Tattoo debt: Body art can create red ink
By Erica Sandberg | Published: July 24, 2013
Itching to be inked? Spoiling for a stamp?
Tattooing, archaeologists believe, started around 3350 B.C. in the Ötztal Alps. Since then, its popularity has waxed and waned throughout the world, but its current appeal in the United States is unprecedented. Today, nearly a quarter of all American adults sport subskin artwork, according to a Pew research report. That figure rises to 38 percent for the 18- to 29-year old set.
However, tattoos can come with surprising costs, both on the front and the back end. The best artists aren't cheap, and the worst can produce pricey mistakes. Job opportunities can be affected, too, as some employers may resist hiring or advancing people with visible markings. Then, if you decide to erase body art, the price of cover-ups and removal can be astronomical.
Eager to go under the needle? Before you do, listen to what the inked, inkers and ink removers have to say about the financial side of tattoos.
Every picture has a price
If funds are tight, but you want a tattoo now, you'll have to choose between a less expensive, traced design from a street shop employee, and a pricier, original image drawn by an artist. Which one you choose depends on your personal preference and budget.
"There are a lot of people in the world who have a very low value toward their body art," says Clint Cummings, owner of Sparrows Tattoos, in Mansfield, Texas, and one of the stars of the Spike TV show, "Ink Master." "It seems that they are willing to sacrifice quality for quantity." That sacrifice often leads to ink regret. So much so that Cummings currently dedicates 70 percent of his time covering up other people's terrible tattoos.
To make the right decision and prepare for the price, recognize the difference between a street shop and a custom studio. The former is often in a high-traffic area such as a strip mall. It relies on walk-ins who select tattoos from a book of designs, which are priced accordingly. Something small and simple can be as low as $50. A custom studio, on the other hand, makes client appointments and is staffed by trained, talented artists who customize designs. Their fees typically begin at $100 per hour and can go much higher.
The time it takes to complete a tattoo varies by size, color and complexity. For example, a full sleeve (tattoos covering an arm from shoulder to wrist) of complicated designs in various hues can easily be a 20-hour job, running at least a few thousand dollars by the time you're done.
When on limited budget, take cues from your artist and work together as a team. "Even I try to help out with pricing to an extent," says Cummings. "I usually charge $150 hourly, but if I run over the time, I just give them the time. I'm not going to sweat it. They are getting my art, and they're paying me a good price for it, so no need to be a greedy bastard."
Consider future expenses
Tattoos fit firmly in the discretionary section of a budget, so never sacrifice necessary bills or savings for them. Emergencies and unexpected expenses emerge, which is why it's crucial to make sure you have a strong financial float before blowing all your cash on a tattoo.
Such was the lesson Savana Marquez, a student and restaurant hostess from San Diego, learned. Marquez splurged on a full-color sunflower tattoo for her leg a few days after Christmas 2012. She thought it was a bargain since the artist was a friend and offered to only charge a few hundred dollars for what would normally cost much more. At the time, Marquez thought she had planned well enough. "I would have had money in my savings account for extras, including tattoos, but I already spent a lot on presents so I had almost nothing left."
Then came New Year's Eve. A night of celebration ended with Marquez, then just 20, facing an alcohol-related charge. "The fine and everything was almost $9,000," she says. She immediately regretted getting the tattoo. "'Why did I spend it on that?' I asked myself."
The experience was a wake-up call on many levels, including making better financial decisions. Still a tattoo fan, Marquez says she'll be padding her savings account with spare cash. "I will be waiting a lot longer than I would have for my next tattoo. Plus now if I were to get another one, I'd want a lot more saved up so I'll have extra money for it and other things."
Marquez may wait until she's in a more stable financial position, but many tattoo aficionados don't delay gratification. "I come across people all the time who say they have $300 and can't afford their car payment or their rent, but are going to spend it on a tattoo," says Cummings. "It's crazy."
The reason they do it, says Cummings, can be addiction, "Like a woman with shoes or purses. They make you feel good about yourself and you want to show them off. It helps self-esteem. It's life changing. The more unique they are, the better they feel." Like any addiction, the compulsion to tattoo can lead to financial ruin, so 12-step programs such as Recoveries Anonymous have been set up to help.
Tattoo-redo: bigger and costlier
A common problem with tattoos is that you may like them one day and hate them the next, or they simply don't come out as expected. That begets the cover-up, which turns into yet another economic drawback.
A skilled artist may be able to turn that thing you hide into something you flaunt, but the fee might be more than you bargained for. It's a spatial issue. "I tell people whatever size the tattoo is, the cover-up will be three times that," says Cummings.
Which is exactly what Shaun Allan, a writer from the United Kingdom, says happened to him. Allan initially spent £40 (around $70) on his tattoo, which was a stretch at that point in his life. "It was meant to be a fox, to symbolize freedom after 'escaping' from a relationship," says Allan. "Unfortunately, the tattooist I went to, apart from simply having a load of pre-existing images to choose from, wasn't that good. It ended up looking more like a dog or something."
After 12 years of being too embarrassed to show his upper arm, Allan took action. "As I'm an author, I decided I needed to finally have the tattoo covered and wanted something writing-related to cover it." This time he located a real artist who took the time to get to know him and came up with a design that incorporated images of Allan's unique writings. It was perfect.
The cover-up was more than $300, again a considerable sum for him. "I put the cost on my credit card and am still paying it off," says Allan. "I feel good about it. It was worth it and the new tattoo means something."
Revert to virgin skin? Removals really cost (but may also pay off)
Sometimes cover-ups aren't sufficient. Nearly 100,000 tattoo removals were performed in 2011, reported the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, and those numbers are rising. But if you think tattoos and cover-ups are pricey, you may be shocked by what it takes to zap them away.
Jessica Krant, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City and founder of Art of Dermatology, is a specialist in eliminating unwanted ink. "Tattoo removal is performed by surgical excision or laser," says Krant. "The price for both the laser and excision procedures varies by geography, but is typically a few hundred dollars up to $1,000 per session, with potential repeated sessions necessary."
It's not unusual for removing something such as a fading ankle grapevine to hit the $5,000 mark. These procedures are rarely covered by health insurance. Because of that, the bill usually ends up on a credit card.
Improved technology that can reduce that cost is on the horizon. "There is a new laser by Cynosure that uses picosecond energy pulses instead of the usual nanosecond pulses," says Krant. "It removes tattoos in one-quarter to one-third the number of visits more effectively and completely," says Krant. "This can translate into significant savings for a given tattoo, and a definite savings in time and effort invested in going to the doctor and missing work."
A primary reason people go to such lengths, even into debt, to banish artwork they've already spent a lot on is to open up opportunities, says Krant. "Difficulty getting certain jobs is a big factor in eventually wanting tattoos removed. There is a cultural expectation in certain industries that people won't have tattoos showing. If the tattoo has placed them directly into financial hardship, the pressure to get it removed at all costs can be extreme."
A noticeable, bad or offensive tattoo can impair your ability to get hired or scale the company ladder. Unfair? Perhaps, but it's not illegal. Discrimination laws rarely extend to body art.
"Generally speaking, an employee only has protection under the law for displaying tattoos at work where he or she can demonstrate that the tattoo is connected to a sincerely held religious belief," says Dan Moore, an attorney practicing labor and employment law at Harris Beach, in Pittsford, N.Y. Consequently, unless you can prove that your tattoo is connected to your religion and that it's a sincerely held belief, you're out of luck -- and possibly out of a job.
While tattoos are often true works of art and personally meaningful, if you get them done impulsively by the wrong person or without saving and budgeting properly, they can result in mistakes and serious financial consequences. Always think before you ink.
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