January 9, 2023

Why tattoo artists are ideal tenants in an evolving market

It’s my job to know who the tenants are in the commercial properties we manage. So I’ll confess I raised an eyebrow when I noticed there were eight—count ’em, eight—tattoo artists renting space in the same creative building. A co-op in one space, I immediately thought, but no: eight separate spaces, eight separate tenants.

I’m a curious guy, so I dug into this a bit. And here’s what I found: Tattoo artists are ideal tenants for creative office. It’s a great example of how the market is changing; tenants like tattoo artists have different space needs and different location goals, and you often need to connect with them in different ways, but they’re becoming a truly important market segment.

Trends can also be counter-trends

Everyone’s talking about the tenant exodus from Portland’s core—but in reality it’s highly situational. In contrast to the perceived overall tenant flight, maker’s markets—Division and Hawthorne in Southeast and the Central Eastside, to name just a few burgeoning creative areas—are seeing strong demand, particularly from individual artists who need a space that’s dedicated, professional and affordable. In many cases, they want a space that’s accessible to their clients, who often live right in the neighborhood.

This describes the needs of tattoo artists. And other creators, of course. But let’s look at this trend from the ink artisans’ point of view. The perception of tattoos, and tattoo artists in particular, has changed mightily in my lifetime. We’re not talking about dark, seedy “parlors” where drunken misjudgments become permanent regrets (or, as the meme goes, “regerts”). Today’s tattoo artists embody their name: They’re esteemed artists, with individual styles and devoted followings. Some only apply a particular design one time, and customers literally compete for the chance to get it. Artists are often booked months out. They’re a destination appointment.

Ground-floor retail not required

But why does this make them great tenants? There are multiple reasons—and they apply to an entire group of creative professionals you should be keeping in mind as you shop spaces.

First, tattoos are no longer an impulse buy. The artists don’t need drop-in business. That means they’re fine with a second-floor, interior, or even a windowless and signless space. They’re looking for the spaces we traditionally think of for counselors, solo architects, private-practice lawyers downsized during Covid: a small but comfortable place where they can create their desired vibe for work and/or clientele.

Another factor: Tattoo artists today tend to be individual proprietors. Each has their own specific style, and they don’t actually see colleagues as competition. You might find some tattoo businesses that are collectives encompassing a handful of artists, but more often it’s like a solo jewelry maker creating unique art, not needing much space. And that’s how you can end up with eight separate tattoo artists in one building.

This is one of the beauties of creative office space: It’s not built for a particular market. A dentist’s office has very specific requirements. But a tattoo artist’s studio? A sink, electricity, good lighting… done.

My NAI Elliott colleague, Assistant Real Estate Manager Dylan Farwell, summarizes some of the advantages of this type of tenant: “Creatives such as tattoo artists are generating much of their business from social media and alternative marketing methods. This somewhat insulates them from certain neighborhood changes in foot traffic or business density. This can make them more consistent tenants than ones that rely on office-building lunch breaks or window shopping for revenue streams.”

A different path to finding tenants

Tattoo artists and their fellow creatives of today are also different in how they find you, and how you find them. The normal broker avenues are not going to be as productive.

Here’s a common process of acquiring a new tenant like this: A creative professional goes to a studio, or sees one in passing by. They notice the building; it looks nice, well taken care of, it’s in a convenient location. They go home and look up the building online to find out more about it. They look for who manages it, and then contact a broker.

The point is, the process works kind of backward. You don’t get a call asking what spaces you might have. The space draws the prospect to you. So how can you take advantage of this?

Start by talking to your existing tenants. Let them know there’s a space available or coming up; they’re likely to be way more connected to this market than you are. Ask them the best way for you to reach their peers. Consider your own presence on social media—but remember that selling on social is not cool; it’s a place to build a brand/vibe. I think of it as “passive credibility.” Your posts and messaging present you as someone who’s a trustworthy info resource on the topic.

Because creatives as a group are far more interested in making a human connection in their transactions (so to speak), they prefer to do business with you, not your company. Younger creatives in particular hate being sold to—they’re more satisfied by using their network to get what they need. Your best bet is to be a peripheral but valuable part of that network.

I was fascinated as I delved deeper into the world of tattoo artists and their contemporaries. Not fascinated enough to get inked myself, I’ll admit—but it opened my eyes to a growing base of potential clients, and I’m going to pay attention to tattoo artists from now on.


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