Social Media Handles:
Short Business Description:
Butterfat Studios is an appointment-only, custom tattoo studio in Chicago, IL.
Forget those stereotypes and pre-conceived notions about what tattoo studios should be, and let Butterfat Studios blow your mind. Our day with Esther Garcia and Stephanie Brown at their Chicago studio was a magical experience. Their light filled-space and botanical ambiance was reminiscent of a high-end boutique, curated by a discerning eye and a women’s touch. Esther and Stephanie have spent their careers breaking the mold in a traditionally male-dominated industry, and their raw talent has earned them much-deserved worldwide recognition.
Butterfat was built on the vision that tattoo art should be done differently, placing the integrity of the artist above all else. The by-appointment only studio picks their clients and their collaborators, and has created a home for the community of artists who they host out of their space. Read on to learn more about Esther’s and Stephanie’s careers, philosophies and their journey to opening Butterfat.
Before opening the studio what did you do?
Esther: The studio has been here for 6 years and I have been tattooing since I was a teen; I just tattooed in different locations. I was a sushi chef for a period of time overlapping with tattooing, and before that I taught tumbling in gymnastics.
Stephanie: I came to Chicago to go to The School of the Arts of Chicago, yet was more focused on being a painter and illustrator at the time. That’s how I got sidelined into this.
Can you tell me more about Butterfat and your principles?
Esther: We wanted the freedom to be able to make anything we saw fit, because it seemed that tattooing and tattoo studios were so related to a particular lifestyle that never really meshed for me. When I was working at other people’s shops, I was like, “oh it’s the Rock-A-Billy garage studio,” or “it’s the metal heads being fuck-ups,” or “it’s the boy’s clubhouse.” It didn’t fit for me, and it didn’t seem to fit for my clients. I finally figured out that it could be anything that I wanted it to be.
I had been working on my own for a long time, but it’s been a lot more fun since Stephanie came in. We can push ideas back and forth at each other.
Stephanie: I’ve been here for 3 years, and before that I was a tattoo artist as well. I was always frustrated with the same kind of stuff, like with the rigidity of it, and the way old school traditional ideas of tattooing discouraged certain people from doing it. When I met Esther and I saw the shop, it was like a manifestation of the inkling of the idea I had at that point. I worked really hard to make sure that my work was good, even though I didn’t have as much experience as some people, so that I would have a little freedom to create the kind of work that maybe people didn’t know that they wanted, or could be possible.
Did you have any formal business training?
Esther: No, not at all. I was raised by a very unusual person. My mother was a Japanese interpreter, and most of my childhood she worked freelance. She was very open about the struggles of managing a personal life and a professional life, and what it was like to be a freelancer with the stresses of worrying whether there were going to be jobs next month, or whether to keep working through the holidays. I got to see her go through it and do really, really well; to a point where she was in such demand that she could bring her children with her to Japan, put us up in a hotel, and let us wander Tokyo together.
So I got to see the trial and error that she dealt with, the accidental increase in demands, the purposeful increase in demands, and making herself exclusive. That was entrepreneurship of sorts.
What was your greatest fear before launching this business?
Esther: Not being able to afford it, because I had a standard for the aesthetic and for the space. I had been able to control a private studio out of my house, but it was a twentieth of this size. Not knowing what it was going to be like in a neighborhood like this, with a storefront and unforeseen expenses was scary.
Your Glass Ceiling Turning Point
You are two very successful women that work in a male-dominated industry. Has that affected how you run your business and how you operate?
Esther: I spent years trying to get affirmation from the other guys that I knew in the business, particularly in the city – a little punch on the shoulder, like “good job, you can do it” kind of thing. And there were so few people that were willing to do that. Instead I was challenged about what I was doing, thought to be probably charging too much, thinking I was too fancy for choosing my projects. I was doubted at every turn, and I finally just put it aside, like, “I can’t wait for any of this. I can’t hold out for that kind of affirmation or encouragement, I’m just going to do it on my own and separately from that.” It took a long time, and I wasted time with business friendships that were holding me back, or people who pretended to be supportive but weren’t. So I was really, really pleased to be in the other position last year when I started getting messages from two female artists who were interested in starting their own studios, separately, and were were like “Hey, how did you do this? What did you do with insurance? How did you do that?”
My first though was, “Okay, we’re going to meet each other, we’re going to sit down, I’m going to pull up all my files and I will try and remember this as best I can, because it’s been a few years, but I will give you every scrap of information I have and all the experience that I have.” Now I have this community where we can be like, “Hey I am out of stencil paper, what do you have? Do you have these needles, my guest artist has a specific requirement for this kind.” We share everything. We get together after work with our various guest artists and have dinner and we all get to meet each other. So it took a long time, but I finally have some kind of community. I built it, I had to make it.
Stephanie: A lot of the experience I had in the regular street shops was of negativity and cutting down. The way the ego works, how you are exposed to the quantity over quality, breeds some unfriendliness. Whenever someone would praise someone for what they were doing, there was always a negative aspect to it, like “man that person did such an amazing tattoo I just want to break their legs.”
For me, it was seeking out something or someone who was doing work that made sense for the way that I wanted to see it, in the way that could build a safe space for people to get tattoos who had little more of an open mind. I reached for women first like, “Hey, what’s it like to be a woman in this business for having had this many years of experience?” I was going around and trying to meet some of my tattoo heroes, and they just saw me as competition. They got to where they are through tooth and nail, and they are one of the guys. They got there, and they protect it.
Esther: The silver lining to that is that we make sure our work is water-tight. Our work is solid and all the corners are covered, there is nothing to fault us for. As it turned out, this just created a bigger chasm between us and the other tattooers who were already in business. People that I have known for almost 20 years now don’t really acknowledge me on the street. But we are not competing for the same customers, we’re not doing the same kind of work.
Stephanie: There is plenty to go around.
Esther: The beautiful thing about a fully functional city is that things happen at all levels. We talked about the analogy of using fashion for clothing. You can get t-shirts at Target, you can go to a little boutique, or you can have something custom made. I feel like it is a fully functioning city if you can dip into any of those when it’s appropriate. But it doesn’t mean that one is more valid than the next. They are all necessary; some people live mostly in Target, and some people live more couture, and that’s fine. It’s actually important that we should be able to have all levels of service.
The Business of Your Business
How did you finance your business?
Esther: Savings. I spent all my money. I also ran it fairly tightly, and figured out in first year that I could run it alone. There wasn’t going to be any money put away or any other luxuries, but I could run it on my own, which was a good experience and good discovery.
Were there any resources or people you turned to, to figure out how to open business?
Esther: No. I thought it out all by myself, which was terrifying, but now that I have done it once I think I will probably do it a second time.
There is a particular zoning for tattoo shops in Chicago that isn’t conducive with an attractive, immediate neighborhood. It’s like adult entertainment, bars or strip clubs kind of zoning because they don’t anticipate that a tattoo shop is going to be like this. It’s a kind of a pain; you have to have a lease, basically be in business and have all of those expenses rolling for several months before you find out whether you get to do it or not.
What do you wish you had known at the beginning?
Esther: I was actually downtown paying for the business license that I had been finally approved for and the teller asked who had helped me, I’m like, “What do you mean who helped me?” she is like, “Did you have an attorney? Everybody deals with somebody for this process.” It didn’t even occur to me to hire someone, but now I know I can do it and I am glad that I did it the way I did. If I do it again, I will definitely hire somebody, but there is a confidence in knowing that I can do it myself.
What was the first thing that you did?
Esther: You can’t get the license until you do all of the other stuff. You actually have to apply for the license, get denied, apply for license, pay the fee, get denied and then you can start the process. You know you’re going to get denied right at the beginning.
The first part was finding the right spot. I spent a long time driving around Chicago trying to find somewhere I could work, that had good coffee nearby, public transportation, and trees that I could see from the window, like these …natural light in tattoo shops is pretty unheard of.
Is it totally different having a partner? Do you see yourself functioning differently?
Esther: Yeah, absolutely. We had this base, which I made the best that I could conceive of and that I could afford, and then Stephanie came in a bit later. And now we have gentrified ourselves out of our neighborhood, apparently. Butterfat 2.0 is going to its unknown place, but this time we get to do it together, which is better. I fought all those battles on my own the first time, and this is going to be actually fun.
Stephanie: And we will blend our two influences together, because when I first came in this was completely, fully formed. I didn’t see a lot of the work put into it.
Esther: The next will reflect both of our work, and have a more room for something that works for both of us and other guest artists. It’s like a tragedy that also is a huge opportunity.
Has the business evolved from what you first set it out to be?
Esther: I think it has gone pretty much the way I had hoped, but not as fast as I would have liked. I made this beautiful space and I was like, “Okay, now we have guest artists. Oh wait, I’ve been working in a bubble, exactly as I intended to work, and I’m known in Chicago, but not internationally, and I don’t want Chicago artists in my special space now.” I made this, and expected if you build it, they will come, but they didn’t. So I had to spend another year or two going out of my wonderful space and working with other people, doing guest spots, traveling and sending letters to introduce myself. It took longer than I anticipated because I had zero connections out in the world.
Now, after a couple of years of doing that, we get requests from people that we have never heard of asking for a spot, and we can pick and choose. Part of the problem is that I never had much interest in promoting myself, and it’s been uncomfortable for me, but it turns out that I don’t have any issue with promoting the shop. I actually really like promoting it as a place where other artists can come and get to do work that they wouldn’t normally, and that we can do collaborations or events, and introduce artists that didn’t know each other before.
Stephanie: We promote ourselves under the umbrella of the shop itself, so that it’s more like a partnership. Thinking of it as a business for me is really new, and slightly uncomfortable, because art making is something that’s very solo.
Esther: You also did have experience with making / selling paintings, prints, evaluating your artwork in that format.
Stephanie: In that media, yeah, sort of gallery format versus a service, where your art form becomes a commodity.
Esther: So we have come from making it into a business to coming back into tattooing. Like valuing our work as artwork, rather than as a hair cut or a service in the way tattoo art has traditionally been.
Do you find that even though you are now successful, running your business is still an uphill battle?
Esther: There is definitely some pushback from people around the street that don’t understand our business model and feel excluded by it, in a hurtful way. But now we are successful enough to have guest artists come from around the world. We get to handpick our friends, you know, talented, open minded, super creative people who are doing really, really interesting things. And it was only because we were so specific about our business model, in the way we promote ourselves, in what we want to do that that became interesting to likeminded people around the world. Otherwise they wouldn’t have known about us.
Stephanie: Yeah, and the way the Instagram works, you have so much visibility to that kind of really amazing work. You’re not limited to being in a fishbowl in the city that you live in. You get every kind of variety that you could seek out.
What's the greatest obstacle that you faced or that you are most surprised by?
Esther: The financial side of things. What we do is mostly a cash business, so it’s a lot of responsibility. Balancing that with actually still making good work, and keeping the brain compartmentalized, has been the biggest struggle for me. It’s finding that balance, which I am sure is hard for every single person who has ever tried to start a business.
Stephanie: I was surprised at how unintuitive and unscientific tax systems are. I have two accountants, and two separate businesses to deal with different parts of my taxes – it’s ridiculous.
Is there anyone in particular who influenced you as an artist or as a business person?
Stephanie: I would say as a business person, Esther has had a huge influence on me.
Esther: That’s kind. I’ve been a bully[laughing].
Stephanie: I’m super stubborn. A lot of it came from being a younger tattooer, not being as established in what I was doing, and getting a lot of resistance in trying to build what I thought of myself as an artist. When I came here, obviously, the situation was different. The space is so special, and the experience is so different, the way that you charge is different. There was a lot of unlearning the types of things that I had learned in street shops.
Esther: Yeah, I didn’t have anybody to look towards for that, and so I was apologetic about my work for a long time. I became apologetic, eventually, when I got good at it. But my experience was allowing this to happen more effortlessly and pleasantly, and I get to charge for that as an expert. It took a long time to do that, and so I feel like it’s my responsibility to help, as much as possible, for the other artists that I know that are in similar position, female or otherwise.
Stephanie: But it feels like such a huge gift, because otherwise it would have taken me so long to figure it out, by traveling on my own without thinking that I needed to seek out help. It helps to see it on to other people. I’ve had the accelerated program.
Esther: Yeah we do a push pull now, it’s great.
Where do you find inspiration?
Esther: We’re always working on that. I constantly buy art books and go to university libraries. I have also been working on this museum tour of the US. I’m trying to hit all the major museums in different cities- just to soak in, see what speaks to me and see if I can make a project from it. I have done that in Detroit, Minneapolis and several times in New York, before it was officially a tour.
Stephanie: Drawing any image that you are attracted to, and sort of putting it into our way way of seeing it. We have got the museums, and do things like workshops with flowers. We have done both Hawaii and Japan, and make these trips sort of our research development. It is also a way to get exposed to new materials or new ways of approaching our work.
What's the best thing about running your own business and the most difficult?
Esther: Best thing is that you can do it the way you want, you don’t have to convince anybody, higher up, that this is a better way to do things. The most difficult was doing it alone. I was like, “well maybe this isn’t a better way to do things,” and then I would think about it for a long time before I actually took any steps. Having Stephanie around, I bounce it off of her immediately. We decide the value of the idea or not.
Stephanie: Finding the freedom to be able to approach things the way you need to, and having some flexibility. But then also the other side is the responsibility.
Esther: The paperwork, the taxes, the licensing, the health inspectors and all of the behind-the-scenes stuff that you have to do in order to actually do your work.
Stephanie: It’s very hard to outsource that stuff too.
What are you most proud of?
Esther: The work that we put out, the reputation that we are making and somehow it’s all coming together into an aesthetic that people recognize. There are clients who get stopped, and people know. There isn’t anybody, definitely nobody in Chicago, that does the work that we do. We found out recently that there was a Readit page of other people asking each other which artists did work like us; it didn’t have answers.
At what point did you think, “I made it?”
Stephanie: The fact that I get to travel, make my own schedule and basically have complete freedom over what I do was a bit overwhelming, There is a certain thing about being able to assert myself as an artist, like saying no without any sort of hesitation, that was huge and felt so gratifying. But the idea of “making it” changes. The standard for what I think having “made it” is is so fluid.
Esther: Yeah, once you get to the point where you are seeking that vantage point it allows you to see other things, and you are like, “oh no that, that looks good, I think I like that.”
What advice would you give to people starting out business?
Esther: Be persistent, hold your own standards unapologetically, and have enough foresight to stand your ground with what you want for your business.