Jason Elliott had never been as scared to do a tattoo as he was in December 2018, when a client asked him to tattoo a giant black and teal mandala onto the side of her face. The Texas tattoo artist was hesitant but ultimately went forward.
Nine and a half hours later, Elliott finished the piece -- and posted it on Instagram.
"That one tattoo got reshared 65 times. With that tattoo alone, I picked up 6,000 extra followers," said Elliott, who specializes in surreal abstract tattoos and has 50,000 Instagram followers. "I just didn't realize that it hadn't been done like that before."
Instagram has revolutionized the way tattoo artists grow their businesses. In the past, artists had to be featured in tattoo magazines or TV shows or be fortunate enough to land a celebrity client so they could catch their big break. They had to go out and promote themselves in person, land on a local news article for top 10 artists in a specific region or simply hope someone walked into their shop.
Now, the Facebook-owned social network helps them showcase their work and build their reputations among their peers and potential customers. Artists can fill up their books months in advance if they are savvy enough to post on Instagram and use the right hashtags.
"Instagram totally changed the tattoo community," said Laura Martinez, a Brooklyn-based artist who took up tattooing after her Instagram followers began requesting that she turn her drawings into tattoo designs. Now, Martinez has nearly 75,000 followers. "It's an online portfolio for every artist, and it made me able to get my work seen internationally."
Many artists estimate that more than 70% of their clients come from the photo-sharing app.
Keith "Bang Bang" McCurdy, who has tattooed celebrities including Rihanna, Justin Bieber and Cara Delevigne and owns the Bang Bang New York tattoo shops, estimates at least 90% of his customers come from Instagram.
"I would have to imagine that almost everyone that we tattoo follows us on Instagram," McCurdy said. "Instagram is a really great platform for not only showing what someone does well but how consistently they do that."
Corina Weikl, an Austrian tattoo artist who goes by "Trudy Lines," even used Instagram to travel the world.
Weikl would pick a city she wanted to visit, post her latest work and use tattoo hashtags that were popular in those places. She was able to schedule clients and book guest spots with tattoo shops in Australia, Fiji, Costa Rica and Peru, among other places, before landing a permanent job in New York with Bang Bang.
"You type in #femaletattooartist or whatever, and that's how people find me," Weikl said. "Instagram was my platform to spread my art."
Artists can also use Instagram's advertising tools to target potential clients. Elliott said he takes that approach when he has a piece he's proud of and thinks more people should be seeing it. In one case, one of his tattoos got four times as many views and comments after he ran it as an ad.
"I was really skeptical about it at first because I was like 'I don't know. I'm paying for something to be put out there,'" Elliott said. "But I did notice that each time that I did it it was real people who were interacting with it."
Growing an Instagram following is no passive task. Most of the artists who spoke with CNBC said they spend at least one hour per day on the social network and post multiple tattoos on their pages each week.
Many artists simply use their phones to take pictures, but some have invested in more equipment and are taking steps to perfect their technique.
Daniel Bidolski Prandi, an artist who goes by "Daniel The Gardener," said that he took a photography course to understand lighting and how to take better pictures. Since then, Prandi has established a style for presenting his free-hand botanical tattoos, and he uses the Adobe Lightroom app to ensure each photo is uniform. He makes a week-in-advance plan to time his posts to make his feed as interesting as possible.
"It's a process," said Bidolski, who has nearly 31,000 followers. "It's not just the post itself."
Tattoo artists also rely on Instagram's Story feature to give followers shorter snippets about the tattooing process and a window into their personalities.
"I like that people get to know a little part of me as well, and not just my tattoos," said Martinez, who goes by "Nothingwild" on Instagram. "I'm still keeping my personal life pretty private, I just think it's nice for people to see my personality as well."
But tattoo artists also have complaints about the impact Instagram has had on their craft.
Instagram creates an atmosphere where artists are expected to constantly be innovating. While some artists say the Instagram tattoo community pushes them to create better tattoos, it also creates an unsustainable pace that can wear them down, said Havva Karabudak, a Brooklyn-based artist who does fine-line color tattoos.
"You risk your mental health keeping up with the 'competition' of the platform," said Karabudak, who goes by "Eva Krbdk" on Instagram.
A chief complaint is that Instagram detracts from time spent on actually tattooing, and it makes it possible for tech-savvy artists to outshine those who don't spend time optimizing for the app's algorithms.
"You got to be good at photos and writing captions," Bidolski said. "Tell me, what does this have to do with being a good tattoo artist?"
Other artists complain that Instagram causes a number of disservices to customers. For example, most artists' Instagram pages do little to show how careful they are about working in safe and hygienic environments. Instagram can also hide how much photo editing an artist has done to their tattoos and create unrealistic expectations for customers.
McCurdy said he once brought on an artist with hundreds of thousands of followers, but the guy did a terrible job. McCurdy received more requests for tattoo fixes for that artist in eight months than he did for the rest of his entire company combined in five years.
"It speaks to just how it's really hard to discern how great someone is from a really nice picture," McCurdy said. "Some people's tattoo skills don't translate to their photo skills, and some people's photo skills don't translate to their tattoo skills."