The Hustle: Bay Area
Artists & Their Money

For 'The Hustle,' we ask Bay Area artists how they make ends meet in one of the most expensive regions in the United States.
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Emma Pierce at her tattoo station in Santa Rosa. The 23-year-old tattoo artist has been out of work for weeks due to the coronavirus shutdown. Graham Holoch / KQED
Emma Pierce at her tattoo station in Santa Rosa. The 23-year-old tattoo artist has been out of work for weeks due to the coronavirus shutdown. (Graham Holoch / KQED)

How a 23-Year-Old Tattoo Artist, Sidelined by Shutdown, Is Getting By

How a 23-Year-Old Tattoo Artist, Sidelined by Shutdown, Is Getting By

Emma Pierce was driving home from the airport when she got the call from her tattoo shop.

Since she’d been on vacation in Japan for three weeks, the shop owner explained, and since this new thing called the coronavirus seemed pretty dangerous, some coworkers had expressed concern about her returning to work after traveling abroad.

Pierce agreed to self-quarantine at home for the next 14 days, foregoing income. When she finally returned to work, after paying for a vacation and having no income for over a month, she got a week of work in before the shelter-in-place order closed the shop entirely.

Now, sitting on the couch in a $1,400-a-month, 600-square-foot Santa Rosa apartment she just started renting with her boyfriend, Pierce doesn’t know when she’ll be able to work again.

Along with over 6 million others in the United States, she’s filed for unemployment. And she considers herself lucky to have a cushion of money saved up—about $10,000.

“Which is not that much,” she says. “But I feel like for someone my age, at 23, it’s a lot.”

Hopefully it will be enough. Pierce has no idea when the shop will reopen. When it does, “I think it’ll be slow, especially walk-ins,” she says, aware that people may be cautious of skin-to-skin contact with strangers. “Everything will be different. It’s worrying.”

Emma Pierce draws at her kitchen counter in Santa Rosa.
Emma Pierce draws at her kitchen counter in Santa Rosa. (Graham Holoch / KQED)

Income and Expenses

It’s a marked change from the upward trajectory of the young tattoo artist’s career. Pierce had been consistently booked out two-to-three weeks in advance at Santa Rosa’s Glass Beetle Tattoo, bringing in an average of $700–$900 a week.

“So sometimes as much as $4,000 a month. And that’s after taxes, plus cash,” she says.

Pierce also benefited from changes at the shop brought on by AB5, the California assembly bill meant to reclassify gig workers and independent contractors as employees. While other rent-your-station businesses like hair salons, barber shops and tattoo parlors struggled with the bill’s byzantine restrictions, the owner of Pierce’s shop simply put everyone on payroll and proposed a commission model. For every tattoo Pierce does, the shop gets 40%, and she gets 60% plus tips.

Often, like many restaurant servers, Pierce lives off those cash tips for day-to-day expenses. She and her boyfriend spend $100–$200 a week on groceries (a book laying on her shelf is titled 101 Things to Do With Ramen Noodles). Between her insurance and loan payment on her 2017 Mistubishi Mirage, she spends $250 a month on the car. A therapist helps with the stress of work (“I recommend it literally for everyone,” Pierce says); she pays on a sliding scale at $40–$60 a week.

Emma Pierce at her station, which has been empty since the shutdown closed the tattoo shop where she works.
Emma Pierce at her station, which has been empty since the shutdown closed the tattoo shop where she works. (Graham Holoch / KQED)

Pierce saves money in other ways. She bought a used iPad Pro for $500 on eBay (about half the cost of a new one), which she uses to draw tattoos for appointments. When she’s working, she has enough bookings that she doesn’t need to pay for Instagram ads, and the shop owner buys communal supplies like needles, tubes, inks, gloves and paper towels. And she’s still covered under her mom’s health insurance plan for another month.

Her most emphatic advice, for young people especially, is to set up a direct deposit into a savings account. She sends 10% of each paycheck into her savings automatically. “It’s really helpful, you don’t have to even think about it, and then you have a little bit in savings after a while,” she says.

She does note that she was privileged to live with her mom until a month ago, and to not have experienced much financial hardship. But she also works hard, coming home from work at 8 or 9pm and then drawing the next day’s appointments until midnight.

Considering how she learned to tattoo, you could say Pierce is used to hard work.

Emma Pierce at her apartment in Santa Rosa. The 23-year-old tattoo artist has been out of work for weeks due to the coronavirus shutdown.
Emma Pierce at her apartment in Santa Rosa. The 23-year-old tattoo artist has been out of work for weeks due to the coronavirus shutdown. (Graham Holoch / KQED)

Getting Her Start

Pierce was in college when she got her first tattoo, the mention of which evokes an embarrassed “Ooooohhhh, God” from its owner. “It’s the feminist symbol, with the fist,” she says, sheepishly. “It’s the typical liberal college arts kid thing.”

But she was fascinated by tattoos, giving herself a few stick-and-pokes, and hanging around shops. Once she knew she wanted to become a tattoo artist instead of going to Santa Rosa Junior College, she found a mentor willing to take her on as an apprentice at Glass Beetle, right across the street.

Most tattoo artists get their start as an apprentice, and it’s not easy: Pierce put in 40 hours a week for a year, and paid $1,400 up front and $200 per month for the experience.

“It was hard,” Pierce says. “I was a softie, and that’s not good for a tattoo shop.”

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Pierce heard of other apprenticeships costing $5,000–$10,000, and lasting over two years, but she picked up skills quickly and had a good mentor who was hard on her in all the right ways.

“If you’re gonna be a tattoo artist, you have to be able to tell people ‘this is not a good idea’ or ‘this is not gonna work.’ You have to be able to assert yourself and be confident in what you’re saying. And I was not very confident. He did a really good job in hammering out the soft, cushy attitude I had,” Pierce says.

During her apprenticeship, to pay the bills, she also worked at a coffee shop from 6am to noon, where she made $12 an hour plus tips. Then she would go to the tattoo shop for another eight to ten hours of tattooing and clean-up.

“I had it pretty easy, compared to how it used to be,” Pierce says of her apprenticeship. “It used to be abuse, like, straight-up hazing. I didn’t have it that bad.”

Emma Pierce closes the gates at the tattoo shop.
Emma Pierce closes the gates at the tattoo shop. (Graham Holoch / KQED)

What Next?

Nowadays, with the shop closed, Pierce has cut back on as much spending as possible. In her under-decorated new apartment are houseplants, cooking utensils and manga books, evidence of her modest hobbies during the shelter-in-place order. When she’s not watching anime or talking to her mom, she draws at the kitchen counter, an ad hoc work station.

Her boyfriend is still working at a local winery, where he makes $20 an hour; since the tasting room he tended is now closed, he's helping out in the warehouse. Pierce still hasn’t received any unemployment, but she's been notified she'll get $450 a week, the state maximum. Hopefully, the extra $600 promised by Governor Newsom will be part of it. The federal stimulus check of $1,200 feels like a distant thought. “It’s going to be interesting not having income,” Pierce says.

As someone used to working hard, Pierce feels a little rootless.

“I haven’t been online shopping. I haven’t been going out,” she says. “I’m just not spending money, because I’m just sitting at home doing nothing.”

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