“Come up on the second floor, and then it’s the second door!” Juju told me over the phone when I asked how to get to The Secret Door, the Williamsburg tattoo parlor where she worked. Outside, the grey, graffitied warehouse had barren walls; inside, dim-lit corridors and innumerable doors made it look like a maze. Ironically, “The Secret Door” was printed in small characters on the heavy metal door in question. Inside, a few green plants and some vintage pieces of furniture here and there worked as a bright frame to all the art, in sketches or framed, that lived in the open-space loft-style studio. Above Juju’s station, outlines of abstract faces, minimalist moons and elegant designs mapped the wall and welcomed every client into Juju’s world.
Juliette HavardTrapani, who goes by Juju, joined The Secret Door last year. Now, because of the pandemic, The Secret Door is temporarily closed. One of the owners, though, opened a tiny private studio when the pandemic-related regulations allowed it, and Juju is now working there. Job semi-security aside, though, being a tattoo artist during a pandemic is mentally and socially stressful. On Instagram, she’s been vocal about her concerns and rules for safety — in the end, it’s an equation factoring in strangers, needles, and a lot of touching.
It surprises me that everybody wanted to get tattooed now and even during quarantine.
People really thought that the world is ending, and in those times, people want to do things that just make them feel happy and normal.
Are they requesting unusual or pandemic-related designs?
People are being a little bit bolder than they were before. I think people are just kind of getting whatever. And they’re saying “fuck it” a lot more easily in terms of placement and size.
Go big or go home, basically.
Yeah! People are living more dangerously now. Everything’s falling apart —the politics of the world, our ecosystem, everything. People are trying to make up for that by doing things that make them feel really good.
Your original style is very delicate. How would you describe it?
My style is abstract, fine line, and minimalism.
Your Juju Faces designs definitely have these three characteristics. Did anybody “go bold” with them?
I tattooed one of my faces on the palm of a woman — that was pretty bold!
You set some important safety rules for your clients, like always wearing a mask, coming alone, etc. — are they respecting them?
They are. They’re really great. You think everybody’s equally — I don’t use the word “scared” because I don’t like using that word — aware of everything that’s going on. Everybody wants to be respectful of each other.
You talk fondly about The Secret Door and its artists. What were your first thoughts when the studio had to close?
I think I was just hugely in denial. I figured, “Oh, The Secret Door is gonna open in a couple of months” and I pushed all my appointments back for just a couple months. But then obviously, it’s the pandemic — it proved to be worse than we thought it was.
Everybody felt like time froze.
Honestly, it didn’t really ever slow down for me. I had clients asking for appointments at my apartment all through the pandemic.
Did you do it?
I did a couple of friends who I knew were quarantining, but I was afraid too! There’s definitely a point where I think everybody was scared, and I wasn’t going to risk it myself just for money.
I’m sure you had to reinvent yourself somehow in order to make some money.
I do a lot of other things — I’m a musician, I’m a painter, I paint clothes. [The latter] is kind of what I focused on. I started doing my hand-painted tank tops, and overalls and jeans and stuff, and that’s what I’ve been doing to fill my time.
In terms of your own safety, how often do you get tested?
Once a week.
Are you ever concerned about being in contact with strangers every day?
Honestly, I have a very strong immune system — knock on wood.
Knock on wood, yeah. You’ve been fully booked for a while now — how did that feel?
It was very moving. Throughout everything I’m able to survive — I had a pretty rough life growing up and finding something that I can put a roof over my head and take care of my family was already such a blessing. Then the fact that I’m still able to work it when so many people don’t have jobs and don’t have homes — I just felt really grateful.
But the world is different now. Do you think the tattoo world will permanently change?
It’s gonna change so much. Tattoo shops used to be parties — hanging out, and artists hanging out and learning from each other. Now it’s very quiet. It’s like people are trying to stay away from each other.
It’s a little less fun now.
It doesn’t have to be — I certainly try and always have a good time. And the joy of my clients just continues to bring me back. That’s the reason I do it. Yes, I love to tattoo, but making people happy is one of my favorite things, especially the therapeutic aspect of tattooing.
It’s the big reason why I get tattooed.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled Juliette HavardTrapani’s name and misstated the amount of time she had worked for The Secret Door.