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 pursing 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.
Frequently Asked Questions
Should I become a Tattoo Artist?
Tattoos are becoming progressively more mainstream and demand for great ink continues to rise. This line of work demands more out of a person than most people can imagine, and it's good to know what's involved before taking the plunge and choosing this career path.
Are You Good at Drawing?
- Being good at drawing doesn't necessarily mean you can instantly become a good tattoo artist. Although it most definitely helps to have a gift for drawing, it takes a long time to understand and differentiate between what you can draw and what you can tattoo. It's critical to start out with very simple designs and let your tattoo drawings develop and get better over a period of time.
Are You Willing To Work for Free?
- Plan to work for free for at least a year (or two, or three), as you have to start as an apprentice first. Unless you have some money stashed away somewhere, you will have to work a second job for the first couple of years. A good way to look at this is like unpaid training. Some people start out slowly by practicing on oranges, grapefruits, or honeydew melons, but fruit isn't even remotely similar to tattooing a real human being. You need a lot of practice tattooing flesh - it's surprising how many clients you can get when you're offering your services for free.
Be Aware of the Upfront Equipment Costs
- In order to get started as a tattoo artist, there's quite a big upfront investment in equipment. This can cost upwards of $4,000 which includes at least two tattoo machines, an ink set and tubes, needles, gloves, rubber bands, thermofax paper (thin sheets of heat sensitive copy paper), skin pens, etc. Also, apprenticeships cost approximately $10,000 in states where tattoo schools are regulated, on top of state licensure fees.
Are You Good With People?
- People often want the most painful or happiest times in their life symbolized and transformed into a tattoo, and will talk through their memories and feelings during their appointment. It will often feel like you are a therapist during these times, and will come to understand how inherently therapeutic this process can be for people. Therefore, as a tattoo artist, it doesn't matter if you yourself are stressed; you need to learn how to separate yourself from personal issues and be completely there for that person at that moment.
What Type of Work Do You Want To Do?
- There are two traditional types of tattoo parlours that you can choose to work in: There are walk-in shops, where clients are mainly asking to get a tattoo on the spot and choose from pre-drawn (or flash) designs in the studio. In these types of shops, tattoo artists simply put ink on clients and invest very little time in creating the tattoo. Then there are shops where tattoo artists work with clients ahead of time (sometimes weeks/months ahead) to design custom work. Special relationships are often formed with clients when doing custom work, and it can be incredibly rewarding.
Providing Guidance & Feedback
- Clients don't know what makes a good tattoo; that's something that can only be understood from years of tattooing experience. It's the artist's job to provide guidance and feedback to the client about the tattoo they want to get. If the tattoo is a bad idea, the artist has to be confident enough to express this to the client and suggest other options that will work. However, people can be stubborn about what they want, and if there is no compromising, they may need to be turned away.
Are You Good At Focusing For Long Periods of Time?
- You have to develop a zen-like ability to concentrate on nothing other than what is right in front of you. You can easily start to panic if you look at the amount of work there is left to do (especially if it's a big piece), therefore it is key to your sanity to be in the moment and develop a laser-like focus on the millimetre of skin that you're working on.
Your Body Will Eventually Break Down
- Tattoo artists basically sit hunched over, holding a static (and often awkward) position for upwards of eight to ten hours a day. It's only a matter of time before the body gives out - and very common for tattoo artists to have tendonitis and/or back problems. Since this is a repetitive motion injury, artists can't really prevent flare-ups unless they stop doing that motion. Many artists reach a point where they can't tattoo full-time anymore.
Are Tattoo Artists Happy?
Tattooing can be a wonderful career choice for the right type of person. Tattooists can dress any way they want. Once they have the contacts and skills they can work pretty much anywhere in the world. The job is very creative. Tattoo artists have the ability and the outlet to put their artwork on people's bodies and have it displayed 24/7/365 for the rest of those people's lives. They may also have the privilege to do therapeutic tattoos that cover up scars (such as masectomy scars) and give people a new sense of confidence and self-love during their recovery and rehabilitation.
On the other hand, it's hard work, it's tiring, and it can be frustrating. Tattooing full time can give you a bad back, neck and shoulder problems and damaged wrists. Tattoo artists also spend hours in intimate contact with people who have questionable hygiene. It also requires a lot of patience, because tattoos take a long time to do, and also because you're working with the general public.
If you are creative and motivated (it is a demanding job that requires absolute dedication), it can be one of the better careers out there. Happiness in this type of work comes from being inquisitive and eager to master new skills, and the determination and tenacity to keep going. You've got to be like a dog that won't let go of a bone. There's a great sense of achievement when you've finished a design and see it on a client. And especially when a client is in awe and can't wait to show off their new piece of art.
Are Tattoo Artists happy?
Tattooing can be a wonderful career choice for the right type of person. Tattooists have freedom - they can dress any way they want, and once they master specific skills they can work pretty much anywhere in the world. Tattoo artists also put their artwork on people's bodies and can have it be displayed for the rest of those people's lives. They may also have the privilege to do therapeutic tattoos that cover up scars (such as mastectomy scars) and give people a new sense of confidence and self-love during their recovery and rehabilitation.
On the other hand, it's hard work, it's tiring, and it can be frustrating. Tattooing full-time can give you a bad back, neck and shoulder problems and damaged wrists (tendonitis). Tattoo artists also spend hours in intimate contact with people who at times have questionable hygiene. Tattooing also requires a lot of stamina and patience, because tattoos take a long time to do, and also because it requires working with the general public.
If you are creative and motivated, it can be one of the better careers out there. Being content in this type of work comes from being inquisitive and mastering new skills, and having the determination and tenacity to keep going and seeing progress. You've got to be like a dog that won't let go of a bone. There's a great sense of achievement when you've finished a design and see it on a client. And especially when a client is in awe and can't wait to show off their new piece of art to the world.
How long does it take to become a Tattoo Artist?
It's important not to jump into this career blindly because you think it’s cool, as the mastering of this art takes years to perfect. Do not think you will make a quick buck either, as tattoo artists aren't considered professional (and won't be able to demand a certain amount of money) until they have five to ten years experience under their belt. Tattooing is an art form that demands respect when it's done right. It entails tons of hard work, and only years of experience can give an artist confidence in their ability. This is the result of tiny bits of knowledge piling up, and of all the lessons that setbacks and mistakes have taught them.
Most states require licensure for tattoo artists, and requirements can vary by state. Some states, such as Oregon, require licensees to complete a minimum of 360 hours of training under an approved artist as well as 50 tattoos. To get licensing, a written exam and a skills assessment is also typically necessary.
Some states also require a specific number of continuing education credits in order for tattoo artists to renew their license. Continuing education options come in the form of seminars and classes. If an artist would like to open their own tattoo studio, they should enrol in business management courses that focus on small businesses. They'll need to write a business plan, find a location, buy software to track their money, and check with their state regarding the necessary licenses and health codes for tattoo studios.
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.