"Trade Work" is something that most tattoo artists do now and then. You need your car fixed, and you run into an auto-mechanic who is looking for tattoo work, so you work out a trade. You need a new cellphone and want to upgrade, not necessarily to the latest model but something better than the dinosaur you carry in your pocket. So, you post an add saying you will trade tattoos for a phone and pick from what is offered.
Being willing to work in trade is usually good for the client and for the tattooist. Both get something they want by either doing something they enjoy doing or by not having to shell out a wad of cash for something they want. Most tattooist do trade work "occasionally", and typically do not advertise that they are willing to do so unless they need something. With the economy being what it is, being willing to work in trade can be a lucrative practice, if you know what you are doing.
One of the negatives of working in trade is the perception that doing so cheapens your work. Other professions generally do not work in trade... or at least that is the perception. In fact, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals often trade their services with clients who have something to offer them, but those transactions are usually above the head of John Q. Public. Being a tattooist, essentially an independent contractor in most shops, affords us the opportunity to set our own rates and methods of exchange. However, rule number one in doing trade work is to make certain you and the owner of your studio have a mutual understanding of not only that you are doing tattoos in trade, but how you are advertising the fact and what the split will be on a tattoo done in trade.
Generally, it is not a good idea to advertise that you are working in a particular shop when doing trade work, as it again may lessen your standing in some people's eyes. Also, if you represent the shop as doing work for trade, it is likely that people will show up expecting all the artist in your shop to do so, even if it just you. You do not want the studio to be perceived as a kind of pawnshop.
You should also trade in items that you are somewhat familiar with. It is in the nature of the game for clients to over-estimate the value of their trade, and if you do not know enough about what it is you are trading for you may be taken advantage of. The more familiar you are with what you are trading for the better off you will be.
As I said, the client will almost always over-estimate the value of what they are trading for. They may not take into account depreciation and expect to receive for their item what they paid for it. They might assume that the collector's value immediately equates to what the item will sell for on the market (it almost never does). You must do your homework! Have a venue to sell your trades, like eBay. Inform your clients that you will estimate the value of the item based on WHAT IT IS BEING BID FOR on eBay. Stress this point to them. The "Buy Now" price for a new item does not apply to their used item on auction. However you determine the value of an item, stick to your guns.
A good trade is one where both sides come away feeling like while they didn't get all they could, they did better than they might have. This is another tact to take when haggling over the value of an item... And, you will haggle. If the client feels that the value of an item is more than you are willing to offer, they can sell the item on their own and come back to you with the cash, pocketing the excess for themselves. Your willingness to trade should be viewed as a convenience to the client, not a need you are fulfilling for yourself. A good rule of thumb is to take whatever you think you will get for your trade and reduce that amount by 20%. That is not for the client, but to set the proper expectations for yourself and your shop. It may mean that you do a $200 tattoo for a $150 item, but if you and the shop expect to only get $150, then no one will be disappointed.
Be prepared to inspect the item, confirming its function and authenticity before doing the tattoo. If you trade for a video-game system, have a television and a game for the system on hand and play a few rounds. Also, when trading for an item, insist that all its components be included. Do not take electronics without a power-cord, for example. If the client tells you that a power-cord can be purchased with ease for a little cash, advise them that is should not be a problem for them to make the purchase based on their assessment. ALWAYS be suspect of every trade!
When selling your traded items, the fastest method is not always the best! Be prepared to take a week to sell your newly acquired treasure. Running down to the pawnshop is never a good idea. With this in mind, have your finances arranged to have the needed time to covert your item to the amount in cash you expected to receive. If you are trading because the bills are due next week, you should re-think your situation and insist on cash upfront.
How you split your earnings with the shop will depend on your shop's owner. Most will let you use the same split for cash tattoos; if you priced the tattoo at $200, you think that is what you will get for your trade, and your split is 60/40, you will owe your shop $80. Your shop owner may be willing to wait for you to get paid out for your trade, but it is best to give them their piece out of your own pocket rather than making them wait. Of course, if the shop insists on getting a percentage of the end value of the trade, they will need to wait along with you. In either case, be honest and realistic about the value of your work and the traded item. You don't want to tell the owner of your shop that you charged the shop minimum for a tattoo and the client gave you a PS3 gaming system and 20 games. Be fair in your dealings.
Also, when trading, you are assuming the risks. If said game system worked fine in the shop and turned to dust the next day, do not expect your shop to eat what they had earned on your tattoo. Owners are generally good people and will probably be willing to let it go, but will not be happy if that kind of thing happens repeatedly. If you quoted $200 worth of work and can only get $150 for the item, you should take the loss or you should have taken only cash.
Trading for tattoo work can bring you business when others are struggling to find clients, but you have to know what your doing. Remember also that as good as a trade might be, cash is always king!
Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX. He loves answering questions about tattoos. Shoot him an email at email@example.com