CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become a tattoo artist.
Is becoming a tattoo artist right for me?
The first step to choosing a career is to make sure you are actually willing to commit to pursuing the career. You don’t want to waste your time doing something you don’t want to do. If you’re new here, you should read about:
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Learn & Understand Art
Tattoos are slowly becoming more accepted as a modern art form, and the techniques and styles are ever branching out. It’s a good idea to learn about other types of art in addition to learning about the art of tattooing. There are many ways to do this, such as taking art classes at a college or university, taking out books from the library, or learning during an apprenticeship.
There are many styles of tattoo art that artists can specialize in, such as Irezumi/Traditional Japanese, Abstract, Black & Grey, Celtic, Fine Line, Bio-mechanical, Haida, Colour, Tribal, Old School, Stonework, Cartoon/Anime, Portrait, Polynesian, Samoan, Maori, & Tahitian, Stippling or Dot-work, or Watercolour (just to name a few).
Tattoo artists need to be excellent at sketching out ideas for their clients, and for those who are specifically interested in the play of light and life-like designs, it can be extremely helpful to have the ability to sculpt a design so as to see it in three dimensions.
There is no one specific path to becoming a tattoo artist. While most careers/trades require some sort of formal or classroom education, it is generally expected that an aspiring tattoo artist will take part in an apprenticeship. While there are tattoo schools and courses that do exist, they are usually looked down upon by established tattoo artists in the field.
Individuals interested in pursuing this career should be open to the opportunities that present themselves. When apprenticeship opportunities do arise, they may not be exactly what one has in mind, therefore flexibility in this area can help increase employment opportunities. Working in a different environment than originally envisioned or relocating to a different part of the country may be necessary in order to reach certain goals.
As mentioned previously, the path to becoming a tattoo artist will always include an apprenticeship with an established artist, and most of the learning will take place during this time. Apprenticeships are not only a crucial training period; they are a rite of passage. Finding a shop with a good reputation is very important, and learning from someone who actually wants to teach you, who has a good educational background, and who will challenge you is equally as important. The apprenticeship will last for an agreed-upon period of time, usually one to two years.
The apprentice will typically spend most of his or her time doing menial tasks around the tattoo shop at first (which may include taking out the trash, setting up and breaking down stations, sweeping up, running errands etc). Much time will also be spent watching and observing tattoos being done. Eventually, the apprentice will learn how to handle and make needles, mix inks, use the autoclave, and learn how to take health precautions. During free time (both in and out of the shop), practicing with the machine on fake skins or fruit will be a priority. After much practice and observation, the apprentice will be able to ink living skin.
Apprentices typically do 100 tattoos for free during their apprenticeship (free means the apprentice pays the costs for these tattoos). They may tattoo friends, family, whomever they wish, after which they may also tattoo some clients at the shop. Taking pictures of every tattoo they complete will add to their portfolio and help them get new clients.
After putting in the appropriate time and practice, the apprentice will take their test and become certified. At this point, they will be able to start tattooing and charge money for their artwork.
Tattooing is a job that has to be earned. Both persistence and perseverance are traits that separate those who make it from those who don’t. Even after an individual is a well-established tattoo artist, these qualities are still necessary. There will always be new advances and techniques to learn about, and artists should always be striving to become better at their craft.
These qualities also come in handy when building a personal brand and reputation, especially if you are a freelance tattoo artist or if you own your own shop. After many years in the industry, you can create a brand around yourself which attracts clients who want to work specifically with you. You can carry that with you no matter where you choose to work.
Do amazing work and give clients art they will be proud of if you want them to talk about your work to others. Always deliver your best work and push yourself to be better in order to keep the clients coming in.
Attention to Detail
Obviously the artwork itself can be incredibly detailed when it comes to professional tattooing, however there is much more to it than that. For example, tattoo artists plan their designs out in advance so that colours are applied in the right order, make sure that storage drawers contain a supply of extra little pieces and parts in case a band snaps or a washer wears out in the middle of a session, pay attention to specific recipes when making inks, follow hygiene procedures diligently in order to protect clients, and keep licenses and certifications up to date. These are just a few examples of the details their job entails.
Someone who is detail-oriented will have an advantage when it comes to succeeding in tattooing, as the ability to concentrate on minute aspects of the work and a willingness to learn the best procedures for just about every facet of the work is important. This isn't a 'step' to becoming a tattoo artist, however it is a quality that can greatly improve the chances of becoming a more successful tattoo artist.
How to become a Tattoo Artist
Although there is no degree required to become a tattoo artist, it is necessary for an individual to possess natural artistic ability and creativity. Taking art classes in high school in order to learn various skills is a great first step. Also, some level of formal education in art can help you focus your passion onto paper and eventually skin. Fine art and illustration programs generally offer the greatest value for tattooing.
Training through an apprenticeship is necessary in most states in order to meet licensure requirements (as per The Alliance of Professional Tattooists). Before artists can obtain an apprenticeship, they will need to compile a portfolio which will showcase their versatility and their ability to draw a variety of subjects. During their apprenticeship, the aspiring tattoo artist will work alongside professional tattoo artists and learn how to sterilize equipment, operate a tattoo machine, and work on designing tattoos.
Seminars in disease prevention and skin diseases and infections, and training in blood-borne pathogen prevention may also be required for licensing.