Photo by Madison Simmons.
Tomi Fowler tattoos Lorene Salas at Sleepy Hollow. Fowler described herself as a “black sheep” who came to tattooing after working in demanding graphic design jobs for years. Photo by Madison Simmons.

Whether because of pockets deepened slightly by stimulus checks, pent-up existential angst, or boredom, people are getting more ink these days, according to several local shop owners and national data.

Jeramy Kitchens, owner of Sleepy Hollow Tattoos, works on a cover-up piece for longtime client Ronni Riley. “This is what happened when I let someone else touch me,” Riley said of the disastrous first tattoo. She visits Kitchens almost exclusively for her ink. Kitchens said he thinks business has returned to normal now but said his shop did see a huge uptick in business after the end of the spring 2020 lockdown. “I think it’s one of those things — when you can’t have something, you want it,” he said. “When the shops opened back up, we could barely get everyone tattooed.”
Photo by Madison Simmons.

“Everything’s so uncertain right now,” said Beth Barrington, owner of Lucky Horseshoe Tattoo. “People have a different mindset right now.”

Artists and clients gather outside of Lucky Horseshoe Tattoo. The Fort Worth shop has experienced a surge in business.
Photo by Madison Simmons.

Part of that mindset seems to be seizing the day through the eternal medium of tattoo ink. Barrington said she has seen “steadily increasing” business at Lucky Horseshoe, the N. Main Street shop she co-owns with husband Thomas Barrington.

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“It’s definitely been busier,” Angie Griffin said.

Eddy Herrera wipes off the tattoo he just finished on Kyle Gurley of White Settlement. Gurley asked for a deer head to honor his grandparents’ ranch that he visited often growing up. The piece accompanies other pieces on what will become an entire sleeve dedicated to members of his family. Herrera has spent five years in the industry. Over this past year, he saw an increase in demand for ink. “Especially after stimulus [check] season,” he said. “People had money to burn.”
Photo by Madison Simmons.
Griffin had just finished adorning a cop’s thigh with a pink frosted donut on a Tuesday afternoon. She and shopmate Nate Barron agreed that over the past year, they have had more appointments than usual, a welcome change after the uncertainty that came with recent lockdowns.

Gil Gonzales inks a Nordic-inspired “leaf man” onto Jeff Mahan’s leg. Mahan was getting a prison tattoo of a “kind of evil clown” covered up. Gonzales has worked out of Lucky Horseshoe Tattoo for four months but has worked as a tattoo artist for 20-plus years. He was based out of San Antonio until recently. Gonzales said he worked throughout the pandemic, even during lockdowns, out of necessity.
Photo by Madison Simmons.

National data back up the anecdotes. At the end of July, the global business research from IBIS World put out a report on the tattoo industry in the United States. By the firm’s estimates, the $1.4 billion industry is set to grow 23.2% in 2021.

“Oh!” Lorene Salas said in surprise as Tomi Fowler pressed the tattoo needle into her skin. Salas was receiving her first tattoo, a bouquet of asters to commemorate her birth month. Salas said it did not hurt as much as she thought it would. She was watched by older sister Leslianne Garcia, who has received many tattoos from Fowler.
Photo by Madison Simmons.

“It’s happening even with the lesser-known artists,” said Josh Gonzalez, owner of Ink817 Tattoo Co. on Camp Bowie Boulevard on a busy Saturday. “A common theme I hear from people is they felt stifled during quarantine. A common theme seems to be wanting to grasp life … . People feel like, ‘Screw sitting at home. I’m getting a tattoo!’”

Lorene Salas reacts after artist Tomi Fowler lays out what her new and first tattoo will look like. Salas asked Fowler for a bouquet of asters, her birth month flower.
Photo by Madison Simmons.

That night, Brenda Tufino and Shannon Johnson were waiting in the lobby for some fresh ink.

Both are heavily tatted, but this was the new couple’s first time to get one together.

“Now that the shops are open again, I’ve been trying to get some more,” Tufino said.

A case of piercings sits in the front of Lucky Horseshoe Tattoo. Co-owner Beth Barrington said she also has seen a recent increase in demand for piercings. Photo by Madison Simmons.

Tattoo shops and artists faced months of uncertainty during the pandemic.

During the initial lockdown of spring 2020, shops had to close down entirely. And they stayed that way for about two months.

Some artists used the time to kick back. Barron said it was his “first paid vacation in 20 years,” as he was able to secure unemployment while out of work.

Not everyone had that option.

Gordi Redmon works on a big biomechanical piece on Seth Haynes of Las Colinas on a Saturday night at Ink817 Tattoo Co. Redmon had already put over two and a half hours into the piece.
Photo by Madison Simmons.

A few chairs down at Lucky Horseshoe, Gil Gonzales was working on a Nordic-inspired piece for client Jeff Mahan.

“I kept tattooing,” Gonzales said. “It was just do or die.”

He worked at a San Antonio shop at the time. He said he had a few close calls but ultimately faced no legal repercussions for staying in the chair during the lockdown.

For tat-lover Nichol Mathison, tattoo shops felt like a safe space to be during the pandemic, given the sanitation measures artists take year-round.

“It’s sterile, it’s safe,” she said. “I know I find comfort in that.”

Angie Griffin has tattooed for 28 years and can recall when tattooing was a “boys’ club” and women artists were rare. “It doesn’t feel like it skipped a beat once we opened back up,” she said of business after the lockdown.
Photo by Madison Simmons.

Mathison had come with friend Ronni Riley to sit in Jeramy Kitchens’ chair at the acclaimed Sleepy Hollow Tattoos on Bledsoe Street.

Mathison showed off two recent pieces from the shop owner: a depiction of a mother and child and a realistic koala, both memorials to the infant she lost earlier this year.

“I needed a way to heal and to honor my son,” she said. “I feel like these tattoos help me heal. I can look down and feel proud and smile.”

Sleepy Hollow Tattoos, on Bledsoe Street, is filled with artwork.
Photo by Madison Simmons.

A few doors down, Kyle Gurley was also honoring his family through artwork. Eddy Herrera had just finished up a small buck’s head on Gurley’s upper arm. Gurley said the piece referenced his grandfather’s ranch he visited while growing up.

Herrera began tattooing about six years ago. What brought him to the business?

Nichol Mathison of Cleburne shows off a tattoo she got a few weeks ago, a memorial to her infant son who died earlier this year. Jeramy Kitchens, owner of Sleepy Hollow Tattoos, designed and tattooed the piece. Mathison said she would not trust anyone else with something so sensitive and special. “I feel like these tattoos help me heal,” she said.
Photo by Madison Simmons.

“Not wanting to work for the man anymore,” he said with a laugh.

Tattoo artists are usually independent contractors, basically running their own small business out of a shop. Lucky Horseshoe’s Barrington said she thinks this has made tattoo shops immune to the staffing issues ravaging other industries and has contributed to growth.

“But with our business, you never know,” she said. “Tomorrow’s another day, so we gotta take it while we can.”

Matt Williams tattoos a bunny design onto the back of Shannon Johnson’s neck while her girlfriend, Brenda Tufino, gives moral support. Johnson, of Arizona, was in town visiting Tufino, and the couple decided to get tattoos together. Williams picked up tattooing during the pandemic and began tattooing independently at the beginning of this year.
Photo by Madison Simmons.
Talia Guerrero documents the sparrow she just completed on Samantha Cottle of North Richland Hills while Ashley Seemann of Fort Worth watches. Guerrero has worked as an independent tattoo artist for around a year, she said.
Photo by Madison Simmons.
On a Saturday night, Sleepy Hollow was full of people waiting to get inked. The tattoo industry has seen massive growth this year, and local shops have felt the positive effects.
Photo by Madison Simmons.