Make no mistake: the tattoo industry is extraordinarily competitive.
Just think about it: not only do tattoo artists work for themselves and self-advertise against others providing the same service, but the service happens to be applying art permanently to human canvasses.
For a potential human canvas, the skill, cleanliness, and customer service of the tattoo artists that he/she has to choose from are very important factors to think about, if he/she wants to avoid having a permanent disaster. For some, the only thing more painful than getting a tattoo is getting one removed. You want to get it right the first time.
With over 20,000 tattoo shops across America, there are literally hundreds of thousands of tattoo artists to sift through and choose from. Some cities across America are a hotspot for tattoo shops and have dozens of shops, all competing against each other to prove to potential clientele that they’re the safest and most reliable source for body art.
If you’re a tattoo artist or aspiring tattoo artist, these numbers can be even more daunting. With all that competition out there, how are you going to prove yourself, especially if you’re just starting out? What will give you the best advantages so that your tattoo career can become a success?
In short, where are all the tattoo artist jobs?
Are You Qualified?
The busiest tattoo artists all have a few things in common: impressive ability, extensive knowledge, and their ability to create return clientele.
While a few awesome, professional artists exist that are self-taught, the vast majority went through formal training to become a tattoo artist, typically in the form of a tattoo apprenticeship under an existing, talented artist who was willing to pass on his/her trade secrets. Such an apprenticeship typically takes between one and three years to complete, and the hands-on experience in the industry (not to mention the dedication to stick around for that long—apprenticeships are unpaid) is a fundamental building block for a successful tattoo career. Teaching yourself to tattoo often takes years of trial and error at the expense of your customers, and it can set you back years in your career when compared to learning the art properly.
During and after your apprenticeship, the skills learned and applied to your tattoo work should be showcased by a portfolio. A portfolio of your handiwork visually informs customers of what you can do and gives them a scope of what you can accomplish. A well-balanced portfolio is key to bringing in customers that have never seen your work before, and should include examples that speak best to your strong points, whether it’s traditional style, color tattoos, tribal, etc. Very few tattoo artists don’t carry a portfolio, and those are the ones waiting around for business.
Another aspect that is often overlooked initially in the tattoo world is the importance of good customer service skills. After all is said and done and your tattoo work is on par with many of the artists around you, providing a good tattoo experience will be the one feature that sets you apart from the competition—and create a base of return clientele.
Walk-in clients are a great source of income, but they cannot be relied on given the multitude of tattoo shops across the country that must share all of them. If you give walk-in clients a great experience, however, and make them feel heard, respected, and valuable, then they’ll forget all of those other shops and put their trust in you. They’ll tell their friends about you and rave to anyone who asks about their tattoo that you are just the bee’s knees, and then maybe you’ll gain additional customers, just for being a decent people person! If you are rude, snarky, and condescending, then your client will remember to tell that to people they know that are in the market for a good tattoo, and it won’t matter how amazing your portfolio is, or how knowledgeable you are because those people will never make it to your chair.
Location, Location, Location
It’s also in your best interest to research how well the tattoo industry is received in the area where you are or will be working. Naturally, some cities have a higher supply of tattoo shops and tattoo artists than others, and some cities have a higher or lower demand for them. The best areas to work in are those that have a high demand for tattoo artists, but have very few shops and artists available to them. In these areas where there isn’t much competition, tattoo shops always seem to be busy. If the city where you’re located has a tattoo shop on every street and they all seem to have a mediocre amount of foot traffic, well, you should probably look elsewhere for employment.
Areas that are crowded with tattoo shops, in addition to having to worry about attracting the most of a limited number of clientele, also have to worry about one more thing: price competition. Places with a high demand for tattoo shops can generally charge higher prices because they lack local competition with other artists, but tattoo hotspots across the country often have to maintain a lower price to look more appealing than their neighbor shop down the street. While attracting clients with an extraordinarily low rate can be a good strategy when you’re just starting out, to work up experience and add to that portfolio, it’s rarely sustainable long-term. We all have bills to pay, right?
Plus, once you get better and better, you’ll no longer be willing to work for such low wages and will either have to step up your customer service a notch to make your raised price worth it, or move to an area where it makes sense to charge a little more.
The Best Cities for Tattoo Artists
The West Coast is one of the birthplaces of some of the types of tattooing that are popular today, and it’s still a prevalent place for body art among the tattoo community. Los Angeles is an obvious choice to get your foot in the door and has a reputation for being very tattoo-friendly, thanks in part to shows like L.A. Ink. While it has a plethora of shops (150 within 10 miles of the city center—wow!), the city also has an enormous populace that are highly interested in tattoos, which brings its shops per capita to about 4 shops per 100,000 people. Las Vegas is another great location; while it has a fairly crowded 16 shops per 100,000 people, it is a tourist town with an ever-revolving population. Tattoos are a tourist attraction in themselves here, therefore making the abundance of shops less of an issue with price competition than in Los Angeles or other large tattoo cities.
However, don’t discount the smaller towns; as previously mentioned, a lack of competition will make you one busy artist if there’s enough demand. Billings, Montana has a mere 15 or so tattoo shops in its entire 42 square mile metropolitan area, but it’s also the most populated city in the state. Its citizens’ median age is in the mid-thirties range, which is the age group reported to have the most tattoos overall in America. Kurt Roper, owner of 7 Sister Tattoo Parlour in Billings, was originally a tattoo artist working in Denver, Colorado and relocated to open his own shop, which has had abundant success. Tattoo shop start-ups are rough in Denver because there are literally thousands of shops already in business, but Billings was highly receptive to a new addition to its body art repertoire.
The Worst Cities for Tattoo Artists
Some areas just don’t have a huge demand for tattoos, and of course you’ll be hard-pressed to find work or successfully open a shop of your own without an existing desire by others for your trade. A lot of towns with fewer tattoo shops incidentally also have a high percentage of citizens who are 65 or over in age, such as Anderson, South Carolina or Punta Gorda, Florida; a third of the latter’s population is made up of senior citizens (the city also has three times as many golf courses as tattoo shops).
Furthermore, cities whose populations have a decent-sized opposition of tattoos in general, such as the largely Mormon Salt Lake City, have a few tattoo shops to choose from, but chances are these shops are already well-established and already meet the demand for their particular area without need for additional artists.
More than 1/5 of the U.S. population sports at least one tattoo, and it’s safe to say that they’re generally pretty widely accepted. But as you can see, every city is a little bit different, and it pays to do your research to make sure that you choose the best location for where you are in your tattoo career.