Tattoo Shop Pricing
By Uncle Tim Heitkotter
This time I would like to talk about what has been a taboo lately: PRICING. With many new, inexperienced tattooists entering the field during the last ten years, this is a touchy subject. It needs to be addressed. Many new artists may make $50 per hour and feel that they are “riding high on the hog,” making more than they ever did at Burger King or even doing illustrative work for an ad agency. They might think that those of us who charge the going rate of $125-$150 per hour, for the average street shop, is “gouging.” My question is, if they have never worked in a legitimate tattoo shop before, how would they know what constitutes “gouging?” Especially, if they were, until recently, on the consumer end of the stick.
We, who have been in ANY business for any length of time, know that overhead is the determining factor of pricing, like it is in any business. Maybe, if you were scratching out of your grandmother’s garage, your overhead is basically nil, but out in the big, wide, competitive world, things are quite different. Allow me to illustrate a basic monthly expense chart for the average tattoo shop.
Conventions(two a year) $350 (booth, motel, flight, car, food etc.)
Bank charges $300
State tax estimates $200
Federal tax estimates $500
Books, flash, tools, etc $500
This does not include bookkeeping or license and permit fees by your local government. This also does not include, of course, various personal expenses like house rent, car payment, car insurance, utilities, food, child care, medical insurance, etc. We won’t even discuss shop setup expenses. Every single month the shop owner has to come up with this amount, just to break even. It’s called “overhead.” They call it “overhead” because it’s hanging over your head every single month. Some months it’s higher and some it’s lower. It all depends on where and how you set up shop. Some areas are more expensive to operate than others. Paying the hired help is another subject for another time. But that is always included in the overhead expenses.
The whole idea of running a legitimate business is to make a profit. It costs five cents to fill up a large soda, but they charge you $2.00. Running a “shade tree” outfit out of your house is not going to create the documented income needed to buy a house or a car. It probably won’t be permitted by your local health department, either. So, if you want to run a real, “grown up” business, this is what you are up against. This is why we have to charge people. If you go to a transmission shop to get your car fixed, there is a manual that says the job will take, let’s say, four hours at $100 per hour. The shop will charge you for four hours, even though it only takes them two hours to do the job. This is because they have done the same job so many times, they are really proficient at it. But, the job is still worth $400, so that’s what they charge you for. I am so good at doing Sailor Jerry pinups that I can do them in about an hour, but I charge $250, even though my shop rate is $150 per hour. I am getting paid for my experience. The average beginner will take two to four hours to do the same pinup, but it’s still worth $250, regardless of the time it took. As far as the hourly rate goes, the clock starts ticking, when they sign the release form. Consultation, drawing, setup, tattooing, bandaging and tear-down are all part of the tattoo process. If you work in a lumber mill, do you get paid the minute you clock in or do you get paid when the blade hits the log? If a customer is a regular, it makes sense to give him or her a break. But why would you give a discount to a total stranger, who is just going to turn around and brag about what a deal he got to all his bargain-hunting friends?
My father used to say, “If you don’t charge people, they will never respect you.” When I was young, I used to argue that, if I charged what he expected me to, I wouldn’t get any work. Later in my life, I realized he was right. What happens is this: When you undercharge, you attract the cheap customers, who always expect a cheap price. They tell all their cheap friends how cheap you are, so, when they come in, you end up busting your balls trying to make everybody happy instead of making a healthy profit. If you charge the going rate, then you get to enjoy nice benefits, like going home at closing time and sleeping well, because you know your business is doing well, without having to sweat it out every month. You get to take a vacation or a few days off, if you want. You can actually have a savings account or a financial portfolio. Here’s the kicker: You also attract a better clientele, who are willing to pay for quality work.
The simple fact is, if you are going to be a cheap tattoo artist, then people will come to you because you are cheap NOT because you are a good tattoo artist. Literally, they won’t respect you or your work. Once you set your prices low, you will never be able to raise them back up again. Your “loyal” customers will go to the cheaper shop. Consequently, you are stuck in the viscous circle of struggling to make a living, and will probably start selling bongs or whatever to make ends meet.
The old saying goes like this: “Why should you work twice as hard for half the money when you can work half as hard for twice the money?” Truthfully, do we really want cheap customers, or, do we want customers who are willing to pay a decent price, so we can relax and concentrate on doing really bad-ass tattoos?
Shops who are cut-throating are cutting their own throats as well. The local price index gets ruined, when several inexperienced shops have to fight for the same consumer dollar. When this happens, potential new customers are drawn away from the really good artists just by the lure of a “deal.” The customer base is also ruined because they will not be exposed to the better, legitimate tattoo artists.
Back in the ’90s, I had a young friend of mine who was opening up a custom motorcycle shop. While I was tattooing him, he asked me if there was any advice I could give him. He knew I have been self-employed since 1977. I told him, “Never underestimate the power of the word NO!” I told him that knowing when to say “no” to people would keep him from being used. Of course, I gave him the speech on pricing and why it was important to keep his prices up where they belong. I saw him a year later and asked him how business was doing. He told me that he was usually at the shop from 7 a.m. till 3 a.m., working on all the people he was giving “deals” to. He said he had tons of business but couldn’t understand why he wasn’t getting ahead. He was losing weight and had trouble sleeping. Evidently, he thought the rules of business didn’t apply to him and ignored my advice. Now, it’s too late to change. He was too busy making “friends” instead of building a clientele.
Some time ago, a new (non-tattooing) shop owner came into my studio and pronounced, “I’m your new competition!” I told him, “I have no competition, dude.” He says, “You shouldn’t be so cocky.” I told him,” First of all, you don’t come into my shop and tell me how to act. Second, I don’t have any competition, because I choose not to compete. Competing means you have to lower your prices. If you want to give away your shit work for nothing, then go right ahead. I’m not interested in your penny-pinching customers.” Of course, he sold crack pipes and bongs to survive and the shop folded in about three years. Meanwhile, I made a healthy profit doing cover-ups.
As a rule of thumb, if you have too much business, you are too cheap. If you don’t have any business, either you suck or you are too expensive. If you can work all day and go home at closing time, you are charging the right amount.
In essence, pricing adjusts to whatever the market will bear. I don’t have any other answer to the glut of inexperienced artists and shop owners who are popping up everywhere, thanks to reality TV. If everybody was charging the going rate, then the shit shops would thin out rapidly. Most of the time, tattoo artists charge what they think they are worth. Your customers will let you know if your work is worth it or not.
Faithful servant to the trade,