Within a few minutes of meeting Joel Rich, the co-founder of Black Medicine Tattoo, it’s clear that he’s very smart, very talented, and very odd. But maybe his quirks shouldn’t be surprising considering what he’s achieved from his left-of-centre business strategies.
Joel doesn’t have the resume of a typical entrepreneur, or even a typical tattoo artist. He spend over a decade working as a mental health worker, and only tattooed for three years before launching a niche street-level space in the heart of Vancouver.
Despite a complete lack of business experience and, in his words, “probably a lot of dumb mistakes,” it took less than a year for Black Medicine Tattoo to become a profitable studio that regularly throws events with line-ups of loyal followers that go around the block.
And his followers are loyal. Joel has thousands of fans who literally wear his art on their sleeves – and elsewhere on their bodies – and his studio and artists have hundreds of thousands of Instagram subscribers who faithfully watch for every update.
His absurd, self-deprecating sense of humour and positive attitude are infectious, and his specialty, black work tattooing, has never been more popular. However, that doesn’t fully explain Black Medicine Tattoo becoming one of the fastest-growing revenue positive studios in a saturated market.
So, how did a young entrepreneur turn a few years of tattooing friends and no business background into a thriving tattoo studio with some of the top artists in the city?
What’s the story of Black Medicine Tattoo?
We started really small in the cheapest space by splitting it with our friend’s record store, doing all the work ourselves, and just keeping costs as low as possible. It’s a very simple business model.
Myself and Daniel Giantomaso are the owners, but Katie So has been with us from the very beginning. The shop now includes Rebecca Dewinter, Shannon Elliott, Olivia Harrison, Jen O’Connor, Yi Stropky, Sylvie Le Sylvie, and just recently, Noah Michael Davis.
How is Black Medicine Tattoo unique?
We’re very passionate about creating a shop in Vancouver that represents what we feel is important and interesting within the culture.
We really just want to do our thing the best way we can. To be as much of a good and positive thing as possible.
Someone once accused us of being a “high five tattoo club” where we are more about supporting individual expressions of tattooing rather than trying to be exclusive and dogmatic. I was never sure how they thought that was an insult.
Why do you think Black Medicine Tattoo grew so fast?
We have such an amazing group of clients. They’ve been so good to us since we’ve opened. I constantly hear stories of our clients who are just excited to tell more people about the shop and their favourite artists there. Just having so many people who are into what we do is somewhat overwhelming.
In terms of the shop itself, we sought to create our dream work environment. The design of the space and business structure are set up to be a comfortable and safe space for the artists and clients. Our growth has been a natural progression of creating that environment.
How did you get such a loyal following of fans?
I just want to make good stuff. I believe that if I make something as good as it can be, people will be naturally drawn to it. To be honest, I’m still at odds with promoting myself. But I realized I had to figure it out if I was going to not starve.
Social media was the perfect tool at just the right time. It’s allowed me to bring my ideas about art and tattooing to a surprisingly wide audience.
I started with Facebook. My long time friends asked for tattoos first, and then their friends heard about me. When I got on to Instagram it really started to blow up. My partner Nomi Chi helped promote me to her fans and I eventually got on some bigger Instagram blogs like @blackworkers.
What’s the marketing strategy behind Black Medicine Tattoo?
For the business, the artists market themselves. We serve them to make their job as easy as possible. Our shop’s promotion is really just mirroring their promotion.
In fact, most of the artists and even the shop itself have way more followers than I do these days, but that just makes me feel incredibly proud.
Why have your tattoo events become so popular?
We’re been known for holding flash events with one-off pieces of art. It’s a thing that allows people to get a tattoo from a specific artist with very little notice. It’s often very accessible and small.
There’s a lot of demand for tattoos like that, so when we do flash events, there’s usually a very long line that goes around the end of the block.
What’s your greatest challenge?
The greatest challenge is just learning to run a business at all in any capacity [laughs].
I can be stubbornly self-reliant. I have no business experience at all, and I have a very stubborn tendency to want to develop everything myself. I’ve never read anything about how to run a business.
We’ve just been trying to figure it out based on what makes sense. The idea is that we’re running a clean slate – but that also means that we’re probably making a lot of dumb mistakes.
I guess we had to realize we can’t just do everything ourselves. We had to get help from people with more expertise than us.
What’s it like to be the boss?
I’m not good at being “the boss,” so I try to lead by serving. If you find the right people and give them as much agency as you can they will care about the business.
My job is to make their job as easy as possible. We all coach each other and I try to create a safe enough environment where my employees can tell the management when we could be doing something better.
Communication is a big thing, as well. Talking about difficult subject matter isn’t easy, but necessary. Firing people is totally weird.
What’s your take on recruiting artists?
Good vibes are cheap, bad vibes are costly. And adding more artists doesn’t cost anything unless you bring in the wrong person.
What does success mean to you?
Success is that we have the most amazing artists that are doing incredible stuff. Our success is that we got them to work here. Once you get them here, the rest kind of is irrelevant [laughs].
What’s the best business advice you’ve ever gotten?
Worrying more isn’t going to make anything better. Showing up is most of the work.
Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs?
Trust the process. Creativity takes time, and you’ll have a lot of ideas that won’t work – many, many terrible ideas – before finding the right one.
Fall in love with your work or it will be just another job except with more stress.