It was always my destiny to own my own business. At the young age of 11, I started my first business where I would make muffins and sell them from our local Saturday morning market. From there, I have had a huge variety of different businesses from a second-hand clothing store, to an online piercing jewelry business, to my soap company!
So naturally, when I became a tattoo artist everyone thought I would open my own tattoo studio. Initially, I was hesitant – the industry is full of competition, running a larger scale business with employees is daunting, and I am still so young. But with the help of my partner Nathan, we made our dream a reality!
No, that is not a plant store. That is actually our very own tattoo studio, aptly named Be Kind Tattooing. Nathan and I share a love of plants, and put our personal touch to the studio with indoor plants, some beautiful pieces of pottery, and even fish tanks!
If you are thinking about opening your own tattoo studio, and you are ready to take the leap, here is my list of what you need to do to make your dream a reality!
Can You Afford It?
If you’re thinking about opening your own tattoo studio, that means either you’ve come into some money, or you have started thinking about saving towards this goal. But can you really afford it?
I’m not talking about simply the cost of buying all of the equipment. I’m talking about the legal stuff, the time you will need to take to set up the studio (you won’t be earning anything while this process is happening), and some cushioning for when things go wrong – and trust me they do!
What Nathan and I did, to begin with, was make an Excel spreadsheet with all of our anticipated costs. We had a variety of columns ranging from things that were a necessity to things that we would like to have but don’t necessarily need right at the beginning. Remember, you can always add to your studio as the years go by, and while that $200 painting would look beautiful in your studio, you don’t NEED it right now!
Location, Location, Location!
Picking out a location for your tattoo studio is one of the most important things to do. We spent around 3 months searching for commertial properties in our areas online, contacting agents, and just driving around looking for “Shop to Rent” signs. We eventually found a building with the perfect space for all of us to tattoo from.
Some landlords hear the words “tattoo studio” and instantly think that their premises will be occupied by drug addicts and biker gangs, so expect some rejection. We pay a very reasonable amount for rent, and our landlord was comfortable with us making the necessary changes to the premises to allow for our business to operate smoothly. We rent a 100 square foot property and have enough space for six artists.
They let us install drywall to separate the reception area from the tattoo area, and we were able to install a sink in our clean room to dispose of waste properly. These are very important and legal factors to take into consideration when setting up a tattoo studio!
Cost: $2300 deposit, $2100 monthly rental, and $1500 for shop fittings
The Legal Stuff
As tattooers, we naturally don’t want anything to do with admin, accounting, figures, and most of all tax. That’s why we got into the artistic industry, to begin with, right? Unfortunately, when you decide to open your own shop, these are things you will need to tackle.
The first thing we did was get an accountant. He is my new best friend as he deals with all of our taxes, our business registration, and updating all of our financial and government documents. He handles payslips every week and provides our employees with proof of earnings which helps them do adult stuff like renting apartments and taking out loans. But he is not an absolute necessity – you can do all of it yourself if you have the time and the resources to do so. I do however highly recommend biting the bullet and making your life easier by getting an accountant.
The next step was to register our business – this was so that no one could steal our name, we could register for tax, and we could take out business loans if we needed to in the future. It was a very easy process and has benefitted us greatly.
Another important thing for us was insurance. We have taken out insurance on our big-ticket items like our electronics, liability insurance, and theft insurance. This really saved our butts when Nathan dropped his machine and we needed to replace it!
The last step is to check your licensing needs in your country. In South Africa, we do not need a license to tattoo. This has become a bit of a problem as everyone can just tattoo out of their homes and there is almost no control of the industry.
In America, you need a tattoo license. This is to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, and you need to complete a three hour Infection Control Course and an Infection Control Examination conducted by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s (DOHMH) Health Academy. A valid medical waste disposal certificate is also an extremely important document to have.
Cost: $30-$90 per hour for an accountant, $600-$900 business registration, $60 per month for insurance, and $100 every two years for license.
Branding is Everything
Branding is one of the most important aspects of starting a business. If your branding doesn’t appeal to the public, chances are they won’t even consider your business for their next tattoo.
I chose to use a registered graphic designer for our brand. We met for a consultation and put together a Brand Style Guide. We included colors we liked, fonts, overall brand vibe, and logo ideas. We chatted about what layouts we would need for things like Facebook banners, Instagram profile pictures, email headers, and signage. Pete worked so delicately with us and captured our brand perfectly.
The choice of a bird was a personal touch for me. I went through all of my dad’s old drawings and picked out a couple of little sketches that I felt a connection to.
Nathan and I bonded over a shared love of birds, and the little bird we decided to use for our logo was a refined version of one of my dad’s sketches.
The name came to me a couple of years ago, when I saw a tattoo that my aunt got which was just the words “be kind”. Kindness is a trait that my mom always told me to look for in a partner and in friends, and it felt fitting to use it in the name of our studio, and our clients absolutely love it!
Cost: $25 per hour for Graphic Designer
Across the board, all tattooers have a pretty similar setup. A sterile tray, a tattoo bed, a chair, a light, and an armrest. Without these vital pieces of furniture, our jobs become a lot more difficult to do! The number of artists you have in your tattoo studio will determine how much money you will need to spend on essential furniture, but I spent around $1350 on each station in my studio.
Next, we have the studio essentials like a printer, thermal printer, sound system, and iPad. A decent setup can set you back by about $2000, but there are cheaper options like buying second-hand or starting off with lower-range models.
Cost: $1350 per station, $2000 equipment
A mistake I often see in the tattoo industry is people sourcing medical supplies from tattoo supply stores. I can almost 100% guarantee that these stores buy their supplies from medical companies, and put a big mark up on their products. The first thing I did was get an account with a medical supply wholesaler. I get my cleaning supplies, vaseline, tongue depressors, linen savers, and grip tape directly from them and have saved a fortune!
For my consumables like clingwrap, paper towels, and masking tape I recommend using a wholesale baking company! Again, I have saved a fortune by not buying these products from our local food stores as most studios do.
When it comes to needles, tattoo ink, thermal paper, ink caps, and tattoo machine supplies, I have built a relationship with two of our local companies. They deliver fast, provide me with great service, and even include little treats and tester products in all of my orders!
Cost: $100 monthly
Get the Right Employees
One of the most important aspects of running any business is having a great team of employees. From past experience, it’s never a good idea to have someone working in your studio who is lazy, unmotivated, and whose beliefs don’t align with yours. They almost always bring everyone else down around you!
Studio vibe is extremely important and clients can tell when there is animosity and underlying drama in your shop – create an open and honest channel of communication between yourself and your employees and that way nothing can go wrong!
I take the time to chat with my artists, help when they are having a difficult time, and spend time with them outside of the shop as well. Team building exercises are so important! So think about things you can all do together like playing paintball, going on a hike, or even just chilling with some drinks after work.
Content is a Necessity
Content creation is an absolute necessity in the modern age. Without a consistent Instagram presence, I don’t think we would be half as busy as we currently are! Think about what kind of content you would want to create – this can be in the form of Reels, TikToks, Q&A videos, a specific background for all of your tattoo photos, or even just a simple edit that is consistent throughout your content.
It is also a great idea to pay for Google ads and to boost some Instagram posts. I spent around $10 per month doing this, but I am considering upping our social media budget in the new year.
Cost: $10 per month
Community engagement is another important part of getting your name out there while giving back to the community that supports you! I vowed that our studio would do as much as possible to help a variety of charities and causes, and so far we have done a fund raiser for a friend battling cancer, a donation drive for an Arts Therapy center, and are raising funds for SA Women Fight Back for 16 Days of Activism (and we only just celebrated our 1st birthday!)
What’s cool about our industry is that we thrive on return clientele, and by doing drives and charity events, you can almost guarantee that you will have at least 50% of your clients come back for more work. Think about charities and causes that are near and dear to you – trust me, they will appreciate your help and all it costs is your time.
Cost: your time
Have Fun, and Ignore The Haters!
It is so scary to take the leap and start a business of your own – a multitude of things can go wrong and the threat of failure will always be in the back of your mind. Our industry is filled with haters, and the only thing you can do is keep your head up and have confidence that you are doing the right thing.
As long as you are providing a safe place to do beautiful tattoos, you are kind and patient with your clients, and you are being a good boss to your employees, you should thrive as a tattoo studio owner! Nathan always said to me that the worst thing that could happen would be that we have to close our doors, and if you think about it that’s not even too terrible – at least you took a leap of faith and tried!
I hope this list has provided some tips, tricks, and advice to help you with your journey
Cost: Completely Free