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To Tattoers, A Post-Covid World Sounds Different

Where was the first place you went after getting vaccinated? Mine was a tattoo shop.

It was a studio I’d been to before, and my appointment was with Aubrey Mennella, the tattooer who had done my previous piece, so I had anticipated it would be a familiar experience. This time, though, there was something fundamentally different. There were the newly installed Plexiglass barriers that jutted up between workstations, of course. But also, throughout our entire six-hour session, Mennella wasn’t wearing headphones.

Before COVID, Mennella would find an audiobook that’d been ripped to YouTube and just let it run the duration of a session, with the story, usually a romance novel, ticking along in the background of the iPad that displayed the design she was working on. But after over a year of seeing so few people, she preferred to take in the sounds of the shop instead. When I asked, she told me that it didn’t even feel necessary to be talking to the people around her. Just hearing their voices, confirming their nearby presence, was enough.

Mennella is but a single individual, but to me, her shift in preferences seemed to signal something bigger. For one, it aligned with what seems to be the broader trend of post-pandemic digital fatigue. (See: what some are calling “analog summer.”) And second, it seemed clear to me that tattooers were uniquely positioned to mirror — maybe even foreshadow — larger trends that relate to audio consumption, considering how many of them, and how often, are listening to something while they work.

Tattooing is an intimate practice, hovering over a person’s body for sometimes hours at a time, during which, I’d say, you’d be excused for cranking up the music and opting out of small talk. External entertainment during a session (which kind of has to be auditory, not so much for tattooee as for tattooer, lest it distract them) can in fact do double duty, both passing the time and dispelling awkwardness that may arise from such closeness. In my impression, even if the tattoo guns were to somehow be quieted, the process of using them would not — could not — be a silent one. Sometimes the space is filled with attempts at meaningful conversation, and, even then, it’s often filled with music, too.

Employees have historically listened to music while working, and today, of course, the practice also extends to podcasts and books. In quiet offices, it’s unlikely that such leisure listening will be happening out loud, instead being funnelled straight into ears from personal devices. In the rowdy setting of a tattoo shop, however, there’s usually a combination of open-air and personal listening, even though handling a phone or tablet takes extra precaution when you’re essentially creating an open wound on someone’s body. I’ve been told on multiple occasions that for tattooers who do opt for solitary listening during a session, it can be almost like a meditation — and one assumes it’s a pretty important one, considering the risk and sanitation measures they undergo to do it.

Logan Landolt, who works at TRX Tattoos & Piercings in St. Louis, Missouri, and considers himself a particularly hygienic tattooer, knows the struggle.

“I’ve got this weird belief that whenever I’m tattooing someone and I say, ‘Hey, pal’ or ‘buddy’ or ‘friend,’” he pauses, after exaggerating the first letter of each word, “chances are I’m spitting on your tattoo, and I think that’s pretty damn gross.” So, he says, “first and foremost, I have always worn a mask when I tattooed.” Also, another long-standing tattooing practice, wearing gloves, means that if Landolt were to decide that a song currently playing on his phone wasn’t quite the vibe, in order to change it, he’d have to take off a glove just to tap the phone screen, then shimmy that glove back on or else get a whole new one. For that reason, you wouldn’t catch someone like Landolt with earbuds in during a session, even before the pandemic. That’s not only because of the hassle, but because of his personality: “I like listening to people talk,” he says.

Landolt’s first choice for social stimulation is always a real-time chat, a thing he appreciates getting to engage in so often in his profession, but when he does find himself alone, he turns to podcasts or YouTube series, specifically ones that simulate sociability. “Whenever I’m at my computer, whether I’m answering emails or drawing for a client, I’ll have somebody talking in the background,” he says, adding, “really big fan of The Mega64 Podcast,” which serves as a sort of proxy for the chattiness Landolt has been known to chase during the other parts of his day. “I thrive off of that social interaction when I’m giving a tattoo,” he says. “It’s been an ongoing thing, as far as I can remember.”

But since Landolt and I were discussing tattooing and listening habits in the context of the pandemic, he walked back this assessment of his own work style when he thought more deeply about it. “I mentioned I’ve always kind of thrived on customer interaction, but I think I might’ve downplayed that a little bit towards the beginning of my career,” he says.

In other words, he was more like the Mennella I knew in 2019 than the Mennella I know now. “Post-COVID, I’m dependent on that human interaction more than ever,” Landolt says. And this sentiment, beyond being so obviously mirrored in Mennella’s listening habits, has also taken a concrete form in those of Landolt’s colleagues. Peeking into TRX now, “we’ve been playing music a little quieter than we normally have,” says Landolt. “Everyone just wants to talk to people.”

If tattooers aren’t defining this new chapter by increasing their socializing, they might be seeking solace in other ways that involve the ear, just as non-tattooers may be; one need not strictly ditch the iPad in exchange for eavesdropping. “Personally, I used to listen to a lot of podcasts that were news related,” says Jennifer Bohlander, owner and tattooer at Matryoshka Tattoo in Topeka, Kansas. “Now I prefer pure crap-slash-fluff, as just background noise.”

Tattooers, they’re just like us. Pre-pandemic, I habitually tuned in to NPR or The Daily every morning, immediately after waking up. But a few months (or weeks?) into lockdown, I needed to change how — and how early — I ingested the news. And even then, after opting for a newsletter, which I considered the gentlest-possible means of receiving daily updates, I still squinted my eyes or held my hand up to my laptop screen to avoid seeing the part of the email that tallied the death count.

I’m strictly a written-news gal now, even though those emails look different than they did a year ago. So do the places I find myself spending time: This weekend, I’ll be seeing Mennella again.

I wonder if her headphones will make a reappearance, and, if they don’t, what we might talk about for the hours on end we’ll spend together. When I met with her back in May, the prospect of all that one-on-one time — some of the first I was slated to have with anyone in a long, long while — was daunting, and I downloaded a ton of podcasts for what I expected to be a weird day. But I only ended up listening to one, and only because my neck eventually started to burn from having faced her for so long from a stomach-down position.

Other than that, even I was unplugged. We had so much to say.