How to Start a Tattoo Business
If you’re planning on starting up your own tattoo business, you first gotta know that it’s not a very simple process. Not only do you have to get a business permit, several different state-specific requirements, the necessary capital to finance the shop and the prerequisite equipment, as well as some extra money for marketing, but if you’ve never worked as a tattoo artist you probably need to start up an apprenticeship with someone else and jump through a number of hoops.
In short, starting a tattoo business involves getting certified or licensed as a tattoo artist in your state (if need be), compiling the necessary paperwork to open up shop, acquiring the right location (while taking zoning ordinances into consideration), sourcing your equipment, and sorting out the marketing to get customers coming in.
However, if it’s your dream to start up your own tattoo business, then all of this certainly won’t deter you. We’ll help you figure out, step for step, what you need to know and consider before you open up your shop to the rest of the world and start bringing in the customers.
Do You Have Any Experience in Tattooing?
It’s much easier to stand on your own two legs in the tattoo industry if you’ve already tested the waters a little. If you are a tattoo artist and have worked in a shop owned by someone else, then you’ve already got the necessary paperwork to be a tattoo artist, but you still need to worry about getting your shop up and running – which requires getting a shop in the first place. Taking over someone else’s shop is the easiest way, but also probably not too common of a solution, and they may want a sizeable fee for retirement purposes. Continuing your mentor’s legacy is certainly a possibility, and something you might want to consider if he or she brings it up.
If you have no experience as a professional tattoo artist, then it doesn’t matter how talented or great you are to begin with – you probably need a license. It’s one thing to tattoo friends, but if you want to tattoo people professionally, most states require that you seek a license first.
State Requirements (USA)
There are no federal laws regulating tattooing, but every state has at least one piece of legislature that handles tattoos, body modification, piercing, permanent makeup, and so on. Some common rules that exist across the board include a minimum age (18), because tattooing is a healthcare procedure and requires minimum consent (which can only be given by adults or a minor’s parent), as well as the freedom on the tattoo artist’s part to refuse service to anyone on any grounds.
Some states further specify a minimum age with parental consent, with certain exemptions (ear piercings or radiation therapy tattoos) and while most tattoo artists refuse to tattoo someone who is clearly intoxicated, some states forbid it as well. Below is a succinct table of requirements and laws regarding tattooing in the various states of the US.
|Alabama||Ala. Code § 22-1-17A||Alabama Department of Public Health||You’ll need a Body Art Operator’s Permit, Bloodborne Pathogen Training Certificate, and proof of Hepatitis B Vaccination.|
|Arizona||Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 13-3721||N/A||There are no requirements for licensure in Arizona, but it’s illegal to tattoo a minor or administer anesthesia without a prerequisite license to do so.|
|Arkansas||Ark. Stat. Ann. §§ 20-27-1501 et seq.||Arkansas Department of Public Health||To tattoo in Arkansas, you must receive a license as a Tattoo Artist, Permanent Cosmetic Artist, Body Piercer, or Brander. An apprenticeship of at least 6 months is required, as well as 375 supervised hours of body art work, CPR and Bloodborne Pathogen certificates, and at least a high school diploma or GED. A formal exam is required.|
|Alaska||Alaska Stat. §08.13||Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development||Alaska requires a Tattooing and Permanent Cosmetic Coloring license, which requires 380 hours of apprenticeship, a notarized application, CPR and Bloodborne Pathogen certification. A formal exam is required.|
|California||Cal. Health & Safety Code § 119300 to 119328||Individual County Health Departments||Each county has its own requirements for licensure, but the state requires a Hepatitis B vaccination as well as a Bloodborne Pathogen certification.|
|Colorado||Colo. Rev. Stat. § 25-4-2101, 2102, 2103||Individual County Health Departments||Each county has its own requirements for licensure, but the state requires a Hepatitis B vaccination, CPR and First Aid certification, as well as a Bloodborne Pathogen certification.|
|Connecticut||Conn. Gen. Stat. §19a-92g||Connecticut Department of Public Health||For a Tattoo Technician license, one requires a bloodborne Pathogen certification, first aid certification from the Red Cross and American Heart Association, 2,000 hours of practical training OR proof of at least five years of continuous practice before January 1, 2015.|
|DC||D.C. Code Ann. § 47-2853.76d||DC Department of Health||Tattoo artists recently require a Body Artist’s license in DC however, they have been slow to implement the new law. Contact a local lawyer/the DC DOH for more information.|
|Delaware||Del. Code Ann. tit. 16, §122(3)(w) & Del. Code Ann. tit. 11, §1114(a)||Delaware Department of Health and Social Services||Tattoo artists do not require a license, but tattoo parlors require a Body Art Establishment permit. Registration costs $100, with a series of rules and regulations.|
|Florida||Fla. Stat. §381.00775 & 381.00777||Florida Department of Health||For a Tattoo Artist license in Florida, you must have Bloodborne pathogen certification, Communicable Diseases course (passing score), and a government-issued ID.|
|Georgia||Ga. Code § 31-40-1 to 31-40-10, Ga. Code § 16-12-5, & Ga. Code § 16-5-71.1||Individual County Health Departments||Each county has its own requirements for licensure.|
|Hawaii||Hawaii Rev. Stat. § 321-13 & Hawaii Rev. Stat. § 321-379||Hawaii Department of Health||For a State of Hawaii Tattoo Artist license, you must have Bloodborne pathogen certification, and a completed tuberculosis and syphilis report form.|
|Idaho||Idaho Code § 18-1523||N/A||Tattooing is currently not regulated in Idaho. Parlors can be registered (a good mark for many customers), but do not have to be.|
|Illinois||Ill. Rev. Stat. 410 §54/1 to 54/999||Illinois Department of Public Health||Tattoo artists must receive a Tattoo Artist license from the DOPH, but there are no stringent requirements except attendance at an OSHA class on bloodborne pathogens. Shops must also be registered with the DOPH.|
|Indiana||SECTION 1. IC 25-1-19||Indiana Department of Health||Indiana requires shops to register with the health department, and all artists must complete an OSHA class on Bloodborne Pathogens.|
|Iowa||Iowa Code §135.37||Iowa Department of Public Health||To get a Tattoo Artist license, tattoo artists must complete first aid training, submit an application with proof of Bloodborne Pathogen training, and have at least a high school diploma or GED.|
|Kansas||Kan. Stat. Ann. §65-1940 to 65-1954||Kansas Board of Cosmetology||To receive a Body Art Practitioner license, tattoo artists must submit a number of requirements and complete an examination. The requirements include a board-approved training program, a high school diploma or GED, Bloodborne Pathogen certification, at least 50 procedures performed during apprenticeship, and proof of age + ID.|
|Kentucky||Ky. Rev. Stat. §194A.050; 211.760||Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services||Registration of individual artists is handled by each county, but the Cabinet requires registration and annual inspection of all tattoo parlors.|
|Louisiana||La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 40:2831 et seq. & La. Rev. Stat. Ann. §14:93.2||Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals||Individual artists do not need to apply for a license, but the DOHH requires a permit and annual inspection of all tattoo parlors.|
|Maine||Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. Title 32||Maine Department of Health and Human Services||Only Bloodborne Pathogen training is needed to be licensed as a tattoo artist in Maine. If you own a shop, you must certify that your water is clean (if attached to a well) and septic system design is sound (if not connected to the city’s sewer), and tattoo shops are given health inspections.|
|Maryland||Code of Md. Regs. 10.06.01.0||N/A||Local jurisdictions within Maryland regulate tattooing (including Baltimore City), but the state itself does not. Applicable laws are attached to the left, and tattoo parlors must dispose of hazardous materials and sharp objects as per DOH and DOE rules.|
|Massachusetts||Mass. Gen. Law ch. 111, §31 & Mass. Gen. Law ch. 112, §2||Massachusetts Department of Public Health||Tattoo artist licenses are not handed out by the state, but are required in some parts of Massachusetts, including Boston. Tattoo parlors (Body Art Establishments) must review Massachusetts inspection regulation as per the Community Sanitation rules of the Department of Public Health.|
|Michigan||Mich. Comp. Laws §333.13101 to 333.13112||Michigan Department of Health & Human Services||Individual tattoo artists are not regulated by the state, but tattoo shops are, through a Body Art Facility license.|
|Minnesota||Minn. Stat. §§146B.01 to 146B.10||Minnesota Department of Health||Tattoo artists must apply for a Body Art Technician or Tattoo Technician license. For a Tattoo Technician license, tattoo artists must complete 200 hours of supervised tattooing, fill out an application, have Bloodborne Pathogen certification, and pay a fee.|
|Mississippi||Miss. Code Ann. §73-61-1 et seq.||Mississippi State Department of Health||Tattoo artists must submit proof of completing a Preventing Disease Transmission course, as well as a photo ID. To receive a complete Tattoo Artist license, tattoo artists must work at least nine months with a provisional license under a licensed supervisor at a registered establishment. Tattoo parlors must also be registered.|
|Missouri||Mo. Rev. Stat. §324.520 to 324.526||Missouri Division of Professional Registration||Tattoo artists in Missouri must complete a 300-hour apprenticeship and complete 50 procedures before applying for a Tattooing license. They must also have current Bloodborne Pathogen training.|
|Montana||Mont. Code Ann. §§50-48-101 to 110; §§50-48-201 to 209 & Mont. Code Ann. §45-5-623||Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services||To receive a Tattooing license, tattoo artists must submit an application and fee.|
|Nebraska||Neb. Rev. Stat. § 38-1001 to 38-10,171||Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services||Tattoo artists in Nebraska must complete Bloodborne Pathogen training, first aid training, and fill out a Body Art Profession application.|
|Nevada||N/A||N/A||There are no laws or regulations for tattoos in Nevada, except in Clark County, which has its own county-specific laws regarding tattooing and business licenses.|
|New Hampshire||Duties. N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 314-A:1 to 314-A:13||New Hampshire Office of Professional Licensure and Certification||Tattoo artists applying for licensure must have 3 years of apprenticeship under a licensed professional and must complete an approved course.|
|New Jersey||N.J. Stat. Ann. §26-1A-7, N.J.A.C. 8:27-1 et seq. & N.J. Stat. Ann. §2C:40-21||New Jersey Department of Health||Training requirements for tattoo artists in New Jersey include a 2000-hour minimum supervised apprenticeship, and completion of a Bloodborne Pathogen course.|
|New Mexico||N.M. Stat. Ann. § 61-17B-1 et seq.||New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department||Tattoo artists must undergo a 1500-hour approved apprenticeship to apply as a tattoo artist. Also needed are proofs of completed CPR training, Bloodborne Pathogen training, and First Aid training.|
|New York||N.Y. Public Health Law §460-466 & N.Y. Penal Law § 260.21||New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene||A Tattoo License requires an Infection Control Course and a completed and passed Infection Control Examination.|
|North Carolina||N.C. Gen. Stat. §130A-283 & N.C. Gen. Stat. §14-400||North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services||Tattoo artists must seek a Tattooing Permit through local health departments and complete a Tattoo Program.|
|North Dakota||N.D. Cent. Code §23-01-35 & N.D. Cent. Code §12.1-31-13||North Dakota Department of Health||Tattoo artists must be vaccinated against Hepatitis B and must undergo CPR training. Tattoo shops are regularly inspected to ensure they’re up to specifications.|
|Ohio||Ohio Rev. Code Ann. §3730.01 to 3730.99||N/A||Local health departments in Ohio regulate the tattoo industry, but the state itself has not set standards or fees, although they may.|
|Oklahoma||Okla. Stat. tit. 21 §842.1, 842.2, 842.3||Oklahoma Department of Health & Oklahoma Department of Career and Technology Education.||Tattoo artists in Oklahoma must complete a 1500-hour apprenticeship over 1-2 years, and have valid Bloodborne Pathogen, first aid, and CPR training. A written exam must be passed to qualify and make it to the final stage of the process.|
|Oregon||Or. Rev. Stat. §690.350 et seq.; Or. Rev. Stat. §690.401 to 410||Oregon Board of Electrologists and Body Art Practitioners||To obtain a Tattoo Artist license, a tattoo artist must have a high school diploma/GED, complete Bloodborne Pathogen training, complete first aid and CPR training, and must either clock 360 hours of training with a licensed tattoo artist, with certification of at least 50 completed tattoos, and a written exam.|
|Pennsylvania||Pa. Cons. Stat. tit.18 §6311||N/A||Pennsylvania does not require licensing or certification of neither shops nor artists. It is illegal to tattoo minors exempting certain exceptions, as in all other states.|
|Rhode Island||R.I. Gen. Laws §23-1-39||Rhode Island Department of Health||Tattoo Artist licenses require a practical examination with the DOH, a background check, a photo ID and birth certificate, and fees. Tattoo shops must also be licensed and registered.|
|South Carolina||S.C. Code Ann. §44-34-10 to 44-34-120||South Carolina Bureau of Health||South Carolina tattoo artists must have first aid, CPR, and Bloodborne Pathogen training, as well as training in infection control. All shops are registered and licensed, and must list their respective tattoo artists, noting their experience level.|
|South Dakota||S.D. Codified Laws §9-34-17 & S.D. Codified Laws Ann. §26-10-19||South Dakota Department of Health||Individual counties regulate body art and tattooing, including licensure.|
|Tennessee||Tenn. Code Ann. §§62-38-201 to 62-38-212; §§62-38-301 to 62-38-310||Tennessee Division of Environmental Health||Tattoo artists and establishments must seek licensure in Tennessee, shops are inspected four times per year. To receive a Tattoo Operator license, you must pass examination and pay a $140 fee for a Tattoo Apprentice application and complete a one-year internship. Then, you can request a Tattoo Operator license.|
|Texas||Texas Health and Safety Code Ann. §146.001 et seq.||Texas Department of State Health Services||Individual shops are registered and licensed by the DSHS, but tattoo artists do not need licensure. Tattoo studios and body piercing studios require separate licensure. Studios are checked to ensure artists working in them comply with safety laws, including bloodborne pathogen training.|
|Utah||Utah Code Ann. §76-10-2201||N/A||Utah’s individual counties handle tattooing licensure, although common requirements include a Hepatitis B vaccination, a Bloodborne Pathogen training certification, and a fee. Shops must also be registered by the county.|
|Vermont||Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 26, §4101 to 4109||Vermont Office of Professional Regulation||To receive a Tattoo Artist license, a tattoo artist must clock in 1,000 hours of apprenticeship within the last two years with an artist who has been legally licensed for at least three years.|
|Virginia||Va. Code §54.1-700 et seq., Va. Code §15.2-912 & Va. Code §18.2-371.3||Virginia Board for Barbers and Cosmetology||To receive a Tattoo Artist license in Virginia, a tattoo artist must complete training program by clocking 250 hours in a licensed Virginia school, or completing 1,500 hours of apprenticeship, or completing an equivalent out-of-state program/existing legal tattoo experience of at least 3 years. There’s also a written exam, and you need CPR training, first aid training, and a Bloodborne Pathogen certification.|
|Washington||Wash. Rev. Code §70.54.320 to 70.54.350, Wash. Rev. Code § 18.300; 18.300.005 to 18.300.902 & Wash. Rev. Code §26.28.085||Washington State Department of Licensing||For a Body Art, Body Piercing, Tattoo Artist, or Permanent Cosmetics license, applicants must fill out a basic form, have Bloodborne Pathogen training certification, and pay a fee. Shops must also be licensed.|
|West Virginia||W. Va. Code §16-37-1 to 38-7||West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources||There are no licenses for tattoo artists in West Virginia, but tattoo artists must keep records of every tattoo given, and studios must be in compliance with state law as per the DHHR.|
|Wisconsin||Wis. Stat. §463.10 & Wis. Stat. §948.70||Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services||To obtain a Tattooing and Body Piercer license, tattoo artists must apply for licensure and individual shops must be registered under the DSPS.|
|Wyoming||Wyo. Stat. §14-3-107||N/A||Wyoming’s individual counties regulate tattooing, but not all do, and there’s scarce regulation.|
Once you’re a fully legal and licensed tattoo artist, it’s time to work on securing your business permit. Business permits are handled by different agencies and organizations in each state. If you’re seeking to sell merchandise in your business, you’ll need a permit from your state’s own (State) Sales Tax Commission, Franchise Tax Board, or Equalization Board.
You’ll want a business permit from your local county, as well as a health permit from the local health department, a fire department permit, and so on. Different states require tattoo parlors to get different permits, and if you’re not sure where to start, a consultation with a local lawyer is best to give you the most up-to-date outlook on any other missing requirements.
Set Up a Business Plan
If you really want to start up your own tattoo business (which I assume you do, if you’ve made it this far), then it’s important to sit down and get to brass tacks. Get yourself a business partner who knows the local tattoo scene well, or use your own experience to draft up a business plan, taking into consideration:
- Who you’re targeting (specify the demographics of your audience),
- Your pricing (based on competition, and what you’d like to earn plus tax),
- Market research (basic estimates on the percentage of tattoo enthusiasts as well as potential clientele in your area, based on state-wide or national surveys and statistics)
- Forecasted revenue, and net gain after estimated costs,
- Your plans to set your business apart from the competition,
- Your marketing strategy,
- A basic timeline,
- Management and payroll (if you’re more than just one person),
- Funding options,
- And so on.
Finding the Right Shop
When picking a shop, some basic rules apply. First and foremost, consult your local county’s zoning ordinances. City planners have strict rules for where certain establishments can and cannot operate, including tattoo parlors. It helps to do a quick search online for your local zoning laws, or pop by your city hall or town hall and request access.
Once you know where you can and can’t set up shop, you’ll need to pick the right location. This is a simple compromise between how attractive the location might be to potential customers, and how much it’ll cost you to rent the spot or outright own it. Some things to watch out for are places with lots of foot traffic. It doesn’t pay very well to be hidden away in an alley, unless you’re confident that you’re going to get most of your clients through the Internet and word of mouth.
With the right location comes more than just a steady stream of customers. You need a shop with all your sanitary requirements, sinks (a hand washing station near your workstation), state-approved biological waste containers, non-porous flooring, good bathrooms, and partitions to separate the tattooing from the entryway. Thankfully, tattoo parlors are otherwise pretty simple. You don’t need a massive amount of storage, or a huge kitchen, or space for tons of refrigerators, or bulky and expensive printing equipment. Plenty of tattoo parlors don’t bother with partitions, and instead opt to just welcome and tattoo customers in the same area.
Stocking Your Shop
Here’s where a substantial amount of money is going to go, right after the security deposit on your shop. You’ll want a variety of critical equipment, including:
- Ink (and plenty of it, including vegan options),
- Several tattoo machines,
- A power supply,
- Needle sets,
- An autoclave to sterilize your equipment,
- A tattoo client chair,
- Plenty of disposable material for sanitary purposes (from gloves to covers for your chair),
- A PC to receive and edit designs, communicate, and manage your marketing,
- A printer/imager (optionally),
- Stencil paper and art supplies,
- Tubes, tips, grips,
- Some basic medical supplies, including gauze, alcohol, aftercare products,
- And more.
This doesn’t consider costs for renovation, furniture, paint, labor, decoration, and more. Not only does all this cost a pretty penny, but it may be a while before you break even. Tattooing equipment is expensive and not something you want to cheap out on. Top quality and perfect sanitation are critical to nurturing and maintaining a strong local reputation. Finding funding is obviously important, and there’s not really anything you should skip out on when first opening your shop. This is where it helps to have good starting capital, a generous investor, or a loan.
It’s very difficult to estimate how much starting capital you’ll need to set up a tattoo business from scratch. Some estimates go between $10,000 and $25,000 depending on location, scope, and so on. If you know where to source your starting equipment, you can get away with a lower starting cost. You’ll also have to consider ongoing overhead, from rent and utilities to needles and ink, and other disposable equipment, especially medical supplies. If you’re more than just a one-man or two-man operation, you’ll have salaries to worry about as well.
Managing the Risks
Tattoo businesses could do well with tattoo insurance. With more and more people getting tattoos, the likelihood that one of your customers might end up being a bad apple and coming after you erroneously will rise. Simultaneously, there’s always the chance that you end up making a single simple mistake – and that one mistake could run your entire business and dream into the ground.
Tattoo insurance and an acquaintance with a reputable local lawyer will help you manage that risk by getting yourself insured against mistakes, disasters, and lawsuits. Different programs offer different policies, many of which bundle basic forms of insurance with tattoo-specific insurance. If the program you’re browsing doesn’t offer basic protection for other common liabilities, make sure you’re otherwise covered.
Another concept that is growing in interest is the idea of trademarking and copyrighting in the tattoo business. Some companies and businesses are beginning to seek ownership over their designs or the designs of other artists, thereby controlling when and how the art may be displayed in other media, including movies, music videos, and video games. One particular case that comes to mind is the high-profile lawsuit by Solid Oak Sketches against Take-Two Interactive Software, over the use of the likeness of LeBron James’ tattoos in the NBA 2K video game series.
If you somehow want to secure royalties on your designs being depicted in other places, especially for profit, you might want to consider consulting a copyright expert to know where the law stands on this topic.
Marketing Your New Tattoo Business
One of the final and more important things to consider when setting up a tattoo shop is the marketing. Classic avenues like newspaper ads and expensive signage often no longer bring in as many people as you’d think. Some old-school marketing tricks are still useful – like flyers, posters in strategic locations, company shirts, business cards, etc. With the internet swelling to such a massive size and scope, and with most of your prospective customers being millennials and Gen Zers, you’d do well to focus on three major strategies:
- A social media strategy, that involves a regularly updated Facebook Page with customer interaction, constant updates and promos, as well as an Instagram account where daily or weekly content can act as a portfolio of your skills and interests.
- An SEO-friendly website, that can help your tattoo business’ name rank better on Google, help you show up in more search results, show up in Google Maps better, and bring in far more customers, while giving your existing or previous clientele a better chance of writing reviews and testimonials that are easily accessible and further advertise your business.
- A greater presence on other platforms, including tattoo business directories (like ours!), press releases announcing your grand opening, a pre-opening promotional campaign to make noise about your upcoming shop in the local tattoo community, and so on.
Making sure people know you’re around, and crushing your local competition online, are important goals for any tattoo business’ marketing strategy. Of course, if you’re in a city with tons of incredibly tough and active competition, it’ll be a lot harder to carve out your own space. Doing things to separate yourself from other shops – like offering a unique style or specializing in an art direction no one else picks – can help.
One thing is for sure – if you set it up right, and get your business going, you will be making a sizeable amount of money. Tattoo artists are by no means usually millionaires – some do make it very big, though – but most manage to make a sizeable amount of money year after year. The tattoo industry is currently valuated at about $3 billion, including tattoo businesses, tattoo removal clinics, and body piercing.
Depending on where you’re located, you can command rates that net you roughly $241,000 annually – these are averages per tattoo studio. In larger urban areas, and with a large enough clientele, you can earn much more. The average tattoo artist earns about $50,000 a year, although the average tattoo artist does not necessarily own their own shop. Also, note that this is revenue for shop – it’s not necessarily what you’re bringing home. Revenue is calculated before expenses and taxes, too.
Nevertheless, it’s still a good chunk of money to work with, and as of 2020, the tattoo industry is slated to continue growing – which means more business, and more money.
You can also grow your business and monetize your brand in other ways, by printing your business’ brand on merchandise for customers to take home, or by providing and selling artbooks, reselling aftercare products, and scoring sponsorships on Instagram.