True Story: I Manage A Tattoo Parlor

This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/amazing/challenging things. This is the story Nova and her job managing a tattoo parlor!

How did you end up managing a tattoo parlor?
I started out working in grocery stores, as a beekeeper, in an insurance agency, in a pipeline location agency as a receptionist…I was all over the map. I had been getting tattooed by the owner of the shop I currently work in for around a year when a reception job opened up. I applied and … didn’t get the job. They ended up hiring an awesome girl with experience in a veterinary clinic, as she had some idea of what it was like working with biohazardous materials and needles. (Hi Becca!)Around a year after that, I was still getting tattooed in the same place and had developed a friendly rapport with everyone at the shop, and another part-time receptionist position became available. I was determined to work there, and brought a resume by. I had been the only person to include a cover letter. I actually remember the boss exclaiming over it and me replying “What am I, a savage? Of course there’s a cover letter.”

I was asked back for an interview later that week. In the interview, the boss told me that he didn’t really want to hire me because I had multi-colored dreadlocks and he was trying to project a more professional, unintimidating image that I didn’t fit into. I told him the reason I wanted to work there was because I sincerely believed that I would fit in, and that it was the type of job I felt I could really be myself in. I was hired, but I think it was only because nobody else who applied fit the bill either and I was the lesser of all the evils.

When did you become interested in tattoos? Do you have any yourself? Can you tell us the stories behind them?I became interested in tattoos around high-school age. I knew a few older boys who had terrible tribal dragon tattoos and jail-house stick-and-pokes. I thought they were the coolest.
I have probably sat for around a hundred hours of tattooing over the past seven years. The sleeve that my friend Bryan is working on at the moment is of a My Little Pony having a tea party with a mummy, which I am getting because of a story my mom always tells, about when my brother and I were children and we used to play together, me with my ‘girl toys’ and him with his ‘boy toys’. We would do ridiculous things like have tea parties, weddings, or wars, depending on our mood.

I also recently got another one on a slow day at the shop, it says “C’s get degrees” around a graduation cap, because I just finished a bachelor’s degree. It’s to remind me that anybody can do anything if they try hard enough, and just because a person has a degree from university doesn’t mean they are smart, just that they made it through something that thousands of others have. It’s the whole “don’t judge a book by its cover” thing.

Most of my tattoos don’t have any special meaning though. I just like the pictures. That’s something that has really spun out of control with the whole tattoo TV show trend; people feel the need to justify getting work done. Guess what folks…most of us don’t care what it means to you. Really. Sorry, but we don’t.

Tell us about your shop!
You can see some of our work here or here. It’s a busy shop in downtown Victoria, B.C., Canada and we are open seven days a week: Mon-Sat 11-6 and Sun 12-6. Right now there are five tattooers working there, and they are usually booked solid for a week to two weeks in advance, with little gaps here and there for walk-in appointments. We also host guest artists from all around the world, which is pretty exciting.

Do you do the hiring? If so – what qualities do you look for in a tattoo artist? How much money can a good tattoo artist make?No, I don’t do the hiring, the owners do. I honestly don’t know what all the criteria are for hiring, but I do know that it’s a really tough industry to break into. Even if you are experienced and have a portfolio of tattoos you’ve done, it’s hard to get a spot at a good shop. And to get an apprenticeship somewhere awesome is nearly impossible.

I think if you really want to be a tattoo artist, the most important thing is to know how to draw. And the second most important thing is you need to be willing to work really hard for long hours and little to no pay for years. It’s a tough business, from what I’ve seen it’s very closed-off to newcomers, and it’s not nearly as glamorous as people think.

I don’t really feel that I can share information on how much money they make, but the ones I know seem to be doing alright. 🙂

What are some tattoo “no-no’s”?
Ha, well we do tell people that getting your significant other’s name tattooed on you is fine, as long as you come back to us to cover it up after you break up.

In my opinion, some of the most important “no-no’s” are being rude to the person at the front desk (or as my boss calls me, the gatekeeper), not knowing what you want before you set foot in a shop (we are not your research assistants), bringing an entire entourage with you to watch/take pictures/hold your hand/get in the way, not looking closely at an artist’s portfolio before making an appointment (I cannot stress the importance of this, guys), and NOT TIPPING. Always tip your tattooer. They have a really hard, high-pressure job, and they are highly skilled artists who are altering your appearance for life. I’d say a good tip is in the range of ten to thirty percent.

Also, a huge mistake people make is not being prepared for their tattoo to hurt. It might seem obvious but people come in all the time and seem shocked that it’s painful. Duh, needles+skin=OUCH. It’s important to be physically prepared so you don’t pass out or throw up (have a good meal before, bring some juice along, try and relax and stay in good humor) but it’s almost more important to be mentally prepared. I usually end up going to my ‘happy place’ after an hour or so, and I personally hate having spectators around when I’m getting tattooed.

I go into a whole tirade about face/neck/hand tattoos and all my various pet peeves on my tattoo FAQ page on my blog, as well as tips on how to be the world’s best tattoo client, so if you want to know more, check it out.

Tell us about some of the best and worst tattoos you’ve seen?
I don’t really think it’s my place to judge people’s tattoos, as my personal taste may vary from others’. For example, if you go on a website like Ugliest Tattoos … some stuff on there is actually really great, but the subject matter may be questionable to some people. Some of it is poorly done, but hilarious. Some of it is just straight up awesome. And you should see some of my tattoos. I mean, hello, My Little Pony sleeve…I’m sure there are people out there who think it’s completely ridiculous. I don’t care.

I do really hate seeing tattoos that people had done in their friend’s basements by some scratcher. Hepatitis or gross infections are easy to pick up in those kinds of environments, not to mention I’ve never seen anything half-way decent come out of them. Seriously guys, go to a reputable shop. And if you’re going somewhere you know nothing about, do your homework. Check their website, go to the shop and talk to people, look at portfolios to make sure they know what they’re doing, ask about their sterilization procedures, whatever it takes to feel confident in the tattooists before you get any work done.

How do people react when you tell them what your job is? Do you see yourself doing this long-term?
Everybody thinks I want to be a tattoo artist someday, or that I’m a piercer. I am neither of those things. I have a degree in Hispanic Studies and my passions lie in writing and languages. I just really enjoy the job, I love watching those guys work (they’re like magicians, man. I have no idea how they do it sometimes) and the people I work with are extraordinary in every way. They’re intelligent, hilarious, fun people. I love my job.

I don’t know if I see myself doing this long term. Maybe? Like I said, it’s awesome, so the plan is to do it until it’s not fun anymore.

What advice would you give to someone looking to get a tattoo? What advice would you give to someone who’s interested in becoming a tattoo artist?
Basically, when you come into the shop I want you to know what you want, where you want it, and how you want it done, but at the same time keep an open mind because not everything is tattooable, or it may not work on the part of the body you were hoping for.

Remember Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are awesome tattoos. The shop I work in is so busy that the artists are usually backed up seven or eight drawings deep. You need to allow them time to do their thing and trust their instincts. If they don’t think something is going to work, they’re probably right.

Don’t listen to your friends, and don’t get tattoos for anybody but yourself.

To those of you who want to be tattooer, I say … reconsider. Seriously. It’s a mean business, full of tough guys who will not help you out. It is NOT easy, and it is NOT glamorous. If you’re a hundred percent determined to become a tattoo artist, nobody is going to help you or share their secrets. Good luck.

Do you have a tattoo? Any questions for Nova?

Welcome to Yes & Yes!

Want to spend your time, money, and energy on purpose? I'll show you how.

You might also like…

3 Pieces Of Mentor Wisdom + Their Unlikely Sources

3 Pieces Of Mentor Wisdom + Their Unlikely Sources

This post is brought to you by career-improving wisdom, accidental mentors the world over, the letter F, and the Forté Foundation. What do you picture when you picture a mentor? For a long time, I pictured someone a couple of decades into their career, beckoning me to...

read more
True Story: I Did Teach For America

True Story: I Did Teach For America

What's it like to do Teach For America? Would you ever want to become a classroom teacher in a low-income area ... after five weeks of training? That's exactly what Samantha did! This is her story. Tell us a bit about yourself!  My name is Samantha. I'm from Michigan,...

read more
True Story: I Reinvented Myself at 50

True Story: I Reinvented Myself at 50

What does it mean to reinvent yourself and your life at 50? I know sooooo many people who feel trapped in their lives or career and they're not even 35! I LOVED this interview Judy and I think you will, too. Tell us a bit about yourself! Hi! I'm originally a New...

read more


  1. Robyn

    What a great interview! I've been trying to get a receptionist job at a tattoo parlour for ages with no luck, but I'm going to keep trying cuz it sounds so awesome!

  2. María Magnética

    Cool interview! I have only one tattoo – on my chest – and I basically learnt this: These guys are real artists. It seems silly now but I had never stopped to consider that before. It completely changed my perception of their craft, and I have lots of respect for them now. I changed several aspects of my tattoo because of his input, and he was so so right about everything he said. I'm SO GLAD I listened to him!!

  3. Kaiti

    Great interview – I love your true stories! One question for Nova: say I want a tattoo of a dragon and I know where I want it but I don't have the design, is it ok to just go and have a browse at the shops portfolio? How black and white is it to go there knowing what you want?

  4. nova

    Hey Kaiti…okay so this is what you should probably think of before you go in: what kind of dragon? Color or black and grey? How big? Do you want background?

    Book a consultation with a tattooer whose work you like, find some pictures of stuff you like and bring them with you to your appointment, and let the tattooers do their thing from there. That's probably the best way to go about doing it.

  5. Nubby Tongue

    Great interview! I just went to the tattoo FAQ page on her blog and that was great too. Thanks for sharing!

  6. TurnToTheLeft

    I've wanted a tattoo for a while now, and it's something that means a lot to me. It actually made me really sad that she said tattooers don't really care about the meaning of your tattoo, because it seems like kind of an intimate thing. Like, that's going into your body – forever! And it's not a short process either. I guess the truth hurts sometimes 😛

  7. Renai


    I feel like she actually made a lot of really generalized statements, which I am not a big fan of. I actually didn't really like this interview at all.

    I have a number of tattoos, my largest took about 16 hours. Some of the artists I've gone to really didn't care about my small tattoos- and I didn't really care if they cared! But my largest was an awesome collaboration of ideas with my artist- and he actually free-handed most of it. He was just as excited about it as I was, and was totally in love with it when he finished.

    Don't let one persons general view of "the way things are" disappoint you.

  8. Michelle

    I understand that tattoo artists don't always care what the meaning is, but I feel like them caring makes them a better tattoo artist personally. My last would-be tattoo was with this guy who kept changing things about the design, when there was a specific reason I was getting it, and I ended up not getting it at all because he wouldn't cooperate (and I was out a $150 deposit, grumble grumble). He was kind of an all around jerk.

    I think tattoos are one of those things that everyone feels strongly about and there are a lot of varieties in opinions, though, so it seems like no matter who you're talking to, your mileage may vary.

  9. Grumpy Old Ken

    Fascinating stuff. Even at my age you never stop learning!

  10. nova

    (whoops, misspelled something)

    Ha, maybe I said that kind of harshly. Obviously not everybody is a cold calloused jerk! I just feel that shows like Miami Ink have really inspired a lot of people to give 45 minute monologues on who in their family has cancer or whatever when I ask how big they wanted their tribal fairy on their back.

    Anyway, like Michelle said, everybody feels strongly about their tattoos and it's not anything to get in a pointless internet debate about.

  11. Kimmy R

    is the term tattoo "parlour" really still used? I was suprised by that.

  12. Anonymous

    I am a manager myself at a tatto shop and i love it how i got in is my boss is my best friend! Sometimes u shouldnt work with ur best friend but us females need to stick together . Awesome interview and some good tips!!

  13. Morgan

    I very badly would like to work as a receptionist in a tattoo studio. How much experience do you need to have as a receptionist ? I don’t have any but I do have retail, cleaning and hospitality. As well as an obsession over the body art industry. How are my chances looking ?

  14. Eva

    I invest in a tattoo, but my partner just 2days before we open the tattoo ask me to leave saying that he can handle by him self.
    Well long story short, 1 week ago he apologized and ask for my help he is not making it, I had extensive experience as a manager and I will used there any advice please?

Pin It on Pinterest