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Tax refund season means it's tattoo time

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Tattoo shops feel a business bump at tax season

Front counter manager Paul 'Gator' Bogaty (left) watches the work of Tower Classic Tattooing owner Sean Baltzell as he works on a sleeve tattoo for Josh Morrow in The Grove on Wednesday, March 29, 2017. Morrow, a BMW technician, started the work about a year ago, coming in for sessions every few weeks. Though Morrow is on a budget and was not using income tax money for his tattoo, Baltzell is familiar with the business spike during tax season. "Some people plan their entire year around getting tattoos with their refund," he said. "Nobody saves." Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

Score — that fat tax refund just landed in your checking account. Time to finally have some fun, right?

Not according to all the money managers out there. Pay down your credit cards, they urge. Invest in your retirement, they advise. Build up an emergency fund, they warn. Get a tattoo — no, that is definitely not on the list.

But ...

Artist Micah Richter will tell you that this is about his busiest season of the year. If he’s not drawing a design, it’s likely he’s putting it onto a person’s skin — permanently — at Integrity Tattoos in Belleville. Richter has been a tattoo artist for 20 years.

“It’s the same thing every year,” he said. “Most of the people say this is the only time they get a big chunk of random money. They call it free money.”

Tattoo shops feel a business bump at tax season

Left: Integrity Tattoos artist Micah Richter gives Andrew Alvarez a text tattoo in Belleville. Right: An image of Jesus covers a broom closet at All-City Tattoo. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

So how big of a splurge do customers want?

It depends. Richter said some people come in and spend their entire return; others come in for something small. But they do show up, and some of them are returning customers.

“I see people on an annual basis,” he said.

Some of the customers at Integrity Tattoo tell Richter the same thing — they use all their Christmas money, then wait for their tax returns to get fresh ink.

“It’s a common thing. It happens all over the country.”

Ask Andrew Alvarez. The 22-year-old Belleville man got his first tattoo last year when his tax refund check arrived. Inked onto his body: “We define ourselves by the best that is in us.” Alvarez said he decided to get one after talking to a friend at school.

“He had just gotten one, and I had a little extra money so I decided to do it.”

Since then, he’s added two more tattoos, the most recent a design for his triceps that says “Carpe Diem.” He may get more in the coming months and years, but it’s dependent on time and money.

Tattoo shops feel a business bump at tax season

Tattoo artist Megan Indelicato watches fellow artist Andy May (right) work at Tower Classic Tattooing in The Grove on Wednesday, March 29, 2017. Indelicato sees a surge of business during income tax season. "They're getting four or five at a time," she said. "Buying for themselves, their significant other, their cousin. It's their combo pack." Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

Across the river at Gateway Tattoo Studio in Arnold, owner Elliott Groth is booked solid — for about three or four weeks. And yes, it’s income tax refund-related.

“It’s human nature if you get handed a lump sum of money you start spending it on the stuff you’ve been putting off, or wanting to get but you didn’t really have the money,” he said.

“Disposable income is a wonderful thing for our business.”

For the five years Groth has worked as a tattoo artist, he said, income tax season has been a boon for business. New customers, repeat customers, people finishing up elaborate tattoos — they all come in when the refund arrives.

Does the wait for an appointment deter anyone? Not really, he said.

“Generally most people are cool with setting up an appointment. It’s not like we’re booked out six months in advance.”

While his shop does tattoos of all sizes, most of the business this time of year is medium- to larger-scale work. Many of his customers spend between $300 and $500 for medium to large, more elaborate tattoos “but there are tons of people who spend $1,200 to $1,400 on a single session,” he said.

At All City Tattoo in St. Louis, artist Megan Indelicato said it’s a similar story.

“They’re getting four or five at a time,” she said. “Buying for themselves, their significant other, their cousin. It’s their combo pack.”

Tattoo shops feel a business bump at tax season

Integrity Tattoos owner Jason Wilson adds a second rose to an existing tattoo of Brea Phillips of Swansea. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

As millions of people have gotten tattoos in recent years, any sense of stigma has long since worn off.

Numbers may back up that claim. A Harris poll of more than 2,200 U.S. adults in October 2015 found that nearly three in 10 Americans have at least one tattoo. And once you get one, you’re likely to get more: Among people with any tattoos, seven in 10 have two or more.

The same survey found that nearly half of millennials had tattoos, with more than a third of Gen Xers saying the same. That compared to about 13 percent for baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964).

“Now it’s starting to be kind of weird if you don’t have at least one,” Groth said.

And, full disclosure: This story was born of my first trip to a tattoo studio. Putting me in that 13 percent.

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