How to Be a Tattoo Artist – Your Complete Guide | Painful Pleasures Community

How to Be a Tattoo Artist – Your Complete Guide

Wondering how to be a tattoo artist? This is your complete guide covering everything you need to do to make it happen.
by Danny Tress Last Updated: April 4, 2024

A career as a tattoo artist is fun, rewarding… and a whole lot of work. Becoming a tattoo artist isn’t as simple as learning how to work a tattoo machine. It’s a dedicated journey that requires so many skills beyond drawing and tech-savviness. If you want to be a tattoo artist who earns an honest living, you’ll need a few things. Those include dedication, passion, work ethic, social skills, and an open mind. Do you tick all the boxes?

If so, buckle up. We’re about to take you through the ins and outs of becoming a tattoo artist.

Step 1: Know How to Draw

Close-up of an arm tattoo

First things first, if you want to be a tattoo artist, you’ve got to have some serious artistic chops. We’re not saying you need to be the next Picasso, but you do need to know how to draw – and draw well. If you’ve already got this groundwork covered (and many people considering being a tattoo artist do!) then you’ve already got a leg-up!

However, if you haven’t worked on your drawing skills and you’re simply drawn to the idea of drawing… you’ll need to work at it. Take some art classes. Practice. Learn about composition, shading, and line work. Whether it’s through traditional college courses or online career as a tattoo artist. After all, no client wants a tattoo artist to create permanent artwork on them without any drawing skills.

But artistry isn’t just about drawing on paper. it’s also about understanding the human body and how tattoos fit on it. Consider taking classes in portraiture and anatomy – knowing how muscles and bones interact will make your tattoos not only visually stunning but also anatomically correct. You can check out our blog on how to make a tattoo flow with the body here.

Step 2: Get Essential Certifications

Now, let’s talk about safety. Drawing is your foundational skill but medical certifications are imperative in this industry. So before you even consider picking up a tattoo machine and heading to tattoo shops, take these steps:

  1. You’ll need your first aid certification so you know how to respond if and when a medical issue arises—a client passing out or having an allergic reaction, for example.
  2. You’ll also need your bloodborne pathogens certification. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also requires all tattoo and piercing shop employees have this certification, which teaches how to reduce the spread of illness and avoid incidents like accidental needle sticks.
  3. Lab safety education may seem odd for tattooing, but tattoo studios and labs actually follow similar cleanroom standards. Tattooing is essentially a form of minor surgery, so knowing your way around a sterile environment is crucial. Plus, it’ll save you from running into any legal issues down the line—nobody wants to be slapped with a lawsuit for negligence.

Step 3: Land an Apprenticeship

Close-up of tattoo artist with dreadlocks

First thing’s first. You might be wondering, “Do I even need an apprenticeship?” While there are more self-teaching options nowadays and the world of tattooing is way less gatekept… we still highly recommend an apprenticeship. Learning from another professional artist is a foolproof way to ensure you’re learning proper practices and procedures. If you’re self-taught, you can very easily teach yourself poor habits without realizing it. That is until you step foot into a shop and realize how those poor habits can be a health risk.

So, yes, a tattoo apprenticeship is invaluable: the gateway to becoming a full-fledged professional tattoo artist. Finding one might feel like trying to catch a unicorn, but it’s so worth the hunt. Here are a few tips for making sure you’re landing a quality apprenticeship that serves you in the long run:

Find a reputable shop

Tattoo shops that are clean and well-established are the place to go. Check shop reviews and visit shop websites before paying a visit so you know you’re going to a place worth your employment.

Be persistent

It’s normal to collect a few rejections in your search for an apprenticeship. Tattoo artist Amy Nicholls says that in your search for an apprenticeship, you’re “going to get a lot of no’s.” It’s not uncommon that shops or artists aren’t looking for apprentices at a given time, or that they think you need a bit more practice before they’re willing to take you on. Evans says that one of the most important things a prospective apprentice can do is “get used to people critiquing your work.” If artists see that you’re serious and persistent, he adds, “they might [point you to] shops that they like and that are reputable…or they might say ‘stick around, we might have room later,’ just having [you] come back and actually [have] your work critiqued more than once. You might find that the artists at that shop get a little more familiar with you and actually want to take you on. ”So, don’t give up—if you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way to make it happen.

Show up in person

If you think contacting a shop via DM or email is a good way to ask for an apprenticeship, you’re setting yourself up for instant rejection. This is one of few industries where good old-fashioned door knocking is still imperative. Additionally, make sure you’re clean and presentable when you go to the shop, and have a copy of your portfolio with you. According to Jake Meeks, tattoo artist and founder of the Fireside Tattoo Network, “It’s probably not a bad idea to introduce yourself to everyone in the shop, let them know what you’re trying to do,” since you’ll be working with everyone there, not only your mentor. Evans also says, “leave [your portfolio] for more than an hour or two…to give the entire shop a chance to look at it. You may get some votes in your favor that you didn’t know you had.”

Stick to these tips and you’re sure to find an apprenticeship that furthers your career.

Step 4: Get Licensed

Close-up of tattoo artist tattooing an arm

Getting licensed is part of your apprenticeship. Consequently, if you land a reputable apprenticeship, you’ll be licensed before you start tattooing professionally. But we’re still including it here because there are a few things you need to know about a tattoo artist’s licensure.

The laws governing licensure for tattoo artists vary from state to state, or even from county to county. That means you’ll need to conduct your research into license requirements in the location you plan to practice tattooing. Start by checking with your state or local board of health to see what requirements exist for tattoo artists and businesses within their jurisdiction, and then follow the appropriate course of action to obtain the documents and licenses you need to practice tattooing professionally.

Once you’ve boned up on your state’s specific requirements, let your apprentice know you’re aware of the licensure process. This will show your initiative and enthusiasm.

Step 5: Practice, Practice, Practice!

We’re calling it “step 5” but realistically this is step 1 and should be happening every step of the way. If you think you want to become a tattoo artist but you aren’t already in the habit of making art every day, that should be your first goal. There is no replacement for practice when it comes to developing your drawing skills and techniques. Start by focusing on clean, clear line drawing with varying line weights. Then practice inking your sketches with drawing pens over a lightbox to develop smooth, clean lines. You can also practice with flash art, which will help develop your command of traditional designs and shapes, as well as provide insight into the work of skilled tattoo artists.

Finally, you should practice drawing on contoured and uneven surfaces like oranges or bananas. Although they’re far from what it feels like to tattoo on skin, this early practice will help give you a sense of how two-dimensional designs transform when transferred to a three-dimensional surface. You can even practice on your own skin using a skin marker to trace over a stencil transfer of one of your designs.

One of the best ways to practice? Using Peak’s ballpoint pen cartridges. They look and feel like real needle cartridges and can even fit onto your rotary machine… but they’re loaded with ballpoint pen tips and ink. Consequently, you can “tattoo” on canvas, wood, or paper, and get the feel for using a machine.

Once your apprenticeship begins, your mentor might also encourage you to start tattooing on APOF practice skins. This is one of the most authentic ways to build your tattooing skills. APOF skins closely replicate the texture and curvature of real human skin.

Step 6: Build Your Portfolio (Your Ticket to Success)

This goes hand-in-hand with practicing. When you’re creating art every day, it becomes easy to compile your best work together into a professional portfolio. In fact, most mentors will want to see a collected body of work before taking you on as an apprentice. So, like practicing, this is something you should be doing every step of the way.

But it’s not just about pretty pictures—your portfolio should also demonstrate your understanding of tattoo design principles. Show that you’ve studied different styles. Additionally, show that you know how to create custom designs. Above all, show that you’re ready to take on any challenge that comes your way.

Step 7: Learn the Business Side of Tattooing

Now that you’re a bona fide tattoo artist, it’s time to learn the business side of things. This might make you groan. But if you plan on being an artist under a shop’s employment (not a shop owner) then the biggest headaches that come with business management aren’t yours to bear. Mostly, you’ll want to learn successful marketing strategies for growing your personal client list. You can check out our blog on marketing as a tattoo artist here. Additionally, you’ll need to know how to file your taxes as a tattoo artist, which you can learn more about in our blog here.

If you’re super starry-eyed and have visions of owning a tattoo shop… that’s a whole different beast. Check out our blog on the ins and outs of owning a tattoo shop here.

Step 8: Travel – Expand Your Horizons

Once you’ve got some experience under your belt, why not hit the road and see the world? Working as a guest artist in different shops will not only broaden your artistic horizons but also teach you valuable skills like adaptability and speed. Plus, who wouldn’t want to travel and make money?

Moreover (particularly when you’re seeking an apprenticeship) be prepared to move… maybe even out of state. If you live in an area where shops are rare or unreputable, it’s worth it to move to a place where you can learn from the best. Your career will have more promise there!

Step 9: Pay Your Dues—Stay Humble, Stay Hungry

Finally, never forget where you came from and the journey it took to get where you are. Stay humble, respect your craft, and continue to learn and grow as an artist. And hey, if you ever feel like you’ve made it, just remember – there’s always room for improvement.

Get Started

So, there you have it – the roadmap to becoming a tattoo artist. It won’t be easy, but if you’re willing to put in the work, the rewards are endless. So, what are you waiting for? Get out there and start making your mark on the world one tattoo at a time.

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