How Do Tattoo Artists Usually Get Paid?

How Do Tattoo Artists Get Paid?

Tattoos are expensive. Even small designs can cost upwards of $100. Since a lot of people like to pay in cash for their tattoos, you might think tattoo artists are making it rain.

When you factor in the workings of the tattoo industry, though, you’ll see that most tattoo artists aren’t rolling in their dough. They’re self-employed individuals who have business expenses up to their necks — and that’s not all that takes their cash.

Tattoo artists get paid for each tattoo they do. If they don’t own their studio, their workspace owners will take a commission from each tattoo. How much this is depends on their contract — it’s often worked out as a split, sometimes being an even 50/50 between the studio and the artist.

The Basics of Getting Paid

It’s easy for tattoo artists to get money — tattoos are more popular than ever. The trouble is keeping it — tattoo artists bleed money left, right and center. 

Paying a tattoo artist is simple. You should arrange it with them in advance. For most tattoo artists, being paid in cash is easier. Doing it via invoice would make it harder to give the parlor their commission. Involving banks and paysites is just a whole load of hassle in an already busy situation.

Now the tattoo artist has been paid, if they’re smart, they’ll set some aside for self-employment tax. Then they set aside their business expenses, then they can pay themselves.

The Apprenticeship

Tattoo artists get their start as an apprentice. As an apprentice, they won’t be tattooing anyone just yet, so how do they get paid?

Apprentices are usually paid a set weekly sum, like most employees. This pay is to assist the tattoo artist. 

Tattoo apprentices learn on the job, almost like an internship. Their work includes:

  • Cleaning up
  • Setting up equipment
  • Helping draw designs
  • Learning how to stencil 
  • Practicing using tattoo machines

Renting a Chair

Most tattoo artists are independent contractors. This means they can set their hours, pick their clients and choose where to work. For artists without their own space, they’ll rent from someone else.

Tattoo artists may rent a chair or private booth from a parlor with lots of artists working there. They may also rent from an individual with their own space. This is done by the artist paying a weekly or monthly fee, or a commission from each tattoo.

Set Fee

Paying a set fee to the shop owner is like renting your own space, but with equipment included. It may be $500 a month, regardless of how much the artist makes. This can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how many bookings an artist gets.

Commission

Forgoing a set rent, the parlor owner might just take a commission from each tattoo. This could be a 50/50 split between the artist and owner, although the artist usually gets slightly more per booking than the parlor owner.

Tipping is encouraged when an artist is paying commission for their workspace. This way, they’ll earn closer to what they would be if they had their own shop.

Having Their Own Space

If an artist is lucky enough to have their own workspace, they pay commission to no man! They’ll still need to pay rent for the space, but it’ll be to a landlord, not a tattoo shop owner.

Some tattoo artists may have a home studio. The guest bedroom, attic, basement or fancy shed can serve them well. They won’t need to pay extra rent for these.

Tattoo artists with their own space keep everything they make from each booking. You can still tip them, but it’s not as badly needed as when an artist is splitting that pay.

The Expenses

Even when an artist has their own space, their business doesn’t come without its expenses. The cash you fork over isn’t just going to food, drink, shelter and play. A lot of it is going straight back into the business.

Workspace Costs

Rent can often be more expensive for someone not renting from a parlor owner. The upside of renting a space in a tattoo parlor is they might not have to buy all their equipment and materials. This may be covered in the rent or commission.

Paying for Materials 

Tattoo artists that own their parlor will need to keep on top of their equipment. This can be claimed back as a business expense, but it’s a lot out of pocket at the time.

Plenty of tattoo equipment is a capital purchase, and the costs can be amortized. Seating and tattoo machines can cost a lot up front, but they’ll last and are needed to carry out the work.

If an artist chooses to use disposable tubes with their machines, those will be a consumable expense and a direct cost of carrying out the tattoo. In contrast, sanitation machines for reusable tubes will be classed as a business asset, and so will be amortized, too.

Ink will also need to be expensed as a cost of sale — the artist can’t tattoo without ink. Don’t forget that with every use of ink, there comes the need for ink caps.

Tattoo artists will also regularly need:

  • Gloves
  • Tissues
  • Needles
  • Stencils
  • Aftercare supplies, if provided as part of the service
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Vaseline or petroleum jelly
  • Razors, if customers aren’t told to shave the area at home

All of these items, whether capital or expense items, will be factored into how much they charge for their services. When they get paid, some of that will go toward purchasing consumables and investing in their assets.

Employees

Tattoo artists may have to pay an apprentice. They may also pay someone to do front desk work or various admin chores, but frequently take care of this themselves. 

As they’re self-employed, they might hire an accountant to help with taxes. Although this isn’t a requirement, many outsource their accounts so they can focus on tattooing rather than the confusing accounting world.

Pay Goes a Long Way

Tattoo artists are paid in many different ways. Much of that pay goes back into the work, meaning it’s never wasted. Ask your tattoo artist if they’re working on commission — if the answer is yes, think about a tip.

Anything you can do to help your tattoo artist get the most out of what you’re paying will be appreciated. Remember, even though getting inked costs a bundle, the artist doesn’t get to keep all of it.