In Weird Marketing Lessons, we take a close look at industries we love to find the marketing lessons within them. Today, I’m going to talk about tattoos. Specifically, I’m going to talk about how Instagram changed the tattoo industry.

Tattoos are just about everywhere you look these days. Whether you are in a hospital, library, or even on a college campus, odds are, you can find someone who has a tattoo. A recent Ipsos poll showed that 30% of Americans had at least one tattoo in 2019, up from 21% in 2012. That’s a huge increase!

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More so than any other industry I can think of, I believe the creation and mainstream success of Instagram contributed to the exponential growth and acceptance of tattooing in society. I’m not alone in this either.

It has never been so easy and accessible to discover new artists around the world. The days of walking into a shop and flipping through a binder filled with tattoo designs and snapshots of an artist’s best work are slowly fading away.

Sure, most shops still have those binders full of featured art. However, the main method of exposure comes from our good old friend Instagram. Without further ado, let’s dive into this post and talk more about this change and how it reshaped the industry.

Some Background on Tattooing

Tattooing hasn’t always been as mainstream as it is today. The industry itself has evolved tremendously over the course of the 2000s, and even before then. Check out this passage from a piece on a Brief History of Tattoos:

It should come as no surprise that tattooing practices have changed immensely since their origins in ancient cultures.

Whereas humans once used wooden and bronze tools to create the designs, we now use finely-crafted needles. Where soot and other substances created the various pigments, we now use specialized inks. Our modern tattoos are designed to last longer, stand out more sharply and be less painful as well.

Safety practices have also significantly improved. We know more about sterilizing tools and completing the tattooing procedure in controlled, sterile environments. We also know to use inks that only use ingredients deemed safe to inject into the skin. We know how to control the risk of infection. Modern tattooing processes are far from perfect and infection is still possible, but practices have improved significantly from their humble beginnings.

A Brief History of Tattoos, MEDermis Laser Clinic

The technology that goes with tattooing has also been evolving. With more and more people pursuing a career path as a tattoo artist, and people continuing to get new ink, there have been many improvements within the field.

From ink, to methodology behind tattooing, innovation is everywhere in regards to furthering the profession. One of the most notable shifts has come from the design process itself. Now, thanks to apps such as Procreate, artists are able to draw designs and make stencils to apply the tattoo in a much easier, more accurate manner.

Sure, you have artists who still prefer the good old stencil, however, thanks to image layering, you can upload an image of the area that will be getting tattooed, and draw right on the skin. Essentially, this allows for a more accurate render of what the tattoo will look like, thus optimizing the process.

Some Background on Social Media

The 2010s have been a huge growth period for tattoos, it’s true. At the same time, independently of the tattoo industry, social media has been growing as well.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you are already aware of how social media marketing works and why it’s important. Now imagine how that works in an artistic industry like tattooing. 

First, you must recognize that tattoo artists are essentially contract workers. They do specialized projects (tattoos), oftentimes in a particular style, and are located all over the place. Through Instagram, artists are able to highlight their work, where they work, and what they are looking to do more of in the future. It’s hard to imagine a social media site more perfectly suited for tattoo artists. Instagram seamlessly works to further the exposure of artists around the world. 

Consider the following passage from one of our posts on social media marketing. Read this while thinking of tattoo artists.

Social media is one of the best ways to inexpensively raise brand awareness. One of the best things about social media sites is that they are free to sign up! There is literally no start-up cost. This allows you to start marketing any service or product you have for free.

Granted, organic reach is declining on social media channels these days, meaning you are having to pay more often than you used to in order to reach people. You can still get an uncommonly good return on your investment, even despite this.Paid advertising on social media is surprisingly robust. For example, Facebook has a great ad platform, where you can pay for ads to boost your posts. Again, this is not required to run a Facebook page, but ads can be run for as little as $1 meaning the barrier to entry is very low.

What’s So Great About Social Media Marketing? By Pierson Hibbs
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Instagram, along with its parent company, Facebook, has one of the best interfaces for advertising in existence. As you know, you need to reach your audience to see success for your business. The same principle applies to tattoo artists. Instagram has been one of the single greatest tools added to a tattoo artist’s arsenal.

The birth of social media came with the start of new trends across industries. Not only is it expected that you have an Instagram presence, but when utilized properly, it can grow business exponentially.

Social Media Meets the Tattoo Industry

I know countless people that before they even consider getting tattooed, the first thing they do is comb through a particular artist’s Instagram page, looking through the details of their work (a recent change to consumer behavior). This is great because it helps match artists with clients who like their style (a form of product-market fit).

Not every artist can make the particular style of art a client wants. After all, there are countless styles of tattooing. If you’re the client, you want to make sure that whoever you seek out is the best fit for your goals. This research is ten times easier with social media. This dramatically reduces the complexity of getting a tattoo, and it’s for that reason that I believe Instagram and other social media are at least partly driving the growth of the tattoo industry. 

For a vast majority of us, social media is a big part of our day to day lives. Whether that be Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or TikTok, billions of people are actively engaging on these sites daily.

Most businesses, admittedly, struggle badly on these platforms. They just don’t have interesting messages to share. But tattoo artists? Their work is fun, interesting, and, well, shareable! Until the creation of giant social media networks, tattoo artists were fighting to land a spot in a tattoo magazine or a show to highlight their work. That was no place to be seen by a casual consumer. Put simply, it was damn hard to reach a widespread audience, let alone build a following for your work as an artist. Now, with the accessibility of having countless artists’ portfolios at your fingertips, both artists and clients are winning. 

Instagram is King

For tattoo artists, Instagram was the perfect medium. Instagram is predominantly used for sharing photos and videos. In addition to photos and videos, artists can share other content via Instagram stories. This feature works great for highlighting different elements within the tattoo process where a normal post might not be warranted.

In a way, Instagram has slowly become the main place to find a tattoo artist’s portfolio. Instagram allows for high quality images to be uploaded to the masses with the touch of a button. Possibly the best part about all of this is that smartphone cameras do a fantastic job of capturing great pics these days. I’m talking about 12 megapixels in an iPhone camera. This is FAR better than the cameras that were out in the early days of tattooing. If your career was in art, wouldn’t you want to be able to take the best pictures in the most convenient way? 

What makes Instagram stand out above other media platforms has more to do with what the app itself lets you showcase. Sure, you can share photos and videos on just about any social network these days. Facebook, Snapchat, even Twitter all have the resources to share similar content. So why Instagram? Instagram is a visual medium, meaning that the art can shine through without any other content. Hubspot nails this distinction in one of their blog posts:

Instagram is an entirely visual platform. Unlike Facebook, which relies on both text and pictures, or Twitter, which relies on text alone, Instagram’s sole purpose is to enable users to share images or videos with their audience. On Facebook, you might choose to post 100 photos in an album.

How to Use Instagram: A Beginner’s Guide by Caroline Forsey of Hubspot

With this in mind, it is evident how great of a match Instagram is for tattoo artists. Sharing a picture, adding a bit of commentary via the caption, and sharing it with their intended/desired audience. Bingo.

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Social media changed how artists find clients and how clients find artists

I touched on this earlier, but this point is really important because of just how much it changes the business. Consider this: back in the day, there wasn’t this much widespread knowledge of what tattoo artists were out there. Hell, most people who went about getting tattooed in, say, 2001, probably went to a few shops in their town, and maybe asked their friends about who was a good artist to go to.

Nowadays, consumers have hundreds upon hundreds of tattoo artists at their disposal thanks to Instagram. This is only getting easier as well. Thanks to Instagram’s algorithm, they work to suggest content they think you’ll like based off of your patterns on the app. As creepy as the algorithm is when it comes to targeting ads, it works wonders for helping you discover new things. You will constantly be exposed to new artists, shops, styles of art, and more.

It also bears repeating that Instagram has one of the best ad interfaces out there among social media platforms. Artists can target their content and ads to a particular audience to reach people looking for similar content. It really is the best of both worlds. Easier for the client and the artist, all while working to make the process easier and more efficient. 

With both artists and clients sharing their work with their followers, it has never been more easy to discover artists around the world, and delve deeper into new styles of art. Personally, I discover 99% of new artists via Instagram, and to clarify – I mean artists all over the world.

Think about it for a second. One of the keys to running any successful business is working to build awareness of your brand. Until Instagram, this was nearly impossible to do on a large scale. Instagram has opened the doors for artists to get their work to audiences that 20 years ago, who would have been near impossible to reach.

Instagram very well could be what catapulted tattooing into the eyes of the mass public. It is no surprise that tattooing has historically been met with hesitation and honestly a bit of judgement to those who are tattooed. I am a firm believer that because of the exposure that these artists have now, tattooing has become more accepted in societies across the world. People are seeing first hand that tattoos are embedded in our society, and have no bearing as to how someone is as a person. I do believe that Instagram was what helped us reach that point. 

Social media even changed popular art styles in tattooing

Social media helped popular art styles transcend into new waters. With new ink showing up every day on sites, it has never been easier to explore a style of tattooing.

One of the best examples of this I can think of lies within Japanese style tattooing. In a culture that historically has looked down on tattooing, Japanese art has the chance to be highlighted around the world, leading to more and more people seeing the beauty and boldness of Japanese style art.

This is a style that continues to evolve today, however, social media definitely is one of the main catalysts for the growing style. With people around the world now having access to see the style, it leads to more and more wanting it!

Social media changed how artists get into the industry and how they learn

Not only has social media helped grow the artists brand, it has helped evolve the art itself. Throughout history, artists have drawn inspiration from a wide array of sources. With hundreds of artists showcasing their work on social media daily, styles of art have had the chance to truly grow thanks to mainstream success.

Artists have the chance to learn and grow from other artists around the world, all the while, people are learning and seeing more and more diverse tattoos that push the boundaries of the “norm”. Many who might have thought about not pursuing a career in tattooing are taking the plunge to follow their passions as they see an abundant number of people pursuing the same dream. It has worked to inspire a new generation of artists who love and support the art of tattooing. 

[Want to know more about how tattoo artists get started? Check out our podcast with Christopher & English. It’s a good listen!]

Final Thoughts

Social media is a recent invention, and tattoos an ancient one. As you can imagine, tattoo culture will continue to evolve as new generations of artists come to age in a world where they don’t remember tattoos before social media existed. Tattooing used to be a small niche, but with the widespread exposure that Instagram has helped tattoo artists achieve, it is gaining more and more mainstream traction.

Change and evolution are natural, and it is exciting to see an industry grow as much as tattooing has over the course of the last 20 years. Not only has the industry grown financially, but it’s also grown artistically and culturally too. With technology continuing to develop at a mindblowing pace, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the tattooing world continue to innovate in the years to come.

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1 Comment

Maria · February 12, 2021 at 11:37 am

A friend of mine got her first tattoo and insisted on a specific artist from Maryland – because she liked the artist’s style from Instagram! The artist was going to be in town for an expo so it worked out, but then later even came down for her second tattoo. What was neat was then seeing how the artist showcased her work by photographing and sharing the first tattoo on – you guessed it – Instagram! Great article here.

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