Darin Cooper remembers how, back when he started, there weren’t many people making a living as tattoo artists. “When I started, I was it. When I was up in Trussville for the first two years, I was the only artist doing procedures. I was a one-man show running around like a crazy person. Over the years I acquired some good talent, and I trust them to tattoo my mom.”
Times have changed, although not every aspect of the tattoo business has changed with them. “It’s a scandalous industry. It’s a mostly cash-based industry. … Most of the pay structures of the tattoo studio are commission,” Cooper said. “So weird little things like that make it easier for people to rob and easy for some people to stay below the radar, and there are a lot of tattoo artists that are in this industry because they can be an outlaw. It’s one of the last outlaw professions that is still more mainstream.”
Still, in an age where tattoos are nearly as common as cell phones, the Birmingham-metro area has become home to several different body art studios, from Pelham to 20th Street North. What used to be a limited market has now become a popular venture worldwide. In 2016, IBISWorld, a business intelligence and research company, reported that there were over 38,000 tattoo businesses in the United States alone, with annual revenue reaching over $1.5 billion. In 2016, the website Business Insider Nordic estimated that the worldwide revenue for the tattoo industry was over $50 billion.
Chad Hubbard, an artist at Non Stop Art in downtown Birmingham, has been tattooing for 18 years. The spread of the industry has really surprised him. “Tattooing now was not what it was when I started. … Everybody wants tattoos now. Whether they admit it or not they’ve thought about getting tattoos and we have a lot of people you would never expect getting a tattoo.”
A Day in the Life
“Skin is the most challenging medium there is to do art on,” said Cooper, the owner of Pelham’s Tattoo Expression, who has been tattooing for 16 years. He said one of the most exciting aspects of the job is working on a living being.
“Any other medium is static. Skin is flexible. It’s alive. There’s no two pieces of skin that are the same on anyone or anybody,” he said. “Within the first line or two of every tattoo, you have to be able to change what you’re doing in order to make it happen and make it work. It’s never the same twice.”
Jeffrey Hubbard (no relation to Chad), the owner of Pelham’s Revolution Ink, said that working with a permanent medium such as skin can “mentally mess you up as an artist,” but that the fear of making a mistake needs to stay present to prevent mishaps.“If you’re sitting down and doing a painting or drawing, you can erase or cover it up and it’s not a big deal. A canvas isn’t going to get mad at you. But on actual skin, this is a permanent piece of artwork on someone’s skin ‘til the day they die,” he said.
Artists in the industry say that, while Birmingham has many talented professionals, not all tattooers are created equal. “I’m not downing any of the new guys because there’s some fabulous new guys in the industry,” Cooper said, “but around here there’s a lot of people who don’t need to be tattooing.
“There [are] people that shouldn’t do it that continue to make a living doing it because they just tattoo cheap. And they tattoo in areas where people aren’t thinking or they’re drinking, and some people just blindly assume they’re going to get a good tattoo if they walk into an operating business that has a neon sign that says, ‘Tattoo.’ But it’s not an oil-change place. You go to an oil-change place, you can get about the same oil change — but a tattoo, it doesn’t work that way,” Cooper said.
There are a lot of people in the tattoo industry, according to Jeffrey Hubbard, who get into it for the money and that outlook shows in their work. “I wish that people would look further into the artwork and see what true art really is, compared to somebody that’s just throwing ink on somebody’s skin and [calling] themselves a tattoo artist. Because there’s a lot of passion in this industry, and it takes so much passion,” he said.
“The amount of time artists put into their work frequently require sacrifices,” he said. “You lose relationships with your family and go through divorces … because we’re here so much doing it, trying to hone our tattooing skills and artwork.”
Chad Hubbard agreed that success in the body art industry requires hard work and dedication. “You’ve got to put 110 percent into it,” he said. “You can’t go to the bar. You can’t go hang out. You can’t go see your favorite band play when you want them to play. You come here and you put 110 percent into everything and then go home and put six to eight hours into those drawings that you need to have ready.”
While more people accept tattoos than in years past, there are still individuals who greet the industry with a less-than-friendly attitude, Chad Hubbard said. “[People are] not very supportive of tattooing in Birmingham unless you’re in, like, a ‘bad’ area. Like, they didn’t want us down here at all and we had to kind of prove ourselves and have people stand up for us to be able to open. They considered us a lost cause for art in Birmingham. Or we were a bad representation of the art community,” he said.
Tattoos in the workplace have also lost their forbidden nature according to some accounts. A 2016 article for Business Insider reported that 45 million people in the United States have at least one tattoo. The article also stated that 73 percent of employers said they would hire employees with visible tattoos. Ninety-four percent of people already adorned with tattoos said they would hire other tattooed individuals.
While there is significant progress in how tattoos are viewed in the workplace, there are still individuals who see tattoos as off-putting. In February 2016, the Huffington Post noted that many employers still frown upon visible tattoos and that body ink on visible skin can still hurt an individual’s chance at being hired, “especially in customer-facing jobs.”
Religious views make a difference, said Jeffrey Hubbard. “To me what makes it fun is that we’re still taboo in Birmingham because we’re still in the Bible Belt,” he said. “We’re still in the area where all of the older generation [doesn’t] like it, and that’s fun for me because I’m kind of rebellious in that nature. When you go somewhere like New York, it’s normal; everyone’s tattooed. I spent some time in New York and no one looked twice at me. But when I walk around Birmingham, older people look at me and go, ‘Whoa!’”
Pelham has established a moratorium over the issuing of business licenses to establishments including vape lofts, pawn shops, and tattoo studios. On May 15, the Pelham City Council met to discuss including massage parlors under the restricted category. Pelham’s Commercial Development Authority has an advisory role in the determination of whether any future businesses in the listed categories can get a business license.
Businesses already established in the area, such as Tattoo Expression and Revolution Ink, have been grandfathered into the moratorium, but Jeffrey Hubbard called Pelham’s position discrimination against the industry. Revolution Ink is moving to a new location in the area, and Jeffrey Hubbard said that the amended moratorium would also create a problem for his company because it does not provide protections for new or additional locations.
Changes in the Industry
Cooper said that one of the biggest changes to the industry is how much it has opened up to the public. “The industry used to be a very guarded thing. [It was] very hard to get into, very hard to gain any knowledge,” he said. “Pre-internet days, you couldn’t find out about tattooing without getting an apprenticeship, and getting an apprenticeship in those days was not easy. You either paid big or were super talented or just knew the right person. And, more often than not, it was knowing the right person.”
It wasn’t until after the year 2000, Cooper said, that tattooing became accepted as a more “legitimate form of art.” “There were a lot of biker tattooists in the ‘90s, and there wasn’t a whole high level of art in the industry. It was more technical tattooing,” he said. “A lot of higher-skill artists started learning how to tattoo, and that’s really helped the industry evolve in the last 17 and 18 years, leaps and bounds. Not so much has changed other than the hands wielding the tools.”
The internet also brought changes, Cooper said. “There’s a lot of people tattooing without proper apprenticeships now,” he said, adding that “equipment, supplies, and knowledge” are readily available. “You can go on YouTube and get tutorials,” he said.
Cooper doesn’t exactly approve. “There’s people trying to create tattoo schools and teach masses of people at the same time, and that doesn’t work. A proper apprenticeship takes three to five years — one-on-one picking that person’s brain and learning everything that they learned from the guy before them, … but now people are self-teaching themselves,” he said.
Another change: Customers once commonly chose their tattoos from designs displayed on the walls (known in the industry as “flash”), but most customers today use the internet as their source for inspiration. Social media forums such as Pinterest and Instagram provide possible ideas and photos, Cooper said.
“Ten or 20 times a day someone comes in with the same picture off of Pinterest and says, ‘I want something unique like this,’” Cooper said. “They think if they go to the wall they’re going to get someone else’s tattoo, but then they bring a picture of someone else’s tattoo.” The result, he said, is that for artists, “it’s become real monotonous and a lot of repetitive tattooing.”
Bringing in a design from the internet is no guarantee that a customer will get art identical to what they found, especially in a custom studio where the artist has full control over how to interpret the image, Chad Hubbard said. “There’s an old saying, ‘My way is not the only way but it’s the only way I can do it,’” he said, adding that his experience — what he knows will “hold up over time” — determines the outcome of the work. “I have to go off of that and I have to make it work the best way that I can … on the person. Most of the time we meet where we can compromise. … But there are other times where we’re not a good match. And there’s plenty of tattoo artists out there.”
Research, cost and the search for meaning
Pinterest tattoos may be a pain for some artists, but social media can help people when searching for the right artist, according to Jeffrey Hubbard, who said research is important. “People can’t just walk into any shop and get a good tattoo like you used to be able to,” he said. “And it’s fine because most people educate themselves on tattoos and try to seek out the best artist they can. If somebody gets a bad tattoo, really, it’s their own fault.”
It’s also true that you get what you pay for, according to Cooper. But people often put price before quality. “They’ll come in here and brag about this s—y tattoo they got for cheap when you tell them how much it’s going to cost to get this nice tattoo,” he said. “You’d be surprised how many people do that. They’re more worried about the bottom line than the quality. But a tattoo is forever! If you’re going to put any money in anywhere, do it on something that you’re going to have forever.”
At Revolution Ink, customers sometimes try to negotiate the price of body art — which doesn’t go over well with the owner. “A lot of people think they can come in and haggle us, which is not the case,” Jeffrey Hubbard said. “You can’t go into a grocery store or restaurant and haggle their prices so why would you haggle us?”
Tattoos are more common, but for many people they still have to mean something — or do they? “You find people that come in and say, ‘I don’t know what I want but I just know it has to have meaning’,” Cooper said. “They want us to tell them the meaning of their life but we can’t do that. And it doesn’t have to mean anything. You can get it because you love the way it looks. It can be purely aesthetics. But a lot of times people are stumped because they feel it has to have meaning.”
The most important element in an artist-client relationship is trust, Chad Hubbard said. “Trust your tattooer. … The only time it’s frustrating when people have done their work is when they find an idea and they see this picture and they’re like, ‘Oh, that looks cool.’”
He continued that people get used to the design and are “thrown for a loop” when the artist alters it to their own interpretation. “If you’re going in for big custom work you have to trust your artist. You have to trust me or anybody here because we’re going to put 110 percent into it.”
The Double-Edged Sword
Over the past decade television shows and social media have fed the popularity of the tattoo industry, but that media attention is a double-edged sword, according to Jeffrey Hubbard. “It did a lot of good in getting people’s attention to get tattooed, but it also got a lot of people who shouldn’t be in the industry’s attention,” he said. “You end up getting a lot of scratchers who are people who have never apprenticed and they tattoo out of a house, and [television] really kicked that number up, sadly.”
Cooper agreed. “The [television] shows honestly have really tainted and ruined our industry,” he said. “They’ve made tattooing way cooler than getting tattoos. There’s more tattoo artists than tattoo studios now … and most of them are turning out s—. People get a bad tattoo, and, getting a bad experience, they may never get another. So you’ve ruined a customer for life, at worse.”
Media portrayals create unrealistic expectations, Chad Hubbard said. “I’ll have someone come in on their lunch break and ask for a sleeve or for their back to be done because they see these shows and think it can be done in a 30-minute time frame. And then they get mad at me when I tell them there’s no way,” he said.
The media-driven popularity of body art has led to a bubble — more tattoo artists than potential customers, Cooper said, adding that the situation isn’t sustainable. “The bubble’s going to pop eventually because, I mean, hell, just this year, 2017, … we’ve already had five or six shops open in the metro area. I mean, left and right, crews are splitting from the shop they worked at. … They’re just opening left and right,” he said.
While the saturation of the market has definitely caused an issue, those who are truly in it for the art will survive, Chad Hubbard believes. “There’s 50,000 tattooers in America,” he said. “It will collapse and the ones that love it will stay. … There’s a lot of people who get into it for the lifestyle. They think it’s a cool job and whatever. But I got into it because I’ve always wanted to do it since I was a little kid. I won’t stop. I can’t stop at this point.”
One big happy family?
When it comes to the relationships between Birmingham’s tattoo artists, the general consensus is that the road is definitely rocky. Jeffrey Hubbard said that the artists in this market have a different attitude than what he experienced working in Los Angeles. “In L.A. everyone is aware that we’re in the same industry and kind of family-like, and here, nobody likes anybody. It’s very sad. I tried to put on an expo one time but I couldn’t get anybody here to attend it,” he said.
“There’s never been much love between tattoo studios,” said Cooper. “Really … there’s still a lot of hate in the industry because the little guy is going to hate on the big guy for being good and the big guy is going to hate on the little guy for f—- people up and making us look bad and giving the industry a bad name.” He added that “I’ve always tried to be nice and the most people will do is smile. But, typical Southern hospitality, they’ll turn around and talk s— about you behind your back.”
Chad Hubbard offered a slightly different view. The relationships between local artists is “terrible,” he said, but not everyone plays into the unpleasantness. “We get along with a lot of the tattooers that we know, but it’s not like a community where everybody bounces ideas off of each other. Tattooing has always been, like, secretly competitive,” he said.
While Jeffrey Hubbard said he respects the work of several Birmingham tattoo studios, he cannot think of many artists with whom he gets along. “Tattoo artists are pirates,” he said. “Back in the day the captain of the ship was constantly being challenged and tattoo artists are the same way. We think of ourselves as the pirates of the business industry. … It’s just the free spirit type people that tattoo artists are. We tell society to f— off and be ourselves and when you put all of them together in the same room they’re going to butt heads.”
Despite that, he said that artists shouldn’t dwell on the negativity surrounding the industry. “You can get lost and worry about that,” he said. “Or you can just do what you can to make the industry more beautiful.”