Business

Oak Harbor tattooist inks her way to healthy business

Tammy Kelly, owner of Forever Pretty Permanent Cosmetics Center in Oak Harbor and Coupeville, inks eyeliner on Kinder Kowalski, an Oak Harbor aesthetician. Ramping up online marketing efforts at the first sign of the souring economy has helped her sustain a healthy business. - Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times
Tammy Kelly, owner of Forever Pretty Permanent Cosmetics Center in Oak Harbor and Coupeville, inks eyeliner on Kinder Kowalski, an Oak Harbor aesthetician. Ramping up online marketing efforts at the first sign of the souring economy has helped her sustain a healthy business.
— image credit: Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times

You may not know it, but Oak Harbor is home to a tattoo artist whose skills have begun to draw international attention.

But you can forget any stereotypes that may come to mind right now. This veteran of the business has never tattooed a motorcycle biker or drunken sailor sitting down for their first anchor or naked mermaid tattoo.

“Body art is neat but it’s way too much canvas,” said Forever Pretty owner Tammy Kelly, with a laugh.

Instead, Kelly has spent the past nine years carving out a niche in Whidbey’s tattoo business by focusing on a much different demographic; women interested in permanent cosmetics so they never have to put on makeup again.

While she specializes in facial work, such as lips, eyeliner, and blush, she has also become known for her paramedical expertise doing areola pigmentation for cancer victims. But the side of her business that has really taken off over the past few years is her cosmetic training courses.

In fact, it’s doing so well that her customer base has gone from the occasional Washington resident to people from all over the country, and most recently, from abroad. This month, a woman is coming all the way from Bristol, England, for about 65 hours of training.

Kelly’s courses are extensive, ranging in length from four to five days of instruction. And although her prices are competitive, learning the art of permanent cosmetics is not cheap. Basic training runs about $3,500 while advanced courses can top $4,000.

But Kelly’s success in a struggling economy has struck some business experts as inspiring, if not downright astonishing.

“When she told me someone was coming from England, I was like ‘holy smokes,” said Jill Johnson, executive director for the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce.

The experts are usually located in international commercial hubs, such as New York and London, said Johnson, so when people are coming from those areas to train on Whidbey Island, it’s a profound statement. At the very least it’s a tale of a true success story, she said.

While Kelly has been offering training services for years, she purposely stepped up that part of her business when the economy began to turn south in 2007.

Investing in her website, Kelly used it as the primary tool to broaden her customer base outside state lines.

“That’s so when they call, all I have to do is close the deal,” Kelly said.

The tactic seems to have worked. Today, she has not only weathered the recession but her training courses now make up about 75 percent of her business. But her success isn’t the result of her website alone.

“Tammy has a huge heart,” said Kinder Kowalski, an Oak Harbor aesthetician.

While getting her first permanent cosmetic tattoo this week, Kowalski admitted to being a little nervous. Her decision to go ahead with the procedure had everything to do with knowing that Kelly is not only a master at her craft, but is a good person too.

“After working with her and seeing the kind of person she is, I had total trust in her,” Kinder said.

Doctors love to refer business to Kelly because she waives her fee for breast cancer survivors needing reconstructive coloring work. While she argues that it’s a policy that pays for itself by word of mouth advertising and a constant supply of homemade cookies on the holidays, the twinkle in her eye makes it obvious that it has nothing to do with money.

“I guess it’s because cancer has taken so much out of them,” Kelly said. “If I can give a little back, I will.”

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