How to start up a tattoo studio

Man with sideburns giving customer a tattoo in a studio

Tattoos are very fashionable, so if you're interested in tattoos and have good artistic skills running a tattoo studio might be a good choice for you. Our practical guide will help you start up and run your tattoo business.

Research your target market

Estimating demand

You will need to find out whether there is enough demand for a tattoo artist in your area. Be aware that the number of tattoo studios has increased very sharply over the last 10 years and most towns and cities have several established tattoo studios, making the sector quite competitive. According to there are now over 3,000 tattoo studios and body piercing outlets in the UK. In addition, there are tattoo artists who work from home. Some of these may have converted a room in their house into a proper studio and registered it with their environmental health department, but unfortunately others operate as unregistered underground 'scratchers' with little or no proper training and often little regard for the correct safety and hygiene procedures.

Check and local directories to get an idea of the number of tattoo artists already working in your area. You could also try other online searches. The UK Tattoo Studios website contains details of many tattoo studios throughout the UK.

It may be that you will only be competing directly against some of these artists because your work is of a different style, or you offer an additional service such as body piercing which is not available elsewhere.

Are there enough potential customers?

Having checked out the competition, you need to consider how many customers you must attract in order to achieve the turnover you require. Will there be enough customers locally or will you have to attract people from further afield? If you are in a tourist area, will you be able to tap into the tourist market during the holiday season? Tattoos have become very fashionable among younger people in recent years so think about the age profile of your local population. Are there any universities, colleges, army, navy or air force bases or fitness centres nearby that might represent a large number of potential customers? (These would be good places to advertise your services.) You might also share potential customers with outlets such as motorcycle dealers and accessory shops, sports shops and music shops. If there are lots of these types of businesses operating successfully locally, it may indicate that there are potential customers for your services too. You could also approach these types of shops to see if they would let you display an advertisement or leave some leaflets on the counter.

Some artists concentrate on a particular style or type of tattoo - for example portraits - and build up a client base over a wide area. Estimating the amount of business in such a case is very difficult - careful marketing will be required and business may take some time to build up. So when making your initial estimates, it is probably best not to rely on specialist work but to consider more mainstream work that is likely to have a wide appeal in your area.

Bear in mind that people can now buy cheap DIY tattoo kits online - this development has increased competition at the lower end of the market and made it easier for 'cowboys' and unregistered 'scratchers' to operate.

Research current trends, plus legal and tax issues

Customer profile

Your market

Traditionally, tattoo artists' main customers were working class men and particularly members of the armed forces. These days tattoos have become fashionable and popular with a much wider range of people from all walks of life. In particular, far more young people and women are having tattoos now, while older people are sometimes choosing to get their first tattoo to celebrate a landmark birthday or just to 'grow old disgracefully'. Don't forget that it is illegal to tattoo anyone under 18 years old, even with parental consent.

Your market will be influenced by the nature and location of your outlet, the style of tattoos you offer and the range of any other services you provide. For example, offering services such as nose, ear and body piercing will help to broaden the appeal of your business. The majority of your customers are likely to be local people. However, the degree to which you specialise as an artist will also affect your customer base - if you build up a national (or even international) reputation as a tattoo artist you'll attract customers from further afield. You may also have the opportunity to work for a few days as a guest artist in other tattoo studios around the country.

Most of your customers will be people who have already decided that they want a tattoo. If your business is located in a town centre however, you might attract passers by who have only vaguely considered having a tattoo before, or who are simply curious. For this reason, it is important to have a good window display and create a welcoming atmosphere.

Customer screening

As well as making sure you don't tattoo anyone under 18 - and that you check the identity of anyone who looks like they could be - you should take other steps to ensure that would-be customers are suitable for tattooing. For example, most tattoo studios have a policy of turning down anyone who appears to be under the influence of drink or drugs. Some will not tattoo a woman who is obviously pregnant. You should also ask customers about things like medical conditions, particularly things like acute allergies, heart conditions, diabetes, hepatitis and haemophilia. Sometimes you might turn away a customer - or at least persuade them to choose an alternative - if their proposed design is offensive, impractical or otherwise likely to reflect badly on your business.

How will customers pay

Customers will typically pay for their tattoo once it's finished, but if it's a large tattoo needing several sessions you might ask them to pay you in stages. You may also decide to ask some or all of your customers for an up-front deposit. Your customers might pay you:

  • in cash
  • by cheque, debit or credit card

Some of your customers might also give you or your staff a tip. Remember to keep a record of these.

Why your business

It's very important to do all you can to make sure that enough customers will choose your business rather than existing tattoo studios. Try to visit as many of your local competitors as possible. Have a look around to see what style of tattoos they are offering, any other services they provide and what kind of image they project. Make a note of things like:

  • the range of services offered (for example tattoos, design work, piercing)
  • what prices are charged
  • if they specialise in a particular style (for example Celtic, tribal or fantasy designs, black or colour tattoos and so on) - you could check out their website or Facebook page to see examples of their work
  • how knowledgeable and helpful their staff are
  • whether the premises are clean, modern and smart

How will you compete?

It may be difficult to compete directly with established tattoo studios by trying to offer similar services at a similar price. Instead, you could see if you can identify a gap in the market that your business can fill - for example, by offering a particular style of tattooing that is not available elsewhere locally. You could also consider offering services like body piercing, covering up unwanted tattoos, a custom design service, permanent make-up, and retouching faded or badly done tattoos. Providing something extra like this may encourage customers to choose your business.

If you cannot identify a clear gap in the market or an opportunity to specialise, you can try to attract customers by emphasising the high standards of your services. Many potential customers will be concerned to make sure that you're an excellent artist with a great deal of experience, and that you work from safe and clean premises using sterile and hygienic equipment and techniques. It is much more important to concentrate on providing high quality tattoos than to worry about keeping prices down to a minimum.

In recent years people have become increasingly aware of health and safety issues. Potential customers will want reassurance about standards of hygiene and cleanliness. Stick to strict health and safety standards and make sure that your premises are clean and welcoming.

Aim to provide a friendly, helpful and efficient service from the outset. Choosing to have a tattoo is a big decision and potential customers will want to see examples of your work. Make sure that you have plenty of designs on display for people to browse through and try to build up a photographic portfolio of earlier work. Word of mouth recommendation will be extremely important - more than in any other business, your customers are walking advertisements for your services - so try to keep them happy!

Whether or not you find a particular niche in the market, building up a customer base will take time. Just remember that you should always aim to provide a high quality service. Try to emphasise this approach to potential customers and make sure that they are aware of the full range of work you are able to undertake.

Business location

Ideally your business will be located in a busy area where there are plenty of passers by. However, many tattoo artists operate successfully in studios away from town centres so although desirable, a central location is not essential.

Other things to consider when choosing your location include accessibility and local crime rates - you don't want to have to cope with excessive levels of break-ins and theft.

Find out what people want

Tattoo artists face tough competition so it is very important that you find out what people want and whether there are particular services you can offer which will attract customers. You could carry out some surveys of the people in your local area to find out:

  • whether they would be likely to use a tattoo artist
  • what style of tattoos they would be interested in
  • if there is a demand for any other services - like body piercing and cosmetic tattoos
  • what they think of your proposals in general
  • what if anything, they don't like about existing tattoo studios in your area - such as lack of different styles or a reputation for poor aftercare

Decide what services to offer

As well as tattooing (possibly including stencilled and freestyle ink work), you may decide to offer a range of extra services.

These might include:

  • a design service (for example, producing tattoos from customers' own ideas rather than simply using stock patterns from flash sheets). You might also offer a design service to other tattooists
  • cosmetic tattooing (also called permanent make-up - PMU) - for example permanent eyebrows
  • 'medical' tattooing - for example showing that someone is diabetic
  • semi-permanent tattoos (including semi-permanent make-up) - these are designed to fade after three to five years
  • re-colouring old and faded tattoos
  • covering up or altering old and unwanted tattoos
  • laser tattoo removal or lightening
  • nose and ear piercing
  • body piercing

You might also decide to offer a mobile henna tattoo service. This could enable you to offer non-permanent henna tattoos at events like festivals - but remember that insurance issues will apply. Be sure only to use pure natural henna rather than any of the 'black henna' products which often contain harmful chemicals and whose use may be illegal.

Some tattoo artists concentrate on a particular type or style of tattoo work. This depends to a certain extent on the skill, experience and personal preference of the tattoo artist. You might decide to stick to smaller, simple stencilled tattoos - much of the fashion led demand is for tattoos of this type. If you have the skill and experience you could concentrate on larger, complex designs - perhaps including some freehand work - that are more likely to appeal to serious tattoo enthusiasts.

The right image

As the sector is so competitive it is important that your tattoo studio projects the right image. Make it clear that you comply with all health and safety legislation and maintain a very high standard of cleanliness and hygiene at all times. Try to make the studio welcoming to new customers. A large display area where they can browse designs at their leisure will help. Make sure that you - and any employees or freelance artists working from your studio - treat customers in a friendly and helpful manner. It would be a good idea to produce some fact sheets telling people about tattooing procedures and advice about after-care.

Advertising your business

Whatever the nature of your business, it's very important to make sure that your potential customers know about you and the services you offer.

There are a number of things you can do to promote your business:

  • advertise in your local newspaper and any local directories
  • have leaflets printed and distribute them to local businesses and clubs
  • have a display stand at tattoo conventions, festivals and other large events
  • launch your own website, showing examples of your work and listing the services that you offer
  • join the British Tattoo Artists Federation (BTAF). They include contact details of registered tattoo artists on their website. Visit the BTAF website for more information
  • list your studio in an online directory like UK Tattoo Studios. There is a small annual fee for the listing
  • use social media like Facebook and Twitter to let people know about new designs or special offers

Price your services

How will you decide on your prices?

Tattoo artists provide a specialist, skilled service, whether concentrating on smaller, simple tattoos or offering large, unique designs. Your customers know this and will be prepared to pay accordingly. They are likely to choose your services for health and hygiene standards, artistic merit, tattooing style and reputation, rather than for price reasons alone.

Having said that, it's still important to offer value for money, as tattooing services are available elsewhere - more and more tattoo studios are opening up around the country - and many people feel the need to be careful with their money. Most studios display a selection of designs for customers to choose from and these are generally offered at a fixed price. Customers are likely to be aware of the prices charged by your competitors, so you may have to set your prices accordingly. You should have a little more flexibility when setting the prices of large tattoos and original design work. If a customer comes to you with an idea for a tattoo or wants you to design a tattoo for them, it is usual to agree a price beforehand. For large, complex tattoos, most artists charge an hourly rate.

Getting the price right is very important. You must make sure that the price you charge is high enough to cover all of your operating costs, including your own drawings.

Consider the following points when setting your prices:

  • will you have a minimum set up charge - for example £40?
  • what do your competitors charge for similar tattoos?
  • will you aim to compete on price?
  • do you really need to discount? If you aim to provide a high quality service and offer a particular artistic style, you may not need to discount. Enthusiasts will expect to pay high prices for quality work and you may be the only artist in the area offering a particular style

Have a look at different tattoo artists' websites and Facebook pages to get an idea of the prices other studios charge. Attending an event like The Great British Tattoo Show will also help you find out typical rates.

Special offers and discounts

You might decide to offer a one-off introductory discount to all new customers to encourage new business. You could also offer a discount for regular customers. How much discount will depend on your pricing policy and the level of local competition.

You could try approaching groups such as motorcycle clubs to see if they would be interested in your services. If so, you could offer club members a discount. Many artists also give discounts to staff, family and friends. Check out the local opposition for ideas and keep a close eye on any special offers you do make to be sure that they are working for you. After all, promotions may bring you extra work, but they will also affect the amount of profit you make on each job.

Buy an existing business

You might decide to buy an existing farm supply business rather than start your own venture from scratch. Buying a going concern can mean that the products, customers, regular sales, staff, premises and equipment are already in place.

But buying a business can be a hazardous, expensive process unless you have the right skills and experience on your team, including legal and financial know-how. Establish the genuine trading and financial position, so that the price you pay for the business is not too high.

Other matters to consider include:

  • do the premises meet hygiene requirements for continuing registration with the local authority
  • the condition and value of any stock of tattoo stencils you are buying. Check this over carefully before agreeing a price

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