The 50% Cut.

The common business model for tattooing is the Street Shop.  It was originally an Apprentice based program for all new hires.  The single new hire relied on the mentorship of the owner to be trained from the ground up. In return, the novice artist paid him back with a 50 percent stake of all labor equity. This relationship between owner and artist lasted until the artist quit the shop and moved out of the competitive territory. This was an era when tattooing was a gypsy style of living if tattooers wanted to work year round.  Practitioners had to follow the crowd to stay busy.  If they didn’t migrate during slow seasons, a second or third trade was necessary for income.

In the 70’s and 80’s, tattooing was still very much underground but shops were able to stay in one location for longer periods of time.  The industry was growing and in 1976 the first tattoo convention was held in Houston, Texas. Tattooists stopped following the migration patterns of the military and carnivals. Tattoo shops could root themselves inside pockets of counter cultures like the bikers and the punk rocker groups.

The Aids Epidemic stifled the momentum that tattooing had gathered. The curious mainstream looking at tattooing from the outside would shy away from becoming a new source of revenue for the industry because of the fears the public held about the unknown industry and the even more scary unknown world of AIDS.

During this time the shops starting bringing in more artist to build their staff.  The average shop might have 2 or 3 artists on duty. The 50 percent rule still stood and the “no compete” traditions were firmly in place.  Tattooing in an established shop still required the artist to forfeit 50% of their income.  If  they did not, the repercussions were handed out physically and their name would be blackballed from working at other established shops in the country.  It was a career death sentence in a time when information was guarded by the established artists.  Information was the key to success.

As the 90’s ramped up, tattoos were being introduced to the masses through
MTV and the NBA.  More tattoo references were being made in the main stream and the face of the customer started to change.  As shops struggled to handle this new peaked interest into tattooing, other would be artist also wanted to take their turn as a practitioners of the tattoo craft.  The field of tattooing had a double boom. More customers and more artists.

It is unlikely a new artist may have received good training  from a veteran during this time.  Using E-bay, someone could order tattoo equipment with out credentials. The stronghold that tattooing had on equipment was lost overnight.  Many cities saw new shops opening faster than the artists could be sufficiently trained.  St. Louis went from 14 shops to 40 in 4 years.

At the turn of the century, shop owners went on a hiring spree. Y2K saw the largest labor force in tattoo history. It is not uncommon for a busy shop to boast 9 artist on staff. For better or worse, the booming growth of tattooing never slowed down.  Shops no longer needed to train every new hire. The only thing that rode out the accelerated growth of this industry was the 50% rule.

To this day, a majority of shops start qualified new hires at 50%. Sometimes if an artist has more experience, they can barter for 60% take home.  Shops no longer apprentice every new hire but the percentage of how much they let the tattoo artist keep is still non negotiable.

-Matt Hodel

St. Louis Tattoo Artist

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