Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series on our local artists and their experiences in these turbulent times.

Jeff Cornell had a bit of a head start in the 2020 lesson of stopping pathogen spread. It is the responsibility of a tattoo artist, after all, to keep a sterile environment.

Maybe that’s why his shop, Hidden Hand Tattoo in Fremont, has never had a COVID-19 outbreak, despite only closing for about three months in 2020, Cornell said. The shop has had continued success in these past tumultuous years, but things aren’t the same as they were pre-COVID. Several changes to Hidden Hand protocol brought on by COVID-19 will remain permanent, Cornell said. More than that, the past few years have given him and the other artists in the shop a new, more intentional outlook on their craft.

While the shop has been open, Cornell canceled two years of in-person Seattle Tattoo Expo, an event organized by Hidden Hand. This year’s event, Aug. 19-21 at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall, will include music, food and the opportunity for attendees to get tattoos from various international artists (some by walk-in, some by appointment). Recognizing that the pandemic isn’t over, he said the event will have some restrictions, like crowd control.

Seattle Times arts recovery coverage

Seattle’s thriving and vital arts-and-culture community has been rocked by the coronavirus pandemic and the only thing certain about the future is change. The Seattle Times takes an in-depth look at the sector’s recovery in 2022 with support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. We will explore how both individuals and institutions are doing in the wake of the pandemic; track where relief money is going; and look at promising solutions to challenges facing our arts community. We invite you to join the conversation. Send your stories, comments, tips and suggestions to artsrecovery@seattletimes.com.

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Hidden Hand, Cornell said, has done its best to take preventive measures like this throughout the pandemic.

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“Whether you got masks on or not, if you’re doing a tattoo, oftentimes you’re talking about several hours spent together,” Cornell said. “We figured that the most important steps were going to be preemptive, before that person gets to that place where they’re right by you.” 

Though Hidden Hand maintains its cancellation policy (at least 48 hours notice), it no longer applies to sickness. Cornell’s policy on that, whether for an artist or a client, is “don’t bring it here.” “I love the fact that hardly anybody is getting sick anymore,” he said, adding that one person coming in sick used to mean the whole shop would fall ill.

Cornell has also digitized all of the shop’s forms, and he no longer allows clients to bring someone with them to their appointment.

“It’s always been annoying when someone needs to have a friend with them to get their tattoo,” he said. “So this is just a really convenient way to nip that one in the bud and to make that a permanent policy.”

Overall, Cornell said the pandemic has given everyone in the shop an air of professionalism. Artists no longer are thinking just about their needs, but also how to keep their work space clean and their clients safe.

Cornell himself is very serious about policy. Stringent policies, he said, are less about beliefs and more about keeping the business running, and Cornell doesn’t tolerate those who won’t follow suit or take COVID-19 seriously.

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“You don’t want to be forced to shut your shop down so that you can deep clean it because some other people were disrespectful of the policies you’ve put in place,” he said. “Take your belief system somewhere else. Check it at the door.”

As Cornell prepares for the first in-person Seattle Tattoo Expo since the pandemic started, he’s a bit scared but mostly excited. Events these days carry risks, but he feels good about gathering with the tattoo community.

“There’s all kinds of personalities and ideologies, opinion-based belief systems within tattooing, it runs the gamut, all the way from the far-right to the far-left,” he said. “But we’re all business people, and we all want to be able to operate our businesses as close to normal as possible.”

Seattle Tattoo Expo

2-10 p.m. Aug. 19, noon-10 p.m. Aug. 20, noon-8 p.m. Aug. 21; Seattle Center Exhibition Hall, 301 Mercer St., Seattle; $25-$60; seattletattooexpo.com

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This coverage is partially underwritten by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.