This is an extremely common question, but so difficult to answer!
The price of tattoos really depends on wherever you are in the world, the tattooist you’re seeing and the tattoo you’re getting.
It’s hard to tell people how much tattoos cost in general. There are just too many variations of tattoos and pricing. You could pay thousands for a sleeve and hundreds for a palm-sized tattoo. Each country also has its own acceptable rate.
In Australia, particularly Western Australia—it’s not uncommon for the hourly rate to be around $200. While in America it’s roughly $100-$150 an hour (plus tips).
Where I worked in WA, the hourly rate was $200 and the minimum charge (for anything under an hour) was $175. Often people would freak out at this price and look at me like a conscienceless extortionist.
The reason tattoos are so expensive is that it’s expensive to do tattoos. The equipment is isn’t cheap, and it’s mostly disposable. Not to mention tattoo artists normally pay for this stuff out of their own pockets.
I think it’s easy for customers to picture the $200 an hour going straight into the tattooist’s pocket. In which case I understand the freak-out. The truth is, the money is split in many directions, like any other business. Roughly half (this varies) will go toward the shop for rent. This helps to pay for the premises itself, bills, public liability insurance, medical supplies, cleaning supplies—the list goes on. The other half will go toward the artist, with further deductions for equipment costs, tax and superannuation (retirement fund). The large hourly rate also acts as an allowance for the fact that while we’re at work, however many hours a day, we’re not paid for the exact number of hours we work. We’re only paid for the productive commission-based hours with clients. This doesn’t include the work we do outside of hours to prepare for our clients. All in all, the tattoo artist walks away with a pretty regular income at the end of the week depending on how hard they work.
A lot of successful artists do have a pretty generous income, but it’s because they work very hard. For the first few years I worked 6 days, for roughly 60 hours a week. I’d spend about an hour each morning before work replying to client’s emails and other social media queries. Most nights I’d arrive home to draw designs and email clients until I’d go to bed (though I didn’t work nearly as hard as some of my peers in this regard). I know plenty of artists who put far more time and energy into the job than I did. Tattooists who earn a decent wage are the ones who really do work for it, with the exception of the actual extortionists. This brings me to another very important question;
How Do I Know If I'm Being Charged Fairly?
It’s hard to know what your artist will be like (money-wise) before you work with them. A good way to tell is to work out if you’re being charged to the minute when you’re initially quoted for the tattoo. If you’ve booked a four-hour session, and you’re told the session will cost you $800 at $200 an hour—you should hopefully be tattooed that entire time. Some artists will disagree on the grounds that you’re paying for their time either way.
I think if you’re beginning the tattoo on the first minute, then running through those four hours with zero breaks, then fair enough. I know artists who prefer to work this way. Personally, I’d spend a decent amount of time with the design, stencils, and breaks, so I would charge accordingly.
Every artist works differently, but as long as you’re paying for the time you’re actually being tattooed, I believe that’s fair. Just calculate it in your mind and decide for yourself if you’re comfortable with the cost when booking in a session.
I’d also like to point out; I’ve more than once come across the saying “Good tattoos aren’t cheap, cheap tattoos aren’t good.” I wouldn’t use these words as gospel. Crappy tattoo artists are very capable of over-charging while great tattooists may work quickly and efficiently, charging less overall. In my opinion it’s best to just find a decent tattoo artist, then worry about cost. The quality is definitely worth waiting and paying for. Remember, you're paying to wear someone's art!
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