Ink and Business Acumen: Tattooer Hanna Sandström offers advice for entrepreneurs


Hanna Sandström is a tattooer, formerly based in Portland (Squid and Whale Tattoo), who presently resides and works in Seattle (Dark Age Tattoo). We were neighbors when she was in town, and she is responsible for half of my tattoos, so when I was in Seattle last week I reached out to see if she’d be interested in sharing some of what she’s learned about business after being self-employed for well over a decade. 

I have always liked Sandström a great deal. She is incredibly talented and her positive disposition is infectious. She is also a hell of an artist. Beyond that, though, I have long looked up to her for her ability to sell what she does well. In my experience with her, she’s always booked solid for months and that’s because she’s good, of course, but she’s also skilled when it comes to letting people know about her work without being annoying or off-putting about doing so. In this age, that’s an incredible (and highly nuanced) skill. 

Of where she’s at in her career, Sandström indicates that she’s in an interesting position because she’s not a “young kid” anymore, but she’s also not yet a veteran. She’s somewhere in the middle. But she’s learned that “being self employed is hard!” And “It’s a love-hate thing. You fall in love and out of love and back in love over and over all the time.” 

Here Sandström talks about some of the things she wished she’d known earlier on in her career. 

If you could go back to your first and second year in the business, what would you do differently? 

Tattooers are like pirates. They can kind of sneak under the radar and artists and creatives tend to think, “I’m going to do things my own way.” Not just with business but with everything. But you have to learn the rules in order to mould them to your life. Learn the rules and do them right from day one and you’re going to thank yourself later.

So, specifically, do your taxes. For real. The longer you procrastinate, the worse off you can get. And talk to someone who knows what they’re doing when it comes to doing them. Look into a lot of different sources for that feedback and research the best ways to file and be financially prepared in the context of your industry. Find out how to manage your money.

We’re not going to be able to just live hand to mouth for the rest of our lives. You’re going to want to be able to save some money. My goal isn’t to be a millionaire, but it is to live a happy, peaceful life doing what I love. I’d like to have a house with a bunch of dogs and hopefully some kids. They’re basic, simple needs but it’s a lot harder if you don’t start off knowing and following the rules. So I really wish I had done all that from day one and talked to someone other than my mentor at the time who was doing everything backwards.

Now it’s a lot easier to find these things out as opposed to when I first started. The Internet is so much more accessible and packed with information now than it was when I started.

Before you run your own business, you’re used to so much being done on your own behalf. Your employer sends you your tax paperwork and so you just fill it out. Find and pay a good accountant, or someone who can help you get your taxes together. It’s worth the investment. There’s this fear of spending money but there’s that corny expression about having to spend money to make money. It will make your life easier because when you are your own commodity; you need to invest in that. It helps to make the ship run as smoothly as possible.

How has your mindset changed after being in this business for over 10 years?

I think you drop a lot of pretension over time. There is a lot of attitude about “selling out” early, but you are ultimately selling yourself and your work as a product. This fear of promoting yourself is tied to this fear of “selling out” but it is something you have to do. How else are you going to get people to know what you’re doing? It depends on what you do, of course, but you are your brand.

Now there’s ways to do this in ways where you stay true to yourself. I’ve definitely come to treat myself much more like a business and a product and a brand. I look at myself that way because I have to. If you do it this way, you can also turn that “brand” into an umbrella for all of your interests. It doesn’t have to always strictly be about your work all of the time. These are all things that come to you in a natural progression. They’re skills you learn in time, and when you start to understand how they work, you start to figure out which fit and approach is right for you.

Tattooing in the last decade has changed astronomically. I talk with young tattooers who are early in their careers and they pick a style that they stick to. I didn’t have that luxury when I started. I learned every style. It’s good and bad. It’s good in that I literally can tattoo anything, but it also makes it hard in that I don’t have a niche I can be recognized for. Because you do have to become recognizable for something so that you don’t become too scattered. You can worry about that and overthink it, and wonder if you should be doing more of this or more of that, but at the end of the day I have one simple compass. It’s me. What makes me happy? What do I enjoy tattooing? What do I enjoy drawing? I push for that. That’s my brand.

To be even more specific, right now Instagram is great tool for this sort of thing. [Note: you can find Sandström on Instagram here.] It’s free and widely used by artists. So there I post content I want to do more of. I post content that I feel represents me. That’s it. What makes my toes curl? What do I like? There’s going to be someone out there that likes that. Try not to worry so much about what people are into. That’s going to change. If you’re just trying to do what someone else is doing, you’ll never be an innovator. It’s the whole, “If you build it, they will come” thing. It works. Some days better than others but if you just stick to it, it’s there.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.