Wednesday, October 4, 2023

‘Non-essential’ Part II: Covid-19 hit them early, but help lagged behind [Free read]

Cadillac Custom Tattoo & Piercing owner Bryan Michael stands outside his empty shop on Market Street in Wilmington, three weeks into to state-mandated closure of tattoo shops. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

WILMINGTON — Since closing his doors, Cadillac Custom Tattoo & Piercing owner Bryan Michael has received a few late-night texts asking for appointments.

They aren’t frivolous, “I need new ink” messages. Rather, it’s “If I don’t’ get new ink soon, I may hurt myself.”

That might sound extreme — but Michael says his shop frequently works with people that struggle with self-harm who turn to tattoos as a safe alternative to hurting themselves.

Normally, the 3 a.m. conversation would lead to a same-day appointment. “‘Hey, I’m stuck at home, I’m going through this, when can you get me in?'” Michael said these clients ask him. “I try not to say no. I try to say, the second that we’re open, those people are our priorities.”

Four weeks in

Professionals employed in the personal care industry do improve or alter surface-level appearances, but frequently, their work is more than skin, hair, or nails.

Forced to stop work on March 25, a majority of personal care professionals have had little to no way to earn a living. In an industry propped up by small businesses and independent contractors, public assistance for these roles has been scarce. Unemployment claims became available to independent contractors for the first time Friday, a full month after Governor Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 120.

With federal stimulus checks spotty, and forgivable loans dried up, many of these workers have had no income, and no way to work, for four weeks. It’s worth noting that these workers didn’t reach out to Port City Daily to bemoan their circumstances — instead, Port City Daily reached out to them and asked if they would share their experiences navigating the new ‘normal.’

Author’s note: This is part two of a two-part series. Catch up on part one, which features a nail artist and two hairstylists.

‘It’s my happy place’

The inability to book clients struggling with self-harm has been the most difficult part of quarantine orders, Michael said.

“So we have people that are stuck at home, that are dealing with those mental health issues in a more intense way,” Micheal said. “That’s what hurts me the most because I know that those people have come to rely on us. And not just people that deal with self-harm but people that are going through the loss of a loved one or a pet. This is the way they come in and deal with their pain.”

Being cast as a “non-essential” worker doesn’t make him salty, he said. But he said he thinks policymakers probably don’t realize how his profession can function as a part of some people’s self-care routines.

“I understand where they’re coming from. They look at tattoos as a luxury. And it’s not for everybody. For some people, it’s the thing that’s keeping them safe and mentally well,” he said. “Even for myself, I find the process of tattooing to be very therapeutic. It’s my happy place. It’s my meditation.”

Despite repeated attempts to get on the line with the state’s Division of Employment Security or get through to the Small Business Association about whether or not his application for assistance will suffice, Michael said he’s received nothing financially and no communication back. “I’ve tried. You get hung up on. It’ll feel like it’s going through and then you’ll click and it’ll be off. Or you’ll get, ‘We’re experiencing higher than normal call volume, please try again later.’ Click.” 

Now, he’s living on credit cards and a loan from his sister since revenue dried up. He worries about his 19-year-old piercer, who had just moved on from an apprenticeship at the shop to serve clients independently. Luckily, Micheal said his landlord was willing to work with him on the building rent. “I almost didn’t say anything and just tried to scrape it together and use a credit card or something,” she said.

A self-described optimist, Michael said the ongoing wishy-washy uncertainty around reopening makes it harder for him to hold onto the silver lining he’s used to finding. “That’s how I get through negative situations. Every bad thing comes to an end.”

‘This is all we have’

Tim Joyner, a piercer at Port City Tattoo, has been out of work and four weeks with no financial relief due to the coronavirus. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)
Tim Joyner, a piercer at Port City Tattoo, has been out of work and four weeks with no financial relief due to the coronavirus. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

Tim Joyner didn’t pierce half a dozen holes in his face to have to one day start over in a different profession.

“I can’t go find another job. It’s hard for people that look like us to go get jobs. We look like our industry. We do not look like customer service necessarily to a lot of people,” he said.

A piercer at Port City Tattoo in Wilmington, Joyner said his livelihood also reflects his lifestyle. “We’ve already made our lives, we’ve already put in years of work and sacrifices to get there,” he said. “This is our lifeline. This is what we do. This is the way we live. We’re dedicated because this is what we have. For some of us, this is all we have.”

Neither Joyner or his colleagues in the industry have been able to access public assistance since the closures. “We’re all 1099,” he said of their status as independent contractors.

As the clock inched nearer to closing time March 25, Joyner said there was a strange feeling in the shop. “It was a little more bittersweet. Every customer, you’re getting closer to the deadline, getting closer to 5 p.m,” he said.

Tax season is typically the tattoo industry’s busiest time of year, he said. When people get a few extra bucks on their returns, they tend to spend some on body modifications before they run out and it gets harder to justify the expenditure. “After this, who knows what money they may have,” he said of his prospective clients.

As far as government assistance or reopening, Joyner said he hopes services like hair and nail salons are able to open before tattoo shops. Tattooing and piercing fall at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Joyner said.

“I have always said that I was privileged to do the job I do. Having earrings and piercings is not a need. For me to be able to make it something that people want and consistently want is a privilege,” he said.

Still, Joyner said seeing certain establishments deemed “essential” has been suspect. He feels the designation is less about the actual essential nature of the business and more about the individuals served by that business.

“As far as golf courses, a few places, I’m a little iffy about. But then again. I guess the clientele that they bring in make it easier for them to be essential. It has less to do with the job. It has more to do with the clientele,” he said.

Looking ahead, Joyner is worried about how he’ll be able to make rent. How his shop will be able to make rent. He doesn’t want anyone spending money they don’t have.

“This is a working-class industry. Therefore, anything that happens to the working class happens to us. If they can’t make rent, we can’t make rent. We’re not getting funding, we’re not getting the big grants, we’re not going to get bailouts,” he said.

‘Good brows can really change a girl’

Taylor Jameson pictured on the first floor of the Murchison Building, home to her spa, Wilmington Hemp Spa. Stools from Pour Taproom, yet another business closed down due to the coronavirus, remain on top of tables, unused. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

As the state’s first hemp-based spa owner, Taylor Jameson of Treatments by Taylor at the Wilmington Hemp Spa attracts clients drawn to CBD’s antioxidant properties. All treatments and products at the spa incorporate hemp products in some way.

She’s been able to offset some of the losses from being closed through product orders, but it doesn’t compare to a typical week. “When you do the amount of volume that we do every month, and then it is completely stopped, and not because of our choosing, it’s huge, for sure,” Jameson said.

The licensed esthetician differentiates herself by offering CBD-infused products and treatments. After first turning to the cannabinoid when recovering from an injury, Jameson said her clients keep returning because of its calming and healing effects on the skin.

“I have clients with psoriasis and eczema who aren’t able to get both reduced because of what we’re able to in the treatment room,” she said. Clients with lupus, an autoimmune disease that causes extreme sensitivity to the sun, enjoy weekly spray tans. The CBD-infused tans give them a glow and also reduce the sensitivity in their skin, Jameson said.

Skincare treatments like facials can help clients treat acne and other inflammatory issues that can improve self-esteem, she said. “Definitely confidence, feeling good about yourself, feeling normal. Feeling put together and looking like you care. People really appreciate that feeling.”

Or, brow-tints and brow waxes can tame quarantine caterpillars. “And then, of course, no one feels great with crazy brows. Good brows can really change a girl, I’m serious.”

Health over money

Rebecca Oazem, owner of Casa PRANA off Wrightsville Avenue in Wilmington, opted to close the sustainable salon a full week ahead of state closure because of her concerns for her staff and her client's safety. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Rebecca Oazem)
Rebecca Oazem, owner of Casa PRANA off Wrightsville Avenue in Wilmington, opted to close the sustainable salon a full week ahead of state closure because of her concerns for her staff and her client’s safety. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Rebecca Oazem)

One-year-old salon Casa PRANA shut its doors one week ahead of the governor’s orders.

“I would never put money before health. so it wasn’t even a question if we were going to stay open or not,” owner Rebecca Oazem told the salon’s Instagram followers in a video March 21 after already being closed for a week. Oazem was urging policymakers to order the closure of stores in the industry to protect employees from violating social distancing requirements as cases of coronavirus increased in the state. Days later, the orders came through.

“Just by watching how things were developing, we saw no need to cooperate in spreading this virus. What surprised me is that even though our industry generates over $56 billion yearly in the U.S. alone, we are still left behind and there’s nothing in place protecting us when something like this hits,” she said. “Hopefully this will change in the future.”

Five weeks into closing, Oazem is hoping some sort of financial support or forgiveness program comes through. “We have applied to every loan category we fall under, I believe that now it’s only a matter of sitting tight and waiting,” she said. “We as a whole also need to understand this is impacting the entire world and won’t happen overnight.”

The sustainable salon prides itself on repurposing and recycling 95% of all waste. During the closure, Oazem said the salon is working on diverting even more waste away from landfills, with plans to go completely paperless once it reopens.

Current or prospective clients hoping to help the business stay afloat can simply leave reviews online, she said. “Google and Facebook reviews and referrals are key to keep a business such as ours thriving, also following us on all of our social media channels. These things don’t cost anything but if you are willing to help us financially, you can do so by shopping on our website.”

Oazem is working on developing new products for the salon’s line and the whole team is taking classing, looking to improve their skills during the downtime. “I’m proud to say that my second family at the Casa has been working really hard over the last few weeks by taking online classes, video conferences with one another, polishing our skills, and making sure our clients have the best visit possible whenever we reopen.”

Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at

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