Monday, June 24, 2013

How a Tattoo is Priced

"A Good Tattoo Isn't Cheap.  A Cheap Tattoo Isn't Good."

 This is simply a truism about tattoos that is applicable almost universally with a few rare instances or circumstances that disprove the rule. It is ALWAYS in your best interest to shop for quality.  Pricing a tattoo is a subjective art.  Prices are offered as either a flat-rate, generally for small tattoos, or an hourly rate for larger pieces.  A price on a tattoo is open to negotiation, within limits, and is dependent on what the artist thinks his or her effort is worth, how much they want to do the tattoo, and how much they need to do the tattoo.

 As a collector, pricing should be your last consideration when getting a tattoo.  First you should be concerned about the quality and reputation of the shops you are considering.  Then you should find a knowledgeable artist in a reputable shop who is skilled in the style and subject matter you are interested in.  After those concerns have been addressed, then it is time for you to discuss price.  It is worth your money to get your work from a good shop and an artist who knows what they are doing.  A tattoo is an investment in yourself, so don't go cheap.

 The price of a tattoo may be presented as either flat rate or an hourly rate.  An artist who offers a flat rate comes up with an estimate of what a tattoo of that design's complexity, number of colors, size, and location on the body will cost for him to do.  Artist develop an eye for pricing based on the size and complexity of the design with a rough idea to how long it will take them to do and what they wish to make per hour.  If the tattoo is on a spot that presents its own issues; feet, hands, ribs, chests, breasts, or intimate areas, then the artist adjusts the price up to compensate.  A flat rate is typically offered for small tattoos or pre-designed (tattoo flash) tattoos.  The advantage of flat-rate pricing is that both the client and the artist know exactly how much money will be exchanged for the tattoo.

 An hourly rate is typically offered on large pieces that will take several sessions to complete.  Again, the artist knows how much they would like to earn an hour, and can probably offer an estimate of how long a tattoo might take, but due to the tattoos size the exact amount of time is uncertain.  Tattoo sleeves, socks, body-suits, back pieces, touch-ups, and cover-ups are often offered at an hourly rate.  The advantage of hourly-pricing is that the tattoo can be broken down into sessions, with segments of time being purchased by the collector from his artist.  The collector does not need to pay for the entire tattoo up-front, and on future sessions can pay only the amount that is comfortable for them, getting a smaller or larger amount of work depending on the amount paid.

 Tattoo pricing is subjective, and generally open to negotiation.  Rare is an artist or shop that has a rate on any tattoo "set".  A tattoo artist typically offers a price for what they think is fair for their effort.  While some artists may try to "size-up" their customer and offer a price based partially on what they think the customer may be able to pay, this is considered an unprofessional and unnecessary practice.  If your work is worth $200 an hour, it will fetch $200 an hour regardless of a particular customer's ability to pay.

 The price offered, however, may not be the final word on the tattoo price.  This is because a tattoo artist is driven by other motivators than money alone.  The tattoo artist may very much want to do your tattoo.  The design you have selected or the concept you have in mind may be intriguing to the artists and something he or she would like to have in their portfolio.  This is why it is beneficial to seek an artist who's style you enjoy and who has some familiarity with the subject matter.  An artist who wants to do your tattoo may be willing to take less than they normally would to do the work.

 Another factor is how badly the artist needs to do your tattoo.  Tattoo artists have bills to pay like everyone else.  If an artist is feeling the crunch from upcoming bills, has expensive plans in the future, or if he or she  is having a slow day, then their may be room for negotiation.  While you cannot possibly know when an artist's bills are due or what their plans are, you know that their rhythms probably coincide with the rest of society.  Thus, the end of the month and the middle of the month might be more needful times for an artist.  Also, since a tattoo artist makes most of his or her money on the weekends, Monday through Thursday are probably a little less expensive days to visit an artist than Friday through Sunday.  The less the artist has going on, the more likely they are to charge less to simply earn some money on a slow day.

 Negotiation should always be considered a possibility.  It never hurts to ask if you can get a better price.  How you ask, and how you respond, can either help or hurt your price.  They may not look it, but tattoo artists can be a little on the sensitive-side when it come to their work.  Telling an artist that they are asking for too much for a "drawing on the skin" tells the artist you have no respect for the industry or for them as an artist.  Generally, a tattoo artist offers what they feel is a fair price for the work requested, so questioning their judgement suggests you lack confidence in their skills.  Telling an artist that you have gotten better offers from other tattoo artists or shops is also a poor strategy.  More often than not, you will be invited to seek that artist, and to come back for an even more expensive cover-up (because you get what you pay for).

 The best strategy for negotiating the price if the price offered is out of your comfort zone is to simply say so. "That is more than I am prepared to pay, but I really want the work" almost always gets some wiggle-room on the price.  The artist may come down a small amount, which is usually the least they will take to do the tattoo, or they may ask what you are hoping to pay for the work.  The artist will take that information and may offer to do a smaller or less detailed version of your design, or offer to do the work in sessions.  In any case, letting the artist know that you want the work, but are simply short on cash, is far better than suggesting the work is over-priced or that a better deal can be gotten elsewhere.

 Again (because this point cannot be emphasized enough), pricing should be your last concern when getting a tattoo.  If you find a reputable and safe tattoo studio with an artist who is skilled in the style you like and is enthusiastic about your tattoo, they will more than likely work with you on a price and give you a tattoo that is worth every penny.  A little research can go a long way toward saving not just cash, but regret over your tattoo in the future.  Finding just the right shop and artist for you can also go a long way toward saving you money on future tattoos.  Keep in mind, while you are saving money on ink, that artists take tips, and a good tip can also lead to savings in the future.

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 a message at


  1. What if the artist asks me what my budget is right after I asked him how much he would charge me for a tattoo idea he accepted? Makes me think he's being a bit dishonest if he's not being upfront with an answer.

    1. A tattooer will ask what your budget is in order to gauge the size of tattoo you can afford. Lets say you have a design of a rose, and you are asking for it on your shoulder. Depending on your budget, the design could fill your shoulder, or could be significantly smaller. It is not that the tattooer is failing to be upfront about the price, it is that the tattooer wants to both meet your needs and price the tattoo appropriately. The best practice for a tattooer may be to ask how large you want it, and then quote a price (adjusting size and price if the quote offered is too high for your budget).

  2. Thanks for your reply. That's what I thought was weird. I gave him all that information in my first email to him- black ink only, 3x3 inches-ish in size on the inside of my forearm and sent a reference photo of a tattoo he recently did and said I wanted something similar. He got back saying what a fabulous idea etc and when I asked him how much he'd charge me he said "let me ask the other way around. what your budget?" Grr. It's as if he either overlooked the details of what I listed or... he was being shady!