Tattoos remain a must-have accessory, even in recession

Tattoo parlors are seeing steady profits, as consumers shift spending toward purchases that are more meaningful.

Tattoo artist Ben Pease works on a new design for Jen Kim at Pino Bros. Ink in Cambridge, Mass. Despite the hard times, tattoo parlors are not seeing a slow down.

Of all the luxuries Americans could give up in today's hard times, an $80 tattoo of a French quote from Albert Camus sure seems like a no-brainer.

Not to Natalie Kearns.

Despite having a full-time job at Boston's Huntington Theater Co., Ms. Kearns feels the pinch of recession. In fact, the recent college graduate is living with her parents to save money. But do without Camus? No way.

"It's a quote I've loved for a really long time," she says. "It's sort of a mantra."

Such dedication is paying off for parlors across America. At a time when luxury goods are struggling, tattoos appear to be, if not recession-proof, at least recession-resistant.

With no national association for the tattoo industry, national trends are difficult to gauge. But anecdotally, tattoo parlors across the US are reporting a steady – and sometimes dramatic – rise in profits. The retail tattoo outlet Tattoo Nation, for example, recently announced plans to open nine shopping center locations in major cities like New York and Los Angeles after sales at their New Jersey store increased by 30 percent last year – amid price increases.

Some 36 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds have a tattoo, according to a 2006 study by the Pew Research Center. The number climbs to 40 percent for 26- to 40-year-olds. The allure of tattoos is more apparent in times of recession, says Kit Yarrow, a business psychologist at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

They communicate something about the person, something they are passionate about or that expresses their unique sense of selfhood. "Tattoos resonate with how consumers are shopping now," she says. "They look for something that reflects their values, a sense of belonging, and permanence."

Parlors nationwide see the evidence of that:

•At Pino Bros. Ink in Cambridge, Mass., initial concerns about the recession harming business were quickly dispelled. "If anything, we noticed a bump," says owner Frank Pino.

•At Stingray Body Art and More in Boston, owner Scott Matalon is a bit more cautious, but also upbeat: "Our growth has been steady, although it's slowed."

•At Tattoo City, in Lockport, Ill., business has remained steady, with an increase in older clients coming in for their first tattoo. "The old timers in the industry will tell you that through hard times and even depression eras, people still get tattooed," says owner Larry Brogan.

•At Independent Tattoo in Selbyville, Del., owner and artist Matthew Amey says that his business has seen the same phenomenon. "Just last week one of my coworkers tattooed an 83-year-old woman getting her first tattoo," he says.

Tattoos represent a need for a sense of permanence combined with a desire to rebel against the status quo, says Dan Ariely, professor of behavioral economics at Duke University and author of the book "Predictably Irrational."

Along with acquiring a new creed of value and thrift, consumers seem to feel betrayed by the US economic system, he says. Americans were accustomed to spending at will – and were encouraged to do so by advertisers, credit-card companies, and even President Bush, who told Americans to "go shopping" after 9/11.

"Tattoos are a way of signaling nonconformity, sometimes more to yourself than to others," says Professor Yarrow. "They're a way of rejecting the wild consumption values of the past decade."

That's a sentiment Tony Weirig can get behind. Mr. Weirig, a Chicago-area artist and painter, wears long sleeves every day to his job as a bank teller in order to conceal his 26 tattoos from customers. He concedes that the sleeves are "annoying," but they're better than going without tattoos, which remind him that the sum of his identity is greater than his job.

"It's a little rebellion," he says. "The tattoos basically say, 'This is what I do, but it's not who I am.' "

But Weirig, who got his most recent tattoo a few weeks ago and is planning for his next, admits that it isn't easy to budget for ink in a recession. "I have bills to pay, but it's always in the back of my mind," he says. "It's a sacrifice, and it's definitely a tough call sometimes. But it's important to me to keep getting tattoos."

The value Weirig and other tattoo collectors place on their body art may reflect a larger shift in how Americans perceive luxury. A recent Pew Research Center study suggests that the public's perception of "luxuries" and "necessities" has dramatically changed since the recession began. Only 52 percent of the study's respondents see a television set as a necessity – the lowest number ever recorded.

What artist Phuc Tran is seeing suggests to him that, for many enthusiasts, tattoos are a necessity, whether they have a job or not. "I have had two clients thus far come in on the very day that they've been laid off, and they've still gotten tattooed," says Mr. Tran of Tsunami Tattoos in Portland, Maine. "Of course, I asked them, 'Are you sure you don't want to postpone until you find another job?' And both of their responses have been, 'No. I'll find another job eventually but I want my tattoo today.' "

That attitude is no surprise, says psychologist Yarrow. "For about a decade, the US has been pushing rampant consumerism," she says. "When you constantly have a stream of products flowing through your life, it's sampling; there's no real commitment."

Now, there may be something of a backlash against that mindless consumerism. Yarrow says buyers are now carefully choosing their purchases, rather than splurging with little thought. Tattoos fit that mindset, especially as accessories for women. A tattoo is decorative but in a more meaningful way than a necklace or a watch. "A handbag can be replaced every season," she says. "A tattoo cannot, and therefore it is a much more significant accessory."

To Tran, tattoos are selling well because they make people feel good. "No one feels like a tattoo that they get will be foreclosed on or repossessed," he says. "I think that our clients feel like tattoos make them feel better, especially when many other things in the economy and news cycle can be bleak."

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