“Why Are Tattoos So Expensive?” Is a Very Legit Question

why are tattoos so expensive
Credit: David Clifton

Getting a new tattoo, whether it’s your first or fourteenth, doesn’t necessarily require planning—although doing research helps. What it does require, regardless of how much you’re working off a whim, is some cash flow. And if you’re thinking that things get pricey—know you’re not alone. Because the truth is that tattoos can cost serious cash. As of 2016, San Francisco, California was the most expensive place to get tattooed, with an average cost of $280 per hour. The NorCal city was followed by New York, Hong Kong, and Tokyo, each of which trailed a few dollars behind. So why are tattoos so expensive? For one, the cost of a tattoo pays for more than tattoo itself—and for the artist who created it. Below, we answer why are tattoos so expensive, and perhaps in doing so, are helping you justify the cost of a new piece.

1. You’re paying for your artist’s expertise

When you get a tattoo you’re ponying up for an expert’s craft—not unlike you would for any other service. According to Whitney Marie Donohue, a tattoo artist at Rise Again Tattoo in Montana, “[y]ou’re paying for the experience and years upon years of learning the trade. It’s a lifestyle we commit to make sure you receive something quality that lasts a lifetime.”

Becoming an artist isn’t as simple as setting up shop. Tattooers spend years training — often for very little money — as shop assistants and apprentices, and practicing their drawing and technique on their own time. And the length of time someone has been learning and practicing the trade influences how much they charge per piece or per hour. More experienced artists usually charge a higher rate than someone who is just getting started.

The experience of an artist is one of the variables of cost you can control for — but it’s not something we’d recommend. Reminder: Tattoos are permanent (unless you’re trying one of the temporary options), so most people would encourage you to treat getting a tattoo as a worthwhile investment. Qualifications like that aren’t cheap, so bargain-hunting for a tattoo artist is something you may want to avoid.

2. You’re paying for the size, placement, and details—or lack thereof

Another variable that is (somewhat) in your control is the tattoo itself, although you shouldn’t sacrifice what you want for a cheaper price. One maxim to remember is: the bigger the tattoo, the higher the price tag—regardless of whether the new piece is on your bicep or your back.

Other factors that drive the cost of a tattoo are the intricacy of the design, if the work is custom or is flash, placement on the body—areas that are more difficult to tattoo or sensitive may cost more, and colors used (the more colors a design requires, the higher the price tag—that’s more materials used and more time spent).“As a newer tattoo artist, I’m still trying to figure out how to price a tattoo,” explains Toronto-based hand poke artist Talia Missaghi. “So I add about $20 for every inch, or every half hour, depending on the complexity of the design.” While Missaghi says her “line work style is pretty consistent for now,” more involved techniques such as pointillism or hatch shading “count as an increase in complexity for me, which would add time and increase the price.” 

3. You’re paying for the artist to set up shop

Then there are variables you’d less commonly think of. For example, studio rents are based on local market prices, and San Francisco happens to be one of the most expensive cities in the world, so it’s no wonder a one-hour tattoo will cost, on average, $280. Similarly, another factor clients cannot control are insurance rates. Tattooing is a high-risk industry and, depending on the arrangement, an artist pays the premium or the studio pays it and factors that into their cut of an artist’s earnings. 

What’s more, no matter if your tattoo takes 10 minutes or an hour, the same materials are still needed to create the tattoo and sanitize the instruments before and after. Needles are single-use and vegan or organic inks can cost more than others, for example. Most tattoos are bandaged, so you can factor in the costs of gauze, creams, tape, and any other materials utilized. Some studios will give you a soap or cream for your aftercare, which is built into the overall cost. But for those that don’t, you’ll need to purchase those items on your own (BTW, these are our favorite soaps, and these are our favorite ointments for aftercare.) And these costs also factor into a studio’s minimum.  

Nearly all tattoos starts at a minimum price, set individually by the studio or artist. Every tattoo shop is different, but if they have a minimum it will typically range from $80 and $100,” explains Missaghi. At her studio, for instance, the minimum is $100, which is what she charges for “any tattoo that will take less than 30 minutes to complete.”

The bottom line

Even more expensive than a tattoo is the cost of fixing one. “Cheap tattoos are so expensive to fix. You may as well spend the money and do it right the first time,” says Nickhole Arcade of Waterproof Black Tattoo in Olympia, Washington. And if a studio prices its tattoos suspiciously low, Missaghi suggests avoiding it altogether. Understanding how to price a tattoo can be helpful when assessing if a place is suspect because prices are too low, she says.  

“People spend thousands on their cars or bags and clothes, they should invest in something that will last a lot longer than all of those,” says Donohue. So if you’re not ready to pay for the tattoo you want, it’s a great goal to work toward, saving up over time. Because beautiful tattoos are worth the wait — and the price.

with additional reporting by Alexandra Ilyashov

If you liked our post If You’re Wondering Why Are Tattoos So Expensive, You’re Not Alone, make sure to check out 13 Important Things to Know Before Getting a Tattoo.

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