Nokomis Fairbanks knew she would grow up to be a tattoo artist when she was a little girl.
"My mom always used to take me to tattoo shops," Fairbanks remembered. "I was just like, yep, this is it, I'll go off and tattoo for the rest of my life."
She started tattooing professionally three years ago and recently set up shop at Oracle Tattoo Guild in Lexington, Kentucky. Today, she has no idea when she will be able to pick up her needle again.
Like many states, Kentucky closed all nonessential businesses to stop the spread of COVID-19. Tattooing is a job that cannot be done without human contact, making it impossible in the age of coronavirus. Along with tattoo shops, hair and nail salons were forced to shut their doors, leaving thousands of Kentuckians without any source of income.
Most tattoo artists, like Fairbanks, are independent contractors. That means they do not receive an official paycheck, leaving them in limbo for benefits like unemployment insurance.
Courtesy: Joe King/Oracle Tattoo Guild
"It's very scary for those of us who don't have the funds right now and really need the money," Fairbanks said. "It's still extremely hard for tattoo artists to get any form of help, really."
Fairbanks applied for unemployment insurance as soon as her shop closed. Since then, she's spent hours waiting on the phone to speak to someone about her application, calling up to 93 times in a single day. When she finally got through, the news was abrupt and discouraging.
"It's been nightmarish," she recalled. "In about 30 seconds of her speaking to me, it was like 'You were denied'."
The state of Kentucky and the federal government have opened unemployment applications for independent contractors and people who are self-employed. However, with clogged phone lines and a website under strain, it can be difficult to even apply, let alone receive those benefits.
"It's just such a weird situation because since I turned 18, I've always worked," Fairbanks said.
Amidst financial and professional uncertainty, Fairbanks is worried about the impact all of this is having on her mental health.
"I have very severe anxiety and this, overall, has been an extremely tough time for me personally," she explained.
Still, she is finding small ways to cope.
"We humans, by nature, are productive. And even when we think that we're doing nothing, we want to do something," she said.
Fairbanks is spending a lot of her time with her 3-year-old son. The single mom, like many parents, is buried in learning activities and toddler television shows.
She's doing things that are emotionally fulfilling like drawing new tattoo designs and experimenting with makeup looks for her side business as a makeup artist.
"It's like a switch in your brain," she explained. "You feel accomplished like 'I'm doing something' because this can make everything in my life seem a little bit better."
Even with the shop closed, Fairbanks has found that the tattoo community is as strong as ever.
"We've been communicating all regularly, FaceTiming, checking in on each other," she said. "Being in the tattoo industry, even when times are rough, you do have a lot of people to lean on."
When things get overwhelming, she's doing what a lot of other people are doing: enjoying a happy escape.
"I've been trying to gravitate myself to video games because I love gaming," Fairbanks said. "I'm playing a lot of Animal Crossing."