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The Successful Tattoo Shop: Building a Healthy Business

If you've ever started your own business, you’re probably aware of how hard it is to make a great idea financially successful. I know it’s hard for artists to be concrete about money, and most would say they feel “dirty” when they “sell stuff” to clients, but the hard reality is that you have to sell things to stay in business. You could have the best tattoo shop on earth, turn out the greatest tattoos, have a great shop atmosphere and be cleaner than Calgary, but if you aren't making any money, it isn't going to keep your doors open.

The tattoo industry as a whole doesn't spend a lot of time acknowledging marketing or giving the education you’ll need to improve your situation when it comes to money, and that is understandable. Tattooing is primarily an art and minor surgery; you absolutely should learn the skills you need to make great art and sterilize before anything else. The problem comes with the big question mark over, “What comes next? How can I improve my business so I make a comfortable living?” For many artists this reads something like, “How can I make enough that I’m not eating ramen for dinner every night?” That’s where marketing comes in.

Marketing isn't just making ads and creating catchy-sounding “specials” like “Tattoo Tuesday.” It’s a combination of things, from the work you do to the relationships you create to the way you present yourself. The main ways you’ll improve your business sound like common sense more than “selling,” but you’ll see a bigger return on your investments focusing on these things than you will buying an ad on a park bench.

Do Good Work

The most important thing you will ever do as a tattoo artist is tattoo; you are putting a permanent piece of your artwork on someone’s body. That should be completely respected. This person trusts you to be a great artist, so you need to be a great artist. Yes, it means practicing every day, constantly, but it also means swallowing your pride and spending a big chunk of time practicing the styles and subjects you’re terrible not very good at. You won’t get anywhere by just relying on what you already know.

Formal continuing education can be a great way to improve your quality of work, too. You can take classes in tattoo techniques to learn new styles or an art class to improve your portraiture. Some states have requirements for continuing education, but even if yours does not, you should view this as an investment in your career.

Good work can bring in clients through word of mouth, but it can take time to build up a reputation. There are things you can do to help speed the process along. Once you've done great work, make sure you take a good photograph (or several) of your tattoo. You can set up a basic Squarespace website in well under an hour. This website can feature your tattoo work, your artwork and a brief biography to help gain you some online presence. It’s also helpful to post some of your best work to the /r/tattoos board at Reddit. With roughly 2 million page views every month, it will help get your reputation out there to the exact people you’d want to hear it: people that want tattoos.

Be Fair

Be fair to everyone—including yourself. This means giving a fair price for the time you’ll spend on a tattoo, including time spend drawing. Undercutting your time is one the most detrimental things you can do to yourself. If it takes you two hours to draw out a tattoo and you normally charge $150 an hour, you should be including the $300 in the final price. Many artists don’t feel comfortable charging for the time they don’t spend working face-to-face with a client, but excluding this charge will end with you doing more work for less pay and being utterly burnt out.

Fairness also extends to honoring the prices you quote a client. Just because you quoted the price six months ago doesn't mean you should immediately expect clients to know your prices have changed. Be fair to your clients; they’re the ones that pay your bills.

Be Professional

Some artists get into the tattoo business because they expect they’ll be able to set their own hours, decide if they want to work and take time off whenever they please. The reality is that, as an artist and especially as an owner, you’ll need to be in the shop almost daily. It’s up to you to determine your level of professionalism, but there are some basic rules to be followed:

1. Be clean. Come to work showered and wearing clean clothes. If you have a pet, invest in a lint roller. If you can’t be bothered with a lint roller, invest in some packing tape. At the bare minimum, you need to show up looking like you can at least take care of yourself.
2. Dress professionally. I’m not saying you should show up to the shop in a shirt and tie. What I am saying is that you need to know where to draw the line to make sure you are taken seriously. If you need a belt to keep your pants up, get one. Leave the shirts covered in profanity at home.
3. Be on time. Never take your client’s time for granted. If your appointment is at 12:00pm, you need to be there at 11:45am to prep your area, put away your belongings, and so forth. It’s okay to have a policy requiring clients to be within a certain time window (say, 30 minutes), but this only works if you are on time in the first place.

You can take the professional look even level further by creating logos and business cards for yourself that you can give to your clients and other artists. If logo design is not your forte, don’t be afraid to seek help! You can find great graphic designers locally, through friends or even through a discount service like Fiverr. Pay for quality printed cards (I’m a big fan of Moo Cards) and hand them out whenever you think is appropriate. It isn't pushy to hand someone your creatively designed business card, it’s just a neat way for them to remember your name…and possibly come back for a tattoo.

If you can manage these three things and create great tattoos, you are more than half way to successful. You've created an image that says you care for yourself and your clients, and that goes a long way in bringing business to your door.