There’s a perception of artists as solitary people, for the most part, toiling away over a canvas or locked away in a studio for hours on end. One exception is tattooers. Many work full time in the presence of  their clients and other artists—of which there are many. A quick Google search shows that there are over 20 tattoo shops in Reno, supporting a thriving sector of the city’s arts economy. 

But when Covid-19 lockdowns started in March 2020, most of these artists found themselves in the same place as 23 million other Americans—without a job. Barred from their shops and needles, Reno’s tattoo artists spent months over the summer without the living canvases they were accustomed to. At least a few of them found their time in quarantine influential to their approach to art. 

Kenny Tavener found new frontiers in abstraction

Kenny Tavener is a full-time artist at Marked Studios, Inc. and has been tattooing for the past seven years. What started out as a side gig to make money in college became an artistic challenge—and soon his profession.

“I got really interested because I hadn’t totally sucked at art prior,” Tavener said. “Drawing or painting, things like that came pretty natural, and tattooing did not. So, from then I was kind of hooked on it.”

Tavener worked in many mediums before he found tattooing and continues to work in paints on different backings at his studio at home. He’ll also make sketches or mockups of new tattoo designs, but his fine artwork is more of a personal expression.

“Tattooing’s like a hundred percent collaboration,” he said. “A client wants what they want, and you have to deliver something that’s going to be able to be worn for a lifetime. When I’m at home, it is definitely more of a leisure thing. It’s kind of like getting to express myself creatively where I’m not able to with tattooing—even though I’m tattooing eight hours a day, almost every day a week.” 

Over the years, Tavener’s work has progressed from the smaller, more traditional tattoos he would do in his apprenticeship. Now, he specializes in pieces meant to cover whole limbs and muscle groups in a vibrant range of colors. In the past, clients would come to see him for his fluid style—a quick scroll through his Instagram shows bold, crisp traditional work, photorealistic portraits, and cartoonish illustrations in equal measure.

Kenny Tavener specializes in ink that covers full limbs and muscle groups.

Last March, however, his usually full appointment book was suddenly cleared for more than two months while Marked Studios was closed for the first Covid-19 lockdowns. Away from his busy shop, he quickly found that ample free time and access to his home studio were helping his creative instincts.

“I went from having people scheduled through March and the summer to having nothing to do, and it went really well for myself,” Tavener said. “I’m a very introverted person, so sitting at home and being able to create on my own time and my own terms was awesome. … And that’s where I started getting into more of that abstract graffiti type of style that I’m kind of pushing now.

From March until June, Tavener experimented with a new style that he has since explored in everything from acrylics to watercolors to flesh—designing amorphous, organically shaped collages of colors and textures. Some follow a smooth gradient, like multicolored planetary rings, and others are jagged and halting like flames licking against a dark sky. His mastery of blending colors, especially, contributes to a kaleidoscope effect on most of his pieces.

During quarantine, Tavener worked on various art projects at home, including abstract acrylic paintings.

“Stylistically I’m really into abstract stuff—things that aren’t things, I guess,” Tavener said. “Kind of like biomech, or I’m very interested in graffiti and how that flows and moves around.”

Tavener said his new style is “absolutely” a result of his time spent in quarantine. His abstract paintings include mixed media and even textural elements like sand or concrete. While he creates mostly as a mode of personal expression, he sold many of the abstract originals he made during quarantine, and posts about his studio work often translate to tattoo requests from his followers.

Lola Palma refined her Japanese and Latin American style elements

Lola Palma started her tattooing apprenticeship 10 years ago and spent her early career at A Toda Madre Tattoos, but recently made the move to Battle Born Tattoo.

“I feel very at home at a tattoo shop,” Palma said. “I love the team environment, and I love that it’s like a never-ending quest. There’s never going to be a, ‘I did it, Eureka!’ There’s always something else that’s just, like, slightly out of reach. I actually really like that because it feels like it keeps it interesting and fresh.”

Aside from her work on skin, Palma described oil painting as her “first love,” and many of the realism skills she learned on the canvas translated to early tattoos.

“I did start out doing a lot of, like, black and gray realism,” Palma said. “I really appreciate the way that you can layer with oil and really get some beautiful depths. You can get really chromatically intricate pieces that just allow you to layer in, which is great for when you’re trying to do realism and hyperrealism and such.”

A lot of Lola Palma’s work uses a restrained, black and gray palette.

Right before the lockdowns started last year, Palma and another tattoo artist friend had just returned from a six-week tour of European tattoo conventions. As quarantine began at the end of March, she had a head full of ideas and some rare free time to explore them. 

“It was kind of nice to have a little bit of a breather and get to re-situate yourself and refocus my attention on my style,” Palma said. “I wanted to come back home and see what I’ve learned in my travels and how I can incorporate that into the work that I was then looking forward to putting out.”

Palma threw herself into studying in her home studio. She began delving into the roots of American and Japanese tattooing traditions, focusing on bold linework with contrasting colors and stylized imagery. Panther heads, for example, have a long history in Latin American tattoo culture, and she began experimenting on her own rendition of the icon as a sort of signature piece. Listening to podcasts about tattooing and deconstructing her previous work helped Palma find a clear direction for where she wanted to take her style when she could get back to her needle.

When Palma posted this image in September, she wrote, “I love doing cats!”

“I have the unique perspective of being a female tattooer,” Palma said. “And I want to make room in all that manly-men tattoo tradition for ladies who are also badass, who are tough and who can wear those traditional images but have a feminine flare to them. At this moment in time, that’s where my focus is, and I think I owe a great deal of that to the time that I had to take off for quarantine.”

Her work now incorporates elements of black and grey, full of fine gradients and values of simple black ink, as well as the vibrant colors and shading indicative of the “Irezumi” practice from Japan. Flowers, skulls and wildlife populate her Instagram feed, as well as the occasional photorealistic human portrait.

Palma also bought a new house during quarantine, which lasted from March until June of 2020, and is in the process of setting up a new studio space like the one where she spent most of her time last summer. She still paints and draws, and she’s also versed in other creative outlets like making clothes and carpentry. Often, her work in one field will influence her work in the others—an artistic strategy she credits to none other than David Bowie.

“He says that it’s good to keep rotating your projects because sometimes he’ll get stuck in one thing … so now I’m going to go, like, figure out this design on this dress or whatever,” Palma said. “Then you figure out, like, a drape, and then that drape will be like, ‘Oh, that would be sick for the kimono that I’m drawing on this sleeve or something.’”

Palma is back tattooing at Battle Born now and mentioned that things haven’t really changed all that much as far as her workflow. Tattoo shops, she said, are already hygienic places with adequate distancing, and most artists undergo bloodborne pathogen and sterilization training as a matter of course anyway. She said she appreciated having the time to revaluate her artistic goals, but her time in quarantine reaffirmed that the shop is where she would rather be. 

“I picked up a couple of little side gigs and that just reignited my fuel for, like, ‘Oh yeah, the thing that I do love is tattooing,” she said. “That’s my place.”

Maya Claiborne honed in on a specialty

Maya Claiborne, who’s 22, began tattooing four years ago, after a friend’s dad, a tattoo artist himself, saw the paintings she had made for her AP art classes and encouraged her to try needle and ink as his apprentice. Her works in acrylic, watercolor and pencil drawing crystallized around the human body—a theme she specializes in with her tattoo work.

“A lot of the tattoos that I started to create were based off of statues, like high Renaissance art, and a lot of what I would paint personally would be like naked figures,” Claiborne said. “I took a lot of life art classes at the museum.”

Early in her apprenticeship, she said she mostly took whatever pieces came through the door as far as subject matter goes—“paying her dues,” as she called it. Her transition to Twofold Tattoo in 2019 allowed her to focus on the Greco-Roman style that she loves and freed up her schedule for other creative pursuits like sculpture and videography.

“I found that tattooing five days a week and sitting there was not for me, and that it was kind of taxing on me,” Claiborne said. “It wasn’t really where my heart wanted to be yet. And so being able to extend my schedule and just tattoo twice [a week], that kind of freed up my schedule to see other avenues.”

Maya Claiborne finds inspiration in Renaissance imagery.

Claiborne is a Renaissance woman in both her creative interests and her artistic subject matter. Working almost exclusively in black and gray, she renders intricately detailed portraits of mythological figures, religious iconography and human forms reminiscent of the Hellenistic and high-Renaissance masterpieces. 

“When I was in, like, third grade, I did one of those presentations on Michelangelo,” Claiborne said. “I had to pretend to be him, and I just have always had a fascination with all of those artists—Raphael, DaVinci, obviously—and all of that art that comes from that era is just my favorite.”

When Covid closed her shop at the end of March, Claiborne found herself sequestered at home with her partner, Mackenzie Swecker, another tattooer and owner of Twofold.

“So, both of us not having to work, we basically took on different projects every day,” Claiborne said. “And that’s when I got more into the sculpting, I did more watercolor, I started on paintings. … collages, we did those. Yeah. We just dabbled in a bunch of different things that we usually don’t have time for or energy for.”

A painting by Claiborne on a custom-shaped background.

Claiborne and Swecker enjoyed the chance to create unfettered, and Claiborne turned her attention to areas besides tattooing, including enrolling in a nutritionist accreditation course—a product of free time and an interest in the properties of food to treat gut issues she experienced in the past.

“It was kind of the moment when I had a lot of time to focus on making dishes and taking pictures of them for just fun,” she said. “So, I think it was when it was amplified.”

As far as her tattoo work goes, she didn’t make any big changes to her artistic direction, but she did leave the 10 weeks she spent at home with a clearer idea of what range she wanted to work in. She realized she felt more comfortable in a niche field.

“It kind of reaffirmed my want to focus on smaller pieces and narrow in my skill of doing fine line tattoos, as opposed to large sleeves or just medium to large sized pieces,” Claiborne said. “I recognize that I wanted to start to narrow in my field of focus in my specialty, basically.”

Her romantic and finely crafted style remains in demand, however. So much so that Claiborne didn’t feel pressured to spend her quarantine designing pieces explicitly for sale. 

“Coming out of quarantine, I had probably a list of around 80 people that wanted custom artwork from me,” Claiborne said. “So, there was no need for me to drop my own custom designs, and I had a good flow of clients coming in.”

Claiborne has been back to tattooing at Twofold for the past six months, with increased social distancing measures, but she remembers her and Swecker’s time in quarantine fondly. 

“It was nice for us to have space to create together,” she said. “It was nice to not have any obligation or anything expected of us during that time. And for me, that was really nice to just pick whatever I wanted to do during the day and do that. … I didn’t let myself stress about any of the other factors because I was just trying to take each day as a came.”

All images courtesy of the artists. 

This article was funded by a City of Reno CARES Act grant and produced by Double Scoop and the Sierra Nevada Ally. Together, these news outlets are working to increase the amount of quality local arts and culture journalism.

Posted by Matt Bieker

Matt Bieker is an award-winning photojournalist and native of Reno, Nevada. He received his degree in Journalism from the University of Nevada Reno in 2014, and currently covers arts & entertainment and community development in his hometown.