An Open Letter To Tattoo Shop Owners Who Want to Add Piercing

As an experienced body piercer, piercing educator, and business owner I think I have some insight for you, my tattoo artist friends.  I have made mistakes and seen others make even bigger mistakes, and I’d like to help you avoid following in these ill-conceived footsteps.  Body piercing is an amazing art form, and when it comes to your potential to add an additional high quality piercing studio, I say: the more the better.  With that in mind, let’s discuss.

First, doing body piercing well is an expensive endeavor.  I know that you think building your shop was expensive, but there’s a very good reason tattoo shops open so regularly.  After buying an autoclave, an ultrasonic, inks, and a select few other items you were ready to open for business.  If you spent $20,000 you probably made a decent shop.  $30,000?  A really nice shop.  More than that?  You have a beautiful shop that is really poised for long term success.  That said, once you started tattooing: boom, profits.  Let’s assume you behaved more responsibly than many new business owners.  You were very strict about your taxes, your health and safety, and treating your employees fairly and paying them a living wage.  Still, you were making money right off the bat, and your continued investment in the shop had virtually ended.  It is important that you understand that piercing businesses are almost exactly the opposite, in that your continued investment has only just begun when you start piercing.  

With a piercing studio, if you are very busy, you can make about the same amount of money per hour as a good tattoo artist, as long as you are charging enough (more on that later).  For hypothetical “math” purposes, let’s say that what a piercer will make for your shop is about $100 an hour.  That amount of money is realistic for a busy shop, but it will take time to develop a clientele, so be prepared for that $100 an hour in piercing to take a year or more.
Now you have to pay the piercer: $25 (conservative)

But you also paid for jewelry, and now you have to replace that jewelry: $40
Oh yeah, supplies.  You use FAR more supplies during a piercing than you do a tattoo, but additionally that $100 hour was split over 3 or 4 clients: $20
Total money spent: $85
(These numbers can be debated ad nauseum, they serve to make a point more than being penny-accurate.  Really good business people are great at diminishing costs while increasing profits, but as you are new to the business, it’s reasonable to assume that you will have a learning curve and these numbers reflect that.)

Now maybe, MAYBE you’ve made $15.  And if you are being stingy, that’s kept your jewelry selection level, not expanding.  You, my friend, are treading water. Which isn’t how you run a successful piercing business.  Why?  Because a piercing business is more like a jewelry store that happens to “install” jewelry.  You don’t make a lot of money on the service like you do with tattooing, and this is confusing to a lot of tattooers.  What you actually need to do is invest this tiny bit of profit into a bigger jewelry selection and more training for your piercer.  So you are making almost no money at first, and this will continue into the first year or two.  Again, this is not at all like your experience with tattooing.  In fact, most of the profit you make will be on jewelry sales for healed piercings.  Our industries are very different, and this will be your first taste of that.
14 karat and 18 karat gold threaded ends by Body Vision Los Angeles
Next, we should discuss why you want to commit all the time, money, and shop space to body piercing.  Do you not have enough tattoo artists?  That might be the case, but I tend to doubt it.  Is it the “demand” for piercing?  I think for most tattoo shop owners, it’s the perceived demand.  Do people call and ask you if you do piercing all day long?  Do those calls make you think you are missing out on some huge stack of money?  Do those calls simply annoy you?
Here’s the truth: you don’t get as many calls as you think you do.  You think you get a lot of piercing calls because piercing calls are bothersome to you.  That having been said, let’s assume the amount of calls is truly staggering.  You need to understand that those calls aren’t all going to turn into sales.  In all likelihood, fewer than 1 in 4 of those calls will turn into a piercing sale.  The best approach to the “phone call” issue is to document it.  I suggest that you write down every time a person calls, comes in, emails or makes some contact with you about body piercing each week, over the course of a couple months.  My guess is that number is (no more than) 40 times over the course of a week.  That might translate, if you are lucky, into 10 piercings performed each week.  That’s between $500-$1000 a week you are missing out on, and if we really follow our math from above, that’s $150 “profit” you’ve made.  In contrast, you could knuckle down on your desk person/manager, and make sure you were booked more consistently.  That $150 profit in piercing is about 2 extra hours of tattooing a week.  Consider all of the hassle of starting a new, expensive business venture versus training your desk staff in better customer service.

Who is going to be piercing for you?  Somehow, I think tattoo artists have made the mistake of thinking that because piercing doesn’t involve drawing, it doesn’t involve talent.  I’ve heard tattooers say things like “any moron can pierce”.  Even if that were true (it’s not), good business people know that experience matters.  The person you want doing body piercing for your shop should have some experience, have some training, and of course have some references.  Association of Professional Piercers membership, attendance of basic and advanced piercing workshops, and an intimate knowledge of health and safety, jewelry and materials, and sales and customer service are qualities shared by worthwhile body piercers.

...but you were going to have a friend of yours who “used to pierce” teach your girlfriend or boyfriend.  Right?  I’m right. Dammit.  Don’t do that.  

If you are going to train a new piercer, or have a new piercer trained for you, expect the profits you were counting on to take even longer to arrive.  Your new piercer is going to be about as good at piercing as your brand new tattoo artist is at tattooing, which is to say not very good.  I am an instructor for a one week piercing intensive, and I am the first person to tell you that this piercing intensive doesn’t turn total novices into piercers.  There’s no way it could.  If you have an iffy, inexperienced piercer, this brings down the luster of your tattoo shop the same way an iffy, inexperienced tattoo artist would.  I do not recommend this approach to adding body piercing.  An experienced, knowledgeable and reputable piercer should lead the way, always.  Experienced piercers don’t come cheap, and need to be paid a living wage.  In many cases, this means you are going to be paying your piercer hourly and taking a loss while your new business venture is gaining momentum.  Again, body piercing is expensive.

Quality counts.  I assume you consider yourself a good tattoo shop: somewhere in the A plus to B plus range. Providing below average body piercing, (B- to C-) or selling below average body jewelry only lowers your esteem in the eyes of your customers.  You shouldn’t buy the cheap jewelry in the catalogs that you get sent all the time.  The jewelry in those catalogs is not of acceptable quality.  So the prices you’ve been mulling over in your head (100 barbells for $100?!) are all wrong.  You want your jewelry quality to match the quality of your tattooing, right?  That means internally threaded, implant grade, American made body jewelry.  That means following the APP standards for initial body jewelry quality.  You will want to buy your jewelry from “the big guys”, and your experienced piercer will know who those big guys are.  Do not buy bad jewelry to start and work your way into the good stuff.  It simply doesn’t work like that.  Talk to any experienced piercer that was forced to start with bad jewelry and work their way into good jewelry.  It only cuts the achilles of your ability to become a great piercing location.  Starting good and maintaining consistent quality is the only way to establish a good, loyal piercing clientele.  Adding mediocre body piercing only lessens your esteem as a good tattoo shop.  You might see the difference between great tattooing and “okay” piercing, but your clientele does not.

Finally, do not fall into the price war trap.  As a talented tattoo artist, you know that you should never undervalue your work.  Clients that come in wanting to get the cheapest tattoo they can get simply aren’t your market.  Your market is informed, intelligent, and willing (even eager!) to pay for quality work.  Your piercing customers are no different.  Yes, some potential clients will balk at the price of a quality piercing and leave the shop... but as with your tattooing, remember, price shoppers are NOT your clientele.  Good business men and women look at the best shops in the country, and model themselves accordingly.  In those shops, very few customers leave with a new piercing and jewelry for less than $50.  With a good jewelry selection, most clients spend about $75-150 after piercing, jewelry, and aftercare products have been purchased.  Those clients leave with excellent piercings, beautiful jewelry, and safe aftercare products.  Those clients leave happy.  You wouldn’t let your tattoo clientele leave disappointed, why would you let your piercing clientele leave disappointed?

Have I made body piercing seem like a less viable option for increased revenue? That is not my intention.  If you are seriously committed to safe, ethical and high quality piercing and jewelry, you will eventually find it to be profitable and rewarding.  The world could use more high quality piercing shops, and there is a veritable army of piercers looking to work in studios that care.

I leave you with one final piece of advice, my tattoo artist brothers and sisters: cut the SHIT.  Tattoo artists are the first to cry “hack” and lament the lack of talent that floods their market, and with good reason.  But tattoo artists are single handedly the worst culprits when it comes to flooding the body piercing industry with inexperienced piercers using substandard jewelry and dubious health and safety.  If you are unwilling to do body piercing in a safe, professional, highly skilled manner that equally reflects your commitment to tattooing, do not offer piercing services. Period.

Creative Commons LicenseAn Open Letter To Tattoo Shop Owners Who Want to Add Piercing by Jef Saunders is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

As of 2017 I now pierce full time at Gamma Piercing in Ann Arbor, Michigan! Please visit our website or stop by and say hello!