For Tattoo artist Bruce Kaplan, owner of Lark Tattoo in Westbury, tattoos are an art form that tell stories about the people who get them. Kaplan talks about how he got into the business and about what drives his clients to adorn themselves with designs by artists like him.  Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Andy Rodriguez is making his mark in the tattoo world in different ways – from wholesaling a proprietary line of needles to launching a second tat shop.

In June, Rodriguez, a tattooist who owns the five-year-old Chupacabra Tattoo Inc. in Central Islip, shipped his first batch of Kedavra Needles to tattoo salons. His customer roster now includes 80 shops in five states, from New York to Texas.

And to accommodate the line’s warehousing and distribution needs, Rodriguez has expanded his store’s space from 1,000 to 1,800 square feet.

Post-shutdown boom

Andy Rodriguez, owner of Chupacabra Tattoo Inc. in Central Islip,...

Andy Rodriguez, owner of Chupacabra Tattoo Inc. in Central Islip, is planning to open a second shop, in Brentwood. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

"Before the pandemic, the shop’s business was always strong, but once quarantine lifted, it is booming even more, with people wanting to get tattooed with bigger pieces," said Rodriguez, who says his salon’s revenues have doubled since 2019.

The shop’s brisk business fueled his decision to jump into the market with his branded needles, which had been on the back burner before the pandemic. It also drove him to nearly double the number of tattoo artists at Chupacabra, from five to nine, and increase support staff from two to four. In addition, he is leasing an 8,000-square-foot space in Brentwood for the new tattoo shop, which is slated to open in the fall.

During the quarantine, "I was going to close down, and now I’m opening a new location and hired more people," Rodriguez added.

Across Long Island, the tattoo business is not only surviving but thriving, in spite of ongoing concerns about COVID and its variants. According to salon owners, this year's revenues are on target to meet or exceed 2019 levels. But, with the need to reduce the number of people in their shops at any one time, salons are now generally requiring appointments and, depending on the artist, calendars are solidly booked for two weeks to a few months.

And finding talented artists represents an ongoing challenge, owners said.

Sailors to soccer moms

Tattooing is "one of the few occupations where fine artists...

Tattooing is "one of the few occupations where fine artists can make a living," says Cory Good, owner of High Roller Tattoo in Hicksville. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

"We are always looking for new talent, but especially now," said Cory Good, 45, who owns the four-employee High Roller Tattoo in Hicksville.

Historically linked to sailors and society outliers, tattoos started to become more socially acceptable by the 1990s. Today, they decorate the visible and hidden body parts of Long Islanders from all walks of life, from firefighters to physicians.

"We have soccer moms and the 70-year-old who always wanted but never had the courage to get a tattoo," Good said.

New York State prohibits tattoo artists from inking minors, but across the United States, 32% of people age 14 to 29 report having a tattoo, compared to 45% of individuals age 30 to 49 and 28% of those over 50, according to Dalia Research. More women (40%) than men (36%) have tattoos, Dalia reports.

Growth during COVID

Following the nearly four-month, pandemic-induced shutdown in 2020, Westbury-based Lark Tattoo realized "at least a 5% increase" in gross proceeds between 2019 and last year, said owner and longtime tattoo artist Bruce Kaplan, 55. That is thanks, in part, to rebooking about 140 of the more than 150 clients whose tattoos were canceled due to the temporary closing, he said.

This year, the 28-year-old salon, which has 15 employees, is on target to exceed 2020 results by more than 10%, and with increasing demand for their services, Kaplan noted, a few of Lark’s 10 artists have added one to two days to their work schedules.

Pandemic daydreaming

Tattoo artist and shop owner Cory Good consults with customer...

Tattoo artist and shop owner Cory Good consults with customer Cynthia Larice at High Roller Tattoo in Hicksville. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

In the COVID era, the region’s salons are attracting new and repeat customers who, having spent months during the shutdown perusing social media for tattoo ideas and imagining the body art they wanted, are now getting inked to wear their fantasies, passions and losses, including tattoos that serve as memorials to loved ones who died from COVID or perished on 9/11, according to Good.

While 9/11 tats generally include the New York skyline, customers are remembering those who died from COVID with designs that show "what [the deceased] loved" — such as birds or a motorcycle — "and aren’t about the disaster itself," Good said.

And, according to salon owners, once customers overcome their initial angst of getting tattooed, they are apt to come under the needle for additional images of self-expression.

Paul Pandolfi Jr., a 25-year-old East Rockaway native and nursing student who works as a hospital technician, bears tats that convey his love of life on the water. They include a nautical compass on his back and a sailing ship heading into a storm on an upper arm.

"I knew I wanted more tattoos," said Pandolfi, whose body also bears his brothers' names. He recently sat for his fifth three-hour session with Kaplan. "I grew up on the water and boats, and the tattoos bring me peace." And in patronizing Lark, Pandolfi is following in the footsteps of his father, a restaurateur with tattoos by Kaplan.

Tattoos can also have therapeutic value.

Recently, Glen Cove resident Joy Zavaro, 62, met with Good to discuss a tattoo dedicated to her twin sister, Gay Zavaro, who died of cancer in June. Zavaro already wears more than 10 tats, including a small rose on her ankle (her first) and a cardinal with a shamrock (a memorial to her Irish father, who passed away 13 years ago).

"My sister and father are no longer permanent in my life, so if I do a tattoo, they’re still permanently with me," said Zavaro.

Joy Zavaro of Glen Cove consults with artist Cory Good to discuss...

Joy Zavaro of Glen Cove consults with artist Cory Good to discuss a tattoo dedicated to her twin sister, Gay Zavaro, who died of cancer in June.   Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Health protocols

Although COVID concerns drove most Long Island companies to adopt new health-safety rules, tattoo shops’ infection-preventive measures, including gloves and sanitizing regimens, as well as disposable needles, predate the pandemic by many years. Municipal health departments’ licensing or certification requirements, including education about health protocols, have long been in place, too.

But because of COVID, many of Long Island’s tattoo artists are now wearing masks, and many shops have installed acrylic dividers to separate tattooing areas from one another, as well as to shield administrative personnel from customers. Long Island salons are also generally following New York State’s best practice recommendations, including a "by-appointment-only" policy to prevent crowding.

Making a living through art

From all perspectives, Long Island’s robust tattoo industry is part of a national trend.

According to IBISWorld’s September 2020 market report, the U.S. tattoo business grew at an annual rate of 3.2% between 2015 and 2020, even when taking into account the 9.5% dip last year due to the temporary shutdown. Today, tattooing is a $1.1 billion industry, with revenues projected to climb 6.4% annually between 2020 and 2025, thanks to such factors as pent-up demand after salons reopened, the body art’s widespread acceptance and its prevalence on social media and reality TV shows.

Based on ZipRecruiter’s online posting, top artists in the United States can make up to $260,000, with this region’s tattooists typically pulling annual salaries of $39,000 to $106,500.

Depending on the salon’s location and the artist’s experience, salons charge by the design or an hourly rate. Generally, prices start at about $50 for a small butterfly on the ankle, while hourly fees range between $100 to $250.

A detailed design covering the top of the shoulder to the wrist can require 10 four-hour appointments, with each session two to three weeks apart to allow time for healing, according to Kaplan.

"It’s one of the few occupations where fine artists can make a living," Good said. Before receiving an undergraduate degree in psychology at Stony Brook University, she had studied advertising, art and design at Farmingdale State.

"There’s a misconception that we’re all a bunch of bikers and a rough-and-tumble crowd," said Kaplan, who holds a bachelor's degree in fine arts from Parsons School of Design. "We’re artists and renaissance people."

The process

Bruce Kaplan, owner of Lark Tattoo in Westbury, works on Paul...

Bruce Kaplan, owner of Lark Tattoo in Westbury, works on Paul Pandolfi Jr. of East Rockaway, who says the nautical themes of his tattoos "bring me peace.'' Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Tattooists often specialize in a specific style, as in Black and Grey Realism, Japanese or American Traditional, but they follow a similar approach to tattooing.

After shaving and disinfecting the skin with alcohol, artists apply the tattoo stencil or, using a nontoxic marker or pen, draw freehand on the skin, Kaplan said. Then, they use a handheld tattoo machine, which is either battery-operated or corded and features a needle that, depending on the tattoo's design requirements, can have anywhere from one to 121 pins at its tip. After dipping the needle into a disposable ink cap, artists use the motorized machine to implant the tattoo pigment at the rate of 50 to 3,000 times per minute, through the outer layer of the skin into the skin's deeper layer, called the dermis.

"There, the illustration resides forever," Kaplan said.

Throughout the process, tattoo artists wipe away excess ink and blood from the skin's surface.

Several aspects of tattooing have changed through the years, including training, which can now take place on "fake skin" — a rubbery plastic — instead of on "oranges, grapefruits, pig skins from the butcher — or yourself," said Good, who has been a tattoo artist for 20 years. "The industry has opened up so much that everyone is trying to cash in and build a better wheel."

In the last five years, many local artists, Rodriguez said, have also embraced new technologies, such as designing, as well as tweaking, their art on laptops, tablets or apps.

Customers can see the exact design beforehand, he said, so they "get what they want."

Undoing tattoos

Dr. Glenn Messina says that, though his tattoo-removal business has...

Dr. Glenn Messina says that, though his tattoo-removal business has grown over the past decade, the widespread acceptance of tattoos has cut down on demand in general.   Credit: Dr. Glenn Messina

Dr. Glenn Messina specializes in changes of the heart.

Messina launched Dr. Undo Tattoo in Commack 16 years ago, after he retired from his critical care practice. He lasers away tats that identify exes by name, upset spouses or no longer reflect the patient’s mindset or lifestyle.

Although his business’ revenues had grown over the last decade, they have dipped in recent years because "tattoos have become more acceptable," Messina, 63, said. "I used to get a lot of nurses who had flowers on their fingers and waiters who weren’t able to get a job."

Last year, amid COVID, the firm’s revenue plummeted 60% from 2019 levels. Business has improved, but it is still 20% below 2019 results, partly because Messina had encouraged customers to hold off on additional treatments. "Their immune system would continue to remove the ink, even though they hadn’t had a procedure for three months."

To remove tattoos, Messina deploys specialized lasers that rapidly shatter the ink while rupturing any fibrous tissue and the dermis.

"The immune cells then gobble up the significantly smaller ink particles and deliver them to the lymphatic system, where they’re eliminated," Messina said, noting that black is the easiest color to vanquish. Other colors, including yellow, orange and certain purples, and inks containing such ingredients as oil and titanium, are challenging to remove.

Treatments can span 30 seconds to about 15 minutes, with many tattoos requiring multiple sessions over an extended period. Prices range from $800 for a small tat to $3,000 for a graphic that’s the size of a credit card.

Messina says he gets attached to his patients. "Since we’re usually together for 1 1/2 years or more, the last removal is a little melancholy," he said.

— Cara S. Trager

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Tattoo do’s and don’ts

Getting inked has potential downsides: Infections and allergic reactions.

But, according to dermatologist R. Gary Sibbald, who serves as co-editor in chief of a journal for healthcare professionals, Advances in Skin & Wound Care, and as professor of medicine and public health at the University of Toronto, tattoo wearers can take preventive measures to minimize, if not eliminate, the risks, including:

Before getting tattooed:

• Get tetanus and hepatitis B vaccines.

• Check with the local health department to see if your preferred tattoo parlor has any violations.

• Don’t cover a mole with a tattoo, which could make it difficult to determine whether the growth has become cancerous.

After getting tattooed:

• Follow post-tattooing care instructions, including leaving the bandage on the site the day of the procedure.

• Inform health care professionals about the presence of any tattoos before getting an MRI, since a burning, pulling sensation at the inked site is possible, though rare.

• Seek medical attention if the tattoo becomes red, itchy, swollen or bumpy – don’t self-diagnose.

— Cara S. Trager