Lori Leven’s New York tattoo parlour is legendary. New York Adorned opened in 1996, when tattooing was illegal in New York state. Leven found a unit near the Bowery that could provide the perfect cover for her illicit operation. Formerly occupied by a metalworker, it has full-size shutters mid-way through to conceal a messy workroom. If the cops came, Leven could simply pull down the shutters. As a diversion, she filled the 400sq space at the front of the store with her personal jewellery collection.
Over in London, Maxime Plescia-Büchi also has a renowned tattoo shop. Swiss-born Plescia-Büchi has only been tattooing for around 10 years, but his unique graphic style has attracted a steady stream of clients (including Kanye West) and his Sang Bleu studio has become a standard bearer for tattooing.
Too bad, then, that this summer Plescia-Büchi will swap London for California, taking a step back from running his studio, while Leven will close New York Adorned for good. ‘The traditional tattoo shop is a dying model,’ says Leven.
This news from two cult industry figures comes at a strange time for tattooing.
New studios have opened on UK high streets at a rapid pace: there are now more than 1,000 tattoo studios, up from just 402 in 2009. In the US, there are nearly 40,000, representing market growth of around 13% from 2011.
More studios means more apprentices training in the trade. There are also self-taught tattooers who rent space in private studios, and it’s no longer uncommon to hear of artists operating from their own or clients’ homes – known as ‘scratchers’, an illegal practice in the UK and a source of much discomfort among those working in licensed shops.
It’s also become easier than ever for customers to discover artists: Instagram serves as a de-facto portfolio, where designs can be hashtagged and shared moments after ink has been set on skin.
But this boom in studios and artists has outstripped demand. Despite tattoos being more popular than ever – one third of adults in the US and one in five in the UK are tattooed, while the industry is estimated to have made revenues of £37bn globally in 2016 – many say there’s not enough business to go around. Most shops still rely on walk-in clients, and having a year-long waiting list like Plescia-Büchi is the exception, not the norm.
As a result, several artists and studios are looking for new ways to attract clients.
For many artists, tattooing is more than a job; it’s an all-encompassing way of life. Long hours are spent inking skin in the studio, after which time goes on drafting up new designs. There’s little appetite for business planning.
‘Obviously they’re not lazy. They tattoo all day long, five days a week, and then go home and do their homework,’ Leven observes. ‘[But] you’d be hard pressed to find a tattooer who can deal with [a large number of] employees.’
‘There’s a mathematical formula for how much money a studio can make,’ Plescia-Büchi adds. Artists charge on average £100 per hour, a cut of which goes back to the studio (up to 50%, although it varies between artist and shops). Plescia-Büchi thinks a tattoo brand can expand to up to four studios maximum (he has two shops himself, in Zurich and London, and is considering opening a third). After that, he says, customer service and brand reputation become harder to manage.
On top of issues around HR, quality control and the fact many tattoo shop owners simply aren’t interested in the admin that comes with owning multiple studios, sluggish demand has meant rolling out a nationwide tattoo chain isn’t the most logical way to grow business.
Instead, number of studios are experimenting with brand building.
Plescia-Büchi’s summer stint in California will give him the opportunity to focus on the other projects he’s got going under the Sang Bleu brand. The studio will still be a core part of this, although Plescia-Büchi will hand over day-to-day management of the shop to assistant manager Dani Quiepo.
‘The thing that pays my bills is still tattooing,’ Plescia-Büchi says. ‘Maybe a third of my income [is] from other things. I’m determined to shift it.’ He reckons that in five years’ time, he could make enough money from other projects to take a more selective approach to tattooing.
Before Sang Bleu opened in 2016, Plescia-Büchi had a magazine under the same name, covering art and subcultures. Today, alongside his two tattoo parlours, Plescia-Büchi has launched a clothing range, a collaboration with luxury watch-maker Hublot, and converted the upstairs of his London tattoo studio to a gallery space. He’s still publishing magazines, too. Tttism (pronounced ‘tattoo-ism’) covers tattooing through a luxury lens. Heavily tattooed ‘collectors’ feature in photoshoots alongside artists in the magazine, styled in Alexander Wang, Rick Owens or other high-end designer clothing.
To call Sang Bleu simply a tattoo studio isn’t accurate; it’s transformed into a lifestyle brand. Plescia-Büchi explains that Tttism’s latest issue marks the beginning of another expansion, this time into creating branded content.
For tattoo businesses, this is a global trend. In the US, well-known artist Kat Von D has paved out a multidisciplinary career. After starring on reality TV show LA Ink, she has gone on to launch her own make-up and fashion lines.
Jonathan Valena, a fine-line tattooer who works at Bang Bang Tattoo in New York, recently launched a clothing line, timed to coincide with the Coachella music festival. Last summer, celebrity tattoo artist Scott Campbell founded a luxury cannabis brand, Beboe, selling rose-gold vaporisers and edibles. It was dubbed the ‘Hermes of marijuana’ in an article by the New York Times.
As well as raising brand awareness, this type of vertical expansion is an exercise in gaining relevance among a wider audience.
The shift in customer base, explains Mo Coppoletta, owner of The Family Business tattoo parlour in London, is the biggest change studios have had to react to. ‘Aficionados and collectors used to represent 90% of the business,’ he says; now most of his customers are ‘people who see a tattoo as an accessory, without having to be part of a community of fanatics’.
‘The approach of the customer is the same as in approaching a luxury item,’ he adds. As a result, The Family Business and other tattoo parlours are actively moving away from the intimidating persona that is often associated with tattoo studios, in an effort to provide something more refined and boutique.
Indeed, stepping into Sang Bleu is akin to entering a concept store. Beyond the pink shop façade and black, white and chrome interiors, the meticulously framed flash sheets (which feature pre-drawn designs) are the first give-away that it is in fact a tattoo studio.
Over in New York, Nice Tattoo is also hoping to create a space that’s not intimidating for first timers to get tattooed. Its strapline is ‘a tattoo parlour where everyone is nice to you’, and it reckons 90% of its customers are women. Brooklyn-based Welcome Home studio has positioned itself as a ‘queer-friendly safe space’ since opening in 2017.
Having witnessed all this change, and seeing how much more lucrative her jewellery offering was becoming, Lori Leven felt disheartened with running a traditional high-street studio.
‘I didn’t even want to sell [my jewellery],’ Leven recalls. ‘[But] we opened the doors and people were amazed by the collection.’ Later, she added artworks made by friends and eventually expanded the business to become a brand of lifestyle shops, selling homeware and prints as well as jewellery and still offering tattoos. Today, she has three stores across New York and California under the identity Love Adorned.
But she’s not getting out of the tattoo business altogether. Instead, she’s opening a concept studio called NYA Guest Shop, above her California store. The plan is to host just two artists at a time, who will collaborate on a small number of exclusive designs and tattoos for clients.
‘Two minds are better than one, four hands are better than two,’ Leven says, explaining the logic behind the concept. ‘Make something larger than yourself.’