Hot! Stealing from the Tattoo Shop


Leo Zuluetta

Leo Zulueta

The tattoo world has changed considerably over the last ten years, and even more during the last twenty. What was an aberration a couple of decades ago is getting to be commonplace today. Take for example the news that tattooist Leo Zulueta had driven past his SoCal tattoo shop, Black Wave, on South La Brea after hours, to see if one of his staffers was using the shop to work on customers without letting anyone  know. In other words, taking the money and not giving the shop its cut. When you’re trying to maintain a successful business, it makes it all the harder when underlings are taking the proceeds behind your back. I recall the scuttlebutt as to whether Leo was being a responsible shop owner or simply a tad paranoid. Turns out, he was doing the right thing: protecting his interests and being a responsible businessman. At that time, tattoo employees taking things behind the boss’s back was unthinkable, as tattoo artists at the time (two decades ago) considered themselves members of one big family. As the Musketeers so bravely shouted:  “One for all, all for one.”

A roll of paper towels here, a pack of needles there, shops with employees in any business are known to cushion their paychecks by jobbing everything from paper clips to table lamps… and not asking first. Yes, finding dedicated employees who are one hundred percent honest and work as a team is perhaps the most difficult part of operating a business. The fact is (according to a new University of Cincinnati survey), sixty-four percent of the small businesses surveyed experienced employee theft, but reported it only sixteen percent of the time. And why do employers let it slide? It seems other factors such as emotional ties to the employees and the difficulty of finding people who show up on time or have an appropriate skill level is not only challenging but, in some areas of the country, downright impossible.


Good Time Charlie

And if it isn’t paper clips or a jug of green soap, it’s knowledge: the education and hands-on training a newbie artist receives from a boss and other experienced members of the team. It’s not unheard of for second or third-tier tattooists to suddenly gather everything they can from an established shop, including its clients and reputation, and take it with them out the door and down the block. One artist I talked to entered his shop one morning and found that an aspiring young artist, who had worked by his side for ten months, had packed up, cleaned out his drawer and left a Post-it note on his empty barber chair, with the short but stinging message: “Bye.” This mutineer sought greener pastures, opening his own storefront a scant five blocks away.

While finding and hiring support staff can be challenging, especially in situations where the talent pool is limited, communication is sometimes even more difficult. What is protocol when an artist wants to move on and have his or her own tattoo shop? Back three decades ago, when an employee wanted to strike out, they made sure it was geographically respectful. Case in point, Good Time Charlie Cartwright opened his shop, End of the Trail Tattoo, in remote Modesto, California, so as not to bump elbows with established shops in the City by the Bay, some ninety-two miles away. Nowadays you hear of shops opening ninety-two seconds away, down the street and around the corner.

Some of these shops make it—after all, they keep the same customers they gathered at their previous location—and others soon discover that there’s more to owning a tattoo shop than drawing pictures on people’s skins; responsibilities such as buying an autoclave or keeping an adequate stock of paper towels. This can be especially disruptive when one has to pay for it themselves. After all, taking something that belongs to you isn’t as cost effective as swiping it from someone you work for.

—Bob Baxter


  1. Well said! That’s why I work alone and don’t even have a receptionist or an assistant…

  2. In the early ’90s I had a guy working for me that decided it would be easier to just rip me off and move somewhere else. Four years of showing someone how to make a living tattooing, trusting them with a shop as you are trying to open another location, who is the dumb ass here? I find it was me. The cops then thought it was a joke as they told me, “Hey, at least he locked the door,” ha ha ha. Total loss on the property, supplies, equipment and cash that was taken as the Grand Jury would not indite the guy for grand theft as they said I did not have definitive proof as in an “eye witness” or video to prove that it was theft. Therefore, insurance will not cover a loss that is not a crime. Expensive lesson learned.

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