Don’t Let Coronavirus Tattoos Get Under Your Skin

Whether they’re born out of grief, humor or something in between, people are already coping with COVID-19 by permanently branding themselves with ink

Last month, 32-year-old Kahle Lenz, an assembly worker in suburban Pittsburgh, got a tattoo on his right thigh. From a distance, it looks like a Corona Light bottle with a lime plugging the top. But the label’s Old English font actually reads “Corona Virus,” and underneath, where the crown should be, the virus wears a blue surgical mask, while smaller COVID-19s float in the golden beer.

Some people may find Lenz’s leg to be tacky and that it’s offensive to commemorate a pandemic that’s killed more than 118,000 people globally by permanently marking your skin. For those people, however, I have some bad news: With over 660 posts already on Instagram under #coronavirustattoo, the trend seems to be well on its way. And Jennifer Gilley, owner of Sundog Art Studios in Lynchburg, Virginia, says several people have already contacted her requesting toilet paper tattoos. “These clients want me to come up with something funny when I reopen,” she tells me. 

Along those lines, in early March, before most states had closed all non-essential businesses, Lenz sat down with artist Shannon Kelly of Eclipse Tattoo in Springdale, Pennsylvania, and decided to memorialize in ink the fact that 38 percent of Americans thought they could get the deadly virus by drinking Corona beer. “I was telling her how I felt about what was going on in my own funny way,” he says. Designing Lenz’s tattoo gave Kelly the opportunity to “step back and try to find joy in this bleak time in our life.” 

A lot of the coronavirus tattoos on Instagram seem to be aimed at making people laugh — e.g., they’re images of toilet paper rolls and the coronavirus with an evil face. None of which surprises Hannah Roggenkamp, the deputy section chief of Trauma Recovery Services at the Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System and lead author of a 2017 study titled, “Tattoos As A Window to the Psyche: How Talking About Skin Art Can Inform Psychiatric Practice.” 

“People get fun tattoos that they think are funny,” she explains. “It says whatever they want it to say about them. Are only people who aren’t taking [the pandemic] seriously getting tattooed? Or are people getting tattoos still taking it seriously, and they just want some way to commemorate this time with something that will bring a smile to their face eventually?”

In a few years, when it’s safe to go to crowded beaches again, the disparity between COVID-19 tattoos will be mind-blowing. There will be coronavirus beer tattoos that make people laugh, ones on health-care workers that commemorate the hospital where they worked, others that indicate someone was a grocery store clerk and markers of grief mourning someone who died from the virus. In fact, in terms of body art, it could be historic. “This is having such a tremendous impact on society that we won’t even begin to understand it until we’re out of the woods,” Roggenkamp says.

The funny coronavirus tattoos will obviously stand in stark contrast to the ones inspired by grief. Memorial tattoos, as they’re also called, became mainstream following 9/11, according to Susan Salluce, author of GriefInk: Tattoo as the Language of Grief. When people are asked about these tattoos, “it allows them the freedom to speak about a tragedy, which, as a grief specialist, I know helps people in their processes,” she tells me. 

Name a tragic event in recent memory, and some of the survivors probably got tattoos to cope with their pain and show unity. In 2016, following the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando, hundreds honored the victims with tattoos. Two years later, when students returned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida following that mass shooting, several showed up with memorial tattoos. “There are going to be people who need to write this out in some way on their bodies so they can [point to someone else’s coronavirus tattoo] and say, ‘I went through that, too; let’s talk about it,’” Salluce says.

That’s easy to envision with a tragedy like 9/11, where everyone has a similarly themed tattoo — a loved one lost, the heroism of first responders, the Twin Towers, something patriotic. But this pandemic isn’t 9/11, and if you believe that every tattoo tells a story, that might be a good thing culturally speaking. Lenz, for instance, meant his tattoo to be a testament to how unprepared we were as a society for something this catastrophic. “We’re screwed,” he says.

In mid-March, Devin Rayow, owner of Tattoo Voodoo in Poughkeepsie, New York, similarly found inspiration in the world around him. One morning, he drew a roll of two-ply, wrote “Coronavirus Survivor” around it and posted the image on social media, offering a one-day special on the tattoo. For Rayow, 43, the toilet paper tattoo was about having a laugh at the absurdity around hoarding. “It’s about surviving getting into a gladiator fight at Walmart over a roll of toilet paper, that’s what this tattoo is about,” he says. “It’s about how crazy society can and will get when something like this happens.”

At a hospital miles away, one of Tattoo Voodoo’s regulars was sitting with his mom as she waited to see a doctor. She’s battling leukemia, and scrolling through Facebook on her phone, she saw Rayow’s post and laughed. To keep her laughing, the 24-year-old man, who asked to remain anonymous, called Rayow and got the tattoo on his leg. “Before my dad died, he said, ‘Once you let humor go, it’s all over for you,’” he tells me. 

Salluce generally agrees, but she does fear that funny coronavirus tattoos could marginalize someone else’s grief — including her own. One of her relatives recently died from COVID-19, and a second was diagnosed with the virus and survived. “The fear that rippled through the family because they live in a close community is going to be palpable for a while,” she says. “Just imagine one of my family members seeing one of those tattoos and thinking, ‘Are you out of your mind? Do you know how much damage this caused to our family?’”

Lenz vows that his beer bottle tattoo isn’t meant to be disrespectful. He has over 15 tattoos, and the coronavirus bottle isn’t even his weirdest. That distinction goes to the one on his back of a turtle with purple wings and a unicorn’s horn, shitting rainbows onto a smiling cloud. “We’re all in our own universes,” he says. “And in my own universe, that coronavirus tattoo is how I grieve and process shit.”