Price of tattoos: why cheap ain’t good!

The Pricing Of Tattoos. Some basics to consider. -By Crash

Crash: I’ve been getting tattoos since 1985, tattooing since 1990, and publishing TAM since 2003.

There’s an old saying- “Good tattoos aren’t cheap and cheap tattoos aren’t good.” – Let’s talk about why.

Once the decision has been made to get a tattoo, the next thing people generally want to know is- “How much will it cost?” Though typical, it is my contention that there are far more important questions needing answered first that should guide the next steps of those seeking their first (or next) tattoo. Quite often it is what one PAYS for a tattoo, (rather than what it might COST them in the long run), which can most easily send the gullible down dark alleys and into the back-room dangers of illegal, unlicensed, and untrained “kitchen magicians”, (better known as “scratchers”). (Hear them howl!)

People are sucked into this delusion/illusion of (e)quality by the misguided BELIEF that they can obtain some the MYTHICAL ‘deal’ by going to a non-professional, (*in GENERAL, a non-professional is one willing to do tattoos OUTSIDE of a shop. Period. Even if they ‘work at one’, or ‘used to’, or ‘are going to, one day’, etc- they are conducting themselves in a non-professional way, ALREADY, and it is at your risk; so it becomes very easy to imagine ALL THE OTHER health and safety guidelines they’ll choose to ignore, on your behalf.

**NOTE- it’s NEVER too late to WAKE UP and start making better decisions– ‘Artists’ and customers! Trust me, we ALL do, eventually, no matter where we start from. So relax and join the club.) Yet, this “deal” they’re seeking, in a certain sense, (financial), is absolutely true; no doubt about it, a non-professional job is generally cheaper than a professional one, whether we’re talking about carpentry, dentistry or haircuts. But cheaper is not better. And you each deserve to have GOOD TATTOOS. In this day and age, with so many young, talented artists and seasoned pros to chose from, there’s NO reason not to get a good tattoo!  From the perspective of pros and experienced tattoo collectors, alike, the utter tragedy of it all is that these people (our family, friends and neighbors) are choosing to put themselves in danger, first of all, and then, adding insult to their own injury, the also even expect to obtain the same level of quality & experience as available at a reputable shop. And the pricing may not even really be all that different between an average tattoo and a superb one. You’re worth it- Safety and quality are what counts MOST in the real world of tattooing.

tattoo costs and prices


It IS a reality that tattoos are sometimes considered to be ‘expensive’ by newbie tattoo enthusiasts, and to anyone, really, who isn’t ‘in the know’, (experienced enough to truly KNOW something of actual relevance). Let’s pause for just a minute to consider- WHY? In the age of mass-produced gadgets, gear and clothing assembled in third world countries for pennies on the dollar, I guess it’s understandable as to why this misconception abounds. People want more and pay less. Well, I submit that art, (and, specifically, tattoos) cannot be outsourced. This is a one on one sort of job. Whether people understand it or not, tattooing is a craft, and crafts require craftsmen/women. The authentic men and women of tattooing are trained, professional service providers; there are no shortcuts to professionalism. Tattooing (on this professional level) cannot be done well without training, practice, eventual expertise, and the earned merits of licensing, safety and accountability. And shops provide this, (if they don’t, go to a BETTER shop!), NOT hacks. (They will protest all this, of course, even though it’s all for your safety, and their accountability.)

It’s rather laughable, actually, to think this way, and a great many tattooers believe anyone who chooses this path deserves what they get. I tend to disagree, (if only on a few minor points), because I feel it is we, tattooers, who have been failing to educate people on these important topics as well as we could/should have been doing whilst television shows, FaceBook and YouTube quietly took the reigns of tattooing from our feeble hands. Our community is somewhat busted, you see, but it is in light of the near-constant bombardment of miss-information beaming at millions from across the internet and social media alone, that I’ve come to the personal conclusion that it’s often not really (SOME) peoples’ fault that they are vulnerable enough to be taken in by con-men/women playing the part of a tattoo artist.

The majority simply don’t know any better. Hell, just look at the work quality they see 90% of  the ‘professional level’ tattooers/contestants appearing weekly on any number of tattoo-themed, (non)-reality television shows. This is what people THINK is indicative of professional tattooing. Without our guidance, (those professionals who KNOW), how can they possibly know any different? We shouldn’t be so baffled by (or dismissive of) good people who might make bad decisions, simply by being ignorant of the things WE’VE spent a life-time learning. (Yes, you too!) In my opinion, (and that’s all it is), if we aren’t actively engaged in educating others, (on at least on the same scale as we are advertising ourselves on social media), then we aren’t doing our part to protect the public, tattooing, or its future. So, yeah- for me (and others) it starts with us, with education, and with taking the time to point out that…

…the really important question people should be asking isn’t, “How cheap can I get my tattoo”, but, instead, “Where am I most guaranteed to obtain the highest degree of QUALITY and SAFETY?”

Tattoo by Nick Baxter


Let’s start this discussion on prices right here, ASSUMING one has already decided that the professional route is the ONLY ROUTE worth taking. *HERE’S SOME INSIDER INFO- shhhhhhhhh– Obviously, it’s likely that there are lots of expenses taken on by licensed tattoo studios and their artists which the ill-informed rarely consider– the majority of expenses are being taken on for YOU, the customer/client, in order to ensure your safety. They do this FIRST by simply meeting the local city, county and state operating requirements- taking legal responsibility for their actions, obtaining the proper permits, insurance, inoculations, blood-borne pathogen training, regulated health inspections and fees, assorted testings, annual CPR training, etc, etc, etc. THIS IS THE BARE MINIMUM anyone should REQUIRE from another human being opening up their skin and working with/around your blood. The risks are NO JOKE.


This information, though commonly known by professionals, may help rational newcomers understand WHY most professional studios have a “shop minimum” set for even the smallest of tattoo marks. This minimum can often range anywhere from $50-100 or more, depending on the artist, the shop &/or the location. This minimum fee also has to cover the basic set-up costs of materials, gloves, barrier film, germicides, sterilizing units & processes, disposables, bandaging, janitorial and receptionist expenses, any administrative fees, and, (yuk yuk, last but not least), the artist giving you their time, attention and service. Get it? The artist (even if he OWNS the joint) isn’t getting but a fraction of what is paid, because, in order to ensure everyone’s safety, they earn less than some guy working in a hotel room for $25 names). The shop minimum is their guarantee to keep you safe and their people paid. It’s also only for small, one-shot tattoos, such as a small star or average cursive name on the arm.


On average, small to medium sized tattoos, (even off-the-wall designs), generally carry a price tag of one to several hundred dollars, with equally sized custom tattoos able to go up to a grand or more, all depending on size, detail, location, and the amount of time involved. That’s what it REALLY boils down to. Want a big tattoo, with lots of details? It’s going to take more time to accomplish than a smaller or simpler design. Basic stuff. But what if you want some bigger tattoos? Once we get into what is considered ‘large scale’ work, (such as full sleeves, chests, backs, leg-sleeves, or even full body suits; – which should really only be done by experienced and respected professionals in the upper echelon of working tattooists, else one risks a huge amount of potential regret), this type of work can easily escalate into tens of thousands of dollars before completion, (no foolin’!), not to mention the years of dedicated time for both artist and client on a monthly or even bi-monthly basis, for regular sessions.

[*Fun Fact: Some of the most sought after artists  in the world  have waiting lists of hundreds or even thousands of eager tattoo collectors wanting his/her work on their bodies…and they may wait for years. **It is not abnormal for some of the very best artists to require a contract (of both time and money) before deciding to take on clients for large, 10-session tattoos or more. Each enters into a binding agreement to demonstrate their commitment to completing the tattoo project, and terms and expectations are agreed upon. This is simply because the artist cannot afford to waste their (in-demand) time on clients who will not finish their co-created masterpieces, once started. Who can blame them? When an artist has 300 people or more just waiting to get work, and each one will require a commitment of dozens or hundreds of hours of their time and diligent efforts, it is wise to choose carefully whom you will spend that time with.]


The expense of a tattoo is one of the most usual concerns for individuals prior to getting a tattoo. Although they can be relatively pricey, they are still within your reach. GOOD TATTOOS may not be CHEAP, but they ARE AFFORDABLE! The majority of people who realize this understand they are getting a tattoo, it is worth something, and they will save their money up in order to get what they REALLY WANT. When it comes to your body art, there’s nothing worse than being forced to live with a tattoo you regret: (know, except scarring, infection, disease, mutilation, etc). Even though you may have an average job in the world, and not make a great deal of money, a tattoo can still be well within your reach if you conserve your expenditures and save up for a couple of months. (Hint, hint: *This way, you’ll have money to spare for a TIP, when you finally get the tattoo you have been saving up for.)

If you’ve got your own design that you desire tattooed, tattoo artists will typically charge you anywhere from $100-250 dollars an hour. If you want the tattoo artist to realize ‘your vision’ and spend more than just tattooing time to create a design for you, you’ll most likely end up paying more. Of course. It takes more time.

Once you have actually discovered a hygienic tattoo studio, you must meet the tattoo artists and talk to them a bit to see how friendly they are. Even though one particular studio might cost you more than another, the quality will almost ALWAYS be better than the cheaper tattoo studios in the area. Though you may find a tattoo studio that will do their work for a cheaper price, you really ought to take the time to consider the differences in TATTOO QUALITY, first. Even though the lower cost sounds excellent, the same quality of the work will likely be lacking. Since they have the best artists and the best quality work, Tattoo studios that charge higher rates typically demonstrate why, if ONLY to the discerning.

[*Common exceptions may include: beachfront shops &/or touristy spots in general, shops around military bases or towns with no competition, and shops located in spots where the rent is significantly higher than others, like in the big city district or Casinos and Amusement Parks, for example, where it is likely the ‘owners’ will, (of necessity, in their minds), charge more than average, delivering less, and who may hire less-than optimal artists to meet their exorbitant quotas.]


Once you have actually chosen a studio and gotten your tattoo work, (and after each session), you need to be sure to tip your artist. If she/he does phenomenal work, you need to let them know you appreciate their unique contribution to your life and your body. And you will also make a smart impression on that artist, ensuring they consider you/your project well worth their best efforts again, in the future. Friendships may even be born this way. Tattoo artists who do high quality work love to get referrals– and they will always value your business if you treat them as excellent as they treat you.

One of the most-searched questions about tattooing bringing visitors to this site is, “Do you tip tattoo artists?” or “How much to tip your tattoo artist.” I’ve made this statement before, and I’m sure I will again– Average, everyday people, (i.e.- people who aren’t cheap asses), tip their waiter a full 20% (or better) for walking 40 feet and handing us a plate of food for our temporary enjoyment, and it will soon exit our bodies for good. Our tattoo artists give us something meant to last a lifetime. What’s should that be worth? Tips generally start at 20%, (if the work is good and clean and you were treated as well as you were by the last waiter you had), and go up from there, depending on how much you LOVE YOUR NEW TATTOO!

Ink on!

– Crash

Tattoo Artist since 1990 and creator/publisher of Tattoo Artist Magazine since 2003

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15 thoughts on “Price of tattoos: why cheap ain’t good!

  1. Thank you. Lots of information. Last year for my 70th birthday i treated myself to a small tatoo on right shoulder. I enjoyed Greek methodology and the story behind the Phoenix. So got a small one. I AM HOOKED!!! Rock-on? No. Tattoo- On.


  2. I agree in regard to tipping. It’s a sign of appreciation and gratitude for a job well done. However, your statement that a waiter that gets tipped ‘for walking 40 feet and handing us a plate of food for our temporary enjoyment, and it will soon exit our bodies for good’ is off point. I have been a waitslave most of my life and I did far more that just hand someone a plate of food. People who are a pain in the ass are a pain in the ass everywhere they go and I think the service industry workers as a whole are highly unappreciated. I tip and I tip well whether it’s my artist or my server.

  3. Just finished my left sleeve yesterday. During my session two artists were talking about tipping. One of the artists said she receives larger tips from folks that get smaller tattoos than larger pieces. I have had artists that charge $150.00 to $200.00 an hour. I tip them the same $25.00 an hour. All of my sittings are a minimum of 4 to 6 hours . I feel this is a more than sufficient amount and I always buy them lunch if they want or give them a gift every so often. I’m not sure what percentage the shop takes from the artist but if I’m dropping $800.00 on my session plus tipping, I would think my artist is going home with at least $350 – $400.00 + for my session, not bad.

    1. Thank you, Stephen, for sharing that here, and for walking it out in the real world. You see, we tattooers understand do exactly the same thing when we are getting tattooed by OUR tattoo artists, because we deeply appreciate THEIR work on us. Stephen, any of us would be lucky to have you as a client, (i mean that, because most people don’t appreciate what we do), and I’m also very glad your artist demonstrates what being a professional is, and, in your mind, warrants those tips!
      Q: What’s the best tip each of us have even given? That’d be an interesting question to dialog about on social media. hmmmm…maybe we can put that on facebook and see what sort of results we get. And feel free to comment here, as well.
      When I got tattooed by Aaron Cain at the San Diego convention in 1993, (who was one of my tattoo heroes, at the time), I tipped a good amount of cash and also a switchblade knife I’d picked up in Mexico and snuck back over the border, because I’d heard he collected or was into knives.

      1. Your welcome Crash, ya got me thinking I’m tipping too much ! LOL
        I feel the proper and maybe a little over the top tipping goes a long way. Especially if you’re a returning customer and you’re happy with their work.
        Food for thought, have a sign made stating , The quality of your tattoo will be equal to your tip.
        Crash hope you have a great New Year.
        Looking forward to your next articles.

  4. Hi Crash,
    After reading this article, which was great info by the way. I was wondering about safety and artist preparation and setup during conventions. I have only been to 2 so far. I will be attending the Philly and New York shows in the next moth or two. It’s a much less controlled environment. Maybe you could consider an article on getting tattooed at a convention. How to go about it, is it safe, how can you tell if it is. Do most clients interact with an artist prior or are many walk-ins basically.


    1. Hi Chris-
      Thanks for leaving a comment.
      I’m glad you enjoyed the article, and found it helpful.
      Great questions, by the way. There is an article on conventions already in the works, so be sure to check back in a week or two for more in-depth reading on the topic. But for now…

      Tattoo conventions certainly have a lot to offer tattoo enthusiasts and the local communities, starting with access to some of the best artists from around the world, without the expense of flights and accommodations. The question of safety, however, is a topic long debated in the community. As far as artists and sterility, you’re fine- the same professional level of cleanliness is mandated by the local governing bodies and health departments. The same sterilization techniques are used, and all equipment is covered, cleaned and/or disposed of between each tattoo. And all tattoos should be properly cleaned and wrapped prior to anyone leaving the booth. No problem, right? Until you visit the bathrooms and find dozens of those fresh, bloody, tattoo bandages discarded in the waste receptacles, lying around on the floors or even sitting on the sink countertops! Cross-contamination concerns abound! Once that bandage is removed, the safety barrier protecting their bloody wound from the outside environment (and vice versa) is gone.

      Without proper knowledge on sanitary procedures, everything those people touch after that bandage becomes a possible reservoir for disease- doors, sinks, stalls, mirrors, walls, furniture, bars, stools, counters, etc, etc, etc. Then multiply that risk exponentially to the size of the crowds, all pushing and rubbing into each other for 12 hours a day, three days in a row, and you can start to see the risk factors for what they really are. I know a lot of tattooers who refuse to work conventions anymore because of the general public’s rather profound levels of ignorance, apathy, and negligence, when pertaining to the realities of blood and disease transmission.

      So…how can you protect yourself?
      Don’t despair. There are ways.

      More to come, soon!

      1. Thanks Crash, I’ll look for the article and appreciate the details you listed.

        I just finished reading the Japanese tatto articles. Never knew the details and origin. Now I need to start a tattoo fund so I can try and get something done by the likes of Leu or someone else. Love the style and work, just added to my bucket list!

      2. That’s great, Chris.
        More fantastic Japanese style masters to come, my friend.
        And thank you for the comments!

        You should really read their full stories in the mags. It’s been so Inspirational and transformative to learn about these great men and women of tattooing in my career. That’s why we share them.

    1. Exactly. Who would not tip their server, but schmucks, right?
      (I still hear the rebuttal given Steve Buscemi’s Mr. Pink [in ‘Reservoir Dogs’] whenever I hear people who don’t tip explain why…”Pay up, you cheap bastard!”)
      I’m so glad people will stand up for tipping servers!

      These service providers give us tattoos, works of art, adorning our bodies…and it just lasts a lot longer than the food we eat, so tip.

      To be clear, what I’m saying is NOT that Tattooers are in any way ‘better than’ other service industry professionals, what I’m saying is that they are the SAME, so tip…still, tattooing is service of a different calibre. I hope the article helps people,realize that REAL (pro) tattooers spend a lot just to be able to serve their clients in a professional manner and clean environment.
      Thanks for the comments, all!

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