This 26-Year-Old Artist is Changing How We View Tattoo Shops
Jan Van Swearingen walks into Visionary Tattoo Co. a few minutes after noon on a humid Florida summer day. At 57 years old, she’s as vibrant as ever: Her toenails are painted emerald; her hair is bleach blonde, with faded lavender and pink highlights; her skin is tan from lounging in her pool.
Today, she’s here for her fourth session of a Japanese-style tattoo sleeve on her left arm. It’s her first tattoo; passion flowers, an octopus and waves flow around the curves of her shoulder, down past her elbow, and cut off at her wrist. Eventually, the tattoo will extend to her chest, where she had a mastectomy on her right breast –– her way of reclaiming her body after conquering breast cancer in 2007.
“I’ve been wanting this tattoo for 12 years,” she says, smiling. “When Nick drew it up, I cried. He got it right on the first time. I couldn’t believe it!”
Nick Oliveri, 26, is the owner of the shop. He bought Visionary Tattoo Co. in 2017 from a friend and has transformed it into one of the most reputable shops in Tampa.
She kicks off her sandals, outstretches her arms and walks toward Nick. In her bag are three gifts for him, just because: a blue Contigo bottle, a program guide for her favorite radio station and a Jean-Michel Basquiat toy.
“You’re seriously such a sweetheart,” he says, as he accepts the gifts and hugs her. “I love this so much. It’s so rad!”
The next four hours are spent coloring her tattoo and talking about everything from Childish Gambino to his girlfriend wanting to build a pool in their backyard. The buzz of the tattoo machine is faint and overpowered by their laughter and conversation.
The Cost of Owning a Tattoo Shop
Oliveri is one of 8,812 active, licensed tattoo artists in the state of Florida, according to the Florida Department of Health.
After receiving a fine-art degree from the University of Tampa, he pursued a career in tattooing. He had been drawing pieces for his friends to get tattooed, and artists encouraged him to make it his livelihood.
“My parents were worried I was going to be a total scumbag if I got into tattooing, but I showed them other artists who have families and kids,” he says. “And then they were like, ‘OK, go for it!’ I wanted to do it right so I could change the perspective of it.”
After apprenticing for a little over a year at Chicago Inksters in Stuart, Florida, he started working at Visionary Tattoo Co. His boss, the friend he bought the shop from, was out of town for months at a time, so Oliveri stepped up to run it.
“I realized I was basically doing everything, so I gave him an offer to buy it,” he says. And the offer was accepted.
According to Oliveri, buying a tattoo shop can cost anywhere between $10,000 and $40,000. He isn’t comfortable revealing how much he bought his for, but describes it as “a sh**load of money.”
The median income for a tattoo artist is $30,954 –– with room to increase over time, according to a Payscale survey. Experienced tattoo artists with 10 to 20 years of experience can make nearly $60,000 a year, and late career artists (more than 20 years of experience) can make as much as $160,000.
Oliveri bought the shop with his savings, which he built over time by tattooing and working two additional jobs as a server and a valet. He estimates that today he makes about $80,000 a year.
When clients come to get tattooed, Oliveri charges a rate of $120 an hour –– something he plans to increase by the end of next year.
“Of that $120, 50% goes to me, and the rest goes back into the shop,” he says. “It’s expensive to run this place. You always need something.”
As he sits at his work station, he opens the drawer where all 10 of his machines are stored; each one cost between $500 and $800. The second drawer is stocked with ink, which can cost as much as $50 a pop. He estimates that in total, his equipment has cost him between $6,000 and $7,000.
Oliveri pays $850 in rent each month for the shop. In the past two weeks, he’s spent $800 on upgrades, including tattoo pillows and a blank projector screen to use as a backdrop for client photos.
This is all on top of what he needs to spend to be a licensed tattoo artist. To get a license, you have to obtain a blood-borne pathogen and communicable diseases certificate, which can cost $55 in Florida. Additionally, the license requires a biomedical waste permit, which costs $85 a year in Florida.
To run the shop, Oliveri needed to obtain liability insurance, which runs him around $1,000 annually, and an establishment license.
Rebranding to Stand Out In The Crowd
What makes Visionary Tattoo Co. different from other shops in the area are the relationships Oliveri has established with his clients, like Jan.
When you first walk into Visionary Tattoo Co., it’s almost hard to believe you’re in a tattoo shop. It’s a far cry from other shops that blast death metal up to their high ceilings.
You’re greeted by russet-colored leather couches in the reception area. The Avett Brothers play in the background, a Shiva statue sits on the reception desk and the ceilings are hand painted with geometric figures. Its walls are decorated with colorful pieces of Americana and geometric art.
Although the shop is only 650 square feet, it feels big –– and more importantly, welcoming.
Visionary’s Facebook page only further affirms its reputation; with over 70 reviews, it has a solid five-star rating.
“We want Visionary to offer people a comfortable atmosphere that you’re treated well in,” Oliveri says, while puffing on his e-cigarette. “Here, you’ll get a tattoo that’s reasonable and lasts for a long time.”
For Oliveri, the branding is the most important aspect of his shop. After buying it from his previous boss in 2017, he’s completely renovated the inside. Not only did he give the shop a face-lift, but he gave the staff one, too; he let four artists go, stating that they weren’t a good fit.
“Firing people isn’t fun, but I had to do it for the good of the shop,” he says. “I had to protect the vision of the company.”
Today, Oliveri runs a tight ship; he has an apprentice and one contract employee. For someone who is only 26, he’s demanded excellence and respect from those around him –– and has been successful in obtaining both.
“Being young and owning a shop would be harder if the people around me didn’t respect me,” says Oliveri. “But they do. My employee is 42 and making more money than he ever has tattooing. He knows I’m here to take care of things.”
Getting Creative to Grow
When Oliveri isn’t tattooing, he’s working on the marketing content for the shop. The majority of his business comes from Instagram, so he’s constantly creating ads or videos to run on the platform.
Oliveri spends about $50 a month on social media advertising. He has friends who work in marketing, and he takes their advice on the types of ads to run and when.
One thing he loves? Creating promotional videos. He bought a DJI Spark drone to shoot footage of the shop.
As he shows me one video, which looks produced by a professional, he adds, “I want to make another one, but better.”
Visionary is also working on a “You get what you get” promotion.
Oliveri purchased a 1960s capsule vending machine off Facebook’s Marketplace for $40. After restoring it, he’ll fill the capsules with drawings of palm-sized tattoos customers can get for $70 –– a $120 value. Customers will be handed a quarter to retrieve their capsule; if they don’t like their initial design, they’ll have to pay a few bucks to pick another one.
“It’s a little cheesy, but it’s fun,” Oliveri says. “It’s a way to get people in here.”
When the shop is bigger, he wants someone to permanently work at the front. He has goals of buying the space next door and expanding. For now, he just wants to make sure the shop is profitable with a solid foundation.
As he finishes Van Swearingen’s tattoo, Oliveri grabs his phone and immediately takes a few photos to upload to his Instagram story. Van Swearingen is rotating her arm, taking in all of the fresh ink. A wide grin is plastered across her face.
“It’s so perfect!” she says. “And it’s so addicting. I just want more now.”
Oliveri laughs and adjusts his glasses.
“Whenever you’re ready, I’ll be here!”
Kelly Anne Smith is an email content specialist at The Penny Hoarder. Catch her on Twitter at @keywordkelly.