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View the owner of Chicago Tattooing and Body Piercing Co. talk about the industry and hear from a customer on why she is spending her hard-earned dollars on a tattoo

Inkonomics: The recession makes its mark on Chicago tattoo parlors

by J.H. Freeman
Feb 10, 2009

The National Bureau of Economic Research and Analysis defines a recession as two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth. Chicago Tattooing and Body Piercing Co. Inc. in Lakeview classifies it as a noticeable slowdown in the number of mostly young adults seeking to eternally etch butterflies, hearts, dragons, zodiac signs and other inspired imprints upon their bodily parts.

“It does affect us; in the past it hasn’t, the economy didn’t seem to slow us down too much,” said Dale Grande, owner of Chicago Tattooing, Illinois’ oldest establishment of its kind, which opened its doors and plugged in its equipment in 1973.

“Now the situation is totally changed. There are no jobs. You have no money. That is stopping people from getting tattoos,” he said.

The economic downturn is compounding the immediate woes of this nook industry, as most people avoid the inky procedure in a season in which displaying the new design on the street or beach is uncomfortable and unlikely in less than 10 degree weather.

“Not only is the economy crap, but the weather is bad too.” Grande said.

The editor of the trade journal Tattoo Artist Magazine—a man who goes by the nom de plume “Crash”—wrote in an e-mail that the tattoo industry has experienced a bubble of its own in recent years due to the popularity of reality television shows like LA Ink.

“All these new tatters and new shops, thanks to tattoo TV popularity, have over-saturated a very limited market. There are only so many people who want tattoos, and fewer than that who will want multiple tattoos. The hype is over, and the TV ratings prove that. So, people are moving on to the next novel thing. What's left? Too many tattoo shops for too few clients,” Crash explained.

He wouldn’t discuss specific percentages with regard to the slump in the tattoo industry.

Tattooing is in a curious corner of discretionary spending. On the one hand it is an extremely expensive procedure, costing hundreds of dollars. On the other hand many see it as a lasting investment; it won’t become worn like an old shirt, break down like a car or tear like a pair of jeans.

“I think if someone wants to do something they are going to do it. They aren’t worried about the repercussions,” said Ben Wahhh, an artist at Deluxe Tattoo Inc. located in Lakeview.

Paul Collurafici, who runs the Tattoo Factory in Uptown and has been in the business for 20 years, said that in terms of bang-over-buck ratio you can’t do much better than a tattoo.

“This is something that will last forever, it has lasting value,” Collurafici said.

24-year-old Francesca Gagliano, the lone customer in Chicago Tattooing on a Monday afternoon, seemed to embody Collurafici’s evaluation.

“I’m choosing to spend my money because this will be something that I’ll have for the rest of my life,” Gagliano said.

Seeking two tattoos (her 7th and 8th in total), Gagliano came prepared with a clear blueprint of what she wanted.

On her upper right chest she plans for an empty ring with twelve dots inside it, which will symbolize the “12 phases of the moon, 12 stones, 12 apostles, and in eastern religions the empty ring represents wholeness and selflessness,” Gagliano said.

For number two, she chose her wrist as the landing pad for a small infinity sign with the word “love” written in miniature cursive inside the loopy mathematical symbol.

The cost of wholeness and selflessness? $80.

Grande has resigned himself to the toll that the recession has taken on Chicago Tattooing because he notes that the collective crunch is endured by almost all businesses.

“Everyone is feeling the pressure. Unless they are undertakers or doctors.”