Monday, September 22, 2014

Tattoo Drawing Fees, Deposits, and Tips

 Just when you thought calculating the price of a tattoo was confusing enough...

 As an artist, I prefer to work in a custom art studio vs a flash art studio (often referred to unflatteringly as a "street shop").  These shops cater to two different kinds of tattoo clients.  The flash art studio caters to people who are looking for a tattoo that they have seen their friends get.  They want a tattoo for the sake of having a tattoo, and prefer to pick a design from a selection of pre-drawn designs (tattoo flash).  They expect to walk out with a new tattoo the same day they walked into the shop, and are often getting tattooed on a whim.  

 The custom art studio usually doesn't feature tattoo flash on its walls, or if it does the art is decorative or examples of the artists own designs.  Since most people get their first tattoo from a flash shop, this can be a little confusing initially.  People would often walk into the studios I have worked at and asked to see our "books".  We would think they mean out portfolios but they quickly indicate that they are looking for designs.  In custom art studios, the artists create your design specifically for you.  The client walks out of the shop with a unique piece of art.  Often, the tattoos carry a significant meaning to the client, or the client is a collector that wants a unique tattoo and likes the style of the artist they have chosen.

 You can get a custom tattoo at a flash art studio, and you can get a flash design tattooed at a custom studio.  The difference between shops really is just a matter of who they are catering to generally, a difference of business philosophy.

 A custom art studio will often try to create a design for a client on-the-spot, if not the same day.  Some designs, however, require more time to create, and the artist may ask for a deposit or drawing fee to be paid in advance.  This is another point that has befuddled some of the folks that have walked into shops I have worked at; that they would need to pay a small amount in advance of actually getting the tattoo.

 The terms "deposit" and "drawing fee" are often used interchangeabley, which can again lend to some confusion.  A deposit is often associated with the appointment itself, putting money down to hold your spot on the up-coming calendar.  A drawing fee is associated with the effort of creating a design, ensuring that the artist is paid for the effort of drawing even if the client does not get the tattoo.  The problem is that the artists themselves are often unclear on what they are having the client pay for with the fee.  I have seen other artists who's clients expected a drawing in advance of their tattoo appointment, only to have the artist explain that the money merely held their place in line, and other clients left wondering when they were going to get the tattoo since the artist took their money without setting an appointment.

 When paying a fee in advance of a tattoo, whether it is called a drawing fee or a deposit, it behooves you as the client to ask some questions and set some expectations:

 Is the fee included as part of the price of the tattoo?  More often than not, this is the case with most tattoo artists.  If they could draw your design on-the-spot, they would not charge you extra for the drawing, so it makes sense that the fee would come-off the price of your tattoo if you get it from that artist.

 What dates should be set?  If you can, you want to set an appointment for your tattoo.  However, this may not be possible with your schedule and the artist may not be certain when your design will be ready.  If you cannot set a date for the tattoo appointment, set a date to check the progress of the design.

 Under what circumstances should there be a refund?  A deposit or drawing fee establishes a contract between you and the artist, and you should both be very clear on the terms.  Normally, if the artist creates a design, your fee is non-refundable.  The artist has met his or her obligation to you for the fee paid.  Even if you do not get the tattoo, or like the design, the artist should still be paid for the effort.  However, what if the artist has not created a design by the date agreed upon?  How long should go by without a drawing before you, the client, should get your money back and seek a new artist?  Asking this question simply puts your artist on notice: you are expecting a drawing for the money you paid.

 Speaking of contract terms...

 Is the studio responsible in any way for the fee?  The answer here is typically 'no'.  The agreement and the money paid is between you and the artist.  Tattoo artists are not tradtional employees of the studios they work for, but are more like independent contractors.  This means that if you pay a drawing fee to an artist and he moves to a new studio prior to completing your design, you have to track that artist down.  The shop is not responsible.

 This is a point that the artist should also clarify with his studio.  If the artist takes a fee and then moves out of state, the client is going to be left feeling cheated and will associate that feeling with the studio as much as with the artist.  If the studio does involve itself in these agreements, will they expect a piece of the fee, or even to hold the fee for the artist until the obligation is met? The studio has a vested interest in ensuring their client's satisfaction.

 How long will the fee be held?  Just as the client should expect that a drawing will be generated in a timely manner, the artist should also expect the process to be completed.  A drawing fee or deposit is typically $50, but the drawing itself may involve several hours worth of work.  The artist normally can expect to be compensated for the effort as a part of the price of the tattoo itself.  What if the client moves out of state, is abducted by aliens, or simply vanishes?  It is in the artists best interest to give a clear deadline by when they tattoo needs to happen.  I usually set this deadline at 90 days, after which the fee is considered forfeit.

 Do you get to keep your drawing if you don't get the tattoo?  Most artists will tell you no.  Again, the client is probably paying $50 for a design an artist is expecting to get paid much more for (through the tattoo).  Artists are also not interested in seeing their designs being used by another artist, especially if that other artists has probably offered to do the work for less and will do a poorer job of it.  If you expect to keep the drawing, your artist will probably ask for an additional payment.

 Answering those questions, and including the answers as a part of your receipt for the deposit, can go a long way in making the artist and the client feel better about the process.

 Since we are on the subject of fees outside the tattoo price, this is a good blog to also mention tips. 

 Tipping is not nearly as involved of a process as the deposit or drawing fee, but clients are often confused about how much to tip or whether they should leave a tip at all.  Unlike the food service industry, a tip in the tattoo industry is truly a gratuity.  While tipping is welcome and encouraged, it should not be expected by the artist.  Getting a tip is an indicator of a happy client, but the lack of a tip should not be considered the indicator of an unhappy client.  The client may be paying all they can afford for the tattoo, or may just not be one who tips.  Happy clients tell there friends and come back for more tattoos, which is far more important than an extra $20 as a tip.

 How much to tip is also purely a matter of what the client is comfortable with.  There is no set percentage that is considered to be "appropriate".  If you as a client feel like giving a tip, tip whatever amount you feel indicates your staisfaction with the tattoo and the artist.  What is not appropriate when tipping is using the promise of a tip in negotiating the price of a tattoo.  

 Think about it this way.  Your an artist who takes pride in their creative skills and talents.  Some one walks into your studio, looks at your portfolio, and says they want a tattoo.  You offer what you feel is a fair price, or quote your standard rate, and the client basically tells you your work is not worth that rate, but if you come down on the price they will leave a good tip.  They are assuming that you need their tip so badly that you are willing to cheat your studio out of their percentage of your original price.  In essence, a client who uses the promise of a tip to get a better price is telling the artist that they have no respect for them or their art.  

 If you need to negotiate the price down, let it be because you really like the artist's work but you can't afford quite as much as they are asking for.  An artist would rather hear that and work with you on a price than a promise that you will share a little change with them for catering to your need to be cheap.

  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