So, the commonly understood formality of tipping your tattoo artist comes from shop culture.
Typically, tattoo shops take a certain percentage of the tattoo artists earnings.
In this way tipping is a way of subsidizing your artist.
So it's totally understandable to think,
"Sweet, independent tattoo artist? Working from their private studios or homes? I don't need to tip them as much because their not getting their earnings cut!"
And while this is true, consider that we are doing tons of stuff that tattoo artists working for shops have covered for them!
This includes, accumulating and restocking all of our own supplies, booking our own clients, self promotion and preparing our own spaces. That's a ton of work!
Regardless of where your artist works from tipping them well shows respect to the labour before (and after) you get tattooed.
It materially considers the time it takes to produce the art that goes on your body, the effort that goes into holding the emotional space of doing a form of bodywork that you take with you for the rest of your life and the time that goes into preparing spaces with high standards of safety.
Tips are a way of thanking your artist, and are especially important if you are hoping to build an ongoing relationship with your tattooist.
Now, I am a big believer in transparency. Tattoos are expensive for good reason. It's valuable, complicated and important work. But class means variation in access to money, and money is an inherently flawed abusive system.
Are there ways to show material respect to the labour and time of your tattoo artist without cash dollars? I would argue, yes! The most important piece of that in my opinion is being transparent about your situation.
Let your artist know where you're coming from and if they have a sliding scale like my own they will likely be more than happy to figure something out with you! Ask them about what would be useful for them to receive as a token of your appreciation!
Even if they say no, remember that boundaries are not a rejection of you. They help define important interpersonal limits and bringing these things up means the opportunity to find out what works for you and your tattoo artist!
I'd like to reference an amazing piece passed onto me by a radical bookkeeper friend (i recommend them greatly if you want accounting for broke folks in a radical context locally) by Hadassah Damien who is someone doing some seriously amazing shit in that field of work.
This link follows to a pdf on a sliding scale, based on the complicated realities of placing ourselves within class. Hadassah offers courses in understanding the importance of placing ourselves in class especially within interpersonal relationships and understanding the power dynamics those positions create! Her work extends far beyond this and I recommend checking out what she does.