Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Why Cheap Tattoos are Expensive

As a consumer culture price shopping is hardwired in to us like old time religion.  How much we spend on something is a matter of cost of production versus perceived value.  Mostly we as consumers are narrowly focused on how we can get what we want for the lowest possible price. I'd like to explain to you why shopping for a tattoo with price as your main focus will likely lead you down a road of regret.

My mentor in tattooing had a backhanded quip that he'd use to retort to price shoppers "If price is your primary concern, I'm probably not the right tattoo artist for you."  I adored this capricious comeback in it's subtlety as an insult while still maintaining the thinnest professional veneer possible.  It was effective in snapping perceptive customers out of a haggling mind set but the duller amongst us would simply look defeated and then ask for a recommendation for a an artist who would do the job for a cheaper price.

Cost for tattooing is usually set on two main factors - a minimum charge for the smallest tattoos and an hourly rate for more time consuming concepts.  Tattoo shops create this framework for defining what they should charge for production.  Usually smaller tattoos; those that can be created in under an hour or so are quoted with a predetermined price.  Flash designs that you see in racks or festooned on shop walls sometimes have prices labelled on them, although flash now seems mostly like a withering vestige of 20th century tattooing.

Hourly rates are based on several factors but mostly boil down to cost of operation and demand for service.  Tattoo shops situated in cities notorious for expensive commercial property will likely charge a higher hourly rate than a tattoo shop located in a city with a lagging economy.  I spend a not inconsequential amount of time explaining to tourists from the Midwest why their tattoo will cost more here in San Francisco.

I can tell you that most every tattooer I've worked with will quote a fair price for their work.  I've met some shady fucking tattooers in my day but a commonality in tattooing for whatever reason it may be is to be fair with customers on price from the outset.  Simply put with every tattoo I price, I balance the effort involved to execute the piece (research, design and application) in to a neat hourly rate that's affordable to most blue collar workers, which is the core of our customer base.  Make no mistake about it, tattooing is a luxury commodity.  Nobody 'needs' to get tattooed.  But some days you wake up and say "fuck food, fuck rent, I need to get tattooed!"

Spend an afternoon at the front counter of any tattoo shop and you'll discover that the most commonly asked question from would be clients is "what's your minimum?".  Hordes of wild eyed college girls filter in and out of the shop each day barking "minimum charge! minimum charge!" like some sort of mantra, having already decided on their own that their design idea somehow falls in to our minimum charge category.  Price shopping offenders are almost always wearing $200 sneakers.  Consumer culture and whatnot.

If a client begins or finishes their initial tattoo inquiry with a request for price, this tells me a lot about where they sit with their commitment to the whole process.  Admittedly and likely to a fault I don't take customers seriously if they begin the conversation focused on price.  Any price I give won't be satisfactory as any price will be too much.  That customer has already decided on the value of the work before we began talking.  I would suggest that this is a misstep because I haven't been given the opportunity to explain the value of my service, however I fear that there isn't any perceived value from the outset, anyhow.  If the customer considers price following a detailed discussion of what we'll be tattooing, then I know that the customer is more serious about getting tattooed.  A simple observation but almost always accurate.

Price gouging in tattooing is rare.  The market simply won't allow for it when there are qualified tattoo artists offering fair prices for quality services.  Usually the exception is patronizing tattoo artists featured on TV but mostly you're buying bragging rights at a premium if you want to go down that road.

The most straightforward advice I can offer to anyone shopping for a tattoo is to put your preconception of cost aside and focus entirely on quality of workmanship first and foremost.  Figure out what you want to get tattooed, how big you want it and who is going to do it.  Allow your artist to explain how they can realize your concept and what their strategy is to accomplish your requests.  At that point they can comfortably quote you a price and then you decide if the price is acceptable.

There is nothing wrong with shopping your tattoo idea around to a few different artists but consider the value of spending what your body is worth and allowing your connection to the artist and their work to be your guide.

A tattoo is like nothing else you will buy in your lifetime.  The evidence of whether you scrimped or splurged will be etched upon you until the day you're dead in the ground.

Budget accordingly.

Adam Sky,
Rose Gold's Tattoo
San Francisco, CA

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