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Dr. John Martin, a professor at London’s University College, once said, “Life depends on science but the arts make it worth living.” One of the most popular modern forms of expressing ourselves and sharing our love of art is through tattoos. Tattoo artists turn their client’s visions into reality through the process of inserting pigment into the skin’s dermis with needles.
Who is this business right for?
Tattoo shop owners who have found the most success are fully engulfed in the art community. They value free expression and recognize that art comes in many different forms. Tattoo artists with an entrepreneurial spirit and the drive to take their career to the next level should consider opening their own studio.
What happens during a typical day at a tattoo parlor?
Tattoo shop owners spend a majority of their day with clients. Before starting a project, the artist and client will meet for a consultation. This is to ensure they are both on the same page regarding the vision of the piece. The customer will either arrive with an idea and let the artist draw the plans, or they will come with a drawing in hand. Once the specifics are ironed out, the artist can start on the tattoo. Some pieces can be completed in a couple hours, while others are an ongoing project to be completed in multiple sessions.
Your work will require a lot of tools, all of which must be sterile. Some shops use an autoclave to sterilize needles and equipment, while others have shifted to using disposable equipment. Whichever route you choose, part of your day will be spent ensuring you have all the ink and supplies necessary to maintain a safe and sterile tattoo shop.
Downtime can spent drawing, painting, and dreaming up new ideas for custom tattoos. This offers you additional work to add to your portfolio, pieces to decorate your studio or sell on the side, and could also be put on display online to attract new customers to your business.
What is the target market?
This varies from shop to shop. Some studios accept walk-ins and have standard art hung on the wall for clients to choose from. They accept custom jobs, but the bulk of their income is supported by walk-in traffic. Others are looking for more inspiration in their work. They have put in their time in the tattoo business, and reserve the right to turn down any piece that doesn’t represent the brand they’re building for themselves.
How does a tattoo parlor make money?
Owners earn their income by tattooing permanent art on their customers. Generally several artists share studio space. They either pay rent to the owner, or pay the owner a commission on each piece they do in the shop.
What is the growth potential for a tattoo parlor?
The tattoo industry yields an average of $2.3 billion annually and nearly 40% of 18-39 year olds now have a tattoo. While many owners choose to keep their business small and intimate, there are some, such as Inksmith & Rogers who’ve found success opening multiple locations. The key to long-term growth is hiring only stellar artists to represent your brand.
What are some skills and experiences that will help you build a successful tattoo parlor?
The ability to draw will be your most valued skill. Tattooing, however, entails more than just artistic talent. It requires a steady hand, an amicable personality and a specific attention to detail. This helps not only when it comes to inking tattoos, but also successfully running your business.
Unlike many artists, who often work in solitude, tattoo artists spend their days with other people. It takes good communication skills and a certain amount of finesse to offer suggestions to clients who are prepared to permanently decorate their body with your design. Depending upon the size of the piece, you also might be spending tens of hours with any given client, so good people skills are a must.
Most aspiring tattoo artists spend time apprenticing before ever picking up an ink gun. This is a great way to learn important skills such as how heavy of a hand you need, how to transfer the art from paper onto a human body, understanding of skin types, placement, and color schemes. Apprenticing is the most valuable training you’ll ever receive. Once you’ve gained success, this is something you can pass on to other aspiring artists. Additionally, there are a number of groups, such as the Tattoo Artists Guild and the Alliance of Professional Tattoos, Inc, that educate members on safety, the latest trends in the tattoo world, and offer advice on how to grow your client base.
In the tattoo industry, it’s critical that you maintain a high level of professionalism and cleanliness at all times. Excellent management and organizational skills, as well as high standards of hygiene will be part of what defines the long-term success of your business.
What are the costs involved in opening a tattoo parlor?
First, you’ll need a workspace. Some artists cut down on costs by working out of their home. If you’re thinking about taking this route, consider two things: many states prohibit home studios due to health regulations, and it’s more difficult to establish yourself as a professional without a storefront.
When choosing a location, research the areas you are considering. Are they already saturated with tattoo shops? What’s their reputation and what other services do they offer? Pick a location that has a good deal of foot traffic. You never know who will walk through you door and inquire about a that custom piece they’ve been considering.
Even if you don’t plan on regularly hosting other artists, set your space up with multiple rooms. You never know what direction you could decide to go later and many tattoo artists travel, taking on guest spots as they move about the world.
Here are a few other items you’ll need to invest in before opening your tattoo shop. Many of these items can be purchased used at a reduced rate.
- Tattoo equipment
- Massage tables
- Art of the walls
- A sign
- Displays and cabinets for inventory
What are the steps to start a tattoo parlor?
Once you're ready to start your tattoo parlor, follow these steps to ensure that your business is legally compliant and avoid wasting time and money as your business grows:
- Plan your business. A clear plan is essential for success as an entrepreneur. A few important topics to consider are your initial costs, your target market, and how long it will take you to break even.
- Form a legal entity. Establishing a legal business entity prevents you from being personally liable if your tattoo parlor is sued.
- Register for taxes. You will need to register for a variety of state and federal taxes before you can open for business.
- Open a business bank account. A dedicated checking account for your tattoo parlor keeps your finances organized and makes your business appear more professional to your customers.
- Set up business accounting. Recording your various expenses and sources of income is critical to understanding the financial performance of your business. Keeping accurate and detailed accounts also greatly simplifies your annual tax filing.
- Obtain necessary permits and licenses. Failure to acquire necessary permits and licenses can result in hefty fines, or even cause your business to be shut down.
- Get business insurance. Insurance is highly recommended for all business owners. If you hire employees, workers compensation insurance may be a legal requirement in your state.
- Define your brand. Your brand is what your company stands for, as well as how your business is perceived by the public. A strong brand will help your business stand out from competitors.
- Establish a web presence. A business website allows customers to learn more about your company and the products or services you offer. You can also use social media to attract new clients or customers.
Select your state below for an in-depth guide on completing each of these steps in your home state.
How to promote & market a tattoo parlor
As a tattoo artist, it’s important to devote a portion of your time to marketing. Word of mouth is the most successful method of attracting new clients. Prospects will often spend hours combing the Internet and social media, looking for an artist whose style best represents them. Maintain a portfolio that can be viewed online and in person, adding to it regularly. Share your work via Instagram and Pinterest, which is the most effective way of reaching those within the community. Many artists join the National Tattoo Association, which hosts conventions across the world. This is a wonderful way to display your work and network within the community.
Recommended: A website is essential for promoting your business and attracting customers. Weebly is a great tool.
How to keep customers coming back
Your artistic style is what will attract customers the most. There are a number of different styles and every customer likes something different. It’s important to understand the most popular trends in your area, but it’s also a good idea to master a style that no one else in the area has the monopoly on. This sets you apart from the rest and will attract customers from hundreds of miles away.
Part of building a name for yourself also means being choosy about what jobs you take on. If you know that watercolor tattoos don’t stand up well over time, don’t do them. Your client will walk around with your work on their body for the rest of their life - make your time in the studio count.
How and when to build a team
Most artists answer their own phone calls, emails, and walk-ins, so you don’t need a staff for that. However, many studios have multiple artists. Each artist has their own workspace and either pay rent for use of the space or pay a portion of their commission to the owner. This is a great way to cut down on your overhead costs and integrate yourself further within the community.
State & Local Business Licensing Requirements
Certain state permits and licenses may be needed to operate a tattoo parlor. Learn more about licensing requirements in your state by visiting SBA’s reference to state licenses and permits.
Most businesses are required to collect sales tax on the goods or services they provide. To learn more about how sales tax will affect your business, check out our informative guide, Sales Tax for Small Businesses.
Tattoo shops are regulated by the health department of their state. State specific information can be found here: Wikipedia - Legal status of tattooing in the United States
In addition, certain local licensing or regulatory requirements may apply. For more information about local licenses and permits:
- Check with your town, city or county clerk’s office
- Get assistance from one of the local associations listed in US Small Business Associations directory of local business resources.
Release of Liability
Before tattooing, it is advisable to provide clients with informed consent agreements to decrease legal liability and encourage transparency. An example of a consent agreement can be found here: Waiver, release and consent to tattoo
Recommended: Rocket Lawyer makes it easy to create a professional release of liability form for your tattoo parlor business when you sign up for their premium membership. For $39.95 per month, members receive access to hundreds of legal agreements and on call attorneys to get complimentary legal advice.
Certain tattoo shops and tattoo artists may wish to register the copyright for specific designs. This involves registering with the US copyright office for a small fee.
Certificate of Occupancy
Businesses operating out of a physical location typically require a Certificate of Occupancy (CO). A CO confirms that all building codes, zoning laws and government regulations have been met.
- If you plan to lease a location:
- It is generally the landlord’s responsibility to obtain a CO.
- Before leasing, confirm that your landlord has or can obtain a valid CO that is applicable to a tattoo parlor business.
- After a major renovation, a new CO often needs to be issued. If your place of business will be renovated before opening, it is recommended to include language in your lease agreement stating that lease payments will not commence until a valid CO is issued. .
- If you plan to purchase or build a location:
- You will be responsible for obtaining a valid CO from a local government authority.
- Review all building codes and zoning requirements for your business’ location to ensure your tattoo business will be in compliance and able to obtain a CO.
How much can you charge customers?
Customers are typically charged an hourly rate, although some projects are inked for a flat fee. Hourly rates range anywhere from $80-$350. The longer you’ve been in business and the more of a name you make for yourself, the more you can charge.
What are the ongoing expenses for a tattoo parlor?
Aside from the standard overhead expenses incurred from running a storefront, your only ongoing expenses are marketing and supplies. You’ll go through a lot of gloves, ink, and cleaning supplies on a daily basis. When first starting out, artists report spending an estimated $600-$1,000 per year on supplies.
How much profit can a tattoo parlor make?
Successful tattoo artists have reported making less than $15,000 their first year. However, as you make a name for yourself and your shop, the potential is there to make well over $100,000 annually.
How can you make your business more profitable?
Many tattoo shops expand their goods and services to more than just tattooing. To make your business more profitable you could:
- Offer piercings
- Sell jewelry for piercings
- Sell local art
- Carry an inventory of aftercare products
- Work out of your home (if this option is legal in your state)
- Many parlors host special events for Breast Cancer Awareness month. Both parties win: breast cancer survivors can get a custom piece to cover their scars, and you gain exposure to a whole new set of clientele you might not otherwise have met.