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Tattoo Artist Salary: How Top Tattoo Artists Make $100,000+/Year

by Taylor

A career as a tattoo artist can be a very lucrative and compelling choice for someone who enjoys art, but who is also looking for something more than the conventional 9 to 5 job that many artistic fields have to offer. It can be very rewarding to gift someone with a personal, customized creation that they will wear for the rest of their life, and if you’re talented and dedicated, then it can also be very profitable. If you’ve watched any of Hollywood’s shows on the tattoo industry, such as L.A. Ink, Ink Master, or Best Ink, then you knew before you even stumbled on this article that there’s a lot of money to be made in tattooing. A well-known artist with a large following charges an upward of $600/hr for a tattoo, which can mean $150,000 annually, or even more! These numbers can double, or even triple, if you become the proud owner of your own shop.

According to statistics on SimplyHired.com, the average salary for a tattoo artist in the city of Denver begins at around $36,000 annually (excluding tips). Of course, Denver also has one of the highest concentrations of tattoo shops per total local businesses in the country, which means there are a lot of, well, average tattoo artists, and below average shops.

To succeed, you absolutely cannot settle for average. Always be working to improve your skills and your business, even and especially if you find yourself already with a raw talent. The environment of a tattoo shop is quirky and fairly lax compared with other work environments, and it’s easy to let this easy-going pace strip you of your innovation and desire to improve.

Don’t let it.

With enough experience, one day you just may be able to start a shop of your own, which is where the real money lies in the tattoo industry.

Shop owners are guaranteed to make at least double what the ‘average’ tattoo artist makes, but it is likely that they’ll make even more than that. Not only does an owner generate income by tattooing, but he/she will also hire other tattoo artists to generate income, even when he/she isn’t working.

As I mentioned before, artists generally get paid on commission. For instance, I charge a 50% commission, which is a fairly standard rate for the business, receiving half of the cost of each tattoo; this means that I’ll make an equal amount of income as the employed artist does from each customer that he/she tattoos, in addition to the commission revenue that I’ll receive from my own customers. Another bonus of owning your own shop is that you don’t have to split your own commission; as long as all of the bills are paid, you keep 100% of your earnings, in addition to the commissions from each of your artists. The shop where I apprenticed had up to eight artists working each day, so you can imagine, even after business expenses, supplies, and rent, how much income is possible! A $100,000+ salary is well attainable as a shop owner, especially if you also tattoo, and that’s without the help of Hollywood.

But, if it were as easy as deciding to get a business license, renting a building, and making a fortune, then there would be even more tattoo shops in Denver, and in the country, than there already are. This is not a get-rich-quick game. A lot of people think that it is, and their businesses fail. Becoming a top-earning artist isn’t easy, and it takes a lot of time and effort.

Before you even begin to consider running things for yourself, you will begin as a budding, eager tattoo artist, fresh out of an apprenticeship at a reputable shop, who has been taught the necessary basic skills to pursue this journey. You’re at the bottom of the ladder, and you’ll have a long way to go on your quest to be a top-earner. To be bluntly honest, it’s a slow climb.

As with any employee who is at entry-level status, it can be tough to find work. Take this knowledge, and add to it the fact that tattoo artists are technically self-employed. That’s right. Even if you don’t own your own shop yet, all tattoo artists are responsible for their own supplies, taxes, and clientele because they are freelance employees. Not only do you start with very few clientele (aside from your supportive friends who have let you leave your permanent mark on them and who have possibly referred a few others your way), but you are initially out the money for your own supplies.

When I first started, I spent about $600/year on necessary items, but the numbers will increase drastically the more experienced you become, because of course you are using more supplies! If you’re working for someone else, most shops will cover the cost of medical goods, i.e. gloves, barrier film, soap, sterilization spray, paper towels, autoclave and sterilization bags (if applicable), but all of the day-to-day supplies, such as the tattoo machines, ink, tubes, and needles, are your responsibility. While you can write these off as deductions at the end of the year, start-up costs can be a pain in the wallet at first.

After supplies, your focus will be on creating and retaining a clientele. Without customers, you don’t make any money, right? Right. Tattoo artists are either paid on commission, where a portion of the tattoo price (normally between 40-60%) goes to the shop, or a monthly booth rental set-up; we don’t get paid an hourly wage. If you go to work for 8 hours and don’t do any tattoos, then unfortunately, it looks like you don’t make any money that day! Granted, many tattoo shops do have and accept walk-in clients, which can be a great source of clientele, but it is almost impossible to rely on that alone and make a living.

The tattoo industry is highly self-motivated, and many artists spend a lot of initial money (and time, more than anything) promoting themselves and their career. Even if you’re extremely talented at what you do, it won’t do you any good if no one knows who you are. You’ll wish to invest money into business cards if a shop doesn’t provide them for you, maybe on flyers to give to local businesses, and a web site to showcase your art to potential clients on-the-go, since it’s much more practical than carrying a spare portfolio everywhere with you–which I did admittedly do for the first six months of my tattoo career.

Once you have all the pieces in place, keep in mind that it normally takes about four to six months in a single location to properly build up clientele. The less you move around when you’re first starting, the better! This way, people will get a chance to know where you are. If you leave, a lot of people might not know where to follow you to, and even still, some clients prefer to stay with the same shop, even if you leave it. If things go south with your employer, it’s always a good idea to stay at least in the same city when you must move, but keep in mind that this will always set back your earnings as you work to re-establish a customer base.

If this sounds like a lot of hard work, it’s because it is! During my first year as an artist, I netted approximately $12,000 before taxes. Ouch.

Don’t be discouraged though by a little bit of elbow grease and self-perseverance; as long as you stick with your chosen path, you will continue to slowly climb that ladder. In my second year as an artist, I doubled this number. Awesome, right? In my third year, I netted about $32,000. The tattoo industry is really one of those where you get out of it what you put into it, and the more years of experience you get and the more time you dedicate to honing your skills, the more you can charge for your tattoos, and the more booked you will be with appointments. Not to mention, tattoo artistry is a service industry, and if the customer loves your work, you may receive a nice tip! Not everyone knows that it is customary to tip a tattoo artist, but in that third year, tips accounted for 22% of my income, or an extra $8,000.

The tattoo industry is tricky in that there are very few statistics actually documenting the income of a tattoo artist, and it’s hard to say whether or not one person will be successful because the industry is very competitive and requires a lot of self-reliance. Many factors go into your individual success, such as the amount of time you spend promoting yourself and how many hours you’re willing to work, how talented and dedicated you are to maintaining your skills, and of course, whether or not you plan to expand your skills into the world of small business to create your own tattoo shop. It is by no means a get-rich-quick career move, but it can be very profitable and sustaining, and you can make up to six figures a year doing something that you absolutely love!

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