Editor’s note: This is one of a series of conversations with creative Mainers about how they’re dealing with social distancing and staying home amid the coronavirus pandemic.
PORTLAND, Maine — Tattooer Chris Dingwell is one of the most sought-after artists in the state. His schedule is usually full and his wait list is perpetually long. Dingwell has been injecting inky art into his client’s hides for 26 years. In 2019, he made national news with the life-sized portrait of the hated Star Wars character Jar-Jar Binks he etched across one Mainer’s back.
Now, with the coronavirus pandemic raging and stay-inside-orders in place, his shop is closed. Dingwell is at home, like most Mainers, wondering how he’ll stay afloat with his business shuttered for who knows how long.
In this time of certain uncertainty, Dingwell is trying to stay positive and creative. He’s using the down time to dive deep into personal painting projects. It’s not just something to pass the time. It’s what will keep him sane.
Q: You closed your shop before the governor’s shut down order, right?
A: Yes. It was the right thing to do. There’s no such thing as an emergency tattoo. I’ve said that for years. I can’t do my work six feet away from anyone. I have to be right up in their grill. Getting a tattoo right now would be foolish.
Q: How is this shutdown going to affect you as a businessman, homeowner and father?
A: I have no idea. I really don’t. I’m scrambling to try and figure that out and understand it from one moment to the next. I found out that because I have myself set up as an S corporation, I can file for unemployment. But I don’t have any idea what that’s going to look like or what that’s going to amount to. I do have some savings and some resources, so I’m feeling confident this morning. That goes up and down on an hourly basis.
Q: What about the other artists who rent space from you in your studio?
A: I’ve told them they don’t need to pay me rent for the next month — and not for the month after, either. It’s going to take at least two or three months before anyone starts to get back to work. I hope it goes faster, but I certainly don’t believe anything that Donald Trump is saying about being back to normal by Easter. That’s [expletive] — and you can publish that.
Q: You’re trying to use this down time to work on your paintings?
A: I’m really excited to hunker down in my studio and get a bunch of work done. Painting is my personal artwork. It’s what I do for myself. As a tattooer, I see my job as helping other people express their ideas, and their thoughts and their feelings, artistically. I’m using my talents to help them express themselves. When I sit down to paint, that’s where I get to express my ideas, my thoughts, my visions.
Q: In this time of uncertainty, how important is it to you to remain creative?
A: It’s more important to me now, than ever. Part of the reason that I’m excited to have time to paint is because I’m a lifelong, non-recovering workaholic. The compulsion to sink into the couch, or sink into the bottle from the depression of not being able to get stuff done, is pretty heavy, and it’s heavy for a lot of people who are suffering right now from not having an outlet. One of the things I’ve struggled with for the last few years is that the tattooing has kept me so damn busy. I need to paint to balance that out. I need the balance of both.
Q: Now you can finally get some equilibrium?
A: I’ve been dreaming of taking a painting vacation for several years. This is forcing me to do it. And if I don’t look at it that way, I’m going to end up feeling miserable — and there’s enough of that going around.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. All of Dingwell’s work is for sale through his Instagram account.