If you’ve ever wandered around a tattoo convention, you’re sure to be familiar with the Helios logo—the giant red H encased in an open-ended box—which is prominently displayed on the best of the best’s artist banners. With sponsored artists such as Ryan Ashley Malarkey, Halo, James Vaughn, Kelly Doty, and Matt O’Baugh, Helios is obviously a household name in the tattoo industry. Luckily for me, the owner of Helios, Craig Petralia, took a few moments out of his very busy day to talk to me about his background, how he chooses the products they offer, and how he feels about tattoo conventions. Take a look!
First off, I want to thank you for giving me a few moments of your day! Let’s start with something a little simple—can you introduce yourself to our readers and give us a little background on yourself and your business?
My name is Craig Petralia, and I am the owner of Helios Tattoo Supply. I have been working in the tattoo trade for 18 years in various capacities. Mostly I have been working behind the scenes, with different manufacturers, selling their products to supply companies. I came up with the idea for Helios because I knew at a young age that I wanted to own my own business, but the problem was that I wasn’t ready. I always thought I was ready, but I had no idea how much I still had to learn. The chair I sit in every day is a privilege, not a right. It must be earned, and it comes with lots of responsibility. I have employees that rely on the money they make at Helios to pay their bills and feed their families. I have suppliers that rely on me to help keep their shelves filled with stock, and I have artists that rely on me to provide them with the best quality we can, to help them create their best possible artwork. If I fail, I let all of these people down, and that can’t happen.
I started the company in my house, a little over two years ago. When we first started it was just me and my partner. My partner handles all the backend business stuff, like the accounting and the website. I honestly don’t know what I would do without her. Most people wouldn’t know who she was if she rang their doorbell, but this company wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for her. The problem we face is that I’m in NY, and my partner isn’t, so I was handling most other aspects of the business by myself. I did that until I found myself working until 11 or 12 every night, that’s when I realized it was time to get some more help.
Fast forward two years and we now have a warehouse and walk-in showroom, where local artists can come in and pick orders up. We have 3 full-time employees, and a few of part-time employees, in addition to Leah and myself. We are actually looking at a second building today because in a very short time we have outgrown our new building!
Helios has become a big name in the tattoo industry. What do you think has made your company so successful?
I think a big part of why we are successful is that because to me, it’s not about the money, it’s about the art. Obviously, we would like to make some money along the way, but that can’t be our purpose. Our purpose is to provide the highest quality products to the artists so that they can create their best possible artwork.
I absolutely love the artwork, but I am not an artist, so by giving the artists the tools to create amazing art, it gives me a connection to that artwork, and to me, that’s extremely rewarding. On the flip side of not being an artist, however, is something that I hear artists frequently say: “don’t buy from that company, it’s not owned by a tattooer”, which to me is completely ridiculous. The reason I feel that way is because a large number of products that artists use every day are not made by tattooers. Take gloves for example. Every single artist wears gloves, but there isn’t a pair of gloves in existence that is manufactured by a tattooer. It’s like saying don’t eat at that restaurant, because it’s not owned by a chef, or don’t fly on that airline because it’s not owned by a pilot. Neither of those things means you won’t have a great meal or a safe flight.
As a tattoo supply company, you offer your own products as well as those of other companies. How do you go about selecting which companies you want to partner with? Is there a specific trait that you look for in other products/companies before putting your name behind them?
This is a great question and an important one. Helios is manufacturer and supply company. We are a manufacturer first, but I’d like to explain what I mean by that. Being the manufacturer of a brand doesn’t necessarily mean we are the ones physically producing the product. It means that we own the brand and are responsible for it. It means we come up with the ideas and the designs, and work hand in hand with the actual factories or facilities that produce our products, to ensure quality, and that Helios is a brand that artists can be proud of. We have three products that are made in the USA. Helios Stoned Liquid Solidifier, Helios cartridge trays, and our brand-new Helios Suicide Black ink. A good example of this is Apple. Their headquarters is in Cupertino, but that’s not where they actually produce the iPhones, iPads, or Mac books, those are made overseas.
As a supply company, the most important factor in bringing on other brands is listening to our customers. I want to make sure we have the products our customers want. Once I determine which products are the right ones, I then chose the brands that we carry based on a few things. First, in my 18 years in this business, I have made lots of friends and connections. I try and support other companies who I know are doing things the right way. That means not only do they put out a high-quality product, but they also stand behind it. I want our customers to know that if there are any issues, they will be taken care of properly. Customer service is the number one most important thing in any business. Without customers, there is no company.
Your pro-team list is a veritable who’s who in the tattoo industry at the moment. When it comes to selecting pro-team members, do you have a set of guidelines that you follow? What are the requirements?
Thank you for the compliment. I’m extremely proud of our team, and even more proud to call them family. Helios is more than a company or product, it’s a mindset. It’s the idea that a group of people can come together to build something greater than themselves, as a family.
Our team travels together, eats together, and works together. Our artists help come up with ideas for products, designs for products, and they help to thoroughly test our products before we make them available to the rest of the tattoo community, to ensure they are as good as we can make them.
We get asked by artists every day about how they can join our team. The formula for being on our team is pretty simple. First and foremost, love our products and believe in what we are trying to build. Be a good artist but be a great person. Don’t ever think you are bigger than the game, and never stop learning or trying to get better. Promote our brand because you want to, because you are proud to be using it, not because you feel you have to or are trying to get something out of it. Most importantly, don’t ever send us a message that says: “why do you sponsor that person? My work is way better than theirs, you should sponsor me instead”, that’s a great way to make sure you never become part of our team.
I’m sure there are facets to operating this type of business which the general public is unaware of. What is the most complicated part about owning a tattoo supply company? What is the easiest?
The easy part is showing up every day. I have an absolute passion for what I do. I frequently tell the people in our office that if it ever starts to feel like work, we are doing it wrong. Each day presents a new challenge. Lots of times I will go into the office with 3 or 4 things that I want to get done, and at the end of the day, I’m lucky if I get past number 2. That’s because unexpected things pop up that need attention, or people stop in to say hello, but it never bothers me, and I love all of it. The people in this business are amazing, and I will happily stop whatever I’m doing to talk with anyone that stops in.
The challenges are many. Most days I wish I had a clone. I’d say the first skill I really had to learn was how to manage inventory. Making sure that enough product is on the shelf is an everyday job. I have to keep a close watch on what big orders come in that may wipe us out of a particular item, and we have to allow for growth, so we can’t necessarily just order what we ordered last time, because two months from now that may not be enough. Other fun/challenging behind the scenes thing we have to do is come up with names for products and marketing ideas. It’s the tattoo trade, so I feel like we can be edgy and dance on the line, as long as we don’t jump over it. One recent example is our Suicide Black ink. I knew that name would upset some people. The reason I moved forward with it is because of the number of people in our community who have been affected by suicide, both directly and indirectly. We are donating a percentage of sales to suicide awareness. The idea here is that we are trying to send a positive message and do a good thing, not breed negativity. That’s actually not the only product that we do that with. A portion of sales from our pink disposable cartridge grips is donated to breast cancer research. When you buy Helios products you are also supporting a cause.
You have an extensive list of Helios products, such as your own cartridge needle. How do you decide which products to release and how long is the process from idea to production?
We currently have 6 main products in our line. Helios Cartridge needles, Helios Eclipse Standard needles (for non-cartridge users), Helios Stoned Liquid Solidifier, Helios Disposable Cartridge Grips, Helios Cartridge Trays, and Helios Suicide Black Outlining ink. We actually have a couple of new products in the development stages right now! I try to come up with ideas based on solving a need and listening to artists. I talk to our team all the time and try to identify items that I think would help make their jobs as artists easier or more efficient. One of the products that we have in development does exactly that, and I’m extremely excited about it. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what it is yet, but in about 3 -4 months I think it will be available. Part of what takes so long is product testing. I’ll give samples to our pro team to try and get their feedback. We will then make adjustments based on what they tell us, and then have to give out samples to test again. We do this until the overwhelming majority is satisfied with it. Take Suicide Black for example, we needed to give the artists a chance to see some healed work before they knew for sure that the product was ready, and that took some time. I’m trying to make our product lineup as diverse as possible, so we can provide artists with great products across multiple needs.
I know you recently attended the Villain Arts Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Convention. Do you spend a lot of time traveling the convention circuit? Do you enjoy the circuit?
One word. Love. I cannot even begin to put into words the feeling that I get when I step onto that convention floor every morning. It’s like something inside me comes alive and I feel like its where I’m supposed to be. It’s awesome. Unfortunately, I can’t do as many as I would like to, due to other responsibilities, but I try to get to at least 8-10 a year, even if it’s as a pedestrian walking around.
Aside from the tattoo supply company, what do you like to do in your spare time? Give us a little insight into who Craig Petralia is outside of Helios!
I’m a dad. First and foremost, above everything else, being a dad is my most important job. I have two boys, ages 6 and 11, and they are my world. Everything I do is for them, or with them in mind. Family always comes first. I’m a huge sports fan and I coach little league. I try to involve both my boys in whatever sports they are interested in, and I never miss a game, unless I’m traveling.
I try and vacation once a year. It helps me recharge my batteries. I’m also really into watching inspirational and motivational videos. I start every morning by watching 3-4 of them, and then saying out loud “Let’s do something great today”. To me, that is a great way to start a day, if I tell myself I’m going to do something great, then I will. Good isn’t good enough if you want to stay on top. You have to be great in everything you do. Good habits start at the top, so how can I expect everyone that works with us to be great if I don’t lead by example?
Is there anything you would like our readers to know about you, your company, or upcoming products/events?
People ask me all the time about what the keys are to becoming a successful business person. I always tell them that if I ever become a successful business person I will let them know. Success is a very subjective word. To me, I am successful because I have found my passion, and I consider myself extremely lucky to get paid to do something that I love every day. Others will measure it by sales or by bank accounts. What I can say for certain is that I have learned a lot along the way, and these are a few things that have really helped me:
Don’t be afraid to fail. Hitting rock bottom can be a hard pill to swallow, but those rocks can also be used to build a very strong foundation for something great. Take what you have learned from those mistakes and use them to grow your path towards success. I was born from failure. I failed out of college my first year. I went away and wasted my parents’ money, I was a disappointment to them and to myself, and that feeling of failure motivated me to strive for greatness because I never wanted to feel that horrible feeling of failure and disappointment ever again.
Don’t ever think you know everything. The smartest people in this world are the ones who realize they still have a lot to learn. The minute you think you know everything, you have already been beaten. I try and learn something new every day. It can be a random fact, something about business, or even something about myself.
Be humble. Don’t overvalue yourself and what you have to offer. There is always somebody else that is smarter, more talented, or better than you in some way. Learn from them. Understand what it is that they are doing to be in that position, find an aspect you can relate to, and emulate it.
When it comes to the tattoo industry, Craig really seems to have a firm grip on what the artists want from a tattoo supply company. While not an artist himself, he’s found a devout love for this business and has truly set his mind to improving it one product at a time.
If you’re not already ordering from Helios Tattoo Supply, take a few moments to check out their offerings by visiting their website: www.heliostattoo.com.