If you’re thinking about getting your first tattoo at a local tattoo shop, you have a lot to consider. You’ll want to think about what you want and where you want it. You’ll want to think about if you’re cool with the idea of having that new tattoo design on your body forever.
You will want to find a tattoo artist with the skill necessary to create your idea or translate it into a tattoo. There’s a lot going on.
Like any situation where there’s a lot to be done, you’re probably wondering, “what’s this gonna run me?” Truth be told, a great tattoo will set you back a little bit. If it doesn’t, you should probably be a little worried.
What Is the Cost of a Tattoo?
You will have a tattoo for the rest of your life. It’s not an expensive dinner out or a vacation. You’ll take it with you everywhere you go. How much should you spend on something that needs to last forever?
Many people are shocked when they see a price range estimate from an experienced tattoo artist. Although tattoos aren’t the most expensive things that money can buy, medium to large tattoo prices from artists with years of experience can be in the quadruple digits.
If a price seems too good to be true or feels like a “deal,” you may want to run. Like anything intended to be eternal, a tattoo shouldn’t be cheap.
Can You Get a Good Tattoo for Cheap?
Your buddy is not a qualified tattoo artist.
They may need someone to practice on if they want to give you a small tattoo for free or cheap. Even if your buddy does incredible drawings and is a brilliant artist on paper, everything changes the moment a big, bulky, heavily vibrating needle punctures ink deep into the soft, rounded surfaces of the human body.
Tattooing and drawing have almost nothing in common as processes. There is no room for mistakes in a tattoo, meaning the artist’s skill level needs to be unparalleled. You can’t get a do-over (although you can get very expensive tattoocover-ups), and if someone doesn’t like it, the process of having it removed can cost thousands of dollars and months (or years) of your life.
It’s also a high-stakes situation. Tattooing involves using needles to open your skin. This can expose you to pathogens, bacteria, and severe infection if it isn’t handled in a sterile environment like a reputable tattoo parlor by someone who understands proper sanitation protocol.
Your buddy should consider studying under a licensed tattoo artist and taking the proper safety training courses first. Don’t be drawn in by the illusion that you’re getting a deal.
Think of it less like a cheap tattoo and more like an expensive problem. What you aren’t paying for in the tattoo, you may end up paying in doctor’s bills and laser tattoo removal.
The real question is this: how much does a tattoo costwhen done safely and correctly?
Why Are Tattoos Expensive?
When you’re paying for a tattoo, it might seem like you’re paying to sit in a chair for an hour or so. It might feel similar to the process you go through when you get your hair done at the stylist or the barber or when you get a pedicure.
When you go to get a tattoo, your artist already did a lot of the work before your arrival. You’re paying for what you see, but you’re also paying for many things you didn’t see.
The Artist’s Materials
Tattoo artists use a lot of expensive equipment. Safe, high-quality inks that don’t fade are pricey. And using high-quality ink is an important part of any tattoo — but it’s especially important for a color tattoo.
And while the total cost of using these inks may seem expensive right now, you’ll be thankful you paid the price when you only need a few touch-up appointments instead of several.
Your artist's machine was expensive, and they need to maintain it. They also need sterile single-use disposable items like needles. Many of the tools they use must be professionally sanitized in a special machine between uses.
It’s more like a doctor’s office than you may think. Keeping things up to a medical standard of safety and cleanliness is extremely important in a tattoo environment.
The time, effort, and materials for maintaining that sanitary environment are all costs for your tattoo artist. Part of what you’re paying goes to upkeep those high standards.
The Artist’s Art
Even if you come to your tattoo artist with a design you don’t want to change, your tattoo artist still has to change it. Most pieces of art won’t translate well into a tattoo.
Your artist needs to know what details to change, what details to omit, and what modifications to make to that design to fit your anatomy without distorting the image.
If you came in with a vague idea, your tattoo artist had to start from scratch. They spent hours creating a custom piece of art just for you, designed to fit your body perfectly. If you wanted to change anything about that design, they had to return and retool it to ensure you were completely satisfied.
Even if the tattoo only took 45 minutes to put on your body, it took a good amount of time to come together.
The price of the tattoo not only reflects your artist’s experience but also reflects their knowledge.
For instance, many reputable tattoo artists will refuse to tattoo a fine line design on a heavily exposed area, such as a finger tattoo or a hand tattoo. Knowing what body parts a tattoo will work best on is something that only comes with years of experience — and it turns out that money can buy experience.
The Artist’s Costs
Tattoo artists are trained professionals. You can’t just wander in from the street with a resume and ask for a job as a tattoo artist. The process involves a lot of time, education, and practice.
They must work with other licensed artists to obtain their licenses. They needed to get certifications in sanitation and bloodborne pathogens to keep you (and everyone else they work with) safe.
They also need to learn first aid and CPR. Tattoo artists pay fees for all courses and licensure. They also have to keep their credentials current. Part of their job is being mindful of their working conditions daily and knowing how to keep you safe.
Tattoo artists generally operate as their own business people. They may share a workspace with other tattoo artists, but each artist is their own operation. They have to pay rent, utilities, and other overhead costs.
Tattoo studios aren’t cheap, and average tattoo prices will reflect that. If you live in an area with a high average cost of living, such as New York or Los Angeles, chances are your artist does, too — and they need to pay the same grocery and medical prices you do.
The Artist’s Time
After all the other costs are met, you’re paying for your artist’s time. Everything else adds up quickly, and a significant portion of what you pay your tattoo artist won’t go into their pocket. When you look at an artist’s hourly rates, remember that they aren’t actually making that much money from your tattoo.
In many cases, tattoo artists only get to keep about 50% of what they’re charging you. If it feels like your tattoo costs twice as much as it should, keep that in mind.
If you’re paying an hourly rate, keep the size of the tattoo you want in mind. A custom design for a large back piece will cost more than a tiny tattoo of your favorite flower. A full-sleeve tattoo or a half-sleeve tattoo will cost more than a tiny word tattoo or some simple hand lettering.
If you’re paying a flat rate, the same still applies. Being an expert tattoo artist involves much more than showing up to a session and inking a beautiful thigh tattoo — hours go into designing and customizing a tattoo idea.
Tipping Your Tattoo Artist
Your tattoo artist went above and beyond to perform a service for you. They spent days getting things right, and they tried their best to make the experience as great as it could possibly be. They provide a personal service, and it’s customary to tip for good service.
There is no official amount a tattoo artist can expect. Most people generally tip anywhere from 15 to 25 percent, with 20 percent being the standard tip for a great experience.
Even if you think the cost of your tattoo is exorbitantly overpriced, it’s still important to tip your artist. Many artists will charge more for certain body parts that are hard to tattoo, such as eyelids, armpits, or other areas.
If this is the case with your tattoo, that’s all the more reason to tip your artist – it takes serious skill to craft a well-executed tattoo on a client that’s flinching from the pain of their tattoo’s body placement.
Taking Care of Your Tattoo
After your tattoo is complete, the process isn’t over. You will want to take care of your healing skin. You also need to moisturize your tattoo and protect it from the sun's damaging rays. It’s a vulnerable work of art, and you will want to keep it safe.
It’s worth investing in a high-quality tattoo aftercare kit to help with the healing process. A tattoo is technically an open wound until it’s fully healed. Your skin needs to be properly nourished and nurtured until that wound is closed.
You’ll also need to apply sunblock to your healed tattoo any time your clothing won’t fully cover it. If you don’t, your tattoo can fade. You’ll have to keep yourself in a constant supply of broad-spectrum SPF 30 sunblock. To be fair, your skin wanted you to do that anyway.
Tattoo Costs Are Worth It
For you, getting a tattoo is a simple process. For your tattoo artist, it’s a painstaking labor of love. They put a lot of time, energy, heart, and money into their professions.
What they’re charging you is a drop in the bucket. Don’t try to go the cheap route and wind up with a tattoo you don’t love. Or even worse, a tattoo that gives you a gross, dangerous infection.
While you’re building up your tattoo savings fund, take the time to research all of your local tattoo artists thoroughly. Make sure you’re choosing an artist whose work is worth every penny. You’ll feel much better about the splurge when you know in your heart that your artist is totally the one.
Tattoo Infection: Signs, Causes, Treatment & Prevention | Cleveland Clinic
Bloodborne Pathogens Training for Tattoo Artists | Red Cross
Hygiene Standards in the Tattoo Parlour and Practices for Prevention of Infection - Tattooed Skin and Health | Karger Publishers