Social media and TV shows tend to amp up certain parts of what it’s like to work in a tattoo shop - and downplay others. That can make it difficult for aspiring tattoo artists to get a good sense of what the tattoo industry is actually like.
So, to help you out, I’m going to share my own experience working in several shops over the past decade and tell you what it’s actually like working at a tattoo shop - the good, the bad, and the downright disgusting (keep reading, I’ll explain).
The Culture Makes a Difference
Most tattoos are set up the same - it’s the other artists and the relationships you form with them that makes the difference.
Tattoo Artists: Friends or Rivals?
Most tattooing shows portray really intense rivalries between artists as they claw their way to the top.
I wouldn’t say this is very accurate. Most people want to like the coworkers they see every day. When I have a few minutes, it’s normal for me to talk with other artists or watch them work for a bit to learn new techniques and compliment their work.
However, if i’m being really honest, once you get five or six artists, every now and then you’re going to find that one person just doesn’t fit in as well with the group. They’re either trying to prove they’re the best, or they just want to stir up some drama. These people don’t last long at the tattoo studio. They either get fired or they quit.
The Food Chain: Who Answers to Who?
There is definitely a hierarchy in the tattoo shop. And it’s a very clear one.
At the very top is the shop owner. I’ve worked under what I consider to be the two different types of shop owners: tattooers and businesspeople.
Owners who tattoo in the shop get the best booth in the tattooing area and they tend to be a little less approachable. While it’s sort of unspoken, they’re constantly defending their title as the best tattooer in the shop.
Owners who don’t tattoo at all - they’re just businesspeople - tend to be more approachable, because that’s their whole job. Their only goal in owning tattoo studios is to make money.
These artists have been around for a while - and they’re usually the best artist/ biggest money maker in the shop (aside from the owner). The shop owner wants to keep them happy because they bring in the most customers.
New artists are low on the food chain. For example, new artists can tell the apprentice to do something. They can’t tell the lead artist or a more experienced tattooer in the shop to do something.
How the apprentice is treated will be different depending on the shop. It’s very normal for apprentices to be the “shop slave,” spending the first year cleaning, scrubbing tubes, running errands, and working the counter.
Here’s a quick overview on “who answers to who” when there’s an issue in the shop:
Generally, I try to handle this one myself. I want to make the customer happy. But if there’s a major issue, I’ll let the shop owner know. Sometimes, I’ll go to the other artists in the shop for design ideas if a client wants something really crazy.
I go and talk to the other artist. Going to the shop owner makes you look like a snitch - and they’ll always side with whoever makes the shop more money.
If you are the apprentice and someone is making you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, that’s something to bring up with the shop owner.
This is on me as the artist, but it’s pretty rare. If I’m in the middle of a tattoo and really need something, I’ll ask the artist closest to me.
The only time you’d bring this up with the shop owner is if it’s building-related (i.e. the AC’s been out for a week).
How I Get Paid as a Tattoo Artist and What Hours I Work:
When it comes to fair payment, a lot of new artists get tricked out of the commission they should be receiving on their tattoos. Here’s a quick breakdown:
60/40 - Artist’s way: This is the standard that most artists are on.
50/50 - Even split: If the tattoo shop is taking half your money, they should be buying some of your disposable materials and be advertising for you to get you clients. This is also what apprentices get paid.
40/60 - Shop’s way: Unless you’re apprenticing with a celebrity tattooer or you’re in a 3rd or 2nd world country, I’d recommend finding a new shop that isn’t so greedy.
I usually get paid in cash, but this will differ between shops.
The 9-5: Most shops will require you to be there 9-5. You can come in a bit early or hang back late if you’re still working, but how that is viewed depends on the shop. I’ll almost always end my day by 6pm.
Additional work: It’s not uncommon to have to spend 2-4 hours at home drawing a design for your client the next day.
On top of that, people are constantly messaging you on social media asking for quotes and wanting to get booked in.
Tattooing after-hours: I’ll note here that some artists still take their tattoo machines home for safety, but others leave their machines in the shop. Depending on the shop owner, if you take your machines home, they might suspect you’re doing tattoos outside the shop. This means they’re not getting a cut and it might make them feel like you’re stealing, since the customers would otherwise come into the shop to get the tattoo.
In some shops this can get you fired. In other shops, it’s no big deal. You’ll need to sort of read the room when you start at a new shop.
If you’re an apprentice: DO NOT take your machines home. It’ll look like you’re tattooing yourself and other people without supervision, which can get you in trouble with your mentor.
New artists have longer hours: As a new artist, I worked 24/7. I needed to build up my clientele, and that meant spending a ton of time on social media, talking to potential customers.
When you start to make some more money, you can hire a virtual assistant to help you with the admin stuff.
Setting your own hours: Veteran artists do have a little more flexibility, since the shop owner usually wants to keep them happy. But apprentices will be expected to be the first in the shop and the last to leave.
Vacation Time, Sick Leave, and 401K
When you work in a tattoo shop, you are usually a contractor, not an employee. This means if you take a vacation, you’re not making any money yourself...or for the shop owner. So they won’t love it if you’re taking a lot of time off. However, if you’re traveling and doing guest spots, then you can make money anywhere you go!
While you don’t have any sick days as a tattoo artist, if you’re sick, you’re sick. If the shop owner’s angry that you can’t come in because you’re hurling your guts up, then you should consider moving to another shop.
No tattoo shops have 401K or insurance or anything like that - at least not the ones I’ve worked in. You handle your own taxes and the money you make is commission. There's no base salary or hourly rate.
A Casual Workspace
Most tattoo studios are generally laid-back. The only dress code requirement is close-toed shoes, and most artists tend to wear jeans and a T-shirt or something trendy.
I opt for darker clothing in case ink does get on my clothes. (You should change as soon as you get home - especially if you have kids - so you don’t contaminate your home and pass along illness.)
It’s rare that a tattoo shop has rules about language. For me, I’ve had to actually try to stop swearing so much because it’s so normal in the shop.
That being said, swearing is usually used in a more humorous manner. I’d never cuss out a client or another artist, and hateful speech is not tolerated in the shop I work in.
Clients - the Best and Worst Part of the Job
Some clients are awesome to work with. Others…not so much. But I have a few tricks and tips on getting more clients you love (keep reading!).
My Favorite (and Least Favorite) Types of Clients
While I try to do my best on every client that walks in the door, there is a clear distinction between “good” and “bad” clients.
The BEST Clients…
...Have Money. They spend more on their tattoos. They respect your art and your time, and they come back for larger tattoos.
...Have Good Skin. Younger women tend to have the best skin, as they’re more likely to regularly moisturize and care for their skin.
Now, I’m looking at this pretty clinically. I have plenty of older clients that I absolutely love talking to. But their skin is harder to work with because it’s thinner and more delicate. And while I’ve really enjoyed some walk-in flash pieces, they cost way less than a custom sleeve, which makes me less money.
The WORST Clients...
...Bring Their Kids. I feel responsible to keep them safe and out of trouble in a place absolutely teeming with sharp objects.
...Haggle Over Price. If someone says they can “get it cheaper at the other place,” it shows that they don’t really value your work.
...People With Bad Hygiene and Major Health Issues. If someone is dirty or smells bad, you’re in for a few very uncomfortable hours. Additionally, if someone is severely overweight, it can be more difficult to get them into the right position on your massage table. You’ll also need to keep in mind associated health problems that could make your tattoos not heal on their skin as well.
...Are Clearly On Drugs. It hinders communication, which makes it hard to get a clear design description or get a deposit. Plus they can get aggressive, they move a lot, and they’re almost guaranteed to regret any body art you give them.
...Are On Their Phone. I have no issues with people zoning out and watching movies or scrolling through social media. But if you’ve got someone trying to post every second of the tattoo, they end up moving around trying to get a good angle, which makes it harder to tattoo.
How I Get Clients I Like:
All tattoo artists want to work with clients they like, and who want their favorite style. Certain decisions you make will determine what type of clients you get:
Your Tattoo Style - If you tattoo big, tribal pieces, you’re more likely to tattoo a lot of guys. If you specialize in delicate pieces, you’re more likely to get female customers. Knowing what’s “on trend” for different age groups can also help determine what type of clients you get.
Your Location - If you’re in a city, you’ll get more sophisticated clients with money to spend. If your shop is in an area with a bad reputation, you’ll get some clients who are pretty rough around the edges.
Your Experience Level - I tattooed tons of people before I found clients I really liked to work with. But once I finally got to tattoo a few people who wanted my favorite style, we really clicked. They told their friends, and I started to make more exciting designs for people who valued my work.
While most shops are very similar, there’s a few things I wish I knew about shop life heading in.
After working in a few shops, I found these things make working in a tattoo shop way better:
The worst thing about tattooing is accidentally finding yourself in a shop that just wants your money. I once worked in a shop where they didn’t even want me to guest spot because that could cause them to make less money.
Another thing no one warned me about when it came to tattooing was the back pain. You do spend a lot of time hunched over. So, remember to protect your spine by taking breaks and maintaining good posture. Going to the gym will help a ton with this (deadlifts are great for your posture).
However, I’d say the pros far outweigh the cons.Tattooing lets me do something I love every day. I’m passionate about it, so I actually want to be at work every day. I’m now in a great shop, I can travel, and I get to meet people all over the world.
Become a Tattoo Artist With the Artist Accelerator Program
Having a career in tattooing is not only fulfilling, but it’s also the most stable way to make a living as an artist. However, for decades, the process to become a tattoo artist has been notoriously difficult.
The apprenticeship process requires aspiring tattoo artists to work 50-60 hours a week without pay for 2-4 years. That, combined with the toxic culture of abusing apprentices, makes getting into the industry almost impossible for newcomers.
That’s why we created the Artist Accelerator Program. Our online course provides a simple, structured way of learning to tattoo that has been proven to work by over 2500 successful students, with many of them having gone on to open their own shops all around the world.
Inside the program, we’ll take you through every step of the tattooing process in 9 clear, easy-to-follow modules and support you along the way within the Tattooing 101 Mastermind online community.
In the Mastermind group, you’ll collaborate with other students, get answers to your questions, and receive personalized video feedback on your artwork and tattoos from professional tattoo artists. With this friendly community of both new and experienced tattoo artists, you’ll never be stuck again.
When you join the Artist Accelerator Program, you’ll have instant access to the full course and the Mastermind community, as well as our 30-Day Flash Challenge and recorded interviews with tattoo artists from all over the world.Click here to learn more about the Artist Accelerator Program.