How Do Tattoo Artists Earn Their Income?

Tattoos can be pricey, with even small designs starting at $100 or more. And since many clients prefer to pay in cash, it may seem like tattoo artists are raking in the dough.

Despite the perception that tattoo artists make a lot of money, the reality is that many are self-employed and face a range of business expenses. From equipment and supplies to studio rental and marketing, there are numerous costs that can eat into their earnings.

Tattoo artists typically receive payment for each tattoo they complete, with the exact amount varying based on factors like size and complexity. In cases where the artist works in a studio they don't own, the studio owner may take a commission from each tattoo. The specifics of this arrangement, including the percentage split between the studio and artist, can vary depending on the contract in place.

Payment 101 for Tattoo Artists

Tattoo artists are reaping the benefits of the growing popularity of tattoos. However, managing finances can be challenging, and many artists struggle to keep their earnings. To ensure a smooth payment process, it's recommended to arrange payment with the artist beforehand, with cash being the preferred method for most. Invoicing can complicate commission payouts to the tattoo parlor, and involving banks and payment sites can add unnecessary stress. 

Once paid, smart artists prioritize setting aside funds for self-employment taxes and business expenses before paying themselves. This financial planning is essential for long-term success in the industry.

The Apprenticeship

Tattoo artists begin their journey as apprentices, where they learn the craft through hands-on experience. Although they do not tattoo clients yet, they still receive payment. Typically, apprentices receive a fixed weekly salary, similar to traditional employees. This compensation is for assisting the tattoo artist in various tasks, including cleaning and setting up equipment, assisting with designs, stenciling, and practicing with tattoo machines. Through this on-the-job training, apprentices gain valuable experience, almost like an internship, to prepare them for their future careers as tattoo artists.

Chair Rental

Tattoo artists are typically considered independent contractors, granting them the freedom to dictate their working hours, client selection, and workspace preferences. For those without their own studio space, renting is a common practice. Tattoo artists may rent a chair or private booth within a tattoo parlor, where multiple artists work simultaneously. Alternatively, they may rent from an individual who has their own workspace. This rental arrangement usually involves a weekly or monthly fee or a commission from each tattoo, allowing artists to work in a professional and well-equipped environment without the financial burden of owning their own space.

Fixed Fees 

Paying a fixed fee to the shop owner is similar to renting a personal workspace, with the added benefit of equipment and supplies included. This arrangement typically involves a monthly fee, such as $500, regardless of the artist's earnings. While this can provide stability for the artist, it can also be challenging if they have a slow month with few bookings. The fixed cost can become a financial burden if the artist's earnings do not cover the monthly fee.


Rather than paying a fixed monthly fee, some parlor owners opt to take a commission from each tattoo, allowing artists to avoid the burden of a set rent. Typically, this commission involves a 50/50 split between the artist and owner, with the artist earning slightly more per booking. To ensure fair compensation for the artist, tipping is often encouraged when they are paying a commission for their workspace. This practice helps artists earn a more comparable income to what they would receive if they owned their own shop.

Going Solo

If a tattoo artist has their own workspace, they can avoid paying commission to a shop owner. Instead, they will pay rent to a landlord for the space they occupy. Some artists may choose to set up a home studio, utilizing a guest bedroom, attic, basement, or separate structure without incurring additional rent. With their own space, tattoo artists keep all of the earnings from each booking, and while tipping is still appreciated, it is not as crucial as when artists are splitting their pay with a shop owner.

Other Expenses

While owning their own workspace means avoiding commissions, tattoo artists still incur expenses in running their business. The money paid to the artist doesn't just cover personal expenses like food, shelter, and leisure activities, but a significant portion goes back into the business.

Workspace Costs

Renting a space outside of a tattoo parlor can be costly for artists. On the other hand, renting within a tattoo parlor may come with the added benefit of not having to purchase all equipment and materials, as these may be included in the rent or commission.

Materials Costs

As a tattoo parlor owner, it's crucial to keep your equipment up-to-date, which can be claimed back as a business expense. Although it may seem like a hefty upfront cost, investing in quality seating and tattoo machines is essential as they will last longer and are necessary for providing quality service. Using disposable tubes can be an additional expense, while sanitation machines for reusable tubes can be considered a business asset.

In addition to equipment, ink is also a necessary expense and should be factored into the cost of sale. Tattoo artists must also consider consumables such as gloves, tissues, needles, stencils, aftercare supplies, rubbing alcohol, and razors. These costs are included in the pricing of their services, and a portion of the earnings goes towards purchasing consumables and investing in their assets.


Tattoo artists may have additional expenses related to personnel. They may need to pay an apprentice or hire someone to handle front desk tasks and administrative work, although many handle these tasks themselves. As self-employed individuals, they might seek the assistance of an accountant for tax purposes. While this isn't obligatory, many choose to outsource their accounting to allow them to concentrate on their tattooing work and avoid dealing with the complicated accounting world.

Compensation for Tattoo Artists

Tattoo artists receive payment through various methods, and most of their earnings are invested back into their work. If your tattoo artist works on commission, consider leaving a tip to show your appreciation. Helping your tattoo artist maximize their earnings will be valued. Keep in mind that although getting a tattoo can be expensive, the artist doesn't keep all of the payment.