What’s a responsible no bullshit tattoo artist to do if he thinks he smells bullshit?
He sends it off to a laboratory to see if he’s right. “The lead levels were off the charts,” Seth Ciferri says of the tattoo needles he had rigorously tested. “In some cases, these needles contained 100-300 times the level of lead allowed to be in house paint.”
The discovery came about by chance.
Ciferri had moved to Portland, Oregon to open a tattoo shop, realized there were no tattoo equipment suppliers, and saw an opportunity to fill the void for the approximately two hundred Rose City tattoo parlors with an itch to buy local.
“There was a real contradiction between the price of the commodities used to manufacture needles and the cost of the needles,” Ciferri recalls. “It didn’t make any sense to me that commodity prices were on the rise yet overseas needle manufacturers were basically willing to allow buyers to name their price.”
The labels promised the needles were safe. But Ciferri wasn’t buying it.
The unhealthy levels of lead in the needles Ciferri uncovered posed a real threat to the industry and consumers; besides inviting government scrutiny and new regulation lead-laden needles posed a risk to tattoo lovers trusting that the needles piercing their skin were safe.
“It’s a cause for real concern,” says GRIME, a world-renowned tattoo artist, and Ciferri’s business partner. “The way the needles interact with the tool combined with the heat and friction can cause potentially dangerous levels of lead to be released which is bad for tattooing as a whole.”
The issue was also personal.
Industry suppliers, according to Ciferri and GRIME, often had no experience tattooing yet positioned themselves as experts with the right tools for the job. “It was insulting to see someone who has never given a tattoo think they can tell tattooers how to work and what tools to use,” GRIME says.
“We were so frustrated with the ethics of the industry,” Ciferri says. “All they cared about was cutting corners and making money, and we knew we had to do something about it.”
The choice was stark; sell out morally and abide by the status quo or risk upending an entire industry in an effort to protect it?
Even worse, if picking a fight with dominant industry giants and potentially alienating the very tattoo artists you’re claiming to want to protect by offering higher priced alternatives isn’t daunting enough…
Ciferri and GRIME would have to do it without any money, no marketing, and an entire generation of tattoo artists who lack the deep knowledge necessary to make or decipher a good needle from bad. Plus, the pair would have to do it all with a self-described “dog shit” website.
How good are you at whatever you do?
Good enough to walk into your office, factory or place of business, close your eyes, and know instantly which of your co-workers are top performers just by listening to the sounds associated with their work?
Sound like a silly exercise? Well, this is exactly how old school tattoo artists, guys like Ciferri and GRIME with decades of experience, can identify expertise. “An experienced tattooer can close his eyes and listen to the sound the machine makes when it touches a person’s skin and know instantly whether the artist knows what he’s doing,” Ciferri says.
But this type of intimate knowledge of the craft is dying.
Especially when you consider that years ago, according to industry insiders, tattooers used to make their own needles. In fact, they’d go through a years-long apprenticeship in which elder tattooers would pass along needle making knowledge to the next generation.
However, Ciferri says once needles began being cheaply mass produced overseas this passage of knowledge ceased. “Now we have an entire generation of tattooers who have no idea how to make a good needle and can’t tell good from bad,” Ciferri says.
The claim isn’t an indictment or criticism of today’s tattooers.
But rather motivation, along with raising the bar for safety in the industry, that resulted in Ciferri and GRIME partnering to launch Black Claw, a tattoo needle and equipment business founded by tattooers for tattooers. “We’re not just selling needles,” Ciferri says sternly. “We’re using our experience and passion to innovate, set the standard for quality control, and provide tattooers with personalized tools that help them perform better.”
Besides sourcing needles made of surgical grade stainless steel and soldered with silver rather than lead, Black Claw designs needle groupings specifically for certain types of tattoos and skin types. “We’re helping tattooers find the tools they need to achieve better results from less work,” GRIME says.
Initially, Black Claw began as just a needle company.
But two years later, after Black Claw had begun offering an array of tattoo supplies, the company officially unveiled itself at a tattoo convention in San Francisco. “To be truthful we had a primitive, poorly constructed website,” says Wesley Brown, Black Claw’s Operations Manager. “It was just a shopping cart and a few images.”
But the response was overwhelming.
Tattooers gathered at the convention, especially those who already revered Ciferri and GRIME, immediately connected with Black Claw and its mission to promote and protect the tattooing industry.
“Despite our dog shit website we were really successful,” Brown says. “The reputation of our founders is key. Tattooing is extremely personal and intimate and customers know our founders are artists themselves and connect with them in ways others simply can’t replicate.”
Black Claw was definitely clawing share away from competitors. But to scale and ultimately achieve the change it desired for the industry, the dog shit website would have to go.
Are You Branding or Being?
It has been said everyone has a price.
But that may not be the case for the team at Black Claw. “We get calls all the time from investors wanting to get in and telling us how we can grow quicker with their help,” Brown says. “But we’re not selling out.”
In fact, for years Black Claw used its ragtag website to turn a profit on the supplies it sold, reinvested it all in the business, and repeated the cycle again and again. Ultimately, the bootstrapped endeavor yielded a war chest large enough to seek out like-minded partners to help the company take its ecommerce site to the next level and accelerate its growth.
“We just really clicked,” Ciferri says of Landis White, the head of strategy at Blue Like Neon, an agency that helps brands discover, create and evolve digital experiences for customers. “I noticed Landis answering questions at a meet-up others couldn’t, struck up a conversation, and realized we shared similar views and work attitudes.”
“I could see that Seth and his team were really special,” White says. “We have similar no bullshit punk rock attitudes and knew immediately the creativity possessed by both teams would combine to make something great.”
Shortly after that, Black Claw and Blue Like Neon shook hands and began working to capture the Black Claw voice and translate it into a site that delivers an experience that arouses emotion and causes visitors to feel connected to the brand. “We didn’t want a two-dimensional plain website,” Brown says. “Sure, we wanted to make it easier to place orders, but our overarching goal was to create an opportunity for customers to learn and bond with the Black Claw brand.”
If you ask White, Black Claw made that part easy. “You can brand or you can be,” White says in reference to that fine line between branding and authenticity. “The guys at Black Claw are not branding but actually living what you see communicated on the site.”
The new Black Claw site:
- Easily syncs with the company’s 3PL
- Includes a real-time social proof integration in the form of customer reviews
- Leverages customer information capture tools that position the company to form long-term relationships
In August 2016, the site launched on Shopify Plus, an enterprise-level ecommerce solution for high volume merchants focused on growth rather than the technology that underpins it. “We were already successful, but our site was so lame it was like we were dating the hottest girl in town but driving her around in a lemon of a car,” Brown says with a laugh. “But thanks to Blue Like Neon and Shopify it was like we ditched the lemon and began driving the sports car we deserved- we love it.”
Since redesigning the site and launching on Plus, Black Claw has experienced year over year results that include:
- Sessions increased 39%
- Page Views increased 69.61%
- Bounce Rate reduced 20%
- Average Order Value increased 13.5%
- Transactions increased 123.94%
“We’re so proud of the Black Claw site we show it to other clients looking to grow,” White says. “They tell us they want to create the same type of feeling the Black Claw site creates which is the ultimate compliment.” Separately, the improved ability to retarget, segment, and communicate with customers who abandoned cart is generating immediate ROI:
- Cart abandonment recovery was 6% before the relaunch
- Cart abandonment recovery increased to 20% following the relaunch
“People are voting with their dollars,” Brown says. “The guys at Blue Like Neon and Shopify, especially our account manager Hamza Ayach, are the perfect partners because they do what they promise and the results have been absolutely amazing.”
Don’t blink though. Black Claw is already itching to needle a brand new problem in the tattoo industry.
Reimagining Disposables as Reusables?
Copycat needle testing.
That’s what Black Claw says it’s seeing competitors engage in following its groundbreaking lab tests that revealed potentially unsafe needles being used. While Black Claw intends to defend its position as the standard bearer for safe and innovative needles, the company is already pivoting to the future with a focus on brand new problems few others are addressing.
“We’re looking for opportunities to fill voids,” Ciferri says. “This doesn’t stop with needles, and we think we can have an even bigger impact innovating and protecting the industry in terms of sustainability.”
Specifically, Black Claw has in its sites the disposable nature of the industry; single-use tattooing supplies that along with bulky packaging creates abundant waste. In the future, Black Claw plans to experiment with ways it might be able to offer sterilization options that may allow certain tattooing supplies to be transformed into reusable items that result in significantly less waste.
“I’m really proud of what we’re accomplishing,” GRIME says. “I hold tattooing very dear, have dedicated my life to it, and am excited to use my passion to scale and have an even bigger impact on the community we’re a part of and love.”
While tattooers routinely tell Black Claw they love the company’s best in class products, don’t be surprised if one day a grassroots movement among people interested in being inked emerges and results in even greater demand for Black Claw’s trusted products.
“We want to be on the tips of everyone’s tongue,” Ciferri says. “Ultimately, we want the recipients of tattoos to demand Black Claw products for health, safety, and sustainability reasons.”