Have ink, will travel: Why one Santa Cruz tattoo artist hit the road to keep herself afloat

Kelly McMurray
“My savings ran out. I had two rents, two sets of bills,” said Pleasuer Point tattoo artist Kelly McMurray.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Facing insolvency, Kelly McMurray of Good Luck Tattoo packed up a travel trailer and went to other states to practice her craft. Now, once again shut down, she’s planning to hit the road again.

This is a pandemic story.

But it’s also a social media story.

In other words, it only makes sense in this odd hiccup of time that we’re all living through right now.

Kelly McMurray is a tattoo artist who runs a small shop in the Pleasure Point area of Santa Cruz called Good Luck Tattoo. She’s worked at the shop for about nine years and took over as owner five years ago, employing herself and two other artists.

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Like all commercial tattooists in California, McMurray’s livelihood absorbed a huge blow in 2020, thanks to the restrictions brought on by the spread of COVID-19. She simply couldn’t do business like she had done before, meaning she couldn’t pay her bills.

So, she went someplace where she could.

Last summer, with her business in the deep freeze, McMurray, 35, purchased a travel trailer and hit the road. Her destination was anywhere outside the borders of California, to states where there was little to no restrictions on tattoo artists.

“My savings ran out,” she said. “I had two rents, two sets of bills.”

In March, like many small businesses, Good Luck was forced to close its doors, and when it did open, it was subject to guidelines and protocols for all personal care services, a category that included massage services, nail salons, and skin care centers.

“We couldn’t take walk-ins,” she said. “It was appointments only. Everyone had to be screened, to fill out a questionnaire. They couldn’t have guests come in with them. Everyone had to go through a process.”

McMurray said that she was too late to secure a federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan that so many other businesses relied on to get them through the early days of the pandemic shutdown.

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It was while she was considering taking out a traditional bank loan — which she didn’t want to do — that she had an epiphany.

“I thought, I could just go to a different state and make money the way I know how. I don’t have to sit around and wait for things to open,” she said. “That might be another week, another month, more, we don’t know. Everything was in limbo and I couldn’t just sit around and wait any longer.”

Because she’s been in business as a tattooist for a while, McMurray had developed a strong reputation, and these days that often translates into a social-media following. She knew that she had almost 11,000 admirers on Instagram, and she could use that tool and others to alert her many followers when she would be in any particular town.

So, McMurray arranged for her two children — ages 8 and 9 — to stay with other family, packed up the travel trailer that she pulled behind her white Honda Pilot, and headed to Arizona.

Kelly McMurray at work
“I don’t have to sit around and wait for things to open,” thought Kelly McMurray. So she didn’t.
(Courtesy Kelly McMurray)

Many tattoo and piercing parlors have what is called a “guest spot,” an open chair in the shop for a credentialed professional from out of town. McMurray took advantage of these guest spots in tattoo shops across Arizona, Colorado, and Oregon — states with less restrictive COVID-19 guidelines for tattoo artists.

Sleeping in her trailer, and spending her days in others’ tattoo businesses, she reached out to her following and was able to work every day. She arrived in Colorado just as that state was re-opening from the shutdown. “They had an overflow of clients from being shut down, so I just helped them out with that.”

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Thanks to the trailer, her expenses were limited to gas and food (a lot of protein shakes from Costco). She got to visit with extended family and old friends. And she brought home enough money to pay her bills.

That was, however, several months ago. McMurray returned to California and tried to operate under local protocols once again, until the Bay Area region slipped into the purple, or most restrictive, level of containment. At that point, Good Luck had to close again.

McMurray, like many who do tattoos, piercing, hair, or nails, feels like her industry is being marginalized by an over-restrictive environment, that by law she is already doing a lot to ensure customer safety and cleanliness.

“You get a license in this industry not because you know how to tattoo, but because you know how to clean and how to prevent viruses, bacteria, and any blood-borne pathogen. That’s basically what tattoo training is: blood-borne pathogen prevention training.”

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McMurray is also an accomplished traditional artist and she’s been doing artwork to bring in an income. But she still has the trailer, and the know-how to become an itinerant tattooist again. In fact, she’s planning to again travel to Arizona to do some tattooing in February.

“I will make it through,” she said. “I have to. I have no other choice. I have kids that depend on me, two people who work for me. There hasn’t been a day when it’s not stressing me out that my livelihood is in jeopardy. The most stressful thing about all this is being constantly in limbo. But my personality is that I feel I can overcome things.”

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