Laughing Buddhas old space at Broadway and Pine, where they were located for three years. Theyre reopening just a few blocks away.
Laughing Buddha's former space at Broadway and Pine, where they were located for three years. They're about to re-open a few blocks away. Courtesy of Laughing Buddha

“In general, don’t get a tattoo right now,” says Christy Lillian Opal, owner of Laughing Buddha Tattoo and Body Piercing studio.

That can’t be an easy thing for her to say. As a longtime fixture of Seattle’s body art community, Christy’s entire career is built around tattooing. But that expertise has made it clear to her that the business she desperately wants to re-open just isn’t safe right now.

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In fact, she thinks the state's making a big mistake in allowing studios like hers to re-open soon.

This is a tough time to run any small business, let alone one that requires close physical contact. And it’s a particularly awkward time for Christy to have to shut her doors, since her studio was in the middle of moving to a new space exactly when the shutdown happened. Formerly occupying a storefront at the corner of Broadway and Pine, they’d planned to open in late March at a new location at Union and Madison (in that triangle building by the Ferrari dealership, where the bike lanes get all weird).

“I’ve been finishing the buildout by myself,” Christy says. “Ultimately it’s given me something to do, but my whole mission as a business owner is to create awesome jobs. I had to lay off 29 people, and that was absolutely heartbreaking.”

Not all of those former employees have been able to get unemployment yet, she says, because the system is so backed up. “They can’t get through,” she says. “They stay on hold for hours and then it hangs up on them.”

Her other studio, Damask Tattoo in Queen Anne, had to close permanently. Christy hired the artists from that location at Laughing Buddha, and now she’s just waiting for it to be safe to bring them back to work.

According to the state of Washington, tattoo studios can re-open in Phase 2, along with barbers and nail salons. But as much as she wants to resume work, Christy says that’s a mistake — they should be in Phase 4, with nightclubs and concerts.

“We take tremendous precautions, but they’re for blood-borne pathogens, not something in the air,” Christy says. They’re adding protective measures, but with daily national deaths still in the thousands, she says she can’t in good conscience re-open the doors.

One reason for that is that there’s a lot of uncertainty around those additional protective measures. She’s planning to have her artists and clients wearing face shields, masks, and full gowns when they re-open, to come in by appointment only, and to wait outside instead of in the store. But she has no idea when that protective gear will arrive, since suppliers are either unable to get FDA-approved materials or closed-down themselves.

The city launched an effort called Seattle Protects to connect businesses with mask-makers, but that doesn't cover the full-body protection that many industries need.

The business is in okay financial shape — for now. Although they’ve been approved for payroll protection and a Small Business Administration loan, she’s wary about the extensive requirements that come with any government assistance. (If you want forgiveness on the loan, it takes three hours just to apply.)

Local grants, she says, have been no help at all.

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“By the time I hear about local grants, they’re all gone,” says Christy. “So I haven’t been able to apply for any.”

And while she waits to safely re-open, she’s chagrined to see other studios rush to start seeing clients as soon as possible. She’s worried that some may have resumed operations in violation of the phased rules, and as far as she’s concerned, seeing a tattoo artist right now is a huge mistake.

“If they’re willing to operate in this time,” she says, “I would question the rest of their safety standards.”

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