Does Milwaukee have too many tattoo shops?
Prior to 1998, it was illegal to get a tattoo in Milwaukee. Consequently, those in search of ink went to Waukesha or Madison or had them done private and illegally in homes or studios.
When the law changed, there were a handful of shops within the first few months and dozens within a year.
Today, there are 53 licensed tattoo shops in the city of Milwaukee, according to Sarah DeRoo, health communications officer for the City of Milwaukee Health Department.
"Twenty-four have tattoo-only licenses and 29 have tattoo and body piercing licenses," says DeRoo.
Adam Werther is the owner of Adambomb Gallerie, 2028 N. Martin Luther King Dr. Werther opened Adambomb shortly after tattooing was legalized 16 years ago and he believes there are currently too many shops in Milwaukee for a city of its size.
Werther, a MIAD graduate with a reputation for delivering fine art-quality work, says part of his continued success is because he's been doing it for so long.
"I don't know how new artists now can make it," says Werther. "If you already have a large client base from another place, then maybe, but there are so many shops and artists now it's got to be a struggle."
Fwa Xiong, co-owner of Serenity Ink Tattoos, started tattooing just a few years ago. He says he is aware of the saturation issue, but the key to his success is to not think about it.
"I just mainly focus on my art," says Xiong. "Other tattoo shops or artists do not really affect me."
Werther says people used to approach getting a tattoo differently. They would scout out a particular artist based on their style and spend time working on the design and hashing out the details. Today, because of reality television shows like "Ink Master" and "Best Ink" people are more likely to spontaneously pop into a shop and want to get inked within 30 minutes.
"Of course there are still people getting tattoos who are more faithful or are collectors and want to get tattoos from many different artists and that's cool," he says.
Other shows like "America's Worst Tattoo" and "Tattoo Nightmares" might have actually scared off some people from getting a tattoo.
Jon Reiter opened Solid State Tattoo, 2660 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., in 2004 and, at the time, was one of two on the street. Now there are seven.
"It's definitely over-saturated," says Reiter. "When the law changed, 20 or 25 shops opened within the year and everyone thought that was ridiculous. We thought many more would close, but instead, it's been increasing ever since."
Like Werther, Reiter says his business is doing well – in fact, he's done better every year – and the reason is in part due to being established for a decade. However, he knows artists who are struggling to make ends meet.
"For some, it gets slow enough that they need to get 'real jobs,'" he says.
Milwaukee shops have always been very apprentice-friendly and traditionally, the mindset of tattoo artists is that the cycle of a tattoo career means an apprenticeship, working in someone else's shop and eventually getting your own business.
This is, in part, why there are so many tattoo shops in the city.
Werther, who currently has two apprentices and will continue to have them in the future, recognizes that even though apprenticeships further saturate the market, discouraging talented artists from tattooing isn't a solution, either.
One idea Werther suggests is that more talented, like-minded artists to join forces under one roof instead of spreading out all over the city.
"That's what I wanted from the beginning," says Werther. "I hope it happens in the future."
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