Question 15: The Other Kind of Cancelling
‘Tis the season!
I’m currently dealing with the worst wave of cancellations I’ve ever experienced. I’ve been tattooing for about three years and it’s never been this bad. I know fluctuations happen, especially around the holidays, but how do I keep from panicking?
[Image: a meme from @monday_malarkey saying “How you look sitting at a fully set up station after getting no showed,” with a renaissance painting of a bearded man sitting with his head in his hand.]
This has been a hot topic in our studio and in tattooers’ DMs over the last few weeks. I can’t tell you how many people have told me “I only did one tattoo last week after all my cancellations,” or texted me day-to-day updates like “Just had my entire Friday email to cancel day of.” Both my clients Saturday were surprised— wait, that’s a thing?— which seems impossible, but when one person is cancelling they’re not seeing everyone else doing it, missing the “death by a thousand cuts” nature of the problem. One cancellation isn’t a huge deal; once they start to add up you’re facing a serious pay cut in what you can expect to make this month.
Out of curiosity I did an Instagram survey, and the majority of people who responded said that anywhere between 20% and half of their clients are cancelling on them right now. People were evenly split between “I’m freaking out” and “It happens every year, I’m used to it” with a number of them messaging me to specify “I’m somehow…both” (I include myself in this camp!).
To touch on last week’s topic of being “between two worlds” in tattooing, I find myself seeing and hearing two distinct perspectives on cancellation season. My experience straddles the line between the new wave of appointment-only private studios and more traditional shop spaces, and I clearly remember my first street shop winter of sitting around painting flash, hoping at least one person would walk in so I could break even after paying my shop cut and tipping the assistant. At this point in my career, I plan for an unreliable winter and take extra days off over the holidays, picking up other types of work so I’m not stressing as much about the slowdown.
Our job is freelance, and over the years I’ve come to a place of peace with the fact that a week that was fully booked out months ago will look completely different when it actually arrives. Between reschedules and cancellations, things move around constantly and require a good deal of the serenity to accept the things we cannot change. I try hard to maintain the attitude that things will work out the way they’re meant to, and usually a cancellation opens up space for someone else I want to squeeze in. But that’s not always the case lately.
“Slow season” usually happens in winter for a few reasons. People overextend themselves financially leading into the holiday season between travel and gift-giving, with less left over for tattoos than anticipated. Many other industries experience slowdowns at the end of the year, giving people less spending power to begin with. Add in the inevitability of winter sickness (particularly given the last couple years’ Covid variants) and even fully booked days can empty out on short notice. Most tattooers see an uptick post New Year’s and going into tax return season, but it’s typically well-known that December through February can be quiet.
It seems like people who have been appointment-only for most of their careers are feeling it more harshly now, since being booked in advance can often insulate you from the ebbs and flows of walk-in trends. Appointment-only means you can spread your clients out more consistently throughout the week/month/year, in theory expecting that you’ll reliably have work during the hours you’re planning. I’ve noticed guest artists have been having a harder time booking up their trips, and I wonder how walk-in artists are feeling the slowdown. It’s not unreasonable to expect people to honor their appointment commitments, of course, but it’s a larger trend than just a few flaky people. Whenever there’s a quiet moment I wonder— is tattooing’s boom finally coming to a standstill?
[Image: @monday_malarkey meme captioned “When you finally find the dude who spent all the money you should have saved for slow season, over a cartoon of Scooby Doo’s Fred unmaking a villain only to find himself under the mask.]
Social media’s evolution feels like a salient ingredient of the issue. The Instagram boom transformed the ways tattoo artists built clientele and advertised themselves, creating the conditions for independent and DIY artists to thrive without shops. Lately, though, the algorithm is punishing absolutely everyone who doesn’t make reels, use viral sounds, or eschew political topics. Anyone posting about mutual aid or the protest movement in Iran notices their stories go unseen (if they’re not shadowbanned outright). Even TikTok seems like a limited space to grasp at visibility, given the recent FBI assertion that it poses a risk for espionage. A friend of mine who predicts social media trends for a living speculated it’s only a matter of time before we see government sanctions of the platform.
All this is to say that the immediate rewards of Instagram and having a large following seem to be a thing of the past. It used to be that if you posted a cancellation to your stories, you’d immediately be able to fill it with multiple people reaching out. Merch sales have dwindled as Instagram hides content it would rather have you pay to advertise. I also sense a collective reluctance to flog our wares online. As societal attitudes towards labor shift, it can feel demoralizing to beg to work, to try to convince faceless potential clients of your worth and ability when you hope your work can speak for itself. Unexpectedly, tattooers who had a difficult time adapting to social media might be better positioned now, since they haven’t been relying as heavily on it for developing clientele.
Tattooer and shop owner Geri Kramer observed that people who have relied on being “flash only” are having the most difficulty maintaining regular bookings, and that the artists who are diversifying their portfolios have been able to grow their clientele somewhat. She sees the leanness there as a return of tattooing’s time-tested fluctuations, and cultivating versatility being one tool to adapt to that change. Soko of Serpent Song Tattoo thoughtfully noted that the pandemic is still ongoing and “the cognitive dissonance” around that is leading to more freaking out, but said their worries are more around the realization that these shifts are “barely scratching the surface of the long-term economic/social impacts of the pandemic, which will continue to affect tattooing and demand a constant refining of our practices to stay afloat and care for each other/our clients amongst greater precarity.”
Precarity is a scary thing to acknowledge. We talk a lot about resisting scarcity mentality, but that can often manifest as an individualistic reframing— accompanied by a shame around our judgments— rather than a recommitment to making sure everyone has enough. I have a practice where I donate money to mutual aid whenever I find myself feeling worried about money, even if it’s just a small amount that I can afford to give. It feels better to extend something I have to spare rather than just reassure myself I’ll have enough without community engagement as an extension of that belief.
Many of us fear ruining the perception of stability or desirability if we admit we’re lean. I see more people opening up about struggling financially due to a lack of clients, and I deeply admire the vulnerability it takes to share that. I like to believe we know how to offer support when we see it’s needed. We saw a powerful demonstration of that during the summer of 2020, when everyone was out of work, supported by pandemic assistance, and had plenty of time and money to volunteer, donate, buy work from independent artists. I understand why those conditions changed when we had to return to the status quo, forced to struggle towards normalcy (whatever that means) despite the dire circumstances continuing all around us. I hold onto that time as an example and to maintain my faith. As we move into a recession and a late-stage pandemic world, how can we shift our work to better take care of each other? What approaches will we take, and what commitments will it require?
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