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Custom Tattoo Design is a Burlington, Ont-based marketplace where people who are interested in getting a tattoo can have a global network of professional artists turn their rough ideas into a tattoo-ready final design

When Lee Roller launched his tattoo-art service, he says tattoo shops were not thrilled.

"There was a lot of blowback. I dealt with a lot of PR issues in the beginning," he says. "Shops were pissed off thinking that we were coming in to take a piece of their pie."

But, he says, that's not the case at all. The trick is convincing them.

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Mr. Roller is the founder of Custom Tattoo Design, an online marketplace where people who are interested in getting a tattoo can have a global network of professional artists turn their rough ideas into a tattoo-ready final design.

Of course, this is something that tattoo artists do anyway – making the translation from customer's idea to final design a key part of their jobs. But for Mr. Roller, whose brother is a tattoo artist, this seemed daunting for newcomers to the tattoo world: Artists might redraw a sketch in their own styles, and if the customer walks away, they can't take the art with them.

Custom Tattoo Design separates the tattoo-design phrase from actually getting the thing inked. In their system, once an artist is matched with a client (artists choose which commissions to accept on a first-come, first-served basis), the two can work through design iterations until the client is satisfied. The art costs anywhere from $70 to $395, depending on its size. At the end, the client can take the finished drawing into a tattoo parlour and have it done.

Moreover, the service doesn't just sell the art, but transfers the copyright to the customer as well. That means that the design can't be reused by the artist, and won't be showing up on somebody else's arm the next month. It also means that the customer can take their design to any parlour they choose.

The fact that tattoo parlours already do designs with customers caused friction, says Mr. Roller. But he's adamant that breaking the process down into small steps that are easier for the customer to control serves to grow the market, and bring in people who have been to reluctant to get a tattoo.

"Most of our customers, I'd say 95 per cent of them, are people who have never had a tattoo in their life," he says. "We have people who are too intimidated to walk into a shop; they have no idea what's going to happen."

Today, the site sees about 200 tattoo designs done a month. The Burlington, Ont.-based site launched four years ago in its original form, but got a financial lift last year after a successful appearance on Dragon's Den. Mr. Roller notes that, positive as the experience was, it didn't yield a huge traffic spike – perhaps because 70 per cent of its business actually comes through the United Kingdom, followed by the United States; Canada is a distant third. The U.K., he says, has a much more libertine tattoo culture; Canada, less so – something Mr. Roller would like to change, making converts out of the warily untattooed.

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"What we really do is empower the consumer," he says. "We take people who aren't in the market, and we pull them in."

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