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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Check out more details on expansion ideas here.
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.
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.
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:
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.
You can network with other artists in Facebook Groups and forums to let let them know you’re hiring. Some examples are:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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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