”

Paredes and his business partner Adam Suerte have yet to actually start tattooing customers again, as they continue the process of rearranging the interior layout of their business to make sure everyone has adequate space to socially distance.

“The biggest thing is that we make sure we don’t open before we’re ready,” he said. “We’ve had to keep people at bay a bit.”

The tattoo artist said the majority of customers were left hanging in March, with appointments and tattoos that were halfway done, but he said he’s not taking any chances as he starts resuming service by appointment only, which the state recommends.

“We assume everyone walking through the door has [COVID-19],” he said.

Paredes posted a sign at his front door informing customers that they’ll only be allowed to enter at their time of appointments, and that they won’t be allowed to bring any friends inside during the ink sessions.

“Normally we would allow one guest with the client — that’s pretty much gone,” he said. 

Torres has implemented similar policies and also has a batch of pre-booked sessions that he had to postpone due to the coronavirus, but lamented that business will be slower to start due to the new restrictions. 

“Probably we’ll lose a little bit more [money], because we’re working with appointments only,” he said.

The past and future loss of revenue hits hard for the manager of one Prospect Lefferts Gardens tattoo shop, who worried that they won’t make enough money to pay back rent they still owe from the months of closure — and added that many customers are suffering financial distress due to COVID-19, and won’t be able to afford tattoos for the time being.

“[Customers] said they have to wait because they don’t have a job,” said Alex Juarez, who runs The Catrina Ink on Flatbush Avenue. “We’re not going to be able to pay the rent that we owe. I tried to talk with the landlord but they don’t help.”