How a tattoo artist makes money
Getting Started: Kevin Starai opened A+ in the spring of 2008. Before striking out on his own, Starai had worked for 12 years as an artist in other shops around town. To get A+ off the ground, Starai spent less than $10,000. He used the cash he’d saved and the clients he’d met to get his own business off the ground. The shop is in Avondale, on Belmont just east of Kedzie.
Operations: Starai’s business model is simple — he’s a hired gun. “When you pay for a tattoo, you’re basically paying for the artist’s time,” Starai says. He charges $150 per hour.
Starai has five chairs and no employees, so he rents out his excess space to other artists—Starai calls them independent contractors—in exchange for a cut of their gross billings. “They’re essentially their own businesses,” Starai says. The arrangement is fairly common across the industry.
He pays $1,400 a month for the 1200-square-foot-shop. Aside from rent, his expenses are minimal. The largest is ink, which runs him about $2,000 a year.
Marketing: Word-of-mouth. Starai’s been in the business for long enough that he’s got a robust client roll. He’s has cultivated a reputation for focusing on larger projects, in large part because he’ll turns customers away when their request is too trifling. If you’re looking for a butterfly on your ankle, Starai is not your man.
Starai’s decision to focus exclusively on more intricate tattoos more involved tattoos cuts both ways. When customers do come in, Starai is busy for hours. But he’s drawing from a much smaller customer base. “Ultimately, I make less money,” Starai says. “But I sleep better at night knowing I’m going to a nice comfortable work environment the next day.”
The number of Americans with tattoos has grown by roughly a third in the last 5 years, up to 21 percent. For Starai, mainstream acceptance means more business.
The bottom line: Starai is comfortably in the black. “While I’m not making a million bucks,” Starai says, “I keep the doors open every day and I live comfortably.”
Photo by Sara Mays