Question 17: Plenty Money
What’s in my pocket?
Do tattooers charge according to how much they think a client can pay? A friend and I have long suspected that the reason we are always asked “what do you do” is to guesstimate our income. We’re both always happy to pay whatever’s fair, just curious.
[Image: a form question “what’s your budget?” and the response “that’s fine”]
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I’ve had many conversations with other tattoo artists about pricing tattoos over the years, but especially so in the past month. It’s a natural follow-up to the winter cancellation season, and with the reality of inflation setting in and the impending arrival of tax season we start to ask ourselves: is our pricing structure sustainable? Out-of-date? Should we…raise our prices?
Speaking of money, mine’s on the chances that a tattoo artist asking what you do is far more likely to be trying to make conversation and put you at ease than to try to suss out which tax bracket you belong to. Small talk goes a long way toward putting everyone at ease and making you feel welcome, which should be a higher priority than planning what to charge you at the end of the session. You mentioned you and your friend are both happy to pay whatever is fair for a tattoo, which is the right attitude to have, but it sounds like you might have been surprised by the cost a time or two or felt you were being overcharged.
I’ve always understood the cost of a tattoo to be a general sum of factors including time, detail, placement, color vs. black and grey, the amount of experience the artist has, and the going rate at a particular time. Simple, right? The rates I’ve charged over the years have always been in relationship to what the average hourly and minimum were in my city, what my coworkers charged, how long I’d been tattooing, and how much experience and expertise I was bringing to the piece. Lately, though, I’m often mystified by how people are arriving that the final price of their tattoo. Some numbers feel far too low and some feel astronomically high, like Jordan Firstman’s god deciding prices. I find myself wishing I could get a look at the math.
[Image: confused woman doing math meme]
What clients often don’t see when they hear an hourly rate or total price is how that covers artist costs. Most of us are self-employed, so take out 30% for taxes. Most shops take a percentage, so artists might only be getting a fraction of the overall price. We pay for our own machines, inks, needles, tubes, and if we’re private studio artists, our rent, utilities, paper towels, gloves, insurance, and the list goes on. The cost of these things has risen dramatically, in some cases doubling due to supply chain issues. The pandemic added PPE costs on top of that, requiring regular bulk orders of masks and investment in air filters. Add to that transportation, buying lunch, tipping out your assistant, and it’s not unheard of to be in the red on a particularly slow day. That’s why tipping is so appreciated and can make a big difference in what an artist actually takes home.
An old friend of mine who did sex work once described to me how offering a luxury good or service meant that after a certain price point, the only people who could afford it were the 1%-- people like Goldman Sachs executives and politicians with private helicopters. “Real Patrick Bateman types” was how she put it. I worked with a celebrity tattooer years ago who had a thousand-dollar minimum for any tattoo, even small ones. What’s wild is that a price tag like that isn’t so eye-popping these days. Observing the clients who would come in at that rate even back then, it was clear they were paying for more than the tattoo itself, and that the extra cost was expected to guarantee other extras. Extra attention, extra time, extra entertainment and showmanship. Extra experience.
[Image: a gif of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho peeling off a face mask.]
I haven’t raised my prices in several years and have been feeling like I’m overdue to give myself a raise. I struggle with the idea, for many reasons I’ll save for another newsletter, but the main reason I keep coming back to is that I don’t want to price out all the incredibly cool clients I’m able to work with, many of whom are grad students, social workers, service industry workers or artists themselves. I don’t want to commodify myself into a luxury good or work only with people with standing reservations at Dorsia. I can say this from a relatively comfortable place as someone who has a regular clientele that tips generously, but even as I see people around me increasing their rates I feel reluctant to do it myself. I feel like I’ve reached an equilibrium that I’m loath to tamper with. If it ain’t broke?
Regardless of what you’re paying, it never feels good to be blindsided by a price you didn’t expect. And I’d say sticker shock feels bad on both sides— as an artist you don’t want to charge a client something that’s going to put them at a financial disadvantage, and there are elements of feeling undervalued when someone was obviously expecting a discounted rate you never discussed. No one wants anyone to say dammmn… when they hear the price. Artists should at least give you a sense of what to expect ahead of time, and there’s nothing uncouth about requesting an estimate beforehand (so don’t be afraid to ask!). That responsibility lies with both people; if you only have so much to spend, be transparent with that. There are a number of ways to make a tattoo more financially accessible, like simplifying it or breaking it into multiple sessions over time. A growing number of artists these days are offering sliding scale pricing or asking clients to share their budget ahead of time so that there’s flexibility in cost. I have a standard rate, a couple of spots a month at a lower “community rate,” and offer a set number of pro bono tattoos for people needing cover-ups.
Even I have to remind myself once in awhile that clients are investing in something that will last them a lifetime. Sometimes that’s worth saving and planning for, the way that we approach other long-term commitments. We tattooers have to respect clients’ financial priorities too, knowing tattoos aren’t the most urgent need. While yes, I want you to work on your backpiece regularly, I want you to make sure your bills are paid first.
You definitely shouldn’t feel like someone is looking at your watch and shoes to guess how much they cost before giving you the total. That’s extractive; the goal is to make the exchange feel worthwhile for both people rather than seeing how much you can “get” out of someone. And this can have to do with more than the monetary exchange, too. I’ve had clients I was tattooing pro bono bring a piece of art they made, a sweet baked good, a flower they picked on their way to the shop. Knowing your labor and time is being seen and appreciated goes a long way, and so does knowing your artist is treating you fairly.
Apologies for the lapse in newsletters. Every week I’ve sat down to answer a question and haven’t been able to get in the right flow of response. The last couple of months I’ve fallen into a rhythm of posting every two weeks or so, which felt right over the holiday season and transition into the new year, but I’m going to do my best to be more regular, so please keep your questions coming! Ask here.
You can buy my book Could This Be Magic? Tattooing as Liberation Work via Afterlife Press.