Tattoo artist at workA lot of ink has spilled in the media lately about the popularity of tattoos among Americans. Any stigma surrounding the ancient body art has long ago faded. Businesspeople, parents pushing strollers and college students are as likely to sport "tats" these days as the traditional clientele of military personnel or bikers.

No exact figures are available that outline the size of the tattoo industry in the U.S., but several years ago Inc. estimated there were about 15,000 tattoo parlors in America, making somewhere north of $2.3 billion annually. And a Pew Research Center study says more than a third of Americans ages 18 to 25 have a tattoo, as well as 40% of folks in the 26 to 40 range. In contrast, the study found only about 10% of people age 41 to 64 are tattooed.

Another interesting note: Many tattoo businesses appear to be doing quite well, thank you, in spite of the economic downturn. "Things like tattoos, alcohol, entertainment -- they're always going to be there," says Joe Miller, owner of Old Larimer Street Tattoo in downtown Denver. "They make people feel good about themselves."

Miller says in November of 2008, "when things really hit hard in the stock market, I actually had one of the best Novembers of my career." He opened his high-end shop on Larimer Street a year later and has still found business to be good.

At the Least, It's Recession-Resistant

Even as the stock market was bottoming, he remembers, "a couple came in, and they both got very large, very expensive tattoos from me. The recession was a big topic back then, and they started talking. And they were like, 'Well, we lost about a quarter-million dollars in the past week, so what's another two-thousand?' I wouldn't say our industry is recession-proof," he says, "but it's definitely a lot more resistant than other luxury industries."

Tattoo artists usually work on commission, giving 40% or more of their fee to the shop owner. Miller estimates that by working his own business with a partner, he's doubled his earlier income and is currently taking home about $125,000 annually.

Miller's career may be the exception, however. He says his tattoo artist colleagues average about $50,000 a year, and a good number scrape by on less than half that. "I have friends just getting into the industry that are starving," he says. But the tattoo business is definitely tilting in favor of upscale clients. In another part of Denver, Th'ink Tank Tattoo owner Scottie DeVille has nine artists on staff, up from four when he started the shop in 2002. "Since we've opened, our profits have increased about 10% per year," DeVille says in an email. "In 2008, the average hourly [rate per artist] was $120. Today the average is $150/hr."

When Inspiration Turns to Regret

Some in the tattoo business believe the boom is due in part to a more professional generation of trained artists doing better work. But Joe Miller notes that in the past three to four years, his clientele has included a growing number of middle-age suburbanites. "A lot of tattoo artists like to attribute [the increase to] reality-TV tattoo shows," he says. "Of course, they bad-mouth [these shows], but the reality [is they] took the tattoo industry to a whole other demographic. That person watching TV, that normally would never even think about getting a tattoo, is all of the sudden like, 'you know what? I want to do that.' It inspires them."

Of course, that inspiration sometimes turns into regret. The American Academy of Dermatology points to a 2004 survey, which found nearly one-fifth of people with tattoos had considered getting their body art removed. And the costs of turning that tattoo into a distant memory aren't cheap. "Our average client spends between $800 and $1,200 to get a tattoo removed," says Shelley Novello, founder and CEO of Ink-B-Gone Precision Laser Tattoo Removal. "The typical tattoo takes about a year-and-a-half to remove. Some come out in one time. Most take closer to five or six treatments." Novello says her Denver offices see about 200 people a month.

"I began my business because I was watching my older teenage children start to put tattoos on," she says, "and I started to wonder how are they going to get a real job some day, with ink showing from their elbows down." Novello signed up for classes in laser removal of tattoos and started a new career. "There were a couple of places in town that offered tattoo removal [but were] extremely expensive," she says. "So I thought, where do the normal people go? And there really wasn't an option. So I threw together a business plan, cashed-out my 401(k) and quit my real job -- and that was almost five years ago."

Business, she says, is doing well -- although she's currently operating at about 30% of capacity. "Tattoo removal is probably at the very bottom of most people's priority lists when they have to make a car payment or buy groceries," she says. "So like most of the other personal-service industries we had a rough year-and-a-half."

"Perfect Alignment of the Planets"

But Novello is still banking on the fact that a lot of people seem to suffer from "tattoo remorse" as they get older. Her typical client is between the age of 28 and 35, middle class, professional -- and equally divided between women and men.

"You see all these tattoos running around, and you think tattoo removal must be such a lucrative business right now," she says. "But really it [takes an] almost perfect alignment of the planets. You've got to get somebody that hates their tattoos enough, that's willing to come in the front door, that's willing to go through the time it takes, that's willing to spend money. It's almost like a perfect storm that has to happen, to get that client to come through the door."

Right now, the winds seem to be blowing far more people into doors of tattoo artists' shops.

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Keith Miller

I'm a professional tattoo artist in the Boston area. I started learning how to tattoo in my late 20's. I spent 10 years in the Army prior to that and also did a tour in Baghdad. Tattooing had provided for my family and I make countless people happy on a day to day basis. I am college educated. My 7 year daughter loves art and is proud of her daddy. My whole crew loves to come to the shop and see what new art I'm working on . I've never been happier in my life. I am glad I served this country to protect the freedom of speech so the nay Sayers can bash my passion and profession. Good day.

March 13 2013 at 4:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

30 years ago if parents had forced their kids to endure the mutilation of getting something like a body piercing or a tatoo, child protection services probably would have been called. Today, young people CHOOSE to spend a ridiculous amount of money to have it done. Go figure!

October 13 2010 at 2:29 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Don't you know the ones in this "business" are laughing at you and/are ignorant people willing to do the devil's bidding to get as many as they can to have people do this sort of thing to their bodies which God created?

October 13 2010 at 2:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ilskaggs's comment

Harming God's Temple!??? All we're doing is painting the walls.

October 13 2010 at 2:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Let'see. The 66 million idiots who voted for Obama would make good candidates for tattooing. They probably would enjoy getting their skin carved up by some degenerate4 high school dropout.

October 13 2010 at 1:16 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to arlissholmes's comment

I was wondering how long it would take before some "whacko" would respond with an anti-Obama political comment.

October 13 2010 at 2:16 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Since the term tramp stamp came around, I'm glad to see less of those stupid lower back tatoos on woman. Small little ankle tats are ok, but anything more on a woman is just plain trashy for me. For a guy is different, and a well designed arm tat can look cool. But some people think they need to look like a comic book.

October 13 2010 at 1:04 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to bstogieone's comment

That is one of the biggest double-standards I've ever heard. Why should a tattoo be trashy on a woman but "cool" on a man? Tattoos are an art form, and tell stories of people's lives. It's unfortunate that many people choose to get one in order to be trendy or as a rite of passage, but talk to people whose tattoos actually mean something, and they'll tell you they don't regret them. I have 4, and don't regret mine at all. They help tell my personal story and I'm proud of where I've been.

October 13 2010 at 2:02 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Mike Harms

I like that i look like a comic book. It gives me personality and character. I burned the business suit that i never bought and picked up a tattoo machine instead. But then again i served my country as a Marine so i could be able to make that decision..tattoos forever. yes even tramp stamps.

March 12 2014 at 11:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As long as there are people willing to pay good money at "Joe's Garage Tattoo" (for minimum talented artists), there will always be a high demand for crappy work. It's like the old adage "Free advice is what it's worth".

October 13 2010 at 1:03 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Anyone who still looks down on tattoos is obviously stuck in an era long past! I can't count the number of preppy yuppies who have tattoos now. Something like being obese is far more disgusting than having tattoos. This article doesn't surprise me, though, people always want to treat themselves to things, especially in trying times.

October 13 2010 at 12:51 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

Tatoos are for drunken sailors on shore leave and skanky biker chicks. No one with any class would get a tatto.

October 13 2010 at 12:34 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to WT's comment

Tatoos are for drunk sailors, ******, scumbags and mental defectives. Anyone who's self esteem is so low that they need to have themselves graffitied like an abandoned ghetto building is just plain RETARDED!

October 13 2010 at 12:28 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to paul's comment

Being judgemental is retarded. Douche!

October 13 2010 at 1:06 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

I like a well designed and placed tatoo. If the person puts some real thinking into it and it is artfully done it can be very atractive and even exciting. Just like many things, to much is just to much. What I don't understand is when a young person feels the need to stick holes and pins in their face and body. They don't look like art and do not look atractive in any way. They just look like someone who has no respeck for themselves. Tatoo's, yes, with some thinking. Nails in the face, NO, even with some thinking just don't do it. It is not and never will be cool, except to other's who don't respect themselves.

October 13 2010 at 12:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply