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The Modern Evolution of the Traditional Tattoo Shop

The Modern Evolution of the Traditional Tattoo Shop

Tattoo Artists6 min Read


Are private studios running traditional tattoo shops out of town? Kari Barba and Luke Wessman weigh in.

The Tattoo Shop Experience

Walking through the doors of a tattoo shop is a visceral, some might say transcendent, experience: bright, white lights beaming overhead. The brutal, polyphonic buzzing of machines. Antiseptic, pure and pungent. A million makeshift eyes moving with you. And pain, both past and present, sitting thick in the air. When all’s said and done, you emerge, cold and quivering, to re-enter the world changed; something gained and something lost in those hours under the needle. There’s nothing in the world quite like it...except, perhaps, the private studio experience: a relatively new, emerging model that seems primed to remedy what the tattoo shop lacks.

Tattoo Shop History

While tattoos have been around for thousands of years, the tattoo shop is a far more contemporary invention. But still a gentle debate remains: Razzouk Tattoo in Jerusalem claims to be the oldest shop in the world, opening its doors over 700 years ago. Similarly, Tattoo Ole, which opened in 1884 in Copenhagen, Denmark, says it's the earliest tattoo establishment. And, originally opened in 1927, Outer Limits Tattoo & Museum, formerly known as Bert Grimm’s World Famous Tattoo Studio, in Long Beach, California proudly posits itself as the second oldest tattoo shop in the world and the oldest in America. Dates and debate aside, it’s clear that tattoo shops are a unique component of contemporary history, their advent a gearwheel in the ever-advancing industry. So, what does the industry stand to lose as private studios gain traction? And, more importantly, what exactly is to be gained?

In this article, I’ll investigate these questions alongside Kari Barba, distinguished owner of the historical Outer Limits Tattoo & Museum, and Luke Wessman, renowned tattooist, former shop owner, and private studio operator.

The Artist-Shop Relationship Shifts

In 2013, Eric Schwartz directed Tattoo Nation, a documentary about the revolutionization of tattoos at the hands of Charlie Cartwright, Jack Rudy, and Freddy Negrete. The doc cleanly chronicles everything from the prohibition of tattoos to the invention of the single needle, exposing the often glossed-over details, a domino effect driven by destiny, that shaped the industry. However, when listened to closely, each artist’s recollection exposes an increasingly curious, and contradictory, concept: the early industry revolved around the tattoo shop.

During a particularly poignant recollection, documentary subject Mark Mahoney, the “founding father” of single-needle black & gray, details his experience tattooing in the sixties. “Every time I saw a really amazing tattoo, it seemed to be from The Pike,” Mahoney explains. “I’d ask guys, ‘Where’d you get that?’ and they’d be like, ‘Oh, California…Long Beach. The Pike.’” Today, the answer to Mahoney’s question would undoubtedly be the artist’s name.

For decades, artists were largely identified by and respected for the shop they worked from, not the other way around. Perhaps because of their novelty and spectacle; in addition to the carny-esque, conveyor belt-like business model exacerbated by flash and flocks of docked sailors. Tattoo shops were seemingly more notable than the artists themselves. Even tattoos done in prison, the birthplace of fine-line realism, were associated with “the joint,” the location the piece was produced as opposed to the person who produced it. Though this was likely due to the illegality of tattoos in prison, it compounded the predilection on “the outside.”

However, the introduction of custom tattoos in the ‘70s fortified the artist-client relationship, giving way to proper recognition. Eventually, exceptionally skilled artists shifted from craftsman to celebrity; their work, clientele, and status superseding the tattoo shop they operated from. Now, a massive number of artists are ditching the shop model altogether, opting instead to open private studios. But, why?

Studio Dynamics: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Alienation, Egos, and Intimacy

Artist Kari Barba claims that “if all artists are good and fair” the cons of working in a shop are insubstantial. But the 40-year tattoo shop owner also admits working from a shop can breed bad blood amongst co-workers, and women and people of color may be subject to harsher criticisms in the shop atmosphere.

Though historically women and people of color have been tattooing and receiving tattoos for centuries, both seem to be left out of or alienated in the shop model. Contrarily, private studios allow clients to book the artist experience, not the shop experience.

Kari Barba Tattooing #KariBarba #OuterLimits

Before moving to New York in 2010 to assist Ami James in opening Wooster Street Social Club, artist Luke Wessman owned and operated a San Diego-based tattoo shop for ten years. Since then, he’s opened a private studio/speakeasy called Summertown Inn. The Tennessee native turned SoCal/LA transplant calls tattoo-shop energy “tricky to navigate,” with “insecure artists” and swollen egos fueling the struggle. He also contends, “[Private studios] are more intimate for the client. Although the joking and storytelling is priceless, it can be very distracting and intimidating to some clients.”

Luke Wessman Tattooing - photo by Peter Pabón #LukeWessman #SummertownInn

Team Dynamic

Tattoo shops have long boasted a familial/team dynamic, and as more artists branch out to work independently, the comradery and benefits built by working together in a shared space are inevitably depleted. This significantly rusts a link in the industry chain, creating competition where there was once amity, disconnect where there was once collaboration.

Barba: “[We] bounce off each other’s ideas and talents and the shared energy and enthusiasm regarding the pieces we’re creating. We help each other grow and become better. Even simple feedback can help. It also makes the day pass and provides fun along the way.”

Wessman: “Working next to your peers can help you grow in numerous ways, and being part of a crew or community is good for the soul.”

Money and Freedom

Tattoo artists operate as independent contractors, essentially renting their space within the tattoo shop or paying the house a percentage of the commission made from a tattoo: 50/50, 60/40, etc. That said, working from a private studio wherein the artist can pocket 100 percent of their earnings is an obvious advantage. Today, a tattoo artist who opens a private studio is essentially a small-business owner in charge of their own schedule and earnings.

Wessman: “As social media has grown and artists have recognized the value of marketing and branding, they are realizing they may not need to share their profits with a shop and can generate enough business on their own; depending on your situation, you can make a lot more money without the shop split. You may also have less freedom to come and go as you please [when working from a shop].”

Barba: “I think artists are currently branching out to private studios to mostly do what they want as far as their work is concerned, at their own pace and price.”

Walk-ins & Reputation

While private studios are, indeed, gaining popularity, they aren’t for everyone. If you’re new to the game, the shop model might be your best bet.

Wessman: “In this business, a solid reputation is priceless. If the shop has a solid reputation, working there can add value to your personal reputation. Also, if you don’t have a strong clientele, you can get work from the shop’s walk-in customers and the overflow from the other artists.”

Will the Advent of the Private Studio Push Tattoo Shops into Obsoletion?

So, perhaps shops won’t become completely obsolete. Instead, the emergence of private studios may see tattoo shops returning partially to their carny origins: one-stop shops for hordes of wide-eyed tourists, first timers, and those few without social media, in addition to repeat clients of artists who’ve yet to branch out. As always, only time will tell.

Barba: “I personally don't feel tattoo shops will become obsolete. There are many types of people [in the world] and many prefer to work with others, whether it be to advance their career, share information, or just the company. I feel that shops will continue to thrive as they always have. The only thing that I feel could stop this is if we are forced to do so.”

Wessman: “I don’t think the shop model will ever go away. Working next to artists we admire inspires us and pushes us. And the community and camaraderie that comes with a great shop is priceless. ‘You want to go fast, go alone, you want to go far, go together.’ Strength in unity.”

Feature image via Sashatattooing.

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