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Break-in at Calgary tattoo shop ‘pales in comparison’ to COVID-19 lockdown


Perplexing circumstances surrounding a break-in last weekend have added mild insult to severe injury for Boss Tattoos owner John Stuart.

With four Boss Tattoos locations currently in operation in Calgary, Stuart said the break-in, which occurred on the second floor of the Bancal Building at 1301 – 10 Avenue SW, is the first he’s experienced in 13 years.

“Security has never really been an issue for us, especially since most of our shops are located inside bigger buildings with other businesses,” Stuart said.

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Stuart received a phone call from one of his employees on Monday morning. The shop had been broken into sometime during the night.

The intruder managed to infiltrate three locked doors to get inside. One had a hole cut through the surrounding wall, allowing the intruder to reach in and unlock the deadbolt from the inside.

“It looked like they used a wooden spatula to carve out the drywall,” said Stuart.

A thorough investigation of the shop’s contents revealed that the intruder walked away with only six tattoo guns and a stash of toonies from a freestanding candy machine.

“We assume it was homeless people, ‘cause most thieves aren’t going to break into a tattoo shop just to steal change from a candy machine,” said Stuart.

‘… they didn’t even make a mess’

Stuart said thousands of dollars worth of shop equipment, including other tattoo machines, an Apple computer, and even cash deposits at several artists’ stations, remained undisturbed.

“Aside from the front door and the candy machine, they didn’t even make a mess,” he said.

Security footage later revealed a woman had picked the locks to gain entry to the lobby. The camera installed in front of the shop’s main door was not operational at the time.

“It would have been nice to know that the camera in front of our door was just a dummy cam, but again, we didn’t think anybody was getting in here without a key,” Stuart said.

Restoration work being performed on the exterior of the building may have played a role in the break in, Stuart said. A large tarp tent and scaffolding was set up on the sidewalk, directly in front of the main entryway. 

“Obviously I’m glad they didn’t take more, but the whole situation was just weird,” said Stuart. 

Another brick in the wall

“I would way rather be broken into and be allowed to work, than have to keep trying to survive being shut down.”

John Stuart, owner, Boss Tattoos

While the break-in was an unwelcome surprise, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to losing a month of business due to the latest COVID-19 lockdown.

“The break-in pales in comparison,” Stuart said.

“I would way rather be broken into and be allowed to work, than have to keep trying to survive being shut down.”

With four tattoo shops and a supply warehouse to maintain, Stuart’s rent alone is over $30,000 a month. 

“Nobody’s talking about the bill collection chain. I still have to pay all these leases that I have, and the landlord has to pay the bank, so the bank hasn’t missed a paycheck,” Stuart said.

“All the burden is put on us at the end of the chain.”

Stuart expanded his businesses by opening a fourth Boss Tattoos location in March of 2020 – just weeks before the first shutdown. In doing so, disqualified himself for the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy (CERS).

“I have to pay 30 grand a month to my landlord, but I’m not allowed to work. Yet people are still allowed to travel internationally,” he said.

“If you want to shut us down, shut us down fairly.”

Stuart said the lack of fairness is only made worse by the lack of government transparency. 

“It’s so frustrating to have people making those rules and not having to feel the same burden that they’re enforcing,” he said.

“But good luck getting in touch with anybody who has any power to do anything about it.”

Area MP the lone point of contact

The one person Stuart did manage to get ahold of was Pat Kelly, MP for Calgary Rocky Ridge. Kelly agreed with Stuart. 

“When any order of government, whether it’s provincial or federal or municipal, orders a business to close its doors in the name of public health, there’s an obligation to support these businesses,” said Kelly.

“In Mr. Stuart’s case, this is exactly the type of business that should be receiving aid from the government; one that was open, and profitable, and then was forced to close by a public health order.” 

Kelly said the flawed eligibility criteria surrounding the rent subsidy has left many small businesses without the financial aid they deserve. 

“These programs are not perfect, and in many cases, are not well designed at all,” said Kelly.

“The rent subsidy was a complete disaster. It had to be completely reinvented in the fall, and who knows how many business failures had already taken place.”

Kelly said the best hope for returning to a safely reopened economy is through a vaccinated population and the introduction of rapid test kits. Neither of those has become readily accessible.

“We sounded the alarm on this back in October, when it was clear and obvious that Canada was going to be well behind many peer countries in receipt of vaccinations. That’s exactly what has unfolded,” Kelly said.

“We have asked repeatedly for months for precise timelines and for a proper, fully transparent plan on how quickly we can get people vaccinated, so that we don’t have to have people in isolation. All we’ve had are endless announcements with contradictory figures and timelines.”

A shaky victory

This week, Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced that personal service businesses can reopen by appointment-only starting on Jan. 18.

Stuart’s pleased to be going back to work, but his trust in the government’s decision making is far from restored. 

“The reasons they had for shutting us down were completely contradictory to what they stated a week prior. They cheered us on for having zero cases, and then shut us down,” he said. 

“They must have been feeling the pressure of more and more businesses publicly stating that they were going to start opening regardless.”

Zach Roberts, a tattoo artist and co-owner of 3 Kings Collective, said it’s hard to justify the lockdown when high traffic businesses, like CrossIron Mills and West Edmonton Mall, are allowed to remain open.

“Not only can our industry stay on top of contact tracing, but it’s also held to the highest standard when it comes cleanliness,” Roberts said.

“The disinfectants we use are not only blood borne pathogen approved, but also classified as virucide.”

As businesses continue to reopen at the discretion of the provincial government, the question of what qualifies as ‘essential’ continues to spark discord. 

Heather McLean, a tattoo artist who runs a private studio out of her home, said the lockdown may have worked if it applied to everybody fairly.

“Of course I understand that tattoos are not “essential,” but the last time I checked, buying anything from the big box stores in malls is also not essential,” McLean said.

“Being able to pay my rent at the studio and all my bills as a single mom is pretty damn essential.”