Being a tattooer can be exciting, fulfilling, and inspiring. But on the flip side of that coin, an artistic career is also full of stressors (and more than a little chaos). Consequently, mental health for tattoo artists all comes down to how you handle those stressors inside and outside the studio.
You might find yourself constantly overbooked with too many clients and back-to-back events. Or maybe the day gets away from you while you’re hustling, and you’ve neglected your body’s needs.
The good news? You’re in control. There are plenty of steps you can take to make sure your mental and physical health are as on track as your needles. Here are our top 10 tips for taking care of your mental + physical health as a tattoo artist.
Tip #1: Have Specific Booking Periods
More and more artists are doing it nowadays. In fact, many artists only open their books two to four times a year just to stay sane. While this practice may not be feasible for you if you’re just starting to build a client list … it’s 100% necessary if you already have regulars and a healthy (or massive) Instagram following.
There are plenty of ways to enforce specific booking periods. So, for instance, you might want to book clients exclusively by season. Consequently, you could choose a day to open your books for the Fall and advertise it on Instagram (e.g., Books opening soon for the Fall season! More info in my story). From your story or bio, you can notify clients as to when they can apply. Also, you can link to your Web site or tattoo application form, inviting clients to sign up as soon as your application period opens.
It’s especially helpful to give your clients a short time window to sign up for a tattoo. That way, you won’t get bombarded with applications during the application period. So, if you’re booking for the Fall season, you could host an open call for applications lasting from 24 to 48 hours. After that application time window closes and all the applications are in, you get your pick of the litter: choose the projects and clients that are most aligned with your goals, style, and preferences. Overall, this selective method of booking will keep your stress levels low and your motivation to work high.
And with predictable booking seasons, clients won’t blow up your inbox all days of the year… talk about a reduction in email anxiety.
Tip #2: Do Creative Work Just for You
There’s no doubt about it: making a client happy is extremely gratifying. Collab-ing with clients on a concept, knowing you might have landed a repeat client, and getting a great photo for your online portfolio are all big wins.
But creating for other people can likewise be taxing. As an artist, you must also create for yourself. There’s no satisfaction quite like doing something specifically for yourself.
So, make sure you take time – preferably out of every week – to work on a project that’s important to you and you alone. It could certainly be tattoo-related: you could draw up a new flash sheet to promote at your shop. Then, advertise the flash sheet to clients on Instagram and let them have their pick of the litter. In this case, it’s a win-win. You’ve drawn flash that you care about; you get to tattoo exactly what you want to tattoo; and a client will pay for you to do it!
However, a lot of artists find that tattooing isn’t enough to satisfy their creative needs. Maybe you have another medium you love, like Jesse Smith, who creates multi-layered cartoonist art. Behind that art is so much more than the image; Smith also creates whole character profiles, worlds, and backstories.
It doesn’t matter what your alternate outlet is: Maybe you’re a painter. Or maybe you’re a musician. Or maybe you really love to write. No matter what creative outlets you love, make sure you’re taking time for them. Devoting your whole life and career just to create for others can deflate your artistic passion and integrity.
Definitely keep your needles buzzing – but keep that internal spark going strong, too.
Tip #3: Charge What Your Work Is Worth
That being said… when you are tattooing for a client: enforce pricing that is fair. You have invested years of time, effort, and money into working on your craft.
Pricing might cause some discomfort for you, particularly if you’re working with a regular client for whom you have a lot of compassion; but if you don’t take your own prices seriously on a consistent basis, you might end up harboring some resentment or feeling slighted.
But your prices are there for a reason. Clients are coming to you for a desired service. So long as you comfortably establish what your rates are up front, they have no grounds to question or argue the cost of your work.
And to help ensure a no ifs, ands, or buts policy, you can establish your rates well in advance of the tattoo appointment: include your rates on your Web site, let an applicant know what they can expect to pay before committing via email, and/or require a down payment to secure a tattoo appointment before it begins. These steps work wonders when it comes to establishing artist-client trust. Overall, “training” your clients to understand your boundaries can be tricky, but tattooer Casey Hart has plenty of tips on the matter in this video here.
Additionally, challenge any guilty thoughts about pricing that arise by remembering that your skills are sought-after. So, don’t let a client guilt you into paying you less than your worth… and definitely don’t stop yourself from charging what you deserve. See what tattoo artists Myke Chambers and Russ Abbott have to say about “pricing anxiety” below.
Tip #4: Schedule Regular Breaks… Daily!
Even a good battery pack needs recharging once and a while, and so do you. During your booking period, be sure to ask yourself the following:
- Do I have healthy breaks in between clients?
- Do I have “off days” this week?
- If I have multiple clients, about how long will it take me to do each tattoo?
Not only do you want to ensure you have enough time to accomplish the projects you’ve scheduled for yourself; you also want to make sure you have enough time for you. After finishing up with a client, it’s a good idea to take a walk; get a snack, drink, or meal; and relax overall. Even during a multiple hour session, it’s advisable to get up, walk around, have a drink of water… and, obviously, use the bathroom when the urge arises.
Chaining yourself to your artist chair can lead to disinterest in your work, fatigue, back pain, and overall burnout. Check out what Casey Hart has to say about avoiding burnout overall in our block “Breakthrough the Burnout with Casey Hart.”
Tip #5: Eat Regularly and Consistently
Eating regularly and nutritiously applies to everyone; but it’s especially important if you’re a tattooer who has back-to-back clients and often loses track of time.
Not eating enough during the day can contribute to (or even lead to) fatigue, brain fog, sleep trouble, and mood imbalance. Meal restriction can also exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.
In fact, even if you don’t necessarily feel hungry, it doesn’t mean your body doesn’t require nourishment in that moment. Think of how many times you’ve simply skipped lunch or breakfast in favor of getting right to your appointments for the day. Maybe you opted for a Red Bull, iced coffee, or green tea to get through back-to-back sessions.
Unfortunately, while this may seem harmless, it can add up. Your body will adapt to avoiding snacks, water, and meals… but negatively. And your stress hormones will rise, causing an imbalance in your mood and zest for tattooing.
So, we’ll say it louder for those in the back: pack snacks, keep a thermos of water, and try to eat every three hours throughout the day. Over time, you may notice a big, positive shift in your mood and energy levels.
Tip #6: Stretch through the Day
You might not realize how much general stretching or even yoga can do for you as a tattooer. Even if your first instinct might not be to stretch during your break (and maybe it might even be to do more work), consider the phrase: “a little goes a long way.” Just a few short minutes of daily yoga can really make a difference for your mental and physical health.
Think about how many hours and days you spend hunched over someone’s body operating a motorized machine. Over time, this can cause chronic pain or fatigue all over your back and in your wrists. But daily stretching can help to improve your posture and relieve muscle tension after long days at the shop.
Additionally, we collect mental stress and emotions in our muscles. So, stretching and doing yoga at the shop is a quiet and quick way to release a lot of pent-up tension (or prevent it from collecting in the first place). You might find after a few weeks of regular stretching or yoga, you’re less likely to bark at your co-worker, apprentice, “yo man” client, or shop manager.
To get started, check out this helpful Yoga flow geared toward tattoo artists.
Tip #7: Exercise (or Just Move) When You Can
Tattooing is hard work… but there’s a lot of sitting involved. And the human body wasn’t designed to sit.
Even if lifting free weights or running isn’t for you, movement is for everyone. The body was designed to move, after all. Just walking around the shop, putting your machine together, and getting your work done simply won’t cut it. It’s beneficial to build muscle and support good posture when you have a job that requires a lot of sitting. Moreover, doing cardio and escalating your heart rate makes your more equipped to deal with day-to-day stressors (of which there are plenty at the shop). Additionally, exercising releases endorphins – your all-natural feel-good hormone; and who doesn’t love feeling good?
So, if you enjoy the gym, get a membership close to your shop and take time from your schedule to pop in a couple times a week. But if you’re not a fan of the gym… no sweat; there are other ways to work up a sweat without pumping iron in public:
- Take regular walks
- Try a Yoga flow that’s a little more challenging
- Try Pilates
- Play a team sport casually or competitively
If your schedule is really tight and your stress levels are high, walking might be your best bet. You can walk every day of the week with varying degrees of intensity. Plus, it gives you a chance to get outside the shop and feel sunshine or cool air on your face, which is stress relieving in and of itself.
Tip #8: Do Activities Outside the Shop
Ideally, you should have a whole separate life away from your place of business. A healthy balance between personal and professional life is key for mental health. When work consumes everything and becomes our “second home,” we lose sight of other things we care about: relationships, other hobbies, our first home, and alternative passions.
So, as we mentioned above, make sure you have days off. Every week. One of the great things about being a tattooer – especially an established one – is flexibility. Once you’re at a place where you have a steady flow of clients, you can really establish your own hours and decide for yourself how often you want to work. This is especially true if you follow tip #1 and establish specific booking periods. And if you’re just starting out, your free time is allotted for you – don’t waste it, and don’t work to excess.
During your off days, make time for family and friends. Go see a movie. Cook a meal you’ve been wanting to try or go to a new restaurant or bar. Engage in your favorite hobbies: reading, video games, music, what have you. Tattooing is an amazing career, but it’s only one facet of your life. Keep your world large and your interests broad so you don’t end up feeling confined, overwhelmed, and overtaxed.
Tip #9: Express Your Feelings Any Way that Feels Right
More often than not, creative people are pretty emotive. And even if you don’t consider yourself to be the most emotional person… every human being has feelings (as corny as that sounds). Thus, we all require an outlet to let those feelings flow. As it happens, tattooing is an excellent tool for self-expression; but as we mentioned above, oftentimes, you’re tattooing for a client and not just for yourself. So, be sure to follow our advice and do some creative work that’s just for you.
But there are other ways you can express yourself and your feelings aside from art. Talk therapy, deep breathing, journaling, and even positive self-talk (out loud or internal) can make a world of difference for your mental health as a tattooer. Maybe you had a rough day with a challenging client; or a rough week with multiple clients. Moreover, maybe you’re feeling stuck in your career and you’re uncertain of how to move forward and evolve. Or, as a human, maybe you’re feeling “stuck” in life overall.
It’s important you don’t keep these feelings bottled. Express them in any way you see fit: through art, therapy, or coping exercises. Consistently expressing yourself ensures negativity will stay contained, and you can go on to enjoy a happier career.
Tip #10: Surround Yourself with Tattooers + Clients You Enjoy
If you’re just starting out as a tattooer, sometimes it can be easy to settle for any shop that hires you. Money is money, right?
However, if you dislike your co-workers, find yourself being disrespected, or disagree with the shop’s culture, work can become toxic and borderline intolerable. While some artists claim “toughing it out” is the way to go in the early stages of your career, it might be more optimal to continue looking for a shop that will hire you and care for your wellbeing.
If you’re an established tattoo artist with a successful portfolio, you may find you have more freedom and flexibility to “shop around” for a workplace you like. Be sure to only contract yourself to a team of people you can trust and who treat you with respect.
But it isn’t just about the people you work with; you also ideally want to work with respectful clients as well. So, as mentioned above, establish boundaries from the get-go to help create trust between you and your clients. If any client seems like they are disrespectful of those boundaries, don’t take the time to tattoo them.
So, Keep That Brain + Body Healthy
No matter your career, everyone’s going to come across a rocky road every now and again. But as tattoo artists, your creative drive is one of your greatest assets. Feel free to refer to this guide at any point you feel a little stuck.
Physical and mental health for tattoo artists is critically important to the longevity of every artist’s career. So, we’re here to help you beat the anxiety, the Big Sad, and the chronic back pain! In the meantime, check out our YouTube for more helpful tips from Casey Hart on Time Management, which can help control your stress levels overall.