How To Start A Tattoo Business in 2021

Tattoo businesses, at their most basic, provide artists with a place to tattoo while receiving a portion of their income as a commission. As increased interest in the tattoo industry has created more customers in recent years, the opportunity for new shops makes now the perfect time to jump into the industry as a shop owner. 

Why is the tattoo industry booming?

After COVID-19 regulations kept shops closed for months, many tattoo business owners are saying that they’ve seen a huge spike in interest since being able to reopen. Because clients have been waiting over a year to book in, the buildup of demand is getting released all at once. Many tattoo business owners are having to turn people away because they don't have enough artists to keep up with the amount of clients wanting to get tattooed.

Although many businesses are sticking with the new “work from home” norm, tattooing is one of the few in-person industries people just can’t be replaced by Amazon or online services. This protects tattoo shops from online competition, making it an attractive business opportunity.

In most places, both tattoo shops and their artists are booked out for months. For tattoo artists looking to start their own shop, the sudden demand for post-pandemic tattoos could mean faster growth as a new tattoo business.

In this article will explain how:

  • To open a successful tattoo business, step-by-step.
  • Get the condensed checklist here.
STEP 1

Master Tattooing

how to start a successful tattoo parlor

If you’re going to create your own tattoo shop, you need to be able to tattoo well first so you can build up a client base. It will be incredibly difficult to start your own shop if you don’t already have a client base that is ready to support your shop early on.

If you need help getting started, check out our artist guide on How to Tattoo for Beginners

Secondly, customers need to feel cared for. While this might not have been the case a few decades ago when tattooing was more underground, nowadays tattooing is more mainstream. And a more mainstream audience is going to look for a place that looks clean and sanitary and promises to treat them well.

Note

This article has been written to reflect building a 6+ artist street shop. However, there is less risk in building a single-artist private studio first because it asks for a lower initial investment. The steps below on how to start a tattoo business (including the shopping list and marketing tactics) can be scaled for a smaller shop before expanding to a larger space with additional artists.

STEP 2

The Marketing Plan: Your Roadmap to Success

Some business people will harp on needing an official business plan. In reality, this ends up being a massive stack of papers that ends up in the bottom of the drawer and never gets looked at again. What you really need to start and grow a tattoo business successfully is a marketing plan

Your marketing plan is simply the strategies you plan to get clients. Need some suggestions on marketing strategies? Check out this article all about Growing Your Tattoo Business in 2021

The Most Valuable and Most Destructive form of Advertising: Word of Mouth

Recommendations and personal reviews on Google or Yelp! reviews can really help boost business and get potential clients to trust that your shop does good work.

However, bad reviews can do major damage. Do not ignore them and resolve them as fast as possible with great customer service. If a bad review is disputable (you have proof that the customer never got a tattoo at your business), you might be able to get it removed. 

Need help getting more customers? Check out this article all about growing your business and finding new clientele. 

Make more money by Offering More Services

The more money on average a client spends at your shop, the more money you can afford to spend on marketing to get new customers. This is a good time to decide whether you plan to be a walk-in shop (read: mostly small flash pieces), a custom-only (read: appointment only for bigger pieces), or a combination of the two, as that will affect your marketing tactics. 

Note

It’s easy to expand a tattoo business (and bring in more revenue) by adding related services in-house that you can advertise in addition to tattooing. Adding services like these can help you scale your shop to well over a six-figure business overtime:

  • Body Piercing: Piercing and tattooing have similar health regulations, making it easy to add this service.
  • Art: Sell pieces by your tattoo artists or other local artists and earn a commission for the shop.
  • Aftercare products: Your clients will already need them. Why not make it easy to pick up?
  • Laser tattoo removal: Prepare clients for cover ups by removing old tattoos first.
  • Cosmetic tattooing: Open your shop up to a completely new market and bring in more customers.
  • Merch: Clients not only get a “souvenir” from their tattoo session, but they become walking advertisements.

Check out more details on expansion ideas here

STEP 3

Find Artists for Your Shop

You’ll want to have artists lined up to work before your tattoo shop opens. Otherwise, you’ll be opening a business with no one to bring in clients (or money). This makes opening a shop much riskier. Because even if you do a great job marketing and have a ton of clients...without enough professionally trained tattoo artists to take on all the work, the amount of money you can make is limited by the amount of hours you can work. 

While you can strike out alone and be self-employed, the shop will not be making any money unless you are actively working. You can make your tattoo business a bigger financial asset by hiring other artists. This not only gives you financial freedom, it also allows you to work whenever you want and only take on the tattoos you want to do. 

How to Find Artists in Your Area

Of course, it always helps to be well-connected. If you hire a tattoo artist that knows other people in the area, they’ll probably pass the word along. 

However, you can still attract great artists, even if you don’t have connections.

Make a name for yourself first: Build up your own following as a tattoo artist. Once your reputation starts bringing in clients, you have something to offer potential artists in your shop: guaranteed work. 

Note

Having a marketing plan shows that you are organized. This will give artists confidence that you know what you’re doing and that if they join your shop, they won’t need to be looking for another job in a month’s time.

Make an Ad on Instagram that Makes a Better Offer than Competing Tattoo Shops:

These days there are more tattoo shops than artists. Finding good talent is hard. Ask yourself: “Why would a tattoo artist work for me instead of any other shop in town?” If you cannot come up with a compelling reason, you will struggle to find artists. The easiest way to attract the best artists is to offer better working conditions than your competitors.

When putting together your ad for your shop, here are some ideas for how you can entice potential artists to work with you.

“When you join my shop,  you get:

  • $1000 signing bonus
  • 1 month’s worth of clients
  • Guaranteed $1000/wk income - or I’ll pay you out of my own pocket (only offer this if you have an existing client base)
  • All consumables supplied
  • All bookings handled by a counter person
  • A private booth (only if you have the space)
  • 7 sick days a year and 2 weeks paid vacation
  • 60% split

After you have determined what you can offer an artist, create an ad on Facebook telling them specifically why they should work for you instead of anyone else. If what you have to offer is compelling, artists will come to you. 

Facebook Groups

You can network with other artists in Facebook Groups and forums to let let them know you’re hiring. Some examples are:

Instagram 

Manually reaching out on Instagram can be time consuming. Speed up the process by writing a template message and then hire a virtual assistant from Upwork. They can help you message artists in neighboring towns and cities to ask if they’d like to work for you, or if they’d be interested in doing a guest spot.

How to Pick the Right Artists

The Must-Haves

Every artist you hire needs to have the fundamentals down.
They must be able to pull solid lines, pack color, and shade.

A Social Media Following

If an artist has a large online following, they’ll bring a lot of clients to your shop. 

You will have to pay them a higher percentage since they are bringing in more business.

If an artist has no following, you can give them a lower split because they will be relying on you to get them work.

Existing Clientele

One of the biggest challenges right after opening your shop will be attracting lots of new customers.

If your artists come with several of their own loyal clients, making money and getting reviews for your shop will be much easier.

Drug, Alcohol, and Drama-Free

Customers want to feel comfortable in your shop. The best way to give them reassurance is to hire quality artists that love what they do and don’t create a toxic work environment.

No matter how great of a tattooer they are, you do not want to deal with an artist that stirs up shop politics or is more interested in partying than tattooing. Eventually, that will reflect back on your shop. Hiring professional tattooists is key!

STEP 4

Cost Estimation

Tattoo shops are unique from other business start-ups because they involve a big up-front investment. 

While other small businesses can use cheaper materials or work out of a home when they’re first starting, tattoo shops need to start with high quality equipment and - in many states - a legally approved space. Knowing that you’re prepared financially to open a well-prepared shop is the first and most important step.

Two Types of Spending†

You will have two types of costs when opening a tattoo shop:

  • Upfront costs (furniture, renovations, etc.). These are one-time purchases, or they last several years between buys. 
  • Ongoing costs (disposables, utilities, etc.). These are daily, weekly, and monthly expenses. 

Find a printable list of shop costs here

Up-front Costs: ~$6515.00+

*If you purchase the space your shop is in, this will be an up-front cost. (See next section for more details on real estate estimation.) 

Ongoing Costs: ~$37,580+/year
  • Health department permits
  • Artist licensing (~$150+ per artist each year, depending on your state)
  • Studio licensing (~$300-$850, depending on your state)
  • Taxes (depends on your state)
  • Professional liability/indemnity insurance: ~$500+/year
  • Business insurance/Property insurance: $750-$1000/year
  • General liability insurance (should include public liability): ~$200+/year 
  • Internet ~$70/month
  • Photoshop teams: $34+/month
  • Biohazard waste pickup: $100+/month
  • Utilities (trash, water, electric): ~$200/month
  • Cleaning materials (mop, bucket, bleach, Dettol, Windex): ~$200/month
  • Artist disposables: ~$200/month 
  • Paper towels
  • Plastic barriers
  • Gloves
  • Protective eyewear
  • Face masks
  • Barrier gowns
  • Dental bibs
  • Ink caps
  • Clip cord covers
  • Stencil paper
  • Machine bags
  • Marketing: ~$500/month
  • Website: (Squarespace or Wix recommended): ~$15/month, hosting $5+/month
  • Spotify/music streaming subscription: $10/month
  • Counter person: $2000+/month (depending on location)

*If you rent the space your shop is in, this will be an ongoing cost at $1500-$2000+/month, depending on your state. 

† Costs calculated for a shop with approx. 6 artists.

Tattoo Artist Costs

What supplies you have to provide: disposables and marketing
Not everything the artists need will be your responsibility. However, there are some things artists will expect you to provide for them when they work with you:
  • Marketing: Your artists will be doing some of their own marketing to get clients. However, if you advertise for your artists, they will have a steady stream of work (meaning a higher income for the shop and for you). Additionally, helping out with advertising will build loyalty with your artists. (The #1 reason artists leave a shop is because they don't like the owner.)
  • All disposables*: Disposables are items that are used by all the artists in the shop. You do not need to supply tattooing equipment that is only used by one artist. Here’s a quick cheat sheet:

Stuff the shop pays for: 

  • Paper towels
  • Plastic barriers
  • Ink caps
  • Clip cord covers
  • Machine bags 
  • Stencil paper
  • Gloves
  • Other PPE

Stuff the artist pays for:

  • Tattoo machine
  • Inks
  • Disposable grips
  • Power supply
  • Clipcords
  • Foot pedal
  • Needles
  • iPad
  • Art materials

Tattoo Artist “Salary”

One great thing about running a tattoo shop is that artists are contractors. Most work purely off commission and from the money they bring into the shop. Since they’re not employees, you are not required to give them a 401(k) or health insurance. However, if you do decide to offer sick days and 401K matching, it will help you build loyalty with your artists and make them more likely to stay at your shop for a long time. 
Basically, the tattoo artists in your shop are running their own small businesses - and your shop is their “office space.” Every time they do a tattoo, they will give the shop a percentage of the money they make for the ability to tattoo in your licensed and fully-equipped shop. 
Usually, this split is 60% to the artist, and 40% to the shop. However, famous artists with larger followings will want a higher percentage - closer to 70/30 - because they will be bringing a lot of work into the shop. If the artist is still an apprentice, then the split is usually 50/50. 
STEP 5

Pick a Name: Make Yourself Easy to Find

When you start a tattoo shop, you want to make sure your business’ name gives an idea of what you do, as well as the personality you want your business to have.

You will need to register your business name:

  • Do a business entity name search for your state to see if your name is already taken. You can find this on your state’s Secretary of State website.
  • Check for federal and state trademark records to see if your name is already trademarked by someone else. 
  • Make sure your name is the same across all social media platforms. If the website is tattooing101.com, the business’ Instagram should also be @tattooing101. This makes your business much easier to recognize.
STEP 6

Register as a Business: Legal Requirements and Taxes

Most small businesses do not need to register with the federal government. However, you will want to register with your state. 

Registering as a business provides:

  • Some legal benefits
  • Some tax benefits: write off materials bought for the shop. 
  • Personal liability protection: If someone gets injured (read: someone passes out during a tattoo and hurts themselves), your insurance will cover the cost of their care even if you are legally responsible. 

You will probably want to register as an LLC (Limited Liability Company). This means the business is owned by only you or by you and a business partner. Filing your LLC can cost between $40-$500, depending on your state.

Having an LLC protects your house, car, and personal belongings even if your business goes bankrupt.

After you’ve registered your business name and formed an LLC, you will need to register for taxes by getting both a federal and state tax ID (if you state taxes income). 

To register for taxes, you need to apply for an Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the IRS. You can get an EIN for free through the IRS website. This will let you set up a payroll for any employees you have (like a counter person). Your artists are technically self-employed. They are only paying you a studio fee. They will file their taxes separately with a 1040 form. 

Note

If you form an LLC, you can save money by electing S Corporation tax status and getting paid by your own LLC as a salaried employee.

STEP 7

The Business Bank Account: Protect Yourself and Your Business

It’s important to keep your business and personal assets (home, car, etc.) separate. If the shop goes under, you don’t want your home to be taken to pay off debts. Here’s how to protect yourself and set your business up for success:

  • Get separate banking and credit accounts for your business. 
  • Get a D-U-N-S number. You need it for loans and working with other vendors. 
  • Set up Net-30 accounts that report to credit bureaus. This lets you pay for goods and services 30 days after you buy from a vendor. Paying invoices on time builds your business’ credit.
  • Make taxes easier by using an accounting software like Xero to keep track of the shop’s expenses and income.
  • Use a credit card merchant like Square to take all major credit cards. This makes it easier for walk-ins to get tattooed.
STEP 8

Find Your Space

Your location is the key to your success.

Deciding where to put your tattoo parlor will depend on a combination of these two factors:

  • Your budget (what you can afford to purchase or rent monthly)
  • Your area’s licensing laws (your space has to follow every rule or you will not be licensed to perform tattoos

Save Money With Fewer Renovations

You can save a lot of money if the location you choose is already suited to becoming a tattoo shop. For example, a space that was previously a dental practice or another tattoo shop will be easier to use because much of it will already be up to code. 

Additionally, looking for a place that already has wood or tile floors saves you money because your shop needs non-porous floors to be approved by your state health department. 

Be Where Your Customers Are

You need to set up shop in an area that is busy enough to support your business. You don’t have to move into a major city (in fact that could leave you with too much competition, lowering your income). But before you settle on a place, pay attention to its:

  • Traffic patterns: Is this space easily accessible? Is there a lot of foot traffic outside? Do many people come to this area? 
  • Zoning laws: Will my potential space hold up to what my area requires?
  • Signage laws: Where can I place signs, and what size and lights regulations do they have to follow?
  • Demographics: Do people who get tattoos live/hang out here? (Ex: Don’t set up shop near a daycare. Areas with restaurants and nightlife tend to work better.)
  • Competition: Are there too many shops already here?

Knowing the answers to these questions is important so you can estimate how many customers you’ll get in a specific location...and if that amount of customers will let you be a profitable business. 

Note

Foot traffic is a major consideration for small business owners. Setting up shop in a popular area with a lot of foot traffic will mean higher rent costs. However, you will not need to invest as much in marketing because you’re easily seen.

Fitting Out the Shop

tattoo business
Reception/Waiting Area
As much as possible, make sure every surface in your tattoo shop can be fully cleaned - this includes the waiting area. Comfy couches and an ornate rug will always look better than plastic chairs. However, they won't comply with health regulations in the tattoo industry.
The waiting area should have a front desk or counter, chairs for guests, a table with copies of your artists’ portfolios and display cases (for merch, piercing jewelry, etc.). Your waiting room should also display your state’s version of a Tattoo Disclosure Statement. Most states will legally require you to display it somewhere customers can easily see it. There will also be specific rules about font size and readability. 
Artist Area
The artist area will take up the largest portion of the shop. Check your area’s rules about space between artists (usually somewhere between 6-10 feet). Knowing how many artists you want in the shop will be helpful when deciding on how much space you need. A shop that fits four artists and a shop that fits eight will be very different in size.
Each artist area station will need:
  • Massage table or chair
  • Electric outlet
  • Rolling chair or stool for artist
  • Tattoo trolley and trays
Most states have some rule over sinks/hot water access in the artist area. 
Bathroom
Most states will require you to have a bathroom in your shop. 
Drawing Area
The needs of this space will differ, depending on whether your artists all use iPads or not. However, you will need a thermofax printer for creating stencils here. 
Bathroom: Most states will require you to have a bathroom in your shop. 
Cleaning Area
Your artists will need two sinks (one for handwashing, one for cleaning) and an autoclave in this area. This is also where you can store all the cleaning supplies for use after each day. 
Storage
Artists will keep the things they need for the day at their station, but not everything will fit in the cabinets in the artist area. The storage area should be stocked with paper towels and other disposables. 
STEP 9

Get Licensed, Inspected, and Insured: Be Legally Allowed to Tattoo

Every state has different laws, and each individual county will have their own set of regulations. What you can count on, however, is an inspection. A representative of your state’s health department will come to inspect your new shop and make sure it is up to code. You will not be able to legally operate without receiving this license (sometimes called a permit). 

Certificate of Occupancy: This is required for every business. It confirms that your space is up to par on all building codes, zoning laws, and government regulations. If you’re leasing a location, your landlord should get this for you (make sure they agree that it is possible before leasing). If you buy or build, it is your responsibility. 

In most states, a shop license costs between $400-$1000, and must be renewed yearly. 

For your individual artists, whether they need to have their own license, a permit, or must be registered with the state will depend on where you live. Many states simply require the shop to be licensed and the artists to register under your shop. (In this case, artists are usually only required to have Blood-borne Pathogens and CPR certifications.) 

Not sure if your artists need to be licensed? Learn more about individual tattoo artist licenses in every state here. 

Waiver, Release and Consent to Tattoo: Another important legal protection is your waiver, release, and consent to tattoo. This will be given to each tattoo client to initial and sign before they get their tattoo. It basically says that the client won’t sue you if they’re allergic to the ink or the tattoo gets messed up, and that they’re sober and want to get a tattoo, etc. 

You can find a good sample here. Some states will have their own version you have to use in your shop. If you build your own, this is probably something you want a lawyer to look at. (This is also a good time to prepare your aftercare recommendations sheet to give to clients!)

Note

You will be required to keep these consent waivers and other client information on record. In most states, you have to keep these records for at least two years. To cut down on the cost of paper and ink, take up less space, and keep client information safe, it’s a good idea to take your paperwork digital. Paperless waiver companies like WaiverForever can help you more easily manage client records.

Insurance

You will need to get Business Property Insurance to protect your tattoo shop financially in case there is a major accident or loss. Additionally, you will need General Liability (including Public Liability) Insurance (about $500-$700 annually for $1 million in general liability coverage) as well as Professional Liability Insurance (including indemnity). 

Your state will probably require Workers’ Compensation Insurance as well. 

STEP 10

Fill the Shop with Customers with an Opening Flash Day

Having a huge opening event makes a splash in the market and puts you on the map. Doing simple flash designs for a fixed, discounted price lets you get a lot of new customers - and possible long-term clients - in and out the door in a single day and introduce yourself to the community. 

Giving some of the proceeds to charity can help pick up press as well. Additionally, it’ll encourage more clients to come visit since they’ll also be giving to a cause they care about.

Your Next Step: Expanding and More

While we’ve just taken an in-depth look at how to start a tattoo business, it is impossible to cover everything you need to know to run a successful tattoo studio in a single article. 

This is where the Artist Accelerator Program comes in. Not only does it take a deep dive into advanced tattooing techniques for artists looking to build the skills they need to lead their own tattoo studio, it also offers shop owners a wealth of specialized knowledge when it comes to conducting business specifically in the tattooing industry

The Artist Accelerator Program contains modules discussing shop floor plan, pricing psychology, and systems, as well as interviews with experts on incorporating investors, expanding to multiple locations, accounting and business structuring with professional artists in mind, and more. 

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Looking for a tattoo apprenticeship?

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AUTHOR
Nathan Molenaar

Nathan is a licensed professional tattoo artist with over 8 years’ experience working at studios across the globe, including Celebrity Ink, the world's largest tattoo studio chain. When he's not tattooing, he spends his free time sharing his experience and knowledge with aspiring artists who dream of pursuing a career in the tattooing industry.

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