Ink for the Inked

Tattoo shops can parlay their artistic skills into marketable apparel.

Frankie Orange is tired of black T-shirts.But the Maryland businessman knows you have to stick with what sells, and when it comes to tattoo shop apparel, what sells is black. "I wish people would wear other colors, but it seems like I always have to have it printed in black, or it doesn't move as well," says Orange. The owner of Orange Tattoo Co. in Annapolis, MD, isn't complaining, though. "We've had a lot of success with merchandise," he adds. "We really take a lot of pride in it."

Orange used to have a small screen-printing business, operating an M&R Diamondback automatic press out of the back of his tattoo shop, but running two businesses required too much from the single dad, so he sold the press to a friend down the street and focused his efforts on Orange Tattoo. Still, the experience imprinted the importance of promotional apparel in Orange's mind. "To me, it seems like a no-brainer," Orange says. He adds there is no reason a "room full of artists" in a tattoo shop shouldn't be profiting from this additional revenue stream.

Besides basic black, tattoo shop clients tend to favor fitted styles in ringspun cotton or blends with a soft hand, says Nick Barry, owner of Pylon Press Screen Printing in Fort Lauderdale, FL. "They usually don't mind paying a little extra for discharge printing and quality work," he adds.

Erich Campbell, e-commerce manager at Black Duck Embroidery and Screen Printing in Albuquerque, NM, agrees that tattoo clients are looking for trendy garments, particularly dark T-shirts and tank tops that set off the ink on the wearer's arms. Many shops, however, operate on small margins, and name-brand apparel isn't always the best option, he adds. "They're artistic people who have an idea of what they want," Campbell says. "You want to help them do something that resonates with people and is out of the ordinary, but still maintains their budget." That means limiting processes and colors when possible and suggesting comparable styles that come in at a lower price point. Campbell recommends, for example, pitching youthful, retail-inspired looks that many suppliers now offer, such as the District line from SanMar (asi/84863).

Tattoo shop apparel has become a collector's item for many consumers, according to Orange. Much like people buying Harley-Davidson shirts from every city they visit, ink enthusiasts have started purchasing tattoo shop shirts from various destinations, he says. "It's kind of neat to have one that's not from your area," he adds.

Besides tanks and tees, consider pitching hoodies and headwear. Embroidered baseball caps are a good choice, but don't neglect the knit. Every fall, Orange Tattoo Co. orders logoed beanies, and by winter's end, those knit hats are invariably sold out.

Another reason to keep an eye on the calendar, though, is due to the large tattoo conventions that spring up regularly across the country. Barry says his clients are always looking for new T-shirts to show off their shop at the convention. "It's a good chance to sell a lot of shirts in a weekend," he says. "We always get a lot of last-minute orders the week before the convention rolls around."

Remember to emphasize the quality of your work. Tattoo shops need noteworthy prints that reflect the creativity of their own brand. "If you're a tattoo artist," says Harold Potter, CEO of A&P Master Images (asi/702505), "you're not only promoting your clothing, but also your designs and craftsmanship."

Product Picks
When suggesting apparel for tattoo shops, look for garments that show off the wearer's ink – both on fabric and skin.

Pylon Press (circle 100 on Free Info Card) created this design by combining discharge printing with red pigment. The black fitted T-shirt (NL3600) is made of 100% combed ringspun cotton jersey knit with a set-in baby rib collar. Available from Next Level Apparel (asi/73867; circle 101 on Free Info Card).

A&P Master Images (asi/702505; circle 102 on Free Info Card) embroidered this Flexfit baseball cap (C865) for Eternal Images Tattoo. Available from SanMar (asi/84863; circle 89 on Free Info Card).