What it’s Like to Work in a Tattoo Shop

tattoo neon sign

Every tattoo shop is unique. From company culture and legal regulations to building layout, there are many factors that determine how a shop runs. Despite their differences, there are a few things that come standard in every tattoo shop.

The Waiting Area: When a client walks through the door, they’ll find themselves in the waiting area. Most likely, the walls are decorated with flash, as well as photos and drawings done by the shop’s artists. Magazines and photo albums of artists’ previous work will be available to help undecided guests generate ideas. Essentially, this is the place where new customers are encouraged to “window shop” and artists are able to show off their work. At the counter, clients can talk with the owner and artists to discuss ideas, pricing, etc.

The Storage Area: Storage will be in the back of the shop. Here, extra inks and pigments, unopened needles, tattoo machine parts, cleaning supplies, and more are easily accessible to you as the artist, but stay out of view for the clients. This space can also double as a work area where artists mix ink or solder needle groupings.

The Bathroom: Especially with longer pieces, you and your client will likely need a bathroom break. Your client might also feel a bit sick from pain or nerves. Knowing a bathroom is nearby will help calm their worries.

Tattoo Area

This is where you’ll actually be tattooing your client. There are a few things you’ll need to have to ensure that both you and your customer are comfortable in this space:

1. Client chair: These chairs are often adjustable so the client can sit in a comfortable position while still allowing you plenty of access to the area being tattooed. There might also be a table. Your client can lie down if the tattoo will be taking a lot of time or space on the body.

2. Artist chair: What chair you choose to work on is up to you. Some artists like the stability of having an armrest and back support. Other artists prefer a stool to allow for a full range of motion. Generally, a rolling chair or stool is a good way to go, as you’ll need to readjust around your client. Having the ability to raise or lower your seat is also a valuable feature.

3. Sink: Keeping things clean is key. You’ll have a sink nearby to wash your hands and rinse equipment.

4. Privacy: Tattoo areas will be private or semi-private. Your client will often have to partially undress (i.e., remove pants for upper thigh tattoos, pull down shirt to expose collar bone or breast, etc.). The tattooing area will likely be separated by a curtain or a doorway. Whether friends are allowed into this area is up to both you and your client.

5. Your machine: The tattooing area is where your machine will be, along with all your parts, power supply, etc.

6. Cabinets and drawers: You’ll find storage all throughout the shop. There are lots of parts, cleaners, and materials needed in the tattoo process. You and your fellow artists will need an organized system so you can confidently find what you need and get to work.

While chairs and a sink come standard in the tattooing area, you’re also able to have other materials with you:

1. Wheeled carts: You might have a cart or two to help you during the tattooing process. You’ll want the trays to be removable for easy cleaning.

2. Organization: Save yourself time and frustration by having a set organization method. Gloves, inks, caps, machines, spray bottles, paper towels, etc. should all have their designated area.

3. Trash can: You will go through a lot of paper towels during a tattoo. Having a trash can (one for medical waste is best) nearby is important to keeping your space clean.

4. Sharps container: As you finish with your needle groupings, you will want to be able to easily dispose of them in a proper sharps container.

5. To-be-disinfected container: This container is for needle tubes and other items that will need to be cleaned and sterilized. Make sure you clean each item before they make their way back to the tattoo area for the next client.

Professionalism and Customer Service

The public image of the tattoo artist is a gruff, standoffish character. However, as tattoos have become more popular and accepted in society, many people in the “mainstream” have found this stereotype to be incorrect. You can control the perception of yourself as an artist and your work. When you are professional and friendly, your client feels as though they are in good hands.

As a professional, you need to have a masterful command of your craft. You need the skills, the right licenses and certifications, and confidence in your abilities. You also must understand how to interact respectfully with others. Your ability to handle yourself in a business environment, even if the shop’s atmosphere is quite casual, is important.

You want your client to be happy. No matter your skill level, to make sure your client is satisfied, you need stellar customer service. For example:

  • First-time clients usually need a lot of “hand holding” and reassurance. You display customer service by offering guidance on their design and placement choices. You project confidence in your ability to give them what they’re looking for. If they’re nervous about pain or safety, you can walk them through how your shop handles both.
  • You can show your “high maintenance” clients customer service by being patient. If their detailed vision of dragon tattoo won’t work on their arm due to the musculature of their body, you need to be able to articulate why their idea isn’t what they imagine and how you might rework their idea to give them a design they love.
  • Showing customer service to indecisive clients means taking time to understand them and offering suggestions. Help them choose from idea books or flash displayed on the walls until they’re excited about a design.
First Tattoo Considerations

As an artist, you protect your reputation by offering a safe environment, gorgeous work, and top-notch customer service. In short, you boost your reputation by producing happy customers.

When it comes to first timers, you want to make sure they become happy, repeat clients. To reach this level of satisfaction, you need to prepare your client. Their nerves, excitement, or the emotions attached to their desired design can get in the way of clear thought. It’s your job to make sure they don’t wake up with “buyer’s remorse.”

Here’s a few questions to ask your client before they sign their waiver:

1. Will you be happy choosing a flash design, or do you want something custom?

2. Are there certain times you want the tattoo to show and other times when you don’t?  This will affect placement.

3. Is this design something that will be relevant and meaningful to you for many years to come?

4. Have you put considerable thought into the design and decision, or is this a spur-of-the moment choice?

5. Do you understand that where you choose to place the design will affect the size, angle, and outcome of the tattoo?

6. Have you chosen a design that you might be able to incorporate into a larger tattoo, should you decide to expand?

7. Have you done any research on tattoo designs or aftercare?

8. Are you comfortable with the artist’s experience with this style? 

9. Are you willing to allow your new tattoo to heal according to the recommended aftercare instructions supplied by your artist?

10. Are you 100% sure you want this design?

You’re not asking these things to scare them away (and you can tell your client this!). As a tattoo artist, it is your job to make sure they are going to love the design they get and will be happy with your work.

Keeping Your Client Comfortable

You might need to ask your client to wait for you to put together their designs or your materials. Don’t abandon them in the waiting room! Let them know where you are and what you’re doing. Offer them a beverage or let them know a time to return when you’ll be ready for them.

Keeping your client comfortable throughout the entire process is important. Give your customer a chance to use the restroom before you start and offer breaks during the tattooing process. Additionally, make sure they are comfortable exposing skin for their tattoo and chat with your customer while you work. Talking will not only set them at ease, but also allow you to understand people from all walks of life – one of the best parts of the job!

Culture and Environment

When finding a shop to apprentice or work with, you’ll want to consider not only the cleanliness and comfort provided for you and your clients, but other factors as well. For example, some shops focus heavily on the creativity of their designs. Other shops want their reputation to center around their cleanliness and minimalism.

When finding your shop, you want to consider: What does the culture look like? Is rough language or cursing allowed? How does pricing work at that location? Do you pay for the opportunity to work in the shop, and if so, how is the cost determined? What additional responsibilities will you have beyond maintaining your own equipment?

Every shop has a set of beliefs or a vision. Knowing that your values and the values of the shop align is an important piece of choosing your ideal work environment. While you’ll find that some of the shop’s norms are straight forward (like a strict no-smoking rule), some of the shop’s culture will be “unspoken.” You’ll pick up on these habits and what is accepted at your workplace overtime.

In the tattoo world, you’ll find that there’s a certain hierarchy within each shop. Who answers to who is important, and as a newer artist, you will probably be expected to clean or perform other maintenance tasks. This can be frustrating. But in the tattoo business, you have to earn the right to put ink in skin.

Additionally, you may encounter internal politics. Perhaps you are asked to side with one party or another. Maybe you unknowingly break some sort of unwritten rule or taboo. Unfortunately, politics come into play in just about every business environment. How you deal with them while maintaining your professionalism is going to have a lot to do with your personality, values, and threshold for drama.

Want to learn more about how a tattoo shop operates from proper setup to marketing? Check out our Tattooing 101 Online Training Course. We make sure you have the knowledge you need to be successful in the tattoo industry. Join our students and go from complete beginner to professional tattoo artist in as little as 90 days.

Check here to learn about our Artist Accelerator Program.

Nathan Molenaar