Baxter's Blog


Posted in Human Interest by misterroadtripper on October 28, 2010

TEMPESTS IN TEAPOTS usually blow over before dawn. But not this one. Case in point: About a month ago, I received an angry letter from tattoo artist Juan Puente. I have know Juan for several years, printed some of his photos in my magazine and chatted with him at various times. Well… on September 17th, I received an email. But not just any email. In it, Puente refers to an interview that I gave to the San Jose Mercury News, in which I was asked, in light of the current Recession, how was the tattoo industry prospering? Knowing that the Huffington Post and other high-profile news sources had published stories confirming that, in fact, tattooing is among the nation’s “Top Ten Recession-proof Industries,” and that, in published stories about their shop, Hart & Huntington Tattoo in Las Vegas is quoted as saying they have a six-hundred dollar minimum… and word is that getting a tattoo from TV star Kat Von D can set you back one thousand dollars an hour, I answered the questions, honestly and accurately. Certainly Mario Barth’s article in INC. magazine made the economics of the tattoo industry abundantly clear to millions of their readers, so why is Mr. Puente coming after me? And why is how much a tattoo artist charges such a big secret? In every other industry, including fine art (which tattooing clearly aspires to be), the fact an artist is doing well is cause to celebrate. A painter sells a canvas for ten thousand dollars and it makes headlines in the newspapers. It generates positive interest and enthusiasm. It’s a fact of nature: success breeds more success. And people don’t know how much tattoo artists charge per hour? And just how hard is it to uncover that secret information? A phone call? Typing the words “Tattoo Hourly Rates” in the Internet search bar? Or how about looking at the posted charges, on the wall by the cash register. By the way, yes, there are plenty of tattoo artists that aren’t very successful. Yes, many tattoo artists are over their heads and struggling. And most certainly,  there’s countless “scratchers” that have no business in the business. The quote that was plucked out and printed from a 45-minute interview simply states what a tattoo can make per hour, not what they, every one of them, always make. And what a person charges an hour does not mean they work eight or ten hours a day. Maybe they work an hour a day or two or three a day. Maybe they only tattoo an hour a week. Some Beverly Hills hairdressers, for example,  make a thousand dollars an hour. Some make seven dollars an hour. Some tattoo artists charge a hundred-and-fifty bucks an hour. Some charge fifty dollars a tattoo. Let me ask you this: When People magazine or The Hollywood Reporter publishes that Angelina Jolie makes 20 miillion dollars a picture, do we really think that ALL movie actresses make that kind of money? I don’t think so.

By the way, here is Puente’s initial letter to me:

To Baxter from Juan Puente, September 17, 2010

“…More Americans than ever seem ready for ink.” Bob Baxter, former editor-in-chief of Skin&Ink magazine, says, “New shops are opening every day, and professional artists can make anywhere from $125 to $200 an hour, while the true elite can make up to $300,000 a year and have waiting lists two years long. The newcomers are having a bit of a problem with the Recession, but for the established artists, business is very healthy.’” You know, Bob, a lot of people are on the fence with you and your involvement in tattooing and the tattoo industry. And, yes, two of your three sons are accomplished tattoo artists. Why don’t you do the tattoo industry a favor and shut the fuck up about what we make and how we make it? It is nobody’s fucking business and it sure doesn’t need to be brought forth, just because you like to read your own text or hear yourself talk. A lot of people are pretty pissed about this, and the person who brought it to my attention is from Sweden. Stick to your road show and let the tattooers do their job.

—Juan Puente

I must point out that, aside from the fact that Mr. Puente seems unaware of information that has been published in countless magazines, newspapers and even on page after page of Google, he erroneously credits me with two sons who tattoo. Actually, there are three.

From Baxter to Puente, September 18, 2010

What I hope I have done over the years is raise the level of tattooing in people’s eyes and helped promote and benefit a number of tattooists with positive press regarding their shops, conventions and contributions to the community at large. One way to look at it is, hey, if tattoo artists don’t want people to know that they charge $150 an hour, maybe they should charge less. I am sure you agree with me that that is ridiculous. For the work they do, artists can charge what the traffic will bear, and $150 is very fair, as is $200 or whatever.

—Bob Baxter

To Baxter from Puente, September 18, 2010

Who do you think you are to decide what is fair to the people in this world? And, secondly, to try to justify what we should charge our clients? If it wasn’t for us and our clients, you would not have had the last fifteen years, and, seeing as you are not a tattoo artist, you have no right assuming what we should charge, especially if it is less. Talking or agreeing with a writer who has done his research, does not “promote and benefit a number of tattooists with positive press regarding their shops, conventions and contributions to the community at large.” Choose your words wisely. You have done the tattoo community a big dis-service by your article, and now you are insulting me with making our monetary structure a moral issue.

—Juan Puente

*  *  *

Okay, I admit it. I am not a tattoo artist. I am a journalist and, as I later wrote to Puente (which seemed to stir him up even more), “My job has never been to protect the tattoo industry, just tell the truth about it.” To which Mr. Puente responded: “Well, that about sums it up. I will make sure to carry your word, especially these, to those that I feel close (to). I don’t think you realize what you have started.”

In order to, hopefully, bring this to an end (and to respond to rumors that are aggressively being spread), I am adding, herewith, a letter from someone who is a tattoo artist and would like to address the issue from his point of view. By the way, Mr. Heitkotter sometimes uses humor to make a point, so beware:

Dear Editor:

It’s been brought to my attention that there is a ridiculous rumor being spread around the tattoo ranks alleging that a certain article in the San Jose Mercury News printed some months ago exposes the massive amounts of tax free cash that we cart into the bank every day. I’m sorry, did I miss something here? I didn’t know it was such a big secret! I personally use a dump-truck twice a day to deliver the green to Cargo ships so they can deliver it into my Swiss bank accounts.

Every day, I see tattoo art being splashed about on $300 Christian Audiger T-shirts. I see Kat Von D-cup flaunting her money machine in front of millions of suckers (viewers) every week. Miami Ink has been flaunting their wad even longer than Kat’s $1,000-per hour-escapades. There are hundreds of tattoo magazines and even more tattoo websites sprouting up like the latest tattoo goop-du-jour. Ed Hardy T-shirts are selling at Costco for God’s sake! Everywhere you look our craft is being exploited by millions of people who don’t know a damned thing about tattooing. Booths at tattoo conventions can cost upwards of $1,000 for the weekend. The health departments of our local cities charges us up to $250 for a health permit and $150 for a special-event business license.

Everybody knows how much we make. That’s why everybody is stepping up to the trough to get their greedy little hands on our hard-earned dollars. If we didn’t make so much money, why would every Tom, Dick and Sherry want to open up their own shop? If it’s such a secret, why are there thirty Chinese tattoo supplier ads on my e-mail inbox EVERY-SINGLE-FUCKING DAY? I think that most of us who are successful in the business drive new cars and own our own homes. If business is good, we own several shops across the nation and even the world! It’s common knowledge that Paul Booth charges $300 per hour and so does Da Wei Zhang. I only charge a mere $150 per hour, but I have it posted on the wall of my showroom here at Blue Tiki Tattoo, for everybody to see. When they call and ask how much I charge, I tell them! I’ve had customers come into my shop and tell me that Hart and Huntington in Honolulu charges a $600 minimum. So, what’s the big secret? If we don’t want anybody to know how much we make, then why are we all talking (or bragging) about it. Why are we bragging to everybody about being booked up for two years in advance?

To say that the IRS doesn’t know how much we make is pure wishful thinking. We can’t get a loan for that new car or a mortgage for the house unless we have a pretty hefty paper trail. We have business licenses, sellers permits and we pay quarterly estimates because of the one thing we need to remind ourselves of: we are legitimate businesses. It’s taken a long time to elevate tattooing from the back alleys to the respectable mainstream enterprise it is today, so what are you crying about? I’m a legitimate businessman… are you?

—Uncle Tim Heitkotter

Blue Tiki Tattoo

Hanalei, Kauai

*  *  *

The part that baffles me is, what does all this secrecy hide? For example, does Puente really think that by exposing a tattooist’s hourly rate, the Internal Revenue Service is suddenly going to descend on the tattoo industry and take all their money away? Is that it? Surely Mr. Puente is not so naive that he really thinks the IRS is  unaware of a quarter million tattoo artists in the U.S. alone, or the thirty thousand tattoo shops or the TV shows or the multi-million dollar supplier industry. Where does he think all that information goes? Does he really believe that, when a tattoo artist signs a lease, opens a business on a city street, applies for an auto loan, uses a credit card or pays a phone bill, that it’s secret information? That no one knows?

I have worked for fifteen years to promote tattooing in a positive light. I have reported on practically every major convention, featured most every significant tattoo artist in the world, written about every ebb and flow of the industry from Guadalajara to Guam, from Texas to Tokyo and back again. Never once has any tattoo artist refused to tell me how much he charges for a tattoo. Never once. In fifteen years.

So why is this an issue now? Tattooing is no secret society, not with a million-plus tattoo artists working around the world it isn’t. Secret skills and secret techniques only for the privileged few? Guess again. Those days were over and done with decades ago. There’s so many videos, how-to books, seminars and apprenticeships happening that you can’t count them all. Bill Funk gives seminars on the subject of “how much to charge” at the yearly National Tattoo Association convention, for heaven’s sake. And what is the result of all this success? Joy at being able to own your own shop? The financial security to buy a house, feed a family or send the kids to a good school? Or is it whisper campaigns? Rumors? Veiled threats? Not very uplifting. That attitude, that way of thinking, is based on being so dumbed down and angry that reality is a threat. It’s a call to arms for a point of view that doesn’t make sense.

In a business that proudly announces how many weeks or months or years it is booked ahead, an industry that pats itself on the back and announces, “We’re the only people rock stars look up to,” how is it that no customer ever sits down in the chair at a tattoo studio and hasn’t a clue how much the session is going to cost? Seems to me, the first thing a person wants to know is, “How much does it cost?” Does Juan Puente really think the appropriate answer to that question should be, “Sorry, I can’t tell you. It’s a secret” ?

—Bob Baxter

9 Responses

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  1. Uncle Tim said, on October 28, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    I was wondering…..why hasn’t anybody in this secret circle ever taught me the “secret handshake”?

  2. Phil Shamrock said, on October 28, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    I just think that when people like juan or myself got into this business, everything was kept as a big secret. We had to fight for every piece of information out there. Now all our trade has been dumped all over the television, and nothing is sacred. I know tattooers that make 30k a year or possibly less, and I know tattooers who easily bring in 250k+. But really its nobody’s business. Thing is, when you write that tattoo artists make $300 per hour, (which very few do, and that would only be take home if they were shop owners, it would be a damned sight lower if they are working in someone else’s shop, which you neglected to write) then you attract all the punk kids who think they can sit on their ass all day and trace and make millions. So now you have an even larger influx of idiots that think they are hot shit and start wrecking everyone’s skin. Contrary to popular belief, most tattoo customers don’t even look at your portfolio before getting a tattoo in a street shop, they just look at the shit that’s on the walls. So the general public isn’t educated, and lots and lots more of them start getting truly terrible tattoos, and in turn makes our business look even shittier. The TV shows have done us more harm than good, and now, a magazine that we have trusted for a couple of decades is going to start selling off our secrets to the wolves?

    That’s probably where Mr. Puente is coming from. I would have to agree.

    • Baxter said, on October 30, 2010 at 12:14 pm

      I appreciate your well-written comments, and I agree with most of what you are saying, however, claiming that I am “selling off our secrets to the wolves,” that’s hardly the case. I was simply answering one of several question in a 45-minute phone interview. The responses were answers to a long list of questions, some of which they chose to print, others they discarded. There was nothing new, nothing that isn’t available on Google, Huffington Post, Inc. magazine or countless other news sources. I just don’t understand how the hourly rate an artist charges is “secret.” How can an easily accessible fact, something that can be found in ten seconds by logging onto Google, be a “secret”? After all, some artists work only an hour a day or an hour a month, for that matter. Just as what a plumber or beautician or a substitute teacher makes per hour doesn’t mean that they work a forty- or fifty-hour week, every week. I simply stated what an artist CAN make and what the “elite” CAN make, and that is pretty much public knowledge.


  3. Zep said, on October 29, 2010 at 1:50 am

    Q: “Why are people secretive about what they earn?”
    A: “Because of tax related reasons.”

    Q: “Why pay 300 (or whatever other sum of money) per hour to a tattoo artist?”
    A: “Just because people can. It’s a luxury product and people tend to spend alot on luxury.”

    Q: “How would you feel if your paycheck got published?”
    A: “My paycheck is there on the www for everybody to look at. Everybody can see how much taxes I pay and I know what happens with the taxes I pay (health insurance, public road construction, blablaetc…). In this matter I have nothing to hide. If other people want to be secretive about how much they make, that’s fine for me, but please don’t blame someone for making an objective report about it.”

  4. Uncle Tim said, on October 29, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    Everyone must be reminded that Mr. Baxter did not write the article and it wasn’t in Skin and Ink magazine. It was a quote by Bob in a newspaper article. The article came out for ONE DAY. Everybody here is acting like it’s a daily report. Incidentally Bob isn’t editor of Skin and Ink, anymore mostly because of the moral differences Bob had with the new owners. There is more to this story than people know but, as we all know, people see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear and read what they want to read.

  5. Hellcat said, on October 30, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    FFS of all the things to get rattled about! A tattoo is a lifelong committment to the skill of the artist who’s decorating your skin! It makes sense for anyone considering getting inked to meet the artist, discuss the design, get a quote, then think about it before making the final committment! The artist also has the right to charge what they think their time is worth & decline to do a tattoo if the customer is being a dick! That guy that objected to what you said was obviously Manstruating!

  6. jfriesen said, on October 31, 2010 at 11:35 am

    The issue is not with the hourly rate, it’s with the fact that you picked an annual income number out of your ass and claimed it as fact.

    What a tattooer CHARGES and what they MAKE is very different. I’m pretty sure that no tattooers I know are making six grand a week, which is what they’d have to be pulling in to make $300,000 a year.

    Tattooing is not a get rich quick scheme, and that’s what your quote makes it out to be. I would love to make that kind of money, but I certainly won’t be able to do it if I keep tattooing.

    • Baxter said, on October 31, 2010 at 1:32 pm

      The newspaper quoted me as saying… “the true elite can make up to $300,000 a year…” That’s “true elite.” According to the American Heritage Dictionary, “elite” means: “A group or class of persons or a member of such a group or class, enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status.” Please, people, read the words. Nowhere does it say “all” make that kind of money, or “a major part” of the industry makes that kind of money or a “significant number” makes that kind of money… the new Ed Hardy biography movie says he made $40 million in the last few years. That’s the elite I’m talking about. Of course not everyone makes that kind of money. Just the “elite,” which is what I said.

  7. Josh Dobbs said, on November 2, 2010 at 8:01 am

    I have a love/hate relationship with the public’s knowlege of the tattoo industry’s success. It is true that, at one time in the ups and downs of the industry, in the past 100 years, being a tattooer meant you made good money. Now, with the commercial success of tattooing, more people are getting tattooed. This is benificial. At the same time, this boom in customer base has created a boom for just about everybody opening a shop, and I truly believe that the amount of new shops opening up out-weighs the amount of new tattoo clients to the industry. This is especially true when people who are two months into an apprenticship leave a shop and open one up. Not only are they oversaturating the industry but they are defacing it with poor quality work.

    In hindsight, I believe Baxter was in no way in the wrong for his articles and letters, and I view him as an important voice to the tattoo community. But, to anyone reading this article thinking of opening a tattoo shop, know the industry is already over-saturated and only the strong will survive. I do quality work and I will be fine, you will most likely loose money in your investment. Now is not a time to get into the industry. Now is a time to clean the industry up and thin out the heard to take it back to the day where new artists were humble and would never dream to open up a studio, just because everyone else is doing it. People are becoming more and more aware of the dangers of just going to any tattoo shop and shopping around for low prices. They learn from their mistakes. The world needs a non-tattooer voice to relate to, like Baxter, so they can be more in the know of the importance of the artist and their quality and safety, when getting a tattoo.

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