The Right Way to Run a Tattoo Shop, Dammit!
IT STARTS WITH BASIC RESPECT
Aloha, tattoo fans! Due to the overwhelming and encouraging response we got with the “Tattoo Shop Pricing” article I did a while back, Tattoo Road Trip and I thought it would be a good idea to expand on the topic a bit more, as far as the day-to-day operations of tattoo shop life are concerned. I mean, after all, if we’re going to tell everybody we are professionals, we should act like it.
One thing that really grates my cheese is to walk into a tattoo shop and hear blaring music, so loud that it is impossible to hold a conversation with anybody. This is not a matter of musical taste, folks. This is simply about business.
Back in 2005, I did a tattoo convention in Fresno, California. It was a fun show in a nicely lit hall, with plenty of elbow room. My old pal Tom Allen was M.C.-ing the show. He was doing a fine job until some other young man took over to provide commentary about an art fusion project going on up on the stage involving several artists. Microphone in hand, this guy proceeded to utter every explicative known to the English language. It went on for some time and I have to say it was very annoying and I called Tom over to complain. His response was the same I hear every time I bring up the subject: “This ain’t Disneyland, pal.” Then, after I told him about some jerks who were scrubbing mag tubes in the public restroom sinks, Tom told the young man in question and then ridiculed me, complete with expletives, over the P.A. system with full amplification. Real classy.
My question to you readers and everybody else in the tattoo business is this: Is this how we want to represent ourselves to the public? Are we professional tattoo artists or not? We all know that the Reality TV phenomena does not accurately represent us, so why feed into the B.S.? It has taken decades to bring tattooing out of the back alleys and biker bars into the present. Why would we want to contribute to everything that is wrong with tattooing? Aren’t we having enough trouble with every Tom, Dick and Mary opening a shop on every corner these days? Perhaps we cannot control those Reality TV spawn, but we can control ourselves. I must confess, I miss some of the mystery and danger of the old days. Walking into a tattoo shop was an experience of awe and wonder. But, it was dangerous back then, because they reused the same needles over and over for months! It was dangerous because, if you didn’t like the horrible mess the guy did on your arm, he would beat the snot out of you if you didn’t pay! It was mysterious because they told absolutely nobody how tattooing was done. If you asked, they would beat the snot out of you! If you somehow found out how to tattoo and opened up in the same town, they would burn your shop to the ground. Then they would beat the snot out of you again.
Times have changed. Shops are everywhere. Everybody is competing for the same dollar. Even if your work is excellent and theirs is nothing short of a scab factory, that customer base can be ruined by a poor attitude towards the clientele you so fervently try to acquire. Walking into a tattoo shop that smells like armpits, cigarettes and sounds like a Demolition Dirby vs. Godzilla Cuss-a-thon Porno Extravaganza will turn anybody away, including me.
There is a tattoo convention in Southern California that I do not attend anymore. The main resaon is that the promoters are not tattoo people. It shows in how they treat the artists. They treat the artists the same way many shops treat their customers: like cattle. I don’t like being treated this way, so why should I treat my customer like that?
Here in Hanalei, Kauai, I don’t have a “big-city-get-em-in-get-em-out” kinda shop. It’s a small 750-square-foot. space with enough room for three artists and a big, wool-carpeted showroom. I have a good-sized teak trophy case along a wall that has lahala matting and a straw roof. The walls are painted a comfortable gold color with lots of paintings and assorted eye candy on the walls. There are hand-carved Tikis everywhere. We have about thirty books of our line drawings arranged by subject matter on a viewing table (with stools), so people can browse and ask questions. We also have a futon couch against the wall. I let people come in and look around a bit, then I let them know, if they have any questions, to “fire away.” Even if they are just browsing. I always tell them to have a blast with their visit to Kauai on their way out the door.
The most common comment we get from customers is that our shop really makes them feel comfortable and at ease. If they inquire about our sanitary practices, I keep all our certifications and licensing framed on the wall at eye level to inspect. I keep an eclectic music mix on my laptop with about 4,000 hand-picked songs that shuffle all day long. Everybody loves the mix. I have stuff like Harry Manx, Tool , Led Zepplin, Billie Holiday, Nirvana to Enigma. The idea is to have something that appeals to everybody.
Occasionaly, I will allow customers to bring their own CDs. I do not allow “growl rock” or “gangsta rap.” If anybody is going to do any cussing in my shop, it will usually come from a struggling customer that’s getting tattooed on his knee. Seriously, I don’t want my shop to be intimidating in any way. Here are some other ideas:
The most obvious way to tell if a customer is serious or not is to get a deposit for their appointment. (Some shops charge for consultations. I think that is just being greedy.) If customers are not willing to lay down a deposit, then I know they are not ready, for one reason or other. There is no shame in not being ready. I never give them a hard time about this. But, I always remind them that deposits are not refundable, no matter what the circumstances are. (The only exception is when weather makes it impossible for them to get to the shop.) The amount varies from shop to shop, but I suggest a sizable amount to make sure they show up. I take a $50 cash deposit for smaller projects. That way, if they don’t show up, they can’t rescind the charges on their credit card. I charge $100 or more for a sizeable project that requires a fair amount of drawing time. In short, do not make appointments without a cash deposit and never over the phone.
CHARGE FOR DRAWING TIME
Yes, you should always include the drawing time in the price of a tattoo. If a customer complains about the $500 tattoo only taking 2½ hours, when we charge $150 per hour, I remind him that the drawing took an hour. Then, after I bandage them up, I sign the original drawing and give them a copy. I also remind him that I will never tattoo anybody else with the same design. It’s theirs. It’s a nice touch that adds a little professionalism to the experience and makes people feel special.
Another way to maintain professionalism is never to bargain with a customer. If they don’t have the money, I suggest they come back when they do. I don’t want anybody walking out the door regretting their tattoo for any reason. I think everybody should get what they want (within reason). Allowing the customer to control the process only lowers their respect for you. We talked about this in my pricing article. You can be firm without being insulting. Calling the customer a “cheap ass” won’t win you any points.
I do not allow customers who are not being tattooed into the work area. This is extremely unsafe. Two reasons for this: First, they want to touch everything. Second, they can say or do things (by telling them a joke or asking them to look at something) that will cause the client being tattooed to move or jerk about. I’ve been to too many shops and conventions where there is a party going in the booth. Usually, when you explain this to a customer, they understand and appreciate that you are taking extra steps to insure their safety. If you need someone to hold your hand while you’re getting tattooed, then your money might be better spent with a big dish of ice cream with sprinkles. Come back when you are all grown up.
LOOK SHARP, FEEL SHARP
Pull your damned pants up! Honestly, people! Do you think dressing like you just came off a scaffolding covered with paint and ripped-up jeans makes you look cool? Looking neat and clean goes a long way in how customers interpret your level of professionalism. A nice haircut, a trim beard or fresh shave, clean clothes and shoes can tell your client that you know what you are doing. Sloppy appearance only serves to make you look like a slob. You wouldn’t want your shop to look like a garbage truck, so why would you want to look like the garbage man? I really admire guys like Mark Mahoney and Bill Loika, artists who dress up for work.
HIRE A SIGN PAINTER
Don’t be a cheap ass, dude! Nothing looks worse than poorly executed shop signs. If you don’t have the skills, spend the money. It takes a real professional to make you look professional. Same goes for your advertising and business cards. This is especially important for your convention banners. When I was in Calgary last October, a guy next to me had a banner that showed some guy blowing his nose into a woman’s mouth. The guy was an excellent tattoo artist, but I don’t think he understood the damage he was doing to himself by using that image. Is this how we want to represent ourselves to the buying public?
Constructing a collection of well-photographed tattoos is a must! Blurry, out-of-focus, yellowy photographs only serve to make you look like a ’70s biker shop. People want to know what they are getting for their money and even if you are an excellent tattoo artist, your poor photography skills make you look like you are not! Invest in a good camera and read Tattoo Road Trip’ s new photography column and go to www.wasteoftalent.com and check out some of the excellent, hand-tooled leather
portfolios they make.
TATTOO OR PORNO SHOP?
I think you have to make a choice. Many shops these days sell all kinds of unsavory items, like bongs and dildos, to make ends meet. I personally do not believe these belong in a tattoo shop, even though at least one person a week comes in here and asks me where to get weed. This is an unfortunate side effect of the new breed of tattoo shop. At a show in Chicago a few years ago, I saw dildos on display at eye level to any passing child. I realize that the promoter has to sell booths, but I feel that this was way, way more than inappropriate for a tattoo convention.
LEARN HOW TO SAY NO
I went over this in my pricing article, but saying no to gang-related and racist themes will not only keep those unsavory characters out of your shop, it will also help you sleep at night. I’ve done some tattoos that I am not proud of and I don’t want to be known as a whore, so I let people know what I am not comfortable with. Doing hand and neck tattoos on young people who are not in the tattoo business really makes a bad impression in the eyes of the general public, not to mention, decreasing their chances for employment. I only do indigenous facial tattooing on indigenous people. Let the “new kids” do that garbage. Standing firm on your shop policies (like shop hours) is a must.
The most important knowledge one can gather in the tattoo business involves safety for all concerned. You cannot call yourself a professional tattoo artist or piercer unless you have completed certified blood borne pathogens training specific to tattooing, plus Advanced first aid and CPR training. I am not talking about those cheap Internet courses, either. Having a customer pass out in front of you and standing there like a scarecrow is just plain dangerous. If you do not know how to respond, you do not belong in this business. Having a customer become injured or die because of your lack of training could cost you everything you have. And it could cost a customer their life! Lack of knowledge in preventing cross contamination can infect your entire shop, its workers, their families and everyone who comes in and out the door. The Alliance of Professional Tattooists (APT) and the Association of Professional Piercers (APP) have excellent courses.
If you have an appointment at noon, then you should be set up and ready to tattoo by 11:45 a.m. Your coffee is already finished and you’ve already made your trip to the bathroom. And, let’s face it, smoke breaks are a complete waste of everybody’s time. Sometimes, when it’s slow, I like to invite the customer to sit down and we draw out their design together. Otherwise, it is ready to view when they come in for their appointment. There is only one thing worse than having your tattoo artist show up late, unprepared and spewing excuses while he leaves again to go smoke and your appointment starts an hour after it was scheduled. The one thing that is worse is to own a shop whos eartists are constantly late. I’ve fired every single artist who pulled this trick. It shows that they have no respect for the clients, the shop, for me and no respect for themselves or tattooing.
INTEGRITY IS EVERYTHING
Don’t be a dick. Be a dude! If you say you are going to do something, then do it… even if it hurts. If you give a low quote, then stick with it. It’s not their fault, it’s yours. If you raise your prices this year, you cannot expect the client to adjust to a quote you already gave last year. If you do, that makes you a liar! Don’t make empty promises just to be liked or to keep the peace. If a project is above your head, then refer it to someone who is proficient at it. If you set an appointment, show up. Give a little extra to the tattoo virgins. Give a break to your regulars. Apologize when you screw up. Don’t talk smack about other shops or artists and don’t listen to their smack, either. Concentrate on your own art. You don’t have to be the best artist in town to be successful. You just have to treat people right.
A few years back I knew a really cool guy named Big Matt, who worked for a neighboring shop. Matt was a horrible tattoo artist. I begged him to come over to my place and I would show him some better ways to do things. We didn’t have to tell anybody about it, I just wanted to help him get better. He never did. He may have been a hideous artist but he had tons of customers. Another gal named Jenny worked at the same shop as Matt and was a very fine tattoo artist. One day Jenny was complaining to me that Matt had only been working there at the shop for one year and he had over a dozen backpieces going. In eight years at that shop, she hadn’t done one single backpiece. She could not understand why he was so busy and she wasn’t. I told her the answer. It’s because you’re a bitch, Jenny. People don’t want to get tattooed by a nasty, self-centered witch. I’ve been getting tattooed off and on since 1972. I’ve been half way around the world and gotten tattooed by some great artists and some not so great artists, and I don’t really care how great you are; if you’re an asshole, I don’t want you to touch me. I don’t want that negative mana attached to my skin.
In summation, I can honestly say that after having been self-employed for thirty-six years, I know, for a fact, that you cannot please everybody. Some people are so picky that nobody can please them. Sometimes one of us has a bad day. Sometimes the planets line up just right and other times they don’t. Some pieces are so good that I have a hard time believing I actually did the work. Not everything I do is a masterpiece, and I cringe at my older creations, just like you do. No matter how good we are or how good we think we are, there is always someone else around us who is better and someone who is not. This is a simple fact. All we can do is the best we can and treat each other with dignity and respect.
Faithful servant to the trade,
—Uncle Tim, Blue Tiki Tattoo, Hanalei, Kauai, Hawaii