I love it when people assume I’m rich. “I just gave her $500!!! and she’s doing another tattoo right after me!”
The sad truth is that I am not the top of my field. My prices are average for the cities I work in. I’m not a superstar, and I make less than a plumber. In fact, I earn, yearly, a bit less than a good schoolteacher.
Of course some tattoo artists make bank. They might work seven days a week, or have a supernatural talent; they could be working in an area with only one or two shops competing with them. They might simply be a hell of a lot better than me at talking to people, promoting themselves, or making tattoos. But even those guys aren’t millionaires. They’re earning what a plumber might earn…unless they own a shop. Some shop owners ascend into the millions, for sure. But that takes decades of hard work, and putting most of the money back into the business. They’re not taking home millions and rolling around in it like Scrooge McDuck.
There’s a reason we love tips from our clients, and that’s because we don’t have to share those with anybody.
Before you read on, be aware: ALL of this information will vary by region, city, skill level. There is no standard rate of pay for a tattoo artist. That’s the risk you take in any creative profession, and we’re no different. Also I’m only writing about professional tattoo artists. Amateurs can go shit in a ditch, for all I care.
(originally published on: Feb 2, 2008, with revisions for this post)
Tattoo artists come in all types, and also in all pay scales.. Typically, tattoo artists are paid a percentage of the charge to the client- in other words, an artist takes home only part of what you paid them. There are three “tiers” within the industry, as regards pay scale; contractor, employee, and owner/sole artist. Shops vary widely in accounting methods and starting pay.
A contractor usually is paid a straight percentage of the cost of each tattoo. Of course, raises come along with experience and repeat clientele. A contractor usually pays for all their own equipment and handles their own schedule, so they spend more money of their own on the job. They pay for all their own medical insurance and don’t have any unemployment coverage or workmen’s comp; they end up doing taxes and paying four times a year, and often have to pay for their own business license and such. Most tattoo artists are independent contractors.
An employee, on the other hand, has less overhead. While contractors usually provide all, or nearly all, of their own equipment, employees are often spared this cost. They are usually paid a lower percentage; sometimes, they also must pay into the same things any other employee would- insurance, taxes, and IRAs included. I’ve seen employees whose take-home is 40% of a tattoo.
A sole artist or shop owner is in the most profitable position, since they can reduce their overhead in various ways and keep all remaining profit. Anything they do pay out is going back into their own business, that they OWN, so they’re investing back into themselves. However this profit comes with a lot of extra work- owning a shop is three times the work, but only twice the pay.
Most beginning artists are near the poverty level- of course, this again varies depending on the artist’s ability, location, the competition, and commitment to simply applying popular images. Although tattooing seems lucrative to many otherwise-starving artists, in reality it is difficult and demanding work done at average incomes with health risks not encountered in other workplaces.
The one perk that makes the field irresistible to some is the personal freedom it allows, in both appearance and personal quirks. Most clients expect their artist to be a bit eccentric, strange, and body-modified; this allows tattoo artists to be as bizarre (or as boring) as they choose. Many people will sacrifice higher income brackets for this freedom alone. Also, the hours are extremely flexible, within reason. Not many clients are shopping for tattoo art at eight AM, nor are they sober enough to be tattooed at three AM. Almost any other schedule is within reason. Given enough experience and a good attitude it is possible to work very limited hours and spend all that spare time fishing, or hiking, or painting, or simply not working.
One thing which affects tattoo artists’ incomes nearly as much as experience and capability is willingness to perform mundane artwork. The majority of tattoo clientele either have a pre-existing design (which is usually drawn by a – very- amateur artist) or want something very similar to other tattoos they have seen. This presents a difficulty to many artists, who are interested in, and satisfied by, tattooing because it allows them artistic integrity. The majority of tattoos done, generally speaking, are NOT creations of the artist doing them- they’re popular cultural motifs (logos), text, and “something my friend drew”. Being able to make these things work on skin, without offending a client, is the path to making a living as a tattoo artist. Unless of course, you’re the rare genius. But somehow I do not think you are, since those are rare as fuck.
Walking the fine line between satisfying a client’s demand for mediocrity, and expressing something in a more aesthetically pleasing way, is one of the most infuriating and confusing aspects of the work. It is also one of the main reasons so many skilled artists earn less than they might. In my personal experience, simply making as many small improvements to a design as possible, without altering its basics, allows enough freedom to satisfy me while still making the client happy with the end result. It’s easy for some tattoo “artists” to forget, too, that they are not performing “high art” or fine art, but are performing commissioned illustrations. The snobbery implied by insisting on too much freedom can put off clients. You have to find your own way to explain to people what will work and what won’t, and why! Being aware that tattoos are illustrations, not paintings, can make a major difference in willingness and in customer relations.
Before I tattooed for a living, I was employed in a series of absolutely shitty jobs with very low pay. I have worked on a factory floor, and I can tell you that copying text all day long in a tattoo shop onto even the most whiny, twitchy customer is LEAPS AND BOUNDS better than any other work I have done. I make a bit more tattooing than I did working piece rate on a machine, but I’m not a high-dollar artist for the area I live in. I’m middle-of-the-road. But I get to draw on people all day who like tattoos. I get to make tattoos. So even my worst day tattooing is still better than the best factory job on earth…and when I go home I am not exhausted, I am happy. I have time to do my own artwork, to live my life outside of the job.
The satisfaction to be gained from knowing that there are many people happily wearing your artwork permanently is more meaningful than the money to be earned tattooing. A reasonable income for a tattoo artist will support them and allow them enough savings to have a normal level of financial security.
A dedicated and experienced artist working full time, fifty weeks a year, can easily earn at least 50k. This routine usually leads to “burnout” for an artist with any level of skill and conscience before the year is over, unfortunately. Being tired or creatively drained can result in poor choices which harm the clientele and therefore lower the artist’s future income. Taking less money and spending more time learning and relaxing helps in the long run, and the longer an artist works in this field, the more they can earn by the hour. Burnout sucks and I think everyone gets it sometimes, but most good tattoo artists “die in the chair”, that is to say, they don’t retire the way people in other fields do. Even when their hands are too gnarled to hold a machine, they’re going to conventions, maybe selling their memoirs, teaching. They’re still working.
I think this is because we don’t have retirement plans. I know mine is to just keep working. That’s it. That’s my plan.
Of course, working, for me, is enjoyable. Tattooing is a really enjoyable occupation. What would I do if I did retire one day? Go to conventions, talk to younger artists, write my stories. Sell off old memorabilia. Same as the old guys I know do. I mean I know there are highly organized tattoo artists out there who have indeed started retirement funds for themselves and have savings and plans for their advanced years. There are those folks who are planning ahead. I’m just not one of them; I’ve never really earned enough to put anything aside, though, either.
( by the way, if you feel an irresistible urge to give me money, check out my horror coloring book! )