What to expect as a new artist entering a post-COVID tattoo industry.
As an aspiring tattoo artist, you want to make an informed decision before spending time preparing for a new career. Like any industry, the world of tattooing has seen major changes since the beginning of the pandemic that have affected both competition and income expectations.
To get a read on how this shift has affected tattoo artists, we conducted a 2021 State of the Industry survey, asking 600 artists - both new and veteran - for their opinions on the industry’s current state, as well as their predictions for its future.
In this article, we’ll be breaking down:
1. Tattoo Shops Closing
A large number of tattoo shops have closed in the past two years. With heavy restrictions on non-essential businesses in 2020, tattoo shops took a heavy hit, with many of them closing their doors for good.
Because of this, it wasn’t a far stretch for our 2021 State of the Industry survey to find that the biggest fear for new artists preparing to enter the tattooing world is fewer job opportunities due to so many tattoo shops closing down.
However, this fear might be based on an old model of the tattoo industry.
In our poll of professional tattoo artists already working in the industry, we found that 54% of their customers come from word of mouth recommendations - double that of the 25% coming from the studio’s combined social media efforts and walk-in customers.
So, yes, there are fewer jobs in shops available…However, if customers are acquired through word of mouth and not the shop itself, you don’t really need a traditional shop experience to make a career as a tattoo artist anymore.
What does this mean for new tattoo artists trying to break into the industry?
In the past, artists got their start in a street shop taking walk-in clients. However, with the rise of social media, most customers are looking for artists, not shops. This allows artists to use their own social media and word of mouth to gain customers instead of relying on the shop’s ads and walk-ins for their income.
This ability to be independent from shop owners makes it much easier for artists to work in private studios and keep all of their income. Out of the artists we surveyed that aren’t shop owners, an overwhelming majority said they are working on a 50-60% split.
Without the overhead of a shop owner, artists doing their own marketing and working in a private studio can either double their earnings - or half the amount of time they have to spend working.
Note: Private studios still need to be compliant with their local health department’s standards for tattoo studios, and they must be registered as a business. To learn more and get a checklist of everything you need to create a studio, visit our article How to Start a Tattoo Business.
2. Competition is Heating Up
With fewer shops in operation and more artists going out on their own, new artists are able to avoid much of the hazing and gatekeeping that was previously used to keep competition out of the industry. That, along with the rise of online learning and self-taught artists, means there are fewer barriers in the way for new tattoo artists.
However, that means there’s about to be a lot more competition in the industry.
In fact, that was the #2 concern for new artists, and the #3 concern for established artists.
What does more competition mean for new tattoo artists?
It means that you should be building a brand.
For most new tattoo artists, it will be impossible to reach the level of someone who has been in the industry for 20 years in just a matter of months. However, most new artists are trying to rely on their art and tattooing skills alone to help them get clients through social media platforms that are already oversaturated with competition.
However, very few artists know how to market their work. This means that the easier way to stand out from the crowd is to use simple marketing tactics and build a brand that clients connect with. When clients feel like they know you and have a relationship with you, they’ll want to be tattooed by you, even if you don’t have the same skill set as a more experienced artist.
Note: If you’re not sure where to start when building a brand or using marketing techniques, check out our article 15 Steps to Growing Your Tattoo Business.
3. Potential Recession
In 2020 and 2021, tattoo artists saw their incomes plummet, with over half of the professional artists surveyed saying their income decreased 25-50% since COVID-19 shutdowns began. Many artists fear that COVID and other global events mean the U.S. is headed toward a recession in the next year or two (with some economists predicting fall 2023 as the official start).
Chart via ibisworld.com
However, tattooing is one of the most resilient “luxury” businesses, regularly seeing huge upticks in business immediately after major social and economic events. (This is most likely caused by the connection between tattoos and stress.)
According to ibisworld.com, the slight dip in employment statistics, wage statistics, and market size of the tattoo industry in 2020 was followed by a significant increase in 2021. (Some artists have attributed this growth to a prevalent “YOLO” attitude among people who were hesitant to get tattooed pre-COVID.)
This boom in the industry after economic hardship is not new to the tattooing industry. In fact, there was a large increase in tattooing immediately following the 2008 recession, with some artists actually claiming they saw more business mid-recession in the fall of 2008.
This is why it’s important to look at the attitudes surrounding tattooing specifically during economic hardship, not just general business.
What does a potential recession mean for new artists?
While it’s hard to predict whether there will be a recession in the next few years - or how severe it might be - there is one thing that new artists can take away: they should be prepared for the tattooing “boom” that comes after financially stressful world events.
Aspiring artists that have their portfolio and their skills ready for that immediate growth will be able to take advantage of the flood of customers.
Note: If you’re not sure how to start building your skills, check out our most popular article, “How to Tattoo for Beginners.”
4. Government Licensing Laws and Ink Bans
In our State of the Industry Survey, both new and veteran artists had government crackdowns on tattooing at the top of their list of threats to the industry.
The UK’s call for evidence about the safety of tattoo inks.
For new artists, the main worry is the possible increase in requirements necessary to become a licensed tattoo artist, while experienced artists cited the 2022 ban of several ink pigments in the UK as a major concern.
What does more regulation mean for new artists?
When states and counties tighten their regulations for the tattoo industry, the artists who are already licensed will not get their licenses revoked. They might have to fulfill additional requirements, but it’s pretty standard for changes like this to include a “grace period” where artists will still be allowed to work while they adjust to the new rules.
This means that the best thing to do is learn to tattoo and get your license as soon as possible. That way if new regulations are passed, you won’t be kept from tattooing entirely, and you’ll be able to work while making necessary adjustments.
When it comes to ink bans, it’s likely the U.S. will follow suit in the coming years and ban several ink pigments that are considered dangerous. For the most part, these bans stem from inconclusive research, which is why it is so important to fill out “calls for information” from lawmakers. Calls for information allow people in the industry (artists, manufacturers, etc.) to explain why certain inks should be considered safe.
However, because these bans are threatening most ink colors, ink manufacturers are working toward using safer materials. This perception of safety from the public will continue to make tattoos more “mainstream,” leading to more customers.Note: Not sure what you need to do to get licensed in your state? Check out our article “How to Get a Tattoo License in Every State in America.”
5. Tattooing Robots
While “robots replacing tattoo artists” ranked fairly low on our surveyed artists’ list of worries, they’re still worth talking about. Last year, the first “remote tattoo” was performed with an artist directing a robot from a different location.
This experiment was meant to be a test of the capabilities of 5G and was not intended to see if tattoo artists could be replaced by robots. However, it does show that the possibility of robots creating tattoos is on the horizon. After all, machines don’t get tired or make mistakes, which would make them an attractive option for shop owners that want to embrace the technology once it's available.
What do “tattoo robots” mean for new artists?
The possibility of “tattoo robots” means that artistry and personal style are more important than ever. While it’s true that tattooing robots are a good way off, it is very likely that the technology will improve enough to the point that customers could pick designs and get tattooed by a machine.
However, there’s a big difference between a machine using a design a customer picked out and a tattoo created for a person’s body by an artist. Understanding how to make a design fit and flow - as well as creating custom artwork - is not possible for today’s technology.
Making sure that your drawing and design skills are as strong as your tattooing skills will mean job security as we enter a more technological age.
Note: Need help developing your own style? Check out our article about Tattoo Design Techniques to learn more about creating custom art for your clients.