When I first saw Christine Zimmer (28), she passed by in a glass elevator to meet me on the roof top café of a department store in Graz. It was during the heat wave of summer 2013 and because of the elevator’s speed, it seemed like her skin was shimmering in different shades of blue. I made my way up, spotted her at a table and walked over, intrigued. She wasdressed in a white T-shirt and black leggings, big black shades hiding her eyes. A few steps closer and I could see that the left side of her head was shaven, revealing inked skin from her skull to her jaw.
Her handshake is firm. From her voice to the thoughts she articulates she makes it clear that she knows what she wants and she knows how to get it. And this first impression seems just about right.
Originally from Saalfelden in Salzburg, Christine completed her apprenticeship in graphic design in Linz and then moved to Graz, where she started out with a design agency, creating visual concepts for catalogues of established mail order companies. That was eight years ago. “I was tired of the same old stuff every season, so I came up with a very modern and progressive concept: It was a model, I added tattoo graphics on the catalogue page and secretly put it in my boss’ bag before he went to a pitch,” she smirks. “At first, he was pretty pissed about it, but he won the contract with it”.
Turning tattoo modeling into a business
Realising the potential, Christine decided to turn this successful experiment into her own business and in March 2009, she started an advertising agency for young clients who wanted tattooed models. “At first, I recruited them off the street, which was tricky because they did not have any contracts and everything was more or less a legal gray zone,” she says. After a few months, more and more models wanted to be part of her database.
Photo credit: TATTOOMODELS.AT/BRC.PhotographyIt wasn’t until March 2010 that she founded TATTOOMODELS.AT, a model agency specialising in models with tattoos, who posed in her clients’ marketing campaigns. From the early days on, Christine was keen on giving models autonomy over their modeling career – for example, they can book coaching sessions to improve their performance with a client any time. Besides, all of them now have standardised contracts and the agency has a team of four freelancers, who take care of all modeling matters ranging from tough fashion decisions to personal problems. Compared to the international model business, a test shooting with TATTOOMODELS.AT is a bargain; it costs between 99 and 250 euros.
Another year later, Christine’s first big client was Kastner & Öhler on whose rooftop we met. Ever since, her client base has grown substantially to 70-90 clients. Yet, she doesn’t have a profile of her typical client. She covers traditional houses like K&Ö, hotel chains as well as smaller clothing and sports companies.
“If you are too girlie, you’re in the wrong business”
Unlike her boyfriend Mike Waldthaler, who is a “tattoo collector”, Christine has the aesthetic standard that her tattoos complement and match each other. “I am aware that my body is both my asset and an advertising space,” she says. She got her first tattoo when she was 18 and has around 20.000 euros worth of ink on her body.
Looking back at her professional life she admits that she “had to work harder than everyone else because of my looks, and I had to put up with a lot of stuff”. People passing by our table stare at her, but she assures me that she’s used to it. “I guess you have to put things and incidents in your head in such a way that you can deal and live with them.” She remembers that her first attempt to open a business bank account failed because of her tattoos.
Christine and Mike Photo credit: Photo credit: TATTOOMODELS.AT/BRC.PhotographyThe classical cliché has changed, she says, and not necessarily for the better. “Years ago, people with tattoos were jailbirds, today they are dirty sluts,” she refers to those photos reducing women to sexual object. But since Christine did not want to put up with the stereotypes, her agency developed a policy where nudity to an extent was allowed – as it’s the only way for tattoos to show, yet, “not one millimeter of a nipple should and will be exposed at a shooting”. There is a clear line between porn and liberalness, she stresses.
“Ultimately, it is about the personality of the model and the individual look that his or her body has through the tattoos. The girls can be the way they are,” she says. Yet, girlie is not her style. “I hate this girls’ stuff!” she winks, referring to models’ requests for matching shoes and lipstick colours. Does she believe she would have been that successful with a more glamorous approach? The answer’s simple. “Probably not. If you are a too girlie, you’re in the wrong business”.
Expanding the tattoo business
At that time – about one year into operations, Christine received her first take-over offer. Despite a six-digit amount, she declined because “the project and I were not ready to be sold yet”. And it seems it was a good call – there was a lot more ahead of her.
In 2011, she met her boyfriend and business-partner-to-be Mike, who had previously worked for Harley Davidson and is now responsible for the TATTOOMODELS.AT online shop. The idea behind the shop is to give clients an additional outlet to sell their branded products for a commission: items from beauty products for tattooed skin to skater wear and eyewear. With a traffic of 5.000 unique users per month and more than 45.000 friends on Facebook, it turned out a success.
Christine and Mike not only share two dogo argentinos dogs that spend time with them in the office, but also the attitude towards work. “For Mike as for me, business has always been first priority. This is probably why it works so well”.
TATTOOMODELS’ business model is based on subscriptions. Currently, the company has close to 3.000 models, and most of them pay 59,98 euros per year to be part of Christine’s list that clients can choose from. For this amount, they also make use of certain services. Customers, on the other hand, pay between 500 and 1.500 euros for the placement of the right model. Christine has around four to five contracts a month, where she consults clients to pick the right model for their campaign, and eventually attends every shooting to make sure her customers are perfectly happy.
From modeling to, well, spirits
In order to expand internationally, Christine has found a partner who will cover the US, and in particular the west coast. “This is the place to be for alternative perceptions of beauty and a large number of potential clients,” she says.
Bunny Skull vodka Photo credit: TATTOOMODELS.ATTATTOOMODELS, however, is only one side to what Christine wants to do with her business. 2011, she started her own brand Bunny Skull, which stretches from apparel, merchandise and beverages. One line deals with the production of vodka, also called Bunny Skull, which is 100% organic and contains gold leaves; it’s produced in Styria. A bottle is around 280 euros and Christine and Mike are also planning to export it to Switzerland, “since we have a great partner there”.
“I invested most of my last year’s revenue in it [vodka production],” she says. “It will either work out or I will go bankrupt with it.” The current distribution and marketing channels are luxury trade fairs such as the Horse Deluxe, where they offer a concept store on a trade show displaying their Bunny Skull products and their own design version of a motorcycle. At the end of the day, “how long can people look at horse stalls?” she asks rhetorically. “At some point you are relieved to see something different during the trade fair – like our booth”.
At the end of the day, it seems to have been a smart move to bring out not just one product or service, but also establish the company as a platform. “Well, it grew naturally,” Christine says. “It always occurred to me what the next logical step was and I always knew to get there”.