Tattoo artists can earn anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000+ per year, depending on talent, experience, and the willingness to work long hours. Other factors also come into play when weighing up the pros and cons of entering the growing tattoo industry...
Getting paid for your art is difficult: notoriously difficult in fact. The concept of the “starving artist” plays a key role in cultural perception of those choosing to pursue their creative passions. It is surprising at times that anyone attempts to become a professional artist at all.
For those with a natural penchant for pen and ink however, there is a better option. With the continued boom in the tattoo industry, many creative individuals are choosing to take up tattooing as an art form, passion, and income stream.
The following piece examines a variety of important considerations for artists interested in transitioning to the popular and exciting medium of tattoo art and application.
Average Yearly Income
There are a variety of factors that determine how much a tattoo artist can make, most notably experience and skill. Another key factor determining an artist’s annual salary is the location, with more business generally being clustered around densely populated metropolitan areas, although in the age of the internet this doesn’t hold quite as much weight as it once did.
Most artists make between $30K and $50K. Again, highly renowned and experienced artists will make more than this, with some of the most highly paid tattoo artists making upwards of $100K per year.
Rates: Minimum, Hourly, and per Piece Pricing
When examining the salary and earning potential of a tattoo artist, a good place to start is the rates that artists and shops charge. At the heart of this price is the experience of an artist. In the United States the average shop rates in major cities is around $150 per hour. Remember this is an average taking into account the entire spectrum of artists: an apprentice may charge $50 USD while someone with 20 years of experience may charge $300 per hour.
Many shops also do promotion sales with a specific list of flash designs on special for $50 or $100 for a piece, forgoing the hourly pay rate. It is also worth noting that most businesses have a “shop minimum”, so even a piece the size of a quarter that takes 30 minutes will still cost more than a price based on the hourly rate.
Do Shops Take a Percentage?
Yes, in the most common business model artist pay “rent” to the shop that is generally based on a set percentage per tattoo, usually 40% or 50%. So, if an artist charges a customer $500 for a koi tattoo the shop will take $250 and the artist will take $250. While this may seem a bit high, when it comes to modern tattoo studios, the name and reputation of a popular shop is a commodity and the owners understand the role this plays in getting artists work. This pay scheme is just one reason why tipping an artist is customary.
This strategy is also favored over a fixed rent–per–month structure because it motivates artists to step up their hustle and make everyone—themselves and the shop—more money.
Independent Contractors or Salaried Employees?
Given this organizational structure that many shops use, people may wonder what the official status of a tattoo artist is. While state taxes vary, for the purposes of federal taxes, tattoo artists are technically considered independent contractors that operate their own businesses within the environment provided by the shop owners. This model has been found to work better than filing taxes as a salaried employee of a shop, so most tattoo businesses take this approach, to everyone’s benefit.
Another common practice in the world of tattoo shops is when a shop allows an outside artist to come and work at their location for a limited time. Some shops pursue artists that they feel align with the styles and personalities of the permanent artists while other times an artist may approach a shop to get time and increase their notoriety and reputation. In either situation, the guesting artist will charge their own rates with the shop taking a pre-specified cut of profits as usual.
Costs: Equipment and Licensing
In most shops the cut that artists pay will cover electricity and most sanitation equipment, leaving artists responsible for their own personal equipment, most notably their machines. While there are tattoo machines that cost as little as $50 most professional artists use machines that range between $400 and $1000, with elaborate custom machines costing more.
The cost of licensing not only varies from state to state, but in many cases from county to county. In California for example, in LA County a yearly fee of $47 must be paid, while in Santa Clarita County the same license costs $175 annually. This is just one more factor that potential artists must consider.
Alternative Revenue Streams
We live in the world of the side gig, and tattoo artists are especially poised to take advantage of this new business landscape. Given the high hourly rate, many artists can exercise a higher level of autonomy and freedom than those tied to a nine to five job and there are many ways this freedom can be utilized. Artists that have achieved a high level of notoriety may be offered sponsorship from larger business, from machine makers and ink companies to clothing and fashion businesses.
Many tattoo artists also work as illustrators charging commissions for bespoke flash sheets and even sign painting, although tattooing usually remains the bread and butter for these folks.
Is Tattooing the Right Career for You?
With the continued boom of popularity that tattoos have seen in the last decade more and more people are considering entering the industry, and for good reason. However, this expansion of the trade has also seen a lot of people attempting to forge a new path without fully grasping the highly competitive nature of the business. Many people see the high hourly rates and think they could get used to that kind of cash, without considering the hundreds and hundreds of unpaid hours of practice and dedication that went into reaching the level where people are willing to pay $100 an hour to get inked.
There is no doubt that for a passionate artist with a penchant for drawing, the world of tattoos is a great way to turn professional with their creative pursuits; however, it is not a get rich quick scheme. To be successfully the art of tattooing requires tireless dedication and patience.
For those with a passion for ink and a creative mind, tattooing can be a great career option that is worth further exploration.