Hot! 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.

Rent                                        $2,000

Utilities                                    $300

Phone                                     $250

Insurance                                $200

Supplies                                  $600

Advertising                               $500

Postage                                   $50

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


Total                                       $5,750

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,

—Uncle Tim



  1. Wonderful!! Bout time it was put out there!

  2. I just had to explain this to a “cheap” customer who gets tattoos out of a house. His girlfriend had a tattoo that she paid $25.00 for at a house, and when that same tattoo at my shop costs $100.00 he asked why. My response to him was that I have provided a safe and state-regulated place to get tattooed and that I take pride in my work and that I do this for a living and not a hobby.

    Of course my words were lost on him, as he did not care about how good the tattoo would be, just that he wanted it to be cheap. He of course left, with that stinky look on his face that all the cheap people leave with. My shop has over 20 years in the community and we have always be known as a reasonably price shop, with no additudes. So when the cheap people come back, as they always do to have those cheap tattoos covered with good work, in all honesty they are thanked by us, because the cover-ups are usually way more expensive then getting it done right the first time.

  3. I always find it pretty insulting when people ask how much I paid for a tattoo, and they counter with, “Oh well, I know a guy who would have done it for [insert much cheaper price here].”

    A good tattoo probably isn’t cheap, and a cheap tattoo probably isn’t good.

  4. Everybody (including me) wants a good deal. It’s human nature to want a bargain. But there are certain things you don’t want to get cheap on. It’s a fine line between explaining to the customer why bargain hunting in the tattoo trade isn’t a good idea and just, plain letting him or her know that they are an ignorant cheap ass who deserves to get scarred up just for being stupid. There are scratchers everywhere these days giving away their wreckage just so they can be “cool” like Kat Von D-cup. We must remind ourselves that the people who visit these idiots are not the customers we want. Let them go. Concentrate on improving our art. Let the scratchers worry about staying ‘cool’ while piling up hordes of pissed off people. When these types come into my shop and finally fork over the cash, they almost alway look at what i did and then look at the crap their “homies” did on them. The look on their faces is worth a million bucks. “Your right, Uncle Tim….your tattoos DO make all my other tattoos look bad”, they say. When the really smart collectors come in with quality work from other legit shops, I alway have them show off their work. I tell them how beautiful the work is. I always enjoy other artists work if it’s quality stuff. I give credit where it is due. The answer to the crappy stuff is always the same….”OH…..that’s nice (ugh)”.

  5. 100% agreement ! Printing this article out and handing it to any customer who haggles! Thanks for making such a great point! Very well written !

  6. I wholly back every word. I would only add that explaining this to a bitchy customer can be done very easily: When someone starts moaning about the price of a tattoo ask them, “What else can you buy for the price of a tattoo that will last as long as a tattoo?” If they are wearing more than 200$ in clothing this becomes even easier to illustrate.

  7. Couldn’t agree more! In all honesty, I won’t lie- it’s nice when you get a deal. But it’s normally the last thing I think about. As long as I know I have enough in the bank to cover it, I’ll happily book in a tattoo with a great tattooer, and ask about the price afterwards.

    I spent double the normal amount for an hour when Charlie Roberts did a guest spot in Newcastle (exchange rates suck!)- some of the best money I ever spent. Fuck it, it’s the only way you can take your money with you!

  8. i respect your diagram of cost of running a shop and the work a tattoo artist does but if you do the math and as you say you charge $100 an hr times 8 hr day thats 4000 a week times 4 weeks thats 16000 a month come on how do you expect the average guy to feel he dosent make 100 bucks an hr he probably makes 10 to 13 if that im just saying you gota look on the customers side of it to

  9. I am a customer and not an artist, I completely agree with this article, I mean you say $4,000 a week, but that’s if they are always full for the eight-hour day, not to mention the people who will show up at the shop looking for a small tattoo that may run about 60 bucks, $100 an hour would be for the big pieces. Then you have to add in the fact that most shops have at least one person working the counter that isn’t performing tattoos, so say that is another cost right there. You get what you pay for. I have one piece on my arm that was 320 dollars but well worth it, another piece on my upper arm that was 100 bucks and it turned out decent, but I don’t take the same pride in showing it off.

  10. If I charge $150 for a tattoo, I might make 80 bucks on the job after overhead. If you read the article, Melissa, you’ll see that if you are paying $2 for a large soda,, it only costs 5 cents to fill it up. But the overhead is so high that they might make 5 or 10 cents on the soda. Of course most fast-food places make 20 to 30k per day (gross sales). And…..we all have to pay taxes on what we make.

  11. When someone asks how much you paid for your ink, they usually only think in terms of $$$, not what this tattoo means to you. My usual reply to them is, “It cost more than $20,” and leave it at that. It doesn’t pay to feed into their crap.

  12. My buddy does awesome work…not just cheap work….quality because he enjoys it. And it’s cheap…and he’s living great…has plenty of money…the shop does not make the tattoo the artist does…thank you to the artist giving quality work at and a price that works for most people’s fanatical situations at the moment and still getting yours…that’s skill and love

  13. Most good shops these days are custom shops. This means the artist is tattooing 4-6 hours a day and then drawing at home another 4-6 hours…..some draw more than they tattoo. Most artists get paid 50% if they do not own the shop(some owners get less!) which takes their hourly wage from $150 per hour to $75. Prep and drawing cuts this in half again as they only spend half their work time actually tattooing. So now the artist is getting $37.50 per hour. Most artists have to buy all of their supplies and equipment including ink which is not cheap at all at around $25 per bottle. So now most artist are in around $30 an hour at this point. Not an insane amount of pay for some of the incredible talent out there.
    The figures above are very low for most shops as well. I live in Calgary which has gone through some crazy boom times and has raised real estate to an insane amount. My studio is now 3600 sq feet at a cost of $14,000.00 per month. I own the studio but still have to work 5-6 days a week to keep things afloat. Not that any of this matters….for the best tattoo work out there, cost should never be an issue.

    • Right on, Steve! This is a better look at the reality of things in a shop environment. Artists don’t make as much as people think. We do so much work for what we make. To ask “How much does ink cost, anyway?” is a fucking insult. People think ink has worth… and our experience and skill count for nothing. We get paid for our experience and skill, not for the materials we use, you cheap bastards!! But all the materials we do use add up at the end of the month combined with the rest of the overhead. That’s why we charge what we do. Get it folks? It’s like a biker coming to me with a $60,000 motorcycle when I did custom paint jobs and bitching because his paint job was $4500 and asking “Jeezeus, How much does paint cost, anyway? Fuck you, Tiny! Your stupid off the shelf chrome parts are worth everything but my custom painting skills are worth nothing? It’s exhasperating, dude., Thanks for chiming in, Steve! Maybe see you up north again sometime, buddy.

  14. Okay, so I have a very close friend who left the shop he was working at to take care of his kids, and for my 18th birthday he wants to give me my first tattoo (my 18th was last August, so I’ve been abstaining for awhile). I’ve seen his work, and I know for a fact that he still draws and even practices on himself. He owns all the proper equipment and he is sort of a germaphobe, so cleanliness isn’t an issue, but do any of you think because it’s being done pro bono he’ll half ass it?

  15. I’m sure you’ve heard this before: you get what you pay for. You should always try to get the best work possible. It’s going to be there for a long, long time.

  16. My partner is an amazing tattoo artist, she does them cheaply and from home. She has clients that have come to her for cover-up work that long-standing and widely-published local artists have not been able to do, as, by their own words on one particular piece, “I would have to use too much black, you wont like it,” and she didn’t use any black (except for some lines) and the-cover up is insane. She is VERY good, she charges less because she has no studio to run, but makes it very clear to all clients that when she has the studio she will be charging double. They are all perfectly happy with that and always tell her she should be charging them more and that they feel guilty receiving such great work so cheaply. She does it from home because we are trying to save for a mortgage and, unfortunately, unless she has three years worth of books, being self-employed, we wouldn’t get one. I know there are lots of “scratchers” and shops around that have poor quality work coming out of them, but you can’t tar everyone with the same brush. I think though that you have a point of people’s expectations of cost, etc,. so I will show her this and suggest she raises her prices now instead of later, so there is no surprise and loss of loyalty when the shop does open. On a brighter note I really appreciate the info on the cost of running a tattoo shop, as I’m doing as much research on this for her as I can so we can be ready as soon as she is able to start it. Great stuff!!

    • My advice on this is simple. If you feel guilty about what you need to charge, then you are a lousy businessperson. Guilt has nothing to do with what I am saying. it’s worth what it is worth regardless of where you operate from. I work at other people’s shops , and at my own private studio and I still charge $150 per hour, regardless. That’s what the going rate is where I live. More if I work at a shop in a bigger city.

      If she loses customers when she opens up a legitimate shop, then her customers are not coming to her for her skills. They are coming because she is cheap. Read the article again.

  17. Hi, Im Stella. Me and my mom are thinking of opening up a tattoo shop to own. We are new to this and need advice. Is it worth it? I mean, I think it’s pretty profitable but, is it really? About how much do you think we will make monthly? If anyone has experience with this, please please contact me at Thanks. We want to know what we are getting into before we make a mistake.

    • Spend a proper 4 to 7 year apprencticship to learn your craft properly before you even think of opening up a shop or you will fail within 6 months. Frankly we don’t need any more shops. There are way too many scratcher shops opening up on every corner that you will have to contend with. This market is severely saturated. 300 shops in Vegas alone….

      Just learn your craft and do a private studio if you need to have your own place. Keep your overhead low that way

  18. Stella:

    Unless you have several years experience in the tattoo world, I would say that opening a tattoo shop is a definite no no. Unless you are familiar with all the aspects of this industry, you won’t know how to pick the right employees, know how to prevent against infection, handle emergencies, deal with competition, etc., etc., etc. Tattooing or running a tattoo business is not for amateurs or new-comers. Just dealing with the city government will be a nightmare. Tattoo shops close every day of the week all over America and Canada because the owners don’t know what they are doing (even artists who have been tattooing for years are not up to running a shop successfully).

    Please forget about this plan. If you proceed, it will come back and bite you HARD!

    Thank you and best wishes.

    Bob Baxter

  19. Thank you for all of your advice!!!!!!! You are absolutely right about all of that and I ever even thought of it. Wow. Sorry it took me so long to reply. :)

    Stella Savage

  20. Thanks so much for your matter-of-fact insight. My current tattoo artist is exceptionally talented, is working for the most professional shop in our town (he just moved here) and owns a shop where he moved from where we had 7 seats and was booked 8 months out. As said, he just moved here and we just finished our third session of a large back piece. He’s clocked about 14 hours and has only charge me a total of $1000. I sat yesterday for close to 6 hours and he charged me only $400. I think he is seriously undercharging me and can’t imagine why…

    • Yes, he is seriously undercharging you. This is probably why he is booked out so far….he’s dirt cheap. But, I don’t know him or his work. this is why I wrote this article so folks can understand why we need to charge what we do. He needs to wake up. He is hurting himself, his shop and the craft and he doesn’t even know it. Show him the article.

  21. You pay 250 dollars a month for phone??? Who the hell are you with that is charging you that much?? But then you go to a conference twice a year and only spend $350 for flights food and hotel???? You must be sleeping in your car, and your flights must be imaginary Your numbers don’t add up. I’m sorry but if you are going to cry wolf about pricing then make it look legit.

    • TH….$250 for conventions is a MONTHLY expense, if you read the article properly…..multiply $350 x12 and that is the figure for doing two convnetions per year, rounded out) …about $4200.

      $250 per month for the phone inclcudes a small ad in the yellow pages, long distance, call forwarding, caller ID, link to cellphone etc.

      Is this legit enough? READ the article again.

  22. $250 a month for a shop line, internet line and a cell phone is about right. I think you missed the monthly budget with the $350 for conference. I believe he is saying that he budgets $350 a month in order to attend 2 conferences a year, again about right on the money.

  23. Well said! This is why Shige, Bob Tyrrell, Jeff Gogue, Jo Harrison, and the coutless other well known professionals have a good portfolio and don’t have to deal with the penny pinchers!
    They all have standards for their work, and people come specifically to them for their style. That didn’t happen by accident!
    Good article!

    • Yes, Steve, thank you. If you keep up your good work and charge prorper rates, then you won’t have to deal with this subject. But you start by having an understanding of basic business principles if you want your business to survive in good favor with the community.

  24. Hi. It’s John. I would like to ask if how much does the tattoo artist charge just the outline?

    • John…. It depends on the size, the location, the image and the complexity of the design. We need all the information in order to give you a price. It’s like asking me how long a walk takes or how much for a new car? You need to go to the shop and ask these questions. We will not give you a quote over the phone. Especially for such incompltete information. Thanks.

  25. Strange request. Someone else going to insert the color? Usually, if the tattoo is fairly complex, only the outline will be accomplished in one sitting. At the regular prices, I might add. If you don’t want anything more added, just don’t come back.

  26. Tattoo artists are druggies and assholes and very disrespectful.

    • Sadly, this is becoming true now that Reality TV has turned tattooing into a circus. Tattooing is attracting all sorts of vermin into the business these days. It’s so very difficult to find good help these days if you own a shop. But if you have proper training and experience you can usually sift through them as an owner. As a general rule, only go to the shops that are ownded by people who have many years of tattooing experience.
      Lyle Tuttle once said “Tattooing turns pukes into Princes”. But there are still legitimate tattoo artists around that are not drug addicted, alcoholic pricks. You just have to look around to find the right one for you. If you e-mail me or look in the directory we can refer you to one of the better shops. Hang in ther Sarah. No….I don’t think you are ignorant, just damaged somehow by a bad experience.

  27. Girls named Sarah are ignorant.

  28. Valuable info, thanks!!!

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