'Tattoos Are a Way to Stake a Claim on Yourself'

“Government restrictions came in, which literally shut us down,” says Paul Smith, who co-owns Red Stag Tattoo in Austin, Texas.

“There’s a huge libertarian streak that runs through the tattooing community,” says Paul Smith, who co-owns Red Stag Tattoo in Austin, Texas. “Tattoos are a way of claiming yourself and putting images or words or whatever on your body that no one else can control.”

The tattooing industry was hit very hard by pandemic restrictions—even in Texas.

“Government restrictions came in, which literally shut us down,” says Smith. “That cost us all of our shop’s savings, all of [the owners’] personal savings. [My business partner and I] were kind of wiped out financially.” 

And yet Smith and his business partner decided not to apply for money from the federal COVID relief program, which was rife with fraud, and in which the federal government handed out about $800 billion to millions of small businesses. That program ultimately cost taxpayers between $170,000 and $257,000 for every job saved over 14 months of the pandemic, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper.

In May 2020, Texas’ Republican Governor Greg Abbott allowed hair salons, gyms, and other personal service providers to reopen. But tattoo shops weren’t included.

“They took us out of that classification and put us in with businesses like titty bars,” says Smith, who blames an outdated perception of tattoo shops for how regulators treat the industry.

“Used to be, [tattoos were] for… unseemly sorts of characters.”

Ohio also excluded tattoo shops from the state’s reopening plans, which may have been a violation of their First Amendment rights. “Both state and federal courts have recognized tattooing as a constitutionally protected form of free expression,” noted Reason’s Damon Root in May 2020.

Tattooing started to shed its reputation for degeneracy in 2005, when the reality show Miami Ink premiered on TLC, running for six seasons. Kat Von D, one of the stars of the show, also became a successful model and makeup entrepreneur following her breakout role.

Today, celebrity icons like Joe Rogan, Justin Bieber, Rihanna, and Lena Dunham are heavily inked, and tattoos have become much more accepted in other realms of the music and film industries. Smith says he’s all for that kind of popularization.

“As a tattoo shop owner and somebody who makes my money doing it, the more people that want them, the better,” says Smith.

Reason’s Liz Wolfe, who owes most of her left arm tattoo sleeve to Smith, visited his shop to talk about life during and after the pandemic for tattoo artists. They also discussed the history of tattooing and where the industry and craft might be headed next.

Interview by Liz Wolfe; edited by Zach Weissmueller; camera by Andrew Miller and Weissmueller; graphics by Regan Taylor and Isaac Reese; sound design by Ian Keyser.  

Photos: Louis Grasse/PxImages/Icon Sportswire EGS/Louis Grasse/PxImages/Icon Sportswire/Newscom; Abaca Press/Hahn Lionel/Abaca/Sipa USA/Newscom; Gregorio T. Binuya/Everett Collection

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  1. I saw this and the title and thought "man, this is such a boomer take, no one thinks tattoos are rebellious anymore". Then I saw the comments. I guess you may be right. I have no particular interest in tattoos, but those illuminating ones are sweet. I'd love to get one that has an actual purpose.

  2. I've been a libertarian most of my life. I find the current culture encouraging people to mutilate themselves to be appalling.
    Not that I think the state should outlaw it.
    It just looks like the whole country turned into a continent-wide prison gang.

  3. I wanted a tattoo in the 70’s when they were rare; especially for females. Now I’m 60, have zero tattoos, and could not be more pleased with my decision.

  4. too some people tattoos are a link to culture both polynesian and celtic societies tattooed for centuries i know some native americans did too. the government needs to back off in general.

  5. My problem with Tattoos is that nothing anyone could do would be good enough……..

    Like is a star or some stupid design really a worthy expression of me? If anything most Tattoos are insanely generic and just make you look like another consumer bug like everyone else.

    "look at me I got a STar wArs tattoo I am so QUIRKY", nah bro you are just another consumer drone built for the masses.

    I think tattoos can be cool, but to me they mostly come off as tacky and low tier. I have tried to think of a "worthy" tattoo and I just can't lol.

    What should I get? A stupid wolf? A stupid dragon? Maybe I can just get a bunch of flowers? Trees? Some stupid quote or phrase? IDK….. Maybe that's just me.

  6. No business should have been forced to shut down during the pandemic, but that being said, tattoos are a cringe way of asking for attention.

  7. Full sleeve in the 90's: Call the cops. Full sleeve in the 00's: He must be an artist, he has cops protecting him. Full sleeve from the 10's: He must be a cop.