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Tattoo Chronicles #18 ~ It Ain't What It Used To Be

By Bob Baxter
Back a couple of decades ago, there were only a handful of tattoo shops. Los Angeles had about six. Montreal had none. Tattooing was pretty much a back-alley business or a carnival booth concession. Nothing serious was happening, unless, of course, we count the indigenous tribes who had practiced tattooing for hundreds if not thousands of years. But until flamboyant artists like Bert Grimm entered the scene (his famous interlude with a non-customer who came into Grimm’s shop looking for change for the parking meter and walked out with a tattoo is a classic), tattoos were something sailors got on shore leave or carney folks collected to make a little extra money as a tattooed sideshow attraction.

When the modern tattoo phenomenon started to blossom, in the ’70s, artists from Europe and America began opening the doors to customers who wanted to proclaim their individuality and love of something personal and visually unique. Artists like Lyle Tuttle, Don Ed Hardy, Spider Webb and Good Time Charlie Cartwright led the way in bringing tattooing into the consciousness of art lovers everywhere. People in big cities around the world became cognizant of this “new” art form, and the lines began forming… down the street and around the corner. But as new shops emerged, bricks starting sailing through windows and territorial lines were drawn. Charlie Cartwright, in deference to the four existing shops in San Francisco, respectfully opened End of the Trail sixty miles away, in Modesto, so he wouldn’t step on feet in the City by the Bay. Now Modesto has twenty-one tattoo parlors. San Francisco has nearly forty. And the piece of the proverbial pie gets smaller and smaller.

Tattoo artists starting younger every day. Lyle Tuttle

With approximately a quarter of a million tattoo artists in the U.S. alone (and more every day), the rush is on. Young men and women who were sent to the principal’s office in high school for drawing pictures on the test papers (instead of answering the questions) found the perfect job description—“Wanted: Artist to show up at noon, draw pictures on pretty girls’ butts, eat sushi and drink beer till dawn.” Undaunted by the reticence of established artists to share trade secrets, young wannabe tattooists learned by watching, covering their bodies with artwork from Jack Rudy, Bob Roberts, Paul Jeffries and other icons of the art. And, as the popularity grew, the money started rolling in. Tattoo artists who were painting cars, lettering names on law office doors, designing album covers and printing T-shirts were switching to the new, lucrative art form. Customers were paying good money and queuing up to do it.

But that was then. Nowadays, there are certain established artists who do very well. But not all. With thousands and thousands of others (some talented, some not) wanting their share of the prize, there’s a lot of tattooists, yes, but many spend their days in front of their shops smoking cigarettes and talking trash. What do they talk trash about? That there are too many tattoo shops in their neighborhood, that’s what. And it’s a shame, because some of these part-timers were once full-timers, until the floodgates of popularity were opened and tattoo shops outnumbered Starbucks.

I said in an interview that the “elite” in the business can make two or three hundred thousand bucks a year, and some people’s eyes began to roll. Wow, they thought, I’d like to make that kind of money! Well, some artists can, if they’re Kat Von D or Ed Hardy… or if they own a shop or two or three, for example. But after they pay the rent, the light bill, the phone bill and the green soap bill, not to mention the percentages to their employees, as Mr. G of Triangle Tattoo in Ft. Bragg, California told me, “I might break even.” You see, tattooist, for the most part, might know a lot about art, but they don’t necessarily know a lot about business, such as the difference between net and gross. Net is the amount you have left, after you deduct all your expenses from the gross. I’m sure Mario Barth of Las Vegas knows this, as do certain other entrepreneurial artists, who own multiple shops and have twenty employees (they’d have to, in order to survive), but most do not. They’re artists, after all, not bookkeepers. So, when some young Turk decides he’s going to open a shop with his mother’s credit card and blow everyone away with his (or her) “awesome” ability, surprise, surprise! Yes, they can charge $125 an hour, but that may be the only hour they work all day… or week… or month! Which is why there are a lot, I mean, A LOT of tattoo artists standing in front of tattoo shops smoking cigarettes and talking trash—when they’re not drastically lowering their prices or trading “necessities” for artwork, that is. With a wife at home, a couple of kids and a mortgage to pay, who wouldn’t?

Where is the industry headed

Yes, there are tattoo artists in this world who make good money. They work hard for that money and have dedicated their lives to something they dearly love: making art. That’s why they do it. Even the ones who are at the top of the ladder have to work 24/7 just to keep afloat. As for the customers, making a car payment in these precarious times is more important than getting a parrot tattooed on their shoulder, especially when there is a major Recession. In other words, getting tattooed is not the priority it once was. Money is hard to come by and bills need to be paid.

Too many tattoo shops

Think of it this way: being a tattoo artist is like being a rock star, only better… because rock stars look up to tattoo artists. But an enormous influx of tattooists is changing all that. Nowadays, a tattoo shop is more like a hair salon: It has it’s regular customers and occasional drop-bys, but, for the most part, it is a non-glamorous, labor-intensive business with very few superstars and a highly indefinite future. What with everything, from the threat of carpal tunnel syndrome to a disappearing customer base to greedy landlords, the glory days aren’t so glorious, anymore. The pie may be big, and the pie may be delicious, but the pieces have gotten smaller and smaller.


As editor in chief of Skin&Ink magazine for over fourteen years, Bob Baxter guided the publication to a Folio Magazine Editorial Excellence Award, making it America’s most respected and educational body art publication. He currently edits and writes a Daily Blog at www.tattooroadtrip.com, the ultimate E-zine and resource site for international tattoo artists and collectors. He also has his Tattoo Chronicles series and the 101 Most Influential People in Tattooing right here @ Vanishing Tattoo. To ask questions, make comments or demand an apology, you can email Bob at baxter@tattooroadtrip.com.

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