How to Become a Tattoo Artist | Painful Pleasures Community

How to Become a Tattoo Artist

The growing popularity of tattoos in recent decades has produced a massive global tattoo industry that is only continuing to expand. That expansion means greater access and opportunity for aspiring tattoo artists, but it also means greater competition. As any experienced tattoo artist will tell you, getting your footing in the industry can be challenging, especially if you’re trying to do it without following the right steps or seeking the right education, opportunities and support. 
by Painful Pleasures Last Updated: December 15, 2021

Becoming a Tattoo Artist 101

If you’ve daydreamed about making a living practicing an art and craft that you love, tattooing might be for you—but it might not! Here is a list of what to do and expect as you work toward becoming a professional tattoo artist.

Get an Art Education

Tattoo artists don’t have to be Picasso, but they do need to be able to draw well and understand fundamental principles of art and graphic design such as line, shape, value, shading, color, space, balance, texture and perspective. You can get training in these principles and their application at a traditional college or art school, but these days there are also plenty of educational resources for artists available online. Drawing, painting, portraiture, and even calligraphy classes will all give you some essential building blocks for inking great tattoos.

Practice Tattoo Drawing and Tattooing Techniques

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. Developing strong draftsmanship is one of the most valuable things aspiring tattoo artists can develop their tattooing skills. 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.

Learn About Tattooing Equipment

Every artist needs to understand their tools’ uses and capabilities, and tattoo artists are no different. A tattoo machine is the tattoo artist’s primary tool, so knowing how they work and how to adjust them is a critical part of training to be a tattoo artist. And just as a painter must know what brushes and paints a project requires, a tattoo artist must know what tattoo needles and tattoo inks to use for specific tasks and effects. 

Once you’ve spent a good amount of time practicing tattoo drawing and learning about tattoo equipment, you might be ready to invest in your first tattoo machine. Tattooing on people is not something for a beginning artist to try right away, so it’s a good idea to practice on fruits or tattoo practice skin in order to get a feel for the machine, needle depth, and how to use your skills on skin. Practice tattoo skin comes in different sizes, colors, and shapes that mimic the human body in order to help you gain comfort with various tattoo sizes and locations.

Beyond those core tattoo supplies, there are cleanliness and hygiene supplies you must be familiar with to tattoo safely and cleanly. Knowing how to set up your tattoo workstation with the proper gear, as well as sanitation and tattoo aftercare products are all part of the trade that beginning artists must learn.

This is just the beginning though. There’s a lot to learn before you’re ready to tattoo on paying customers or operate a tattooing business.

Build Up Your Portfolio

As you practice your art and tattooing skills, you should build a portfolio of your work that you can use to demonstrate your style, skills, and commitment to tattooing. A quality portfolio will be invaluable later when you’re looking for tattoo apprenticeships and jobs. According to artist David Evans, a good portfolio should contain “concise drawings” in “a range of sizes” with “a good variation in line weights.” Though you might want to present only a selection of what you feel are your best pieces, Evans believes “it’s important to have a large range of items in your portfolio, even just sketches right out of your sketchbook,” in order to give prospective mentors a good idea of your style and your range of abilities.

Seek Out a Tattoo Apprenticeship

In addition to all of the above, you should look for information and training about tattooing wherever you can. The internet is an incredible resource for beginners to learn tattooing – a quick search on YouTube or our PainfulPleasures blog will produce tons of educational tattooing information. But for those who are truly committed to becoming a professional tattoo artist, the most reliable path to success is through a tattoo apprenticeship. 

A tattoo apprenticeship consists of working for and with an experienced artist who can teach you the tools, techniques, and business of tattooing. It can be difficult to secure a tattoo apprenticeship, but it provides invaluable experience, knowledge, and mentorship.

Where to look: There are plenty of tattoo shops out there, but if you’re looking for a worthwhile apprenticeship, you should look for shops that are clean, reputable, well-established, and that you already have or would like to be tattooed in. This is important because tattooing isn’t only about art — it’s a craft that requires deep knowledge of its tools and health practices, as well as a business. If you wouldn’t want to get tattooed there, you shouldn’t seek an apprenticeship there, either.

Approaching shops or artists: Once you’ve identified the shops or artists you’d like to apprentice with, approach them as you would approach any other professional job interview or application. 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. Additionally, Evans 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.” Make sure to leave your name and contact info when you come to retrieve your portfolio.

Be persistent and open to feedback: Tattoo artist, Amy Nicholls says that in your search for an apprenticeship, you’re “going to get a lot of nos.” 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.”

That’s how it worked out for artist Kelsey Kansas. “I was determined,” she says, even though the shop she wanted to work in was not taking on apprentices when she first contacted them. “So I kept bothering them and getting tattooed [there],” she said until they told her they might hire her for one day per week in a non-apprentice position. “I called them every day for two weeks, got an interview, called again for two weeks, got the one day a week spot and started scrubbing tubes for the shop.” Shortly after, the shop’s counter person quit and Kansas began to work full-time. “I ran the shop for six months, taking on every responsibility I could before I was apprenticed.”

Getting an offer: Once you do get an apprenticeship offer, know that your work has just begun. It will likely be months before you actually get to practice tattooing on another human, and in the meantime, you’ll be doing a lot of observation and tasks around the shop to learn about tattooing equipment and procedures, as well as health and business practices.

Kansas says that her apprenticeship included everything from responding to emails and ordering inventory to jewelry and piercing sales, to cleaning the shop and running errands, to building needles and tattoo machines, to actually shadowing artists and having her drawings regularly critiqued. When you receive your offer, be sure to sign a contract that clearly states the terms of your apprenticeship, including any costs or compensation.

Earn Basic Medical Certifications 

Because tattooing entails possible bodily harm, it’s also necessary to learn about basic first aid, bloodborne pathogens, and lab safety. 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. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also requires all tattoo and piercing shop employees to have bloodborne pathogens certification, which teaches how to reduce the spread of illness and avoid incidents like accidental needle sticks. Lab safety education may seem odd for tattooing, but tattoo studios and labs actually follow similar cleanroom standards. Learning about sterilization methods and how to safely maneuver in a lab setting will only make your life as a tattoo artist easier. When you keep a sterile and clean workspace, you not only protect your clients’ health and your own—you also help yourself avoid potential legal and regulatory trouble.

Get Licensed 

Like other professions that include operating potentially hazardous machinery or performing procedures on other humans, tattooing requires certification or licensure (in addition to any permits or licenses required to operate a business at all). Unfortunately, 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 own 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.

Find a Job at a Tattoo Parlor 

After your apprenticeship is complete, you’ll need to find a job and start making some money. How much you will earn is hard to say, since variables such as location, experience, demand, and broader economic conditions all impact tattoo artists’ income. According to Indeed, the average annual income for tattoo artists in the U.S. is about $55,000. It’s rare for brand new artists to earn that average, but it isn’t impossible depending on where and who you are. Striking out on your own might allow you to make more money, but new artists typically benefit more from the established reputation and built-in clientele they gain access to by working in a shop.

If you’re lucky, the shop you completed your apprenticeship in will ask you to stay on and become a resident artist, but that isn’t always the case. Your teacher may have some suggestions for you or pair you up with friends at another shop, but you may have to hit the pavement again. When you do, make sure you take your portfolio, contact cards, and a letter of recommendation from your apprenticeship teacher.

Build Your Reputation

In order to make a good living as a tattoo artist, you must actively build your reputation and maintain your brand. That’s why the internet and social media are tattoo artists’ best friends. Create professional profiles on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and any other social media you use. There you can post photos of your work, make announcements about special events or studio residencies, share tattooing tips–anything you think will engage people who are interested in tattoos. You should also create a dedicated website to host your portfolio online so that anyone can find and contact you. 

But don’t neglect in-person brand-building either. Attending tattooing conventions and shop events is a great way to build connections with other artists and prospective clients. If you can afford it, print some high-quality, full-color flyers that feature your work and contact info to pass out at such events. Get creative! There are so many ways to promote yourself. As long as you pursue a few of them and you’re a decent tattoo artist, your client base should grow steadily over time.

Living the Dream

As you can see, it’s not easy to become a professional tattoo artist. It takes skill, focus, thousands of hours of practice, and years of dedication. But for those who feel called to the trade, it can be one of the most rewarding personal and professional experiences of their lives. PainfulPleasures is proud to support aspiring and accomplished tattoo artists around the world by providing industry-leading tattooing supplies at some of the best prices you can find online, as well as an online community that provides education, support, and the latest tattoo industry news.

For all those just starting their tattooing journey—good luck! We hope to see you in the studio soon.

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