Think! - 204: Open All Hours

Published: 17 October, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 204, October, 2011

We know for a fact that not only collectors and fans read Skin Deep, but also those who work relentlessly hard at surviving in these trying business times. So this issue, we thought we’d take some time out to say a few words on what it takes to run a successful operation. While it’s by no means comprehensive, it will hopefully give both newcomers and those established something to chew over…

It all starts with a dream. As cliché or trite as that may sound, the reality for anyone who has their heart in the right place when it comes to tattoo is that they are for the most part, following a dream.  From an early interest in drawing and the art of tattoo, countless young artists have followed their instincts, building up the portfolio that hopefully will one day get them that coveted apprenticeship. From there it’s a ton of work, ultimately culminating in that day when they are finally able to tattoo and are fortunate enough to be making a living from it. Yet as great as that time is when an artist is finally doing what they love best in the world for a living, there is all too often something more that they crave; another goal that has yet to be conquered… owning and operating their very own tattoo studio.

Studio, shop, whatever you want to call it (just please don’t call it a parlour), for many it is the holy grail – that fabled height of tattoo aficionado-dom that brings notoriety, respect and customers waiting months just for the privilege of setting foot in your kingdom. Finally you’ll be able to do things your way, with all the freedom in the world to make people sit up and take notice of you. But a few months after opening your doors, you’re starting to find that the months of bookings you had expected aren’t happening. The phone isn’t ringing and when it does, it’s a collection agency following up on unpaid bills. Your entire life savings went into this place and all you now have to show for it is a financial time bomb ticking away much too quickly. How could your dream have turned so suddenly into a nightmare?

Part of the immediate problem rests in the misguided notion that simply because an artist knows tattoo, that they’re well enough equipped to run a business. The realisation of this mistake all too often makes for a grim underscoring of the essential fact that despite being a craft with thousands of years of legacy behind it, tattoo is also a business. For many it’s an unpleasant truth to face; that such a cherished art form shares something in common with generic places of business such as McDonalds and Starbucks. Unfortunately, on a business level, a tattoo studio has to play by at least some of the same rules as the aforementioned greed-heads. At only 29 years of age, Paul Acker has become one of the worlds must respected artists in the field of horror realism. Locked into a sinister world of b-movie icons and slasher flick imagery, his tattoos are as vibrant and detailed as he himself is humble and unassuming It’s entirely safe to assume that anyone who runs a successful tattoo studio is already well aware of this.

According to British business website The Times 100, one in three new businesses fail in their first three years of operation. Make no mistake about it: there is nothing simple about starting and running a successful business and anyone who wishes to get things off the ground is going to need money. It might sound like an obvious statement, but a lack of funds is a major cause of a business failing.

Don’t just assume that getting the door open to your new place is enough.  That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Some might say don’t bring a knife to a gunfight and in this sense, the statement rings true. Opening a business is one hell of a fight, so be ready to seriously take it on. Make sure you have a sizeable amount of cash stashed – at least enough to keep your doors open from six months to a year. Don’t plan on making any money during this time and in this way, you’ll be ready for the worst and working to prevent it, rather than thinking that each day is going to be a perfect financial success, only to be caught completely unprepared when things don’t go your way. If you make money in your first year, great. If you don’t, then at least you’ll be able to keep your doors open and your power running while you figure out a way to get the clients in that you need to keep you in business.

Next, it’s essential to know your market and to understand how to tap into it. One way of doing this is most certainly through your art, but if you’re young and no one knows who you are yet (a problem in itself), the options exist to wait and build up your reputation a little before opening your business, or, to come out gunning with a game plan that will help to put you on the right playing field from the beginning. What that game plan may be differs from person to person, but the important thing is to actually have one right from the start. Unless you have a limitless supply of cash, time and patience, this isn’t the time or the place to improvise. Acknowledge and understand that it isn’t just a matter of opening your doors one day and hoping that people will pile in, one after the other. Put yourself out there in such a manner that will directly target tattoo enthusiasts, art enthusiasts and anyone else that you feel can and would be a part of your demographic. Even handbills/ flyers are fine, but put some solid effort into them and highlight a sample of your art in them. As a tattooist, it goes without saying that you’ll always be striving to be on the top of your game and to improve. The same can be said for being a small business owner.

This means that you need to project the best if you want to be the best. Don’t cut corners, don’t cheap out. Get the best equipment that you can, make your studio as comfortable, as inviting and as stylish as you can. Have your portfolios organized and presentable.

Whatever method you choose, understand that your marketing techniques need to be tight. This means planning. Organise your ideas, strike out one by one and see what works. Again, spend the money that needs to be spent to get the word out about your place. Don’t make handwritten signs advertising half-priced tattoos and stick them to your doors and windows with tape. If you or your studio look budget, you aren’t going to attract clients. If a tattooist who runs a studio can’t be bothered to impress on the outside as well as on the inside, then how can they ever expect to attract any clientele? Come off as professional in every aspect of the work that you do. When in doubt, ask yourself if you’d want to be tattooed at a place that looks and acts like yours does.

Lastly, enough can’t be said about the importance of location. If you can’t afford the rent in a decent area, wait and save until you can. Furthermore, if you don’t have a lot of money to spend on advertising, a well chosen location can help gain you a little more notice. Get a space where the sort of demographic that you are looking to tattoo can easily find you. In other words, if all you want to tattoo are walk-ins, then don’t get a place on the outskirts of town that is only ever accessed by a few buses and a train line that no one rides. Be in the centre of things as much as you possibly can. It might cost more, but that extra bit of cash that you spend could very well be the difference between success and failure.

In the end, running a small business is hard enough as it is without adding on the constantly challenging aspects of being a professional tattooist. With the right amount of money, a whole lot of patience and a whole lot more hard work, good things can happen. Don’t expect everything to happen off the start and be prepared to roll with the punches.  Beyond that, all that can be said is to not jump into things prematurely.  Sometimes you only get one shot at making your mark.  Make damn sure that shot is a good one, and good luck.


Text: Mike Jones