How to Become a Tattoo Artist

As the popularity and social acceptance of tattoos rise, so too does the desire to become a tattoo artist. Whereas tattoos used to be thought of as taboo, there are now shows on television with people competing to be named the best tattoo artist in America. But what these shows fail to show is the years of hard work that goes into becoming a tattoo artist. It isn’t as simple as being good at drawing or painting, and it isn’t all about going out and buying a machine. In fact, many reputable tattoo artists caution against purchasing your own tattoo machine and practicing on yourself and friends due to the dangers in improper training with the tattoo machine, pressure on the skin, and sterilization.

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Although it was noted that skill in drawing or painting isn’t an easy in to tattooing, it is a prerequisite of the job. Yes, you often get people bringing in drawings and tattooing has a lot to do with tracing and then filling in the picture, having artistic ability will just make you a better, more competent tattoo artist. After all, you need an artistic eye to choose the best colors for a piece. You also need to be able to recognize where the light is coming from to effectively add shadow. Furthermore, you’ll get more business, recognition, and money if you’re not only great at using other people’s pictures, but also great at creating original pieces for clients seeking something unique and personal.

So, the first step to becoming a tattoo artist is to practice and perfect your own art. Your art will always be improving and evolving, but getting it to a place where people would pay money for it is where you need to be. Take art classes to learn basic art techniques. Even if you’re already great at drawing, work on your weaknesses. If you’re great at landscapes but poor with faces and bodies, take an art class that focuses on portraits and figure drawing. If you’re bad with perspective, take a class that teaches it. I’m sure you get the point. Be sure you’re well-versed in the concepts of colors. This means you can not only color in your art, but you can shade it beautifully as well. This also means you can create your own colors.

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In addition to brushing up on techniques you may not be great at, art classes allow you free access to artists and art teachers to critique your work. This is a great way to improve, and gauge where your art is at. You can also have your art teachers and fellow art students help you with this next step.

During and following your art education, you’ll need to create a portfolio. Your portfolio will end up constantly changing as you create more finished art, and as your art skills improve, but it is important to get a basic portfolio down. A good portfolio will showcase various art forms using various media. Show that you are versatile, and great with more style than one. You can hone in on one style at some point if you’d like, but your portfolio should show that you are a well-rounded artist. Include portraits, figure drawings, landscapes, animals, fonts, 50s style pin-up art, Asian art, etc.

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As soon as you’ve created a satisfactory profile, you’re ready for the next step in pursuing a career as a tattoo artist. This next step involves finding an apprenticeship with a tattoo artist working in the field. This step is essential as it provides you shop experience, as well as the ability to learn current techniques from people who have been tattooing for years. An apprenticeship to a tattoo student is the equivalent to their college education, this is where you will learn the foundation skills for a career, and develop your own tattooing style. That being said, getting an apprenticeship can be harder than getting into a reputable school.

In some cases, apprenticeships cost money, in most others, shop owners or senior tattoo artists will allow you to apprentice under them, if you’re willing to offer your services to the shop. This means that you’re doing all the shop grunt work in return for your education. This also means that because you’re working a full-time job, you won’t have much time for actual income. This part of your education can be an extremely difficult time because you’re not really able to bring in cash. A great many apprentices have to save up before they can afford to take on an apprenticeship. Consider doing this during your art education prior to the apprenticeship. You may be able to work a part-time job, but you need to be aware that your mentor will need 100% from you while you’re in the shop.

Grunt work in the shop generally includes things like taking apart and cleaning the tattoo machines, cleaning the shop (mopping, taking out the garbage, cleaning the bathrooms, etc), sterilizing all tattoo equipment, and cleaning work stations. This may also mean that you’re working or helping at the front desk scheduling appointments. However, you should remember it’s all for a great cause. While you may have the worst jobs in the tattoo shop, you’re also learning how to properly tattoo.

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Acquiring a tattoo apprenticeship isn’t easy, and you may even have to travel to find the right master that meets your needs. Speak to potential apprenticeship masters in person and bring along your portfolio. Even if your portfolio is online, bring a hard copy to the shop. Be enthusiastic about the apprenticeship and your desire to learn, but also show humility. You’re asking for help here, so don’t be too cocky.

Your tattoo apprenticeship may last as little as 8 months, but is likely to last over a year. Learning how to tattoo properly and safely takes a whole lot of time, and since you want to be a reputable and profitable artist, you’ll want to make sure you learn everything inside and out. Some topics you’ll study and practice during your apprenticeship are how to turn regular art into a proper tattoo worthy piece. This includes fitting a piece to various parts of the body, going with the natural flow of the body, and creating custom pieces for specific body parts. You’ll also need to learn how to apply your art to the body before tattooing. This is important as it allows the client to see the piece before it’s permanently on their body. One important thing you’ll probably find yourself doing often is designing simple tattoos for walk-in clients. This gives you experience with meeting client needs, as well as with putting together a basic tattoo design. The complexity of these designs will go up as you improve in skill. Eventually you’ll even be able to tattoo some of your designs yourself. However, before this happens, you’ll practice extensively on pig skin. Pig skin best mimics human skin, thus allowing for you to have some practical experience with tattooing on skin. This also means you’ll have experience holding and using the tattoo machine, but without running the risk of messing up on a real person. What this doesn’t teach you is how much pressure is OK, and how much pressure will cause excessive bleeding or scaring. This is why you’ll later practice with human subjects. Of course, your teacher will make sure you’re ready for the designs you’re tattooing to ensure that you’re not taking on something too big, and to ensure that the client is getting what they asked for.

Aside from the art aspect, you’ll be instructed on the proper way to handle a tattoo machine, how to adjust the power supply (foot pedal) to apply a clean tattoo without ripping into the skin, how to set up the tattoo machine, how to operate the tattoo machine as a whole, how to clean the tattoo machine, and how to sterilize non-replaceable pieces of the tattoo machine. You’ll also learn safety procedures, which include keeping yourself and clients free of diseases, and/or from spreading diseases; as well as safety agreements and required contracts in order for a tattoo to be purchased and applied. This last legal bit, although seemingly boring, is extremely important as it protects the shop and you, the artist, from legal expensive liability.

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Your apprenticeship will end as soon as your teacher decides you’re ready to begin tattooing. This usually doesn’t begin until after you’ve practiced hundreds of times with designing tattoos, on pig skin, and on tattooing clients under the surveillance of your teacher or another seasoned tattoo artist. You’ll also have observed hundreds, probably thousands of tattoos, and you’ll probably have gotten a fair amount yourself. As soon as the apprenticeship is over, you’ll need to gather all the licensing to work on your own. These licenses vary by state, but generally include you pass a health and safety test. This test is used to ensure that you’re able to operate a tattoo machine safely, and that you know how to sterilize the equipment in order to keep yourself and your clients safe. Upon completion of your licensing, you can begin working in a shop.

In many cases, the shop you apprenticed in is the shop that will first offer you employment. This is a great opportunity as you can continue learning from your teacher, and you’re in an environment that is comfortable. You already know the other artists, and the area, as well as the type of clientele that comes in. However, if you’re looking for new experiences, you can branch out and search for another shop.

Remember how I mentioned earlier that your portfolio will be constantly changing? It should be! At this point, your art should have evolved and improved. You should also have a significant amount of your portfolio occupied not with your drawings and paintings, but with your tattoos. It is only in seeing your tattoo work that another shop is going to want to hire you. Be sure to take lots of pictures of the tattoos you do as an apprentice. Take photos of all types of tattoos, and from various angles. While you should take pictures of even those easy first ones you do, only put the best work into your portfolio, the others will be for you to personally track your own improvement.

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In searching for a new tattoo shop, remember that many shops work in different ways. Some shops work by having you rent a space and pay rent. Others work by you getting a commission, plus tip, on the pieces you complete. Be sure to gather all the information possible before signing any contracts.

Once you’ve obtained a job in the field, remember that you’ll need to remain current in your licensing. Again, this varies by state, so there is no set rule. Most states require license updates every couple years. Since you already know your stuff and have passed once, it’s more of an inconvenience than anything else. Also remember that as you work, you’re still learning. Don’t stop asking for feedback and asking fellow tattoo artists for tips and techniques. Most artists will gladly help you out, especially if you’ve clearly got skill.

The standard time it takes to complete your tattoo artist training is from one to three years, but this varies depending on what artistic learning you pursue before your apprenticeship, and how long of an apprenticeship your teacher requires of you. However, most people won’t make you apprentice longer than a year to a year and a half due to the money constraints. This depends, however, on whether you’re learning the correct techniques and mastering them or not. Also, be sure to remember that you’ll also need to save a good amount of money before pursuing this career, because unlike a traditional college, you won’t be able to get a scholarship or grant to help you out. You will, however, be qualified and ready to begin tattooing once you’ve finished your apprenticeship, and that’s more than can be said for a number of other college degrees.

Becoming a tattoo artist may not be an easy task, but if you have artistic skill, creativity, determination, and a great deal of humility, you’ll be able to make it in the field.

Things That You Need
For anybody with some artistic ability who is thinking of taking the leap and becoming a tattoo artist, there are some things that you need. Most importantly, you need a good tattoo gun and some inks!

There are two low cost starter machines that I can recommend, THIS ONE and THIS ONE, both usually costing $180 but available for just $60 from Amazon and both come with some ink to get you started (follow the links to the product pages to buy!). If you can afford to stretch a little further then it may be worth going straight in for THIS GUN, which at $110 (usually $299) is a professional quality kit at mid-range price.

Next you need a big pack of tattoo skins to practice on, you should practice every single design that you intend to tattoo on a human until you are experienced. Please do not permanently mark your friends or relatives until you can leave them with something beautiful, they will hate you for it forever, even if they keep that to themselves.

You can get a big mixed pack of medium and large tattoo skins for around $13 on Amazon, these are essential! Tattoo skins are just like the real thing, there is no other suitable way of practicing.

And finally, unless you want to give all you friends Hepatitis C or HIV, you are going to need an autoclave sterilizer to clean your needles. It is important that you are clean AT ALL TIMES. You wouldn’t sleep with a dirty street whore without a condom, would you?

Unfortunately this product is the barrier between an aspiring tattooist and one which sets up shop and offers their services to people, a professional commercial standard autoclave is very expensive and will cost you about $585 for the best around. The cheapest autoclave that I can recommend is the THIS ONE for around $250.

Your autoclave will be your most expensive piece of kit, but it’s cheap in comparison to the price that you will pay for ruining somebodies life.

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