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 incorrect picture can make it difficult for aspiring tattoo artists to get a good sense of what it’s like before entering into the tattoo industry themselves.
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
After working at many different shops over the years, I’ve found that most tattoo shops have a similar layout. You’ll always find the same type of equipment and very similar setups when it comes to the waiting area, tattooing area, and artist area (where all our extra supplies, the autoclave, stencil machine, and more are kept).
What actually makes a difference in a tattoo shop is the people and the relationships you form with them.
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. I’ve formed really strong friendships with most of the artists I’ve worked with, and we hang out outside of work. Most people want to like the coworkers they see every day. And since the tattoo artists in a shop spend so much time together, it’s much better when everyone gets along. When I have a few minutes, it’s normal for me to wander the shop, say hi to the other artists, and 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 in a shop, 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 shop. They either get fired or they quit.
Funny enough, issues with ego are way worse at shops where the artists aren’t good. If you put a bunch of great artists together, they try to learn from one another and have a great time focusing on their craft. But if you have a bunch of mediocre artists in a shop and a super-talented apprentice walks in...that’s going to cause some friction and jealousy.
And generally when tattoo artists aren’t great, they’ll know - and they’ll try to spend a lot of time trying to prove that they’re the best anyway. That often leads to a lot of drama and bitterness, especially when the shop doesn’t get many walk-ins and artists have to fight over clients.
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. At the end of the day, what they say goes. The artists are there to make them money. Whether the shop owner is approachable is hit or miss at most shops. In my tattoo career, 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. That can add a little tension.
Owners who don’t tattoo at all - they’re just businesspeople - tend to be more approachable, because that’s their whole job. They aren't tattoo artists who became shop owners. Their only goal in owning a tattoo shop is to make money. They generally want to keep the artists happy because that’s who makes them 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). They have preference in just about everything. The tattoo shop owner wants to keep them happy because they bring in the most customers (read: they make the shop owner more money). If a walk-in comes along and they don’t want to do the piece, they can pass it off to a newer artist.
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.
Pretty much, they do all the worst jobs in the shop. I don’t love this philosophy because eventually the apprentice will become a full artist as well. At that point, they will remember how they were treated during the early years and if everyone in the shop was horrible to them, then they will leave. Shop owners hate it when this happens because their multi-year investment into a new artist goes down the drain.
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. It’s their shop, so they need to know. If it’s a design issue (as in, they want a crazy design and I can’t talk them into something better), I’ll go to the other artists in the shop for ideas.
I go and talk to the other artist. Going to the shop owner makes you look like a snitch. If there’s truly a problem that must be brought to the shop owner’s attention, you can expect them to 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. Most of the time, if something’s about to break, your equipment will give you a bunch of warning signs. 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:
Hours and payment might seem like a weird thing to consider when it comes to the shop’s culture. But I see it like this: if the shop wants to steal all your money and have you there 24/7...then it probably has a pretty toxic culture.
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 what I get paid when I’m working at a tattoo shop. This is the standard that most artists are on. With this split, you’re responsible for your own materials and marketing.
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: If a shop is taking the majority of the money you make from your tattoos, you’re getting ripped off (unless you’re apprenticing with a celebrity tattooer 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: And as far as hours go, most shops will require you to be there 9-5, particularly for new artists. 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. If I’m working at a shop, I’ll almost always end my day by 6pm.
Additional work: Tattooing is a lifestyle as well as a job. Its comes home with you after tattooing 8 hours a day in the shop. 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, so there's a fair amount of admin work that you have to do after hours as well.
Tattooing after-hours: I’ll note here that some artists still take their 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 considered my hours to be 24/7. I needed to build up my clientele, and that meant spending a ton of time on social media, talking to potential customers. If they messaged me at 2am, and I didn’t respond...someone else might. Now that I have a steady stream of clients, though, I don’t have to be quite as on top of that.
When you start to make some more money, you can hire a virtual assistant (from your area or from overseas) 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. (And of course if you’re the owner, you can set your own hours entirely.) However if you’re an apprentice, you 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 you do not get these types of benefits. Tattoo artists don’t have paid time off. If you take a vacation, you’re not making any money yourself...or for the shop owner. That’s why shop owners 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! It’s one of the only industries that lets you travel and still easily have an income.
While you don’t have any sick days as a tattoo artist, if you’re sick, you’re sick. You can’t come in. 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 because, technically, you’re a contractor. The money you make is commission, and there's no base salary or hourly rate.
A Casual Workspace
You’ve probably picked up on this, but tattoo shops are generally laid-back and you won’t ever see someone wearing a suit working behind the counter. That said, it’s a business - and you need to treat it like one.
The only dress code requirement is close-toed shoes. Ink with blood in it can drop on the floor and the last thing you want is to get that on you. But other than that, 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. (Because of this, I recommend changing as soon as you get home - especially if you have kids. You don’t want to have anything on you that could 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
I’ll tell you right now - I’ve had some amazing conversations with clients. It’s incredible how quickly you can connect with someone. However, that’s not always the case. Who you get as a client can be hit or miss, especially if you’re in a street shop. 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 - and they’re willing to do so because they respect your art and your time. They come back for new pieces regularly, and like 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. When clients bring in their kids or babies, I sort of cringe. Because now I feel responsible to keep them safe and out of trouble in a place absolutely teeming with sharp objects.
...Haggle Over Price. When people try to get you to lower your prices significantly because they can “get it cheaper at the other place,” it shows that they don’t really value your work or what you do.
...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 tattoo 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:
In this case, I mean getting clients who value my work, who I like to be around, and who like to get my favorite styles of tattoos. While at a street shop you don’t always know what’s about to walk in, as you grow in your career, 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 - This plays a huge factor. If you’re in a city, you’re more likely to get more sophisticated clients with money to spend. However, if your shop is in a part of town with a bad reputation or a rural area, you might come across customers who are pretty rough around the edges.
Your Experience Level - I’ll tell you right now: I had to tattoo a ton of people before I started finding 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.