Why do tattoo artists leave?

Whether to relocate to a new shop, or to open up their own, tattoo artists leaving seems to be a trend. But why?

After a few vague emails and some swift Googling, the answer was still unclear. So we reached out to 77 of our favorite tattoo artists & shop owners to ask the big question. Why do artists leave? Here’s what we heard so far in no particular order.

What are your thoughts on why artists leave? Please comment below with your opinion.

Work/Life Balance

Brandi Lee, Owner and Tattoo Artist at Human Kanvas Tattoo Shop, Calgary & Airdrie
Brandi Lee, Human Kanvas Tattoo Shop Calgary & Airdrie

As independent contractors, tattoo artists aren’t considered employees within the industry – yet specific rules still apply. For a shop to run efficiently, artists may have a set schedule or a limited number of vacation days.

If a tattoo artist places a high value on travel for guest spots, having a flexible schedule, extended vacation/family time, then a shop with set hours might not facilitate the right work/life balance. This can lead to a tattoo artist leaving to find a shop that’s more flexible or even opening their own space.
Here’s what Brandi Lee, artist & shop owner of Human Kanvas had to say,

“Most tattoo artists are self-employed. They travel around, make their own hours and build up their own clientele. It would be rare to find a tattoo artist that is an “employee.” The industry is not structured that way. It’s a creative culture and not set up to stay at the same shop for 30 years and collect a pension at the end.”

Entrepreneurial Spirit

Another factor Brandi mentioned was that tattoo artists have an entrepreneurial drive. She explains,

“I suppose they move, travel and open up other shops because they are all entrepreneurs from the beginning. That being said. Not all leave. I have had great success retaining my artists. I do so by building a “collective” making sure to keep them inspired, encourage travel and guest spots and allow room for growth in salaries. We do art together, not just tattooing and are always brainstorming new ideas and ways to gain business.”

Easy to Become Your Own Boss

Fiona Bergson, Owner and Tattoo Artist at Imperial Tattoo Connexion, Montreal, Quebec
Fiona Bergson, Imperial Tattoo Connexion, Montreal, Quebec

Fiona, the owner of Imperial Tattoo Connexion says that social media is making it easier for artists to open up their own shop.

“Tattoos have become extremely popular in recent years that social media on its own is sufficient to have a large clientele. (15 years ago It was essential to have a shop well located on street level to make it visible.) You have those who will prefer to open a private studio and have flexible schedules that allow them to travel and have the opportunity to do more guest spots or simply because they do not wish to have strict hours imposed by the studio that they are working at.” explains Fiona.

“Others prefer to work in a studio that has street visibility and have the comfort of having a reputation a continuous flow of new client \clientele feedback stocks etc) These artists will generally move from one tattoo studio to another until they find a studio that they enjoy the ambiance and colleagues that they work with. Once established in a team and shown that they are well taken care of and treated with the respect they deserve they will stay long term.”

Money / Profits

Jasmine anger ink montreal tattoo shop manager .png
Jasmine, Anger Ink, Montreal, Quebec

Jasmine, the shop manager at Anger Ink, Montreal says she has seen some artist turnover in the past, but not much lately as her team at Anger Ink has been there for years. But in general, Jasmine believes the industry trend for artists leaving stems from an entrepreneurial drive to make more money.

“I think a lot of artists who are leaving want to build their own shop or co-op. They’re thinking, “Why not make the whole percentage off what I’m tattooing?” But what they tend to not realize is how much time and money and effort that comes into that. Yeah, you’d be making 100% off your tattoo but at the same time a lot of that is going to have to go into building your shop, getting a good reputation, getting good artists, being able to pay your artists, being able to ensure clientele, and to ensure sterile equipment and to do the orders and all of that. Some of them have succeeded but others have also failed. Running a shop is a big BIG responsibility,” says Jasmine.

Cutting Out the Middle-Man

David Chea Tattoo Artist and Owner of Glass Street Tattoo, Suncook, New Hampshire
David Chea, Glass Street Tattoo, Suncook, New Hampshire

David Chea, of Glass Street Tattoo had a similar opinion about why tattoo artists leave. He describes the drive for more profit is another one of the many factors.

“One of the few reasons why tattoo artists leave their current shop to open up their own is because of money. Typically tattooers are commission based at 50/50. Most of the time is financially better to cut out the middle man as an established artists because a week’s worth of commission can pay an entire month of rent somewhere else. With that being stated this isn’t always the best case. A lot of great artists don’t have great life/business management skills. It’s a lot of time/stress to manage a studio with a good reputation,” says David.

Feeling Lured Away

Jason Medina Owner and Tattoo Artist at Dedicated Tattoo, Temecula, California
Jason Medina, Dedicated Tattoo, Temecula, California

According to Jason Medina, shop owner of Dedicated Tattoo located in Temecula, California, the lure of working alongside the glitz and glamour can be strong.

“Upcoming artists may be lured away by industry all-stars if you know what I mean. The job offers from a well-known artist is highly attractive,” says Jason.

Craving Inspiration

kelly green stable studio tattoo
Kelly Green, Stable Studio Tattoo, Bolton, Connecticut

Tattoo shops that cultivate an atmosphere of artistic expression and challenge creativity appeal to tattoo artists. Kelly Green, shop owner of Stable Studio Tattoo explained.

“As an artist you want to be challenged and pushed as much as possible so that you don’t become stagnant. So being surrounded by new or different artists is super appealing. This is also why a lot of artists attend conventions and seminars.”

Toxic Work Environment

Kosa from Skin Poëtry Tattoos, Ontario, Canada
Kosa from Skin Poëtry Tattoos, Ontario, Canada

Work environment ranks as a determining factor in job satisfaction across all industries, including tattooing. Jason Medina from Dedicated Tattoo explained that shop dynamic is yet another factor why artists leave. “Nobody likes working in a toxic environment regardless of what industry it may be,” says Jason.

There are many factors that contribute to a toxic work environment including favoritism, mentor/mentee relationships going sour, unhappy clients, lack of traffic, clash of personalities between the artists, a negative shop vibe, etc.

Mr. Kosa, founder of Skin Poëtry Tattoos shared his experience of leaving his previous shop.

“For me personally, it had to do with my old mentor making the workplace uncomfortable. I had known him as a family friend and apprenticed under him. Being a newer artist he actually wanted to keep me busy and the flow of clients was non-stop. However, eventually he started displaying jealous tendencies and getting upset that he wasn’t as busy. So it seemed to me at least. Lost a co worker and a friend because of how awkward it was made. Even the shop manager ended up walking out with me. The shop shut down as a result. I had to step up and be my own boss. I had the idea of Skin Poëtry Tattoos for years was time to make it reality. Took a month off to decide if I wanted to quit and move on or continue my path.”

Multiple Factors…

Millie-K-MKLX-Tattoo-UNDRGRND-SF
Millie K, @undrgrnd.sf, San Francisco, California

Millie K, a tattoo artist who just opened up her own shop @UNDRGRND.SF explained her journey and thoughts on the many reasons why artists might leave their current shop.

“First of all, it depends on each artists’ POV, some reasons are for money, some for work/life balance, distance/commute, some for power and establishment and some that are just basically for their own personal reasons.

“As for me, I’m from Singapore and I’ve worked under the most amazing mentor and boss which I would never think of leaving and not work with him anymore, but life pushed me in a different direction so here I am, across the world, living in San Francisco. I came here, nobody knew my name and when I could start working, I just kept going and started at a tattoo studio as a guest artist. Built up my name as much as possible, gained more following, moved on to another studio for money and brighter aspects. The usual case for tattoo artists is that we are always struggling; struggling to make ends meet, struggling to prove to ourselves that we CAN make it. And it doesn’t help if the people you work for don’t work for passion, but solely for money.

“Tattooing is such a booming industry, which also means that some people take advantage of that as a way to earn easy money. Some shops charge a percentage, some a flat rate to rent out the station. For the hours that you work as an artist, you have to give some of that to the shop to rent your space, and sometimes the rent or percentages gets a little too outrageous, leaving us scrambling to meet a quota or a minimum.

“But then again, it also depends on who you’re working with and for. We all strive for a healthy environment to work at, but sometimes greed gets the better of it. As independent contractors, we are our own boss and we set our own schedules. When an environment is no longer deemed hospitable, artists will start to question their place and leave to venture for a brighter future in hopes that they might find a place to call home, or, build one for themselves.”

Business & Artist Expectations

Rachel Walker Tattoo Artist and Owner of Golden Sage Tattoo, Doylestown, Pennsylvania
Rachel Walker, Golden Sage Tattoo, Doylestown, Pennsylvania

Rachel Walker, owner of Golden Sage Tattoo, responded to us with almost eight full pages of insights! She spoke about having clear roles and expectations, having a mission, the tattoo industry education shortcomings, as well lack of continuity of industry business standards. To summarize, Rachel explains her point of view when it comes to business/artist expectations:

“There are so many different types of tattoo artists, types of shop owners, and types of tattoo studios, and that IS just the problem. There is no ONE way studios can be expected to behave or operate their business. On the positive side, it allows for a lot of freedom in designing a business that works for the owner. Studio that have trouble keeping artist long term, have usually missed the mark in identifying who they are, what THEIR mission is, and clearing defining the roles and expectations with those whom they establish working relationships with. Every business needs a little soul searching.

“Problems occur, when the studio and the artist are not a likeminded match, they have different mentalities, different morals, different ideas of business practices, or views on tattooing, and likewise have different exceptions for what is expected of them, or what they expect from a studio.

“Tattooing is such a multifaceted evolving career, and its purpose, and our drive behind it can be different for so many people.”

What do you think?

Is something missing here? What are your thought on the whole “why artists leave” debate? Please comment below and tell us your story. Let’s keep the conversation going and shed more light on this interesting topic!