by Sam Manzella
Nonbinary tattooer Tea Leigh (@tealeigh, as they’re known on Instagram) has been out of work since Welcome Home, their queer-affirming Brooklyn tattoo studio, closed its doors on Saturday, March 14, due to the coronavirus pandemic. But they haven’t been sitting idle.
Leigh has been collecting donations of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)—think sterile gloves and surgical-grade masks—from tattoo shops across New York City for essential workers in need of supplies. As a New Yorker with access to a car and plenty of unopened PPE, Leigh says they “felt really called” to help out, even if it meant putting themself at risk. And when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo put out a “critical need” ask for PPE donations statewide, that calling only felt more urgent.
“I technically am immunosuppressed, so all my friends and my partner are like, ’What the fuck are you doing?’” they tell NewNowNext. “And I understand their concern. I’d just feel very remiss if I didn’t try to do something, even if it is small-scale.”
So began Leigh’s journey collecting donations of PPE from tattooers, restaurants owners, and “literally anyone who has an unopened box of gloves” in their network. The idea actually came from their coworker Kelli (@kellikikcio), another tattooer at Welcome Home. As the child of a nurse who “basically grew up in hospitals” and has a blood-borne pathogen certification for work, Leigh was on board immediately.
Leigh started solo, collecting supplies from shops in their Subaru Outback. The pick-up process is contactless, and Leigh is gloved and masked the whole time, minimizing their risk of exposure. Now, they’re working in tandem with groups like Donate NYC and Med Supply Drive NYC to get these vital supplies directly to groups that need them—like Housing Works NYC, which Leigh donated to this week.
“I’ve reached out to many, many shops in New York, some of which have turned me down,” Leigh says. Some artists are concerned about being able to replenish supplies once businesses can reopen. Leigh is sympathetic, although their priorities are different: “I’m like, I’ll deal with that problem when it happens. There’s such a shortage of PPE. Who fucking cares about four months in the future? We just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Leigh isn’t the only LGBTQ tattooer to spearhead an emergency response initiative, either. Across the Canadian border in Toronto, Ontario, Lee (better known by their incredible Instagram handle, @rat666tat), a nonbinary trans-masculine tattooer out of Tapestry Tattoo, is also helping to get PPE to essential workers in their city. Lee is the cofounder of Good Judy, an eco-friendly tattoo supply company housed in the same location as Tapestry Tattoo.
Lee has a serious heart condition, so they made an executive decision to close Tapestry Tattoo over two weeks ago. But Good Judy is still producing PPE supplies like sterile gloves. Their company is small and will feel the financial repercussions of donating supplies, but like their friends at Welcome Home in Brooklyn, Lee felt compelled to help others in need amid the pandemic.
“The mandate for Good Judy is to be more ethical,” Lee tells NewNowNext. “During the [coronavirus] crisis, our first thing was to get gloves out in numbers that we could supply to people that needed it.”
This week, they donated as many supplies from Good Judy as they could to Michael Garron Hospital, a medical center in Toronto.
Both Lee and Leigh have observed that grassroots initiatives like their efforts in NYC and Toronto tend to be led by LGBTQ folks or people from other marginalized communities. “Marginalized people are experiencing the effects of the crisis the most,” Lee says, “so maybe people who are more comfortable feel less inclined to make themselves uncomfortable. They might not understand how a crisis like this could affect someone on so many different levels.”
As far as client responses go, Leigh says Welcome Home’s clientele has been “so understanding” about canceled or postponed appointments. The studio requires a deposit for every scheduled tattoo appointment, as is standard in the industry. With the pandemic keeping tattooers out of work, though, Leigh and their coworkers are unable to refund those deposits.
“That’s essentially what we’re living on at this point,” they explain. “If we were to refund everyone’s deposits, we’d be at zero.”
For those wishing to support tattooers at shops like Welcome Home and Tapestry Tattoo right now, Leigh recommends purchasing any artwork, merchandise, or gift cards for artists or shops via their websites. Lee agrees, and adds that for those in a tough financial position right now, a little love on social media can go a long way for a tattooer trying to reach a broader audience.
Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Probably drinking iced coffee or getting tattooed.