On a tree-lined street in Portland, Oregon, you’ll find a little shop called Grizzly Tattoo. Inside, buzzing needles dance along the skin of hipsters and suburban moms. There are halo lamps and neon signs, and the walls are covered with pages and pages of art — flaming skulls, spiders, demons…
ADAMS: Eagles, daggers. Snakes.
That’s Tyler Adams, the shop’s owner. When he first opened the place in 2011, it was the only tattoo shop in his neighborhood. Now, there are five within walking distance.
ADAMS: Anybody gets tattooed now, especially in Portland. We’re getting whole families coming in. Go through a summer here when everybody’s wearing a tank top and it’s like, you know, art everywhere.
This isn’t just a Portland phenomenon. Across the country, tattoos are hotter than ever. Thirty-two percent of Americans now have at least one tattoo, up from 21 percent ten years ago. There are around 20,000 tattoo shops in the U.S. — and last year, they did $1.5 billion dollars in business. But in recent times, the nature of that business has changed.
ADAMS: You know, in the past, an artist would work in a shop because it had a name. Working there meant you had some clout, you know. But now you’re not really tied to any establishment. You can now pretty much do it yourself on Instagram.
For the Freakonomics Radio Network, this is The Economics of Everyday Things. I’m Zachary Crockett. Today: Tattoo parlors.
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Tattoos have been around for thousands of years and have a rich cultural history all over the world. But the practice wasn’t commodified until the turn of the 20th century, with the invention of electric tattoo machines. The earliest tattoo parlors in the U.S. catered to circus performers and sailors.
ADAMS: A lot of the shops were close to the water. Who had the money and who had the guts to do it? Young sailors, like, 18-year-old dudes, would come in there. And what would they get? Well, you know, a lot of tattoos of women and boats.
For decades, tattoo parlors were a bit of an oddity. The few that existed were frequented by bikers, criminals, and outsiders. But by the early 1990s, more people were getting inked. Tattoos began to attract a wider demographic — and more artists to fill the demand. Like Stacey Martin Smith.
SMITH: I was super influenced by whatever the Saturday morning cartoons were. Kids in school would ask me to draw them, like, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, My Little Pony, He-Man, She-Ra…
After high school, Martin Smith began hanging around a tattoo parlor in Utica, New York. She worked her way into an unpaid apprenticeship.
SMITH: Showing up every day and following directions and observing. Setting up and breaking down for the artists, making sure that you know how to draw some of the most basic, most popular tattoo imagery. You’re working for them in exchange for a free education.
Today, artists looking to get into the trade can enroll in one of dozens of tattoo schools that promise hands-on training. Tuition can run north of $10,000. They also have to get licensed. And that process can look very different depending on which state and county you’re in.
SMITH: You can have one county that is the Wild West. Like, all you need is a tattoo machine and a dream. The next county, it will be, you know, fiery hoop after fiery hoop.
The county where Martin Smith settled in upstate New York was no cake walk.
SMITH: I needed to take a anatomy and physiology exam. I needed my four-hour first aid class at Red Cross. I needed my one-year blood borne pathogen certificate. I also needed to prove my experience, give them copies of every magazine article that I was in, and my tax records, just to push it through.
Once licensed, most artists are independent contractors. When they work as part of a shop, they’re typically paid through a commission model, similar to a hair salon. They’re given a chair to run their business. And in return, the shop takes a cut of the artist’s revenue — anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent.
SMITH: Say I do a $100 tattoo and the shop takes $50. I keep 50, and then whatever the client wants to tip on top of that just goes to me. And the reasoning behind that is usually the owner does a lot of the legwork as far as the advertising and getting people in.
But today, things are starting to change. The days of walking into a tattoo shop and picking out something on the wall are waning. Many clients now turn to social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest to find artists. And those artists aren’t seeing as much value as they used to in the traditional shops. Instead of vying for chairs at a prominent parlor, many young artists have branched out on their own.
ADAMS: People are opening their own private studio and then working like a co-op. You come in and you share the expenses and there’s no real, you know, boss or godhead or whatever.
Tyler Adams has experienced this himself. Despite being based in Portland — one of America’s most heavily inked cities — he has struggled to recruit and keep artists at Grizzly Tattoo. Only five of the shop’s eight chairs are occupied, including his own. He mostly ditched the commission split and now charges his artists a flat rate of around $1,600 a month each, instead. They keep 100 percent of the business they bring in. Those fees aren’t enough to cover Grizzly’s rent of $3,600. So Adams has to rely on his own work to make ends meet.
ADAMS: It’s a rollercoaster business. I mean you’re up and down.
For artists like Stacey Martin Smith, increased visibility online has been a boon.
SMITH: Social media changed everything. I started getting clients that were flying in, or traveling in to get tattooed, where normally people would stay kind of close to home.
She pays rent at a studio in upstate New York, but also does guest spots at different shops across the country. Almost all of her clients come through Instagram, where she has 37,000 followers. She’s often booked weeks in advance, and charges clients $200 to $300 dollars an hour. In addition to rent, Martin Smith has to cover all of her own equipment costs. And there are quite a few of them.
SMITH: Yeah, machines, your power supply, you have art supplies, your inks, your disposables like needles and tubes or cartridges. Also, we have ink caps, dental bibs, barrier film, table traits, rinse bottles, your bandaging, any furniture — your stool, your toolbox, your massage table, your lighting.
Most serious artists have multiple machines that use motorized needles to push ink under your skin. Those can cost anywhere from a few hundred to over a thousand dollars each. The rest is pretty cheap. Needles run a little under $1 each, on average, cartridges another $2. An ounce of ink runs $8 to $15, but you might get 25 small tattoos out of it.
SMITH: If you’ve got a full color sleeve, you would be getting tattooed for like maybe six to 10 sessions, depending on how complicated. So maybe over time you’d have at least an ounce of ink, if not more.
For artists and shop owners alike, one of the draws of tattooing is that no two days ever look the same. The profession is full of surprises. That’s coming up.
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With nearly 30 years in the tattoo business, Tyler Adams has seen a lot of art trends come and go.
ADAMS: In the ‘90s, everybody wanted the Tasmanian devil. It’s like, ‘Yeah, I want mine playing tennis.’ ‘I want mine to be in love.’ I remember jellyfish became really popular for a while. Octopus always come and go. Cherry blossoms — those were big for a long time.
ADAMS: Everybody wants trees on their arm — like a tree line. Oh my God, it’s so popular. You see, like, these weightlifters with a huge sleeve of trees or an entire leg of trees.
Stacey Martin Smith has been specializing in Kewpie dolls.
SMITH: They’re like big googly-eyed babies that have been drawn since the early 1900s. They were just mischievous cupids. People have started getting celebrity versions of them, and I’m their chosen one to put it on them.
But tattoo artists also get all kinds of… unique requests.
SMITH: I’ve seen full, like, amazingly done portraits of serial killers. I met someone — after having kids, she was kind of regretting getting those in general. Our tastes are questionable in our twenties.
ADAMS: There was this woman who came in, and she wanted it to look like a squid had grabbed her by the face — like pulled her under the water. And we all refused. But she kept coming back day after day, like, ‘No, I really want this.’ And she had no tattoos. Like zero tattoos. Eventually, I was just like, okay, how about 500 bucks? So I tattooed, like, suction marks on her face.
Adams does decline the occasional request. He generally won’t put ink on drunk people, for instance. And he stays away from anything related to gangs or hate groups.
ADAMS: We used to get a call from the same guy. I think it was the same guy. And he would he’s like, “Will you tattoo a swastika on me?” No. You called yesterday. We’re not going to do that.
The placement of tattoos has evolved, too — they’re becoming more visible.
ADAMS: Now, people are going directly to their necks and hands — young people. The majority of the people who get their face tattooed — this is no joke — are either trust fund kids, or people who have money. They don’t have a lot of that urgency to make a living. So they — they go straight for the face.
Some of the more exotic places on the human body can pose technical challenges for tattoo artists.
SMITH: A friend of mine, she had me do two really dumb tattoos on her. Maybe three — I can’t remember if I also did the inside of her ear. But she had me do her inner bottom lip. So, tattooers need a certain amount of tautness to the skin to make clean lines — and your inner bottom lip, it feels like you’re trying to tattoo a jello mold.
These bolder choices have led to a spike in tattoo removal services. Globally, tattoo removal is now a $500m business, and some analysts project that figure will triple in the next decade. Surveys suggest that the most regretted tattoos tend to be lettering, often names of short-lived flames.
And there’s another reason for removals: tattoo artists, like all of us, can make mistakes.
ADAMS: I misspelled a guy’s dog tags. Yeah, it was a group of Marines and I spelled his name wrong. You make a mistake, you kind of cover your ass one way or another. Sometimes you can do it without telling the person, and sometimes you can’t.
Some artists have been sued over mistakes like this, and have been forced to pay thousands of dollars in damages.
Artists can also file lawsuits of their own. Tattoos are covered by copyright law. And that means problems can arise when a design on a famous person gets media coverage. In 2005, the N.B.A. player Rasheed Wallace was sued by his tattoo artist after showing off his ink in a Nike commercial. In 2011, the artist behind Mike Tyson’s face tattoo sued Warner Brothers after the art was used in the comedy film The Hangover Part II. Those cases were settled out of court.
What’s harder to protect, through, is the everyday design theft that has been turbocharged by social media.
SMITH: The kind of people that will rip off other people’s tattoos on Instagram typically aren’t — I shouldn’t even say this, I’m gonna get in trouble but — they’re usually not very good tattooers. It’s someone doing karaoke of your song.
Certain designs are less likely to get ripped off, like those loaded with personal meaning. A few years ago, one of Adams’s regular clients had a special request to commemorate his son’s death.
ADAMS: He asked me to do, like, a sunset, with ferns. And then, you know, one by one, all his friends came, you know, all his family members came, and all got that same piece. When people are new and they’ve never had a tattoo, they’re more about the imagery and they’re all about what it looks like. But the longer you get tattooed, the more you realize the actual image doesn’t really matter. It’s more about the time period that you got it, the person you got it from. You know, it’s more the experience than the actual tattoo.
These kinds of experiences are what many tattoo artists treasure most. But by nature, it’s not a job you can do forever. Both Stacy Martin Smith and Tyler Adams have dealt with crippling pain.
SMITH: We’re sometimes in, like, some of the weirdest positions. Like, you have to kind of move around the same way you would move a piece of paper if you were drawing. We’re stretching with our non-dominant hand and arm while steadily coloring in the lines. It’s a lot of tension for the — you know, the neck, the upper back the low back.
ADAMS: When you’re young, you don’t think about that. But in fact, sitting on your butt and, like, hunched over is worse for you than digging ditches all day.
At 49 years old, Adams is questioning how many more years he has left in the tattoo business. For his next act, he’s looking to write a different kind of script.
ADAMS: As we speak, I’m actually studying computer coding. I’m always looking for different avenues, because who knows where this industry is going.
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For The Economics of Everyday Things, I’m Zachary Crockett. This episode was produced by Sarah Lilley, with help from Lyric Bowditch, and mixed by Jeremy Johnston.
SMITH: I have a slice of blueberry pie on one arm. I have a tattoo of Martha Stewart on my inner arm that says, “What would Martha do?”
- “32% of Americans Have a Tattoo, Including 22% Who Have More Than One,” by Katherine Schaeffer and Shradha Dinesh (Pew Research Center, 2023).
- “Tattoo Removal Business Draws Up High-Growth Potential,” by Tim Clark (Forbes, 2023).
- “The Secret, Chronic Pain of Tattoo Artists,” by Devon Abelman (Allure, 2020).
- The Other End of the Needle: Continuity and Change Among Tattoo Workers, by David C. Lane (2020).
- “How Instagram Revolutionized the Tattoo Industry,” by Salvador Rodriguez (CNBC, 2020).
- “How Do Tattoo Artists Get Paid?” by Erica Salvalaggio (Inside Out, 2019).
- “Hey, Pro Athletes: Your Tattoo Is Going to Get You Sued,” by Ira Boudway (Bloomberg, 2013).