Itching to be inked? Spoiling for a stamp?
Tattooing, archaeologists believe, started around 3350 B.C. in
. Since then, its popularity has waxed and waned throughout the
world, but its current appeal in the United States is
unprecedented. Today, nearly a quarter of all American adults sport
subskin artwork, according to a
Pew research report
. That figure rises to 38 percent for the 18- to 29-year old
However, tattoos can come with surprising costs, both on the
front and the back end. The best artists aren't cheap, and the
worst can produce pricey mistakes. Job opportunities can be
affected, too, as some employers may resist hiring or advancing
people with visible markings. Then, if you decide to erase body
art, the price of cover-ups and removal can be astronomical.
Eager to go under the needle? Before you do, listen to what the
inked, inkers and ink removers have to say about the financial side
Every picture has a price
If funds are tight, but you want a tattoo now, you'll have to
choose between a less expensive, traced design from a street shop
employee, and a pricier, original image drawn by an artist. Which
one you choose depends on your personal preference and budget.
"There are a lot of people in the world who have a very low
value toward their body art," says Clint Cummings, owner of
Sparrows Tattoos, in Mansfield, Texas, and one of the stars of the
Spike TV show, "
." "It seems that they are willing to sacrifice quality for
quantity." That sacrifice often leads to ink regret. So much so
that Cummings currently dedicates 70 percent of his time covering
up other people's terrible tattoos.
To make the right decision and prepare for the price, recognize
the difference between a street shop and a custom studio. The
former is often in a high-traffic area such as a strip mall. It
relies on walk-ins who select tattoos from a book of designs, which
are priced accordingly. Something small and simple can be as low as
$50. A custom studio, on the other hand, makes client appointments
and is staffed by trained, talented artists who customize designs.
Their fees typically begin at $100 per hour and can go much
The time it takes to complete a tattoo varies by size, color and
complexity. For example, a full sleeve (tattoos covering an arm
from shoulder to wrist) of complicated designs in various hues can
easily be a 20-hour job, running at least a few thousand dollars by
the time you're done.
When on limited budget, take cues from your artist and work
together as a team. "Even I try to help out with pricing to an
extent," says Cummings. "I usually charge $150 hourly, but if I run
over the time, I just give them the time. I'm not going to sweat
it. They are getting my art, and they're paying me a good price for
it, so no need to be a greedy bastard."
Consider future expenses
Tattoos fit firmly in the discretionary section of a budget, so
never sacrifice necessary bills or savings for them. Emergencies
and unexpected expenses emerge, which is why it's crucial to make
sure you have a strong financial float before blowing all your cash
on a tattoo.
Such was the lesson Savana Marquez, a student and restaurant
hostess from San Diego, learned. Marquez splurged on a full-color
sunflower tattoo for her leg a few days after Christmas 2012. She
thought it was a bargain since the artist was a friend and offered
to only charge a few hundred dollars for what would normally cost
much more. At the time, Marquez thought she had planned well
enough. "I would have had money in my savings account for extras,
including tattoos, but I already spent a lot on presents so I had
almost nothing left."
Then came New Year's Eve. A night of celebration ended with
Marquez, then just 20, facing an alcohol-related charge. "The fine
and everything was almost $9,000," she says. She immediately
regretted getting the tattoo. "'Why did I spend it on that?' I
The experience was a wake-up call on many levels, including
making better financial decisions. Still a tattoo fan, Marquez says
she'll be padding her savings account with spare cash. "I will be
waiting a lot longer than I would have for my next tattoo. Plus now
if I were to get another one, I'd want a lot more saved up so I'll
have extra money for it and other things."
Marquez may wait until she's in a more stable financial
position, but many tattoo aficionados don't delay gratification. "I
come across people all the time who say they have $300 and can't
afford their car payment or their rent, but are going to spend it
on a tattoo," says Cummings. "It's crazy."
The reason they do it, says Cummings, can be addiction, "Like a
woman with shoes or purses. They make you feel good about yourself
and you want to show them off. It helps self-esteem. It's life
changing. The more unique they are, the better they feel." Like any
addiction, the compulsion to tattoo can lead to financial ruin, so
12-step programs such as
have been set up to help.
Tattoo-redo: bigger and costlier
A common problem with tattoos is that you may like them one day and
hate them the next, or they simply don't come out as expected. That
begets the cover-up, which turns into yet another economic
A skilled artist may be able to turn that thing you hide into
something you flaunt, but the fee might be more than you bargained
for. It's a spatial issue. "I tell people whatever size the tattoo
is, the cover-up will be three times that," says Cummings.
Which is exactly what Shaun Allan, a writer from the United
Kingdom, says happened to him. Allan initially spent £40 (around
$70) on his tattoo, which was a stretch at that point in his life.
"It was meant to be a fox, to symbolize freedom after 'escaping'
from a relationship," says Allan. "Unfortunately, the tattooist I
went to, apart from simply having a load of pre-existing images to
choose from, wasn't that good. It ended up looking more like a dog
After 12 years of being too embarrassed to show his upper arm,
Allan took action. "As I'm an author, I decided I needed to finally
have the tattoo covered and wanted something writing-related to
cover it." This time he located a real artist who took the time to
get to know him and came up with a design that incorporated images
of Allan's unique writings. It was perfect.
The cover-up was more than $300, again a considerable sum for
him. "I put the cost on my credit card and am still paying it off,"
says Allan. "I feel good about it. It was worth it and the new
tattoo means something."
Revert to virgin skin? Removals really cost (but may also
Sometimes cover-ups aren't sufficient. Nearly 100,000 tattoo
removals were performed in 2011, reported the
American Society for Dermatologic Surgery
, and those numbers are rising. But if you think tattoos and
cover-ups are pricey, you may be shocked by what it takes to zap
Jessica Krant, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City
and founder of
, is a specialist in eliminating unwanted ink. "Tattoo removal is
performed by surgical excision or laser," says Krant. "The price
for both the laser and excision procedures varies by geography, but
is typically a few hundred dollars up to $1,000 per session, with
potential repeated sessions necessary."
It's not unusual for removing something such as a fading ankle
grapevine to hit the $5,000 mark. These procedures are rarely
covered by health insurance. Because of that, the bill usually ends
up on a credit card.
Improved technology that can reduce that cost is on the horizon.
"There is a new laser by Cynosure that uses picosecond energy
pulses instead of the usual nanosecond pulses," says Krant. "It
removes tattoos in one-quarter to one-third the number of visits
more effectively and completely," says Krant. "This can translate
into significant savings for a given tattoo, and a definite savings
in time and effort invested in going to the doctor and missing
A primary reason people go to such lengths, even into debt, to
banish artwork they've already spent a lot on is to open up
opportunities, says Krant. "Difficulty getting certain jobs is a
big factor in eventually wanting tattoos removed. There is a
cultural expectation in certain industries that people won't have
tattoos showing. If the tattoo has placed them directly into
financial hardship, the pressure to get it removed at all costs can
A noticeable, bad or offensive tattoo can impair your ability to
get hired or scale the company ladder. Unfair? Perhaps, but it's
not illegal. Discrimination laws rarely extend to body art.
"Generally speaking, an employee only has protection under the
law for displaying tattoos at work where he or she can demonstrate
that the tattoo is connected to a sincerely held religious belief,"
says Dan Moore, an attorney practicing labor and employment law at
Harris Beach, in Pittsford, N.Y. Consequently, unless you can prove
that your tattoo is connected to your religion and that it's a
sincerely held belief, you're out of luck -- and possibly out of a
While tattoos are often true works of art and personally
meaningful, if you get them done impulsively by the wrong person or
without saving and budgeting properly, they can result in mistakes
and serious financial consequences. Always think before you ink.
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