Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Local tattoo artist drums up new business amid COVID-19 closures

If COVID-19 has taught businesses anything this year, it’s the importance of resilience and adaptability. As the common proverb states, “necessity is the mother of invention,” and when Nate Stephens, an independent contractor and tattoo artist at Denver’s Marion Street Tattoo shop, found himself out of work due to the pandemic, he had to think quick on his feet to drum up new income.

When Gov. Polis issued the order closing all personal service businesses on March 19, Stephens and the other seven artists at Marion Street were left without their main source of income. At the time, unemployment wasn’t yet available for independent contractors and Stephen’s application for a PPP Loan was lost in the shuffle.

“It suddenly became a much more urgent situation with regard to how I would support my family,” Stephens says. “In the past, I’d seen a little bit of success with simple t-shirt designs. Nothing like the income I could generate from tattooing, but at least some cash would be generated thus giving my family’s reserves a little bit more time.”

So, Stephens began to design t-shirts, selling them through his personal Instagram and tracking sales in a spreadsheet. From the start, Stephens decided to make a shirt that targeted COVID-19 frontline workers. “I referenced an old tattoo design, known as the Rose of No Man’s land, to design a shirt paying homage to nurses on the frontlines of this viral war,” he says. Plus, he donated 20% of his total sales from the shirt to the Denver Health Foundation COVID-19 Urgent Relief Fund, aiding Denver Health workers directly affected by the pandemic.

Soon, Stephens’ t-shirt made headlines on Denver Channel 7, sending his number of orders from under 100 to over 500 orders (to-date).

As the sales rose, Stephens continued to adapt. Quickly, his Instagram-spreadsheet could not keep up with demand, so set up a simple e-commerce site (which has since been replaced with revamped site from Launch Lab) and committed to using local printers to make the shirts (Atmos Printing in Cannon City at the beginning and now Lab Seven in Denver). And, he designed a second shirt for a new charity, The Children’s Hospital Foundation.

“The design of the ‘Stay Vigilant’ shirt uses the traditional tattoo image of the kewpie doll. Its childlike features worked well for a shirt geared towards the Children’s Hospital cause,” Stephens says. “I included the words ‘Stay Vigilant’ because as we emerge from the stay at home orders, I wanted people to remember to stay vigilant in their behaviors as we continue to fight this virus.”

As the state begins to slowly open as part of the safer-at-home mandates (tattoo shops were able to reopen May 9), Stephens’ business and business mentality will be forever changed by this experience, as he plans to continue his side hustle. “I’ve learned a ton through this process and I’m doing everything I can to capture it, and continue it moving forward,” he says. “The business will now focus primarily on making shirts tied to charitable causes.”

Next up for Stephens? A shirt aimed at helping restaurant workers.