Tattoo and piercing shops ‘can’t just use less’ when it comes to gloves and disinfectant, crucial supplies that shop owners say are still experiencing crippling shortages 16 months into the pandemic

Tattoo artist
A tattoo artist wearing gloves at work in KOT Tattoo Studio during the COVID-19 pandemic Anton NovoderezhkinTASS via Getty Images

In the before times, pre-pandemic, Carl Kuo took a regular trip to Costco to buy gloves by the thousands.

Kuo is the owner of Mission Ink Tattoo & Piercing in San Francisco. He said his artists typically go through four or five pairs of gloves for each tattoo they do, while they set up their work stations, tear them down, and create art in between.

“Now they just have zero stock. Whenever [gloves] come in, they’ll be gone within an hour,” he told Insider. “And this is, what, July? Months into COVID.”

Kuo is one of three tattoo and piercing shop owners who told Insider that they’re still seeing serious shortages and skyrocketing prices for items their shops use daily, crucial supplies like gloves and disinfectant. Combined with a year of frequent shut-downs and restrictions on their operations, supplies scarcities are just another frustrating cost of doing business.

“We’re fighting with the healthcare providers, who rightfully should have first dibs on everything,” Kuo said.

‘You can’t just use less’

Person wearing gloves holds pierced ear of woman wearing mask
A woman gets her ears pierced in August 2020. Carlos Osorio/AP

The shortages come at a time when business is booming for the tattoo and piercing industry.

Shop owners recently told Insider that they’re busier than they’ve ever been and that people are lining up down the block to get a new piercing or tattoo to memorialize loved ones who died during the pandemic, or simply to feel alive again after a year in isolation. According to IBIS World analysts, the $US1.2 ($AU2) billion tattoo artist industry is expected to increase its market size by 6.6% this year.

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Paul Stoll, the owner of a piercing shop called Body Manipulations, also in San Francisco, told Insider he’s noticed a surge in demand, but that “the numbers can also be askew” – for instance, a box of gloves that typically cost him $US8 ($AU11) is now $US45 ($AU61), a cost he’s had to pass on to his customers.

“If you’re good at business, you have to raise your price a little bit. You have to account for that,” he said.

Kuo said that during particularly lean times supplies-wise, he’s had to resort to other means of getting what he needs: One of his piercers wears extra-small gloves, and when he couldn’t find any in stock, he had a friend in Los Angeles FedEx him a box to tide him over.

Kuo said he’s also had to raise prices for piercings and tattoos, especially in light of jewelry suppliers raising theirs: Everything from implant-grade stainless steel to titanium to gold has gotten more expensive, he said.

Paul Collurafici, the owner of Tattoo Factory in Chicago, said he’s also had a hard time finding gloves, and is seeing a significant spike in prices: A case of 12 boxes of gloves used to cost him $US50 ($AU68) – “now you’re lucky to find a case for $US200 ($AU272),” he said.

Collurafici is seeing prices continue to soar for other essential items as well. A large pack of paper towels, which he said his shop goes through “like crazy,” used to cost him $US14.99 ($AU20), but now runs him upwards of $US49 ($AU67). Cavicide, a surface disinfectant that kills bacteria and viruses, now costs as much him as $US30 ($AU41) a gallon, up from $US7 ($AU10).

There are also limits on how many cases of the solution suppliers will sell him, which has made tracking it down “a never-ending job.”

“We need a certain amount,” he said. “You can’t just use less.”