4 reasons why tattoo clients can’t be “stolen”

will bodnar, cicada tattoo, anji marth, high priestess tattoo, at tattoo conventionI was having a conversation with someone who mentioned that they tried to keep artists at their shop from “stealing” clients from the shop, or each other. It really disturbed me, and here are a few reasons why (I hate writing in list format)

1. Clients are not objects that can be manipulated.

You guys are human beings. The skin we work on is your skin. You should get tattooed by anyone and everyone whose work you want to collect. That’s YOUR skin, you’re not a thing which can be ‘stolen’ like a car or a purse. The way you adorn yourself and the way you get modified is YOUR personal decision. YOU own your body, not a shop or an artist. YOU are not a stealable thing.

2. Artists own their work.

Luckily for me, I have never worked for someone who’d presume to separate me from my clientele. But there are shops out there that do this- insisting that a tattoo done on their premises shouldn’t be posted on an artist’s personal site, or on their new location’s site. The artist- the creator of the artwork- OWNS the copyright to the tattoo art, the image they took of the tattoo. Of course, if someone’s face is in the image of their tattoo, that face needs to be cropped out; unless they’ve signed a model release, the wearer’s face is not part of the artwork. But the tattoo itself, that piece of artwork and the image of it both legally belong to the creator, not to the place where it was made. There’s only one exception to this, legally speaking. If the artist was an employee of that business and in their employment contract it specified that all art created was property of the business, not the artist.

Most tattoo artists are independent contractors, so this almost never applies.

3. Real teams, groups of artists who respect each other, not only share the wealth but ENCOURAGE collectors to collect from each other. There’s no risk of sharking if the shop truly does run ‘like a family’.

I know that the people I have worked with, and for, almost always function well together because we all admire each other’s work. We know what style each other person is interested in, and usually will gladly send a client back and forth between artists within the shop, or even outside it, to make sure the client gets a REALLY GODDAMN GOOD tattoo in that style.

For example, I don’t do a lot of black and grey work and I definitely don’t do photorealistic portraits. I know some artists, and work with some artists, that do these styles incredibly well- so when a client of mine asks for this stuff, I don’t just do it. I send them to that awesome artist I know who lives for these styles. And I know for a fact that those artists send people to me, for the style of art I like to do. We refer our clients back and forth, and often that includes artists at other shops, in other towns. Good artists want their clients to get great art. We also want to see our clients walking around with amazing collections of tattoos.

If a shop runs like a team, like a family, that means that everyone there wants to help each other, and help the shop to have a good reputation. It means that restricting clients from the contacting their chosen artist is a red flag, that the shop is NOT a family, NOT a team. A shop that disallows artists and clients from maintaining a good individual bond, or tries to keep clients from finding the artist if they’ve left, is not a very good team. Unless the terms were absolutely awful (artist on drugs or stealing money, burned down the shop, something crazy like that) there’s no good reason to prevent clients from staying in touch with an artist whose work they want. There’s even less reason for a shop to stand between the client and the artist, guarding the communication.

4. Good artists love their clients, and often stay in touch with them.

I know that most of my clients are happy people. They write to me via email, on facebook, text me at my business number, send me letters. They chat with me online. They write and ask me tattoo questions at random, sometimes years after I have last tattooed them. The people I tattoo become my tribe- even the smallest tattoo on someone makes them part of that, for me. Even the simplest thing.

I like to stay open to the people I have been privileged to work on. I like hearing from them. I like seeing new tattoos they get, from any artist, at any shop. A lot of times I ask them to say hello to the artist working on them, or ask them to send me a picture because I wanna see what cool new work they got. The people I tattoo are people I have touched. I love them.

There are people I tattooed fifteen years ago and more, with whom I still exchange letters and gifts. There are people I tattooed tiny little words on, who still text me to ask my opinion on something they are thinking of getting at shops thousands of miles from where I live. There are people like this who I refer to other artists, there are people who I don’t hear from for years and then they come in and say hello when I am working. I love this connection. I’ve always, in my personal life, been introverted, so for me my clients become a large network of folks I feel good about knowing. They’re important to me.

I have never worked at a shop that didn’t link to my social media pages, my email, allow me to contact clients directly, or which tried to control my access to my tribe. I don’t think I ever would want to, either. I feel good sending people to any of the shops I’ve worked at, because I know they will treat clients with this respect for their decisions.

The people I work on are human beings, and I want to know that they are ok, and that they can reach me if they need me. It doesn’t matter how many other artists they get work from, where or when or who. They’re people I like, and I’m their tattoo artist.