How to Become a Tattoo Artist
If you are trying to become a tattoo artist, then brace yourself: the path you must take is not easy. Tattoo Artists are some of the most revered people in the creative industry for a reason: They are so good at their craft that people trust them to paint something permanent on their skin that looks amazing. Dealing with clients, managing supplies, and mastering your creative skills push even expert artists to their limit. So, how does someone with no experience learn how to become a tattoo artist? Well, they start at square one.
SQUARE ONE: HIGH SCHOOL
Let’s assume that you have no experience. You can’t draw at all and have no idea what a tattoo machine even is. You don’t even have a tattoo of your own. Well, here’s what you can manage: get yourself a High School Diploma or General Education Diploma (GED). While it’s possible to skip this step, it’s highly encouraged, as it shows your employer that you won’t screw up your math and end up giving out too much change. It will also help you, as anything outside of small talk will bring up topics like history, geography, and even biology that you are expected to learn in high school.
You don’t need to be excellent at math or anything, and it’s fine to drift through school with poor grades, as long as you have a degree at the end. When employers look at whether or not you have a degree, it’s simply a YES/NO condition, so your grades don’t matter too much. If you plan to attend college or other educational courses (which is highly recommended), then you actually do have to keep those grades up.
Before You Really Begin
As a side-note, there are a few more optional things that are highly recommended before moving on. The first: you should really be 18. It’s illegal for people under 18 to receive tattoos, so how can they be expected to give them? If you’re below 18, spend this time honing your art skills and applying for scholarships. If you are above 18, then the first thing you want to do is get a visible tattoo. It doesn’t have to be gigantic, but having a nice visible tattoo can soothe a few worries your future clients may have.
APPRENTICESHIP AND EDUCATION
Once you’ve managed that, think about where you want to take your life next. You can choose a job or you can choose to get some loans or scholarships and attend school. When selecting a job, don’t expect to get a tattoo job yet—that requires tons of experience. Just settle on something that makes you easy money and pays the bills, for now. If you choose to go to school (or school and work at the same time), then you need to at least minor in Art. Graphic Design, Illustration, Painting, Calligraphy, and Lettering are all essential skills for a tattoo artist to know. Even Art History is crucial, since it teaches you about different styles of art that you will more than likely use during your career. If you end up taking the job route, then simply check out some books from the library or make it a goal to read online about the different techniques. A good place to start is actually Ink Done Right, since we are currently running a history series, and are constantly posting new content for you to read.
Your Tattoo Portfolio
After you’ve completed work or school for the day, you need to go hunting. Go to your favorite tattoo artist and beg for an Apprenticeship. It may take years for this to happen, and you may not even be paid, but it is absolutely required for anyone who wants to become a tattoo artist. Build up an artistic portfolio as you search for ‘the one,’ making sure to improve your own art skills. Your worth as a tattoo artist is determined entirely by your portfolio. I suggest a portfolio made of the following pieces of work:
- At least 3 HUMAN portraits, photo-realistic
- 3 different types of lettering
- 3 different tribal patterns
- 5 black-and-white tattoo designs
- 3 of the designs above, except colored
- 2 pieces unrelated to tattooing
Out of these, at least 5 should be watercolor, another 5 airbrushed, and another 5 done using basic ballpoint pens. If you have more work than this, then only select your best work. The larger a portfolio you have, the more chaotic your work appears: instead, stick to those things above, and overlap them where you can. This way, tattoo artists can hone in on your specialties and weaknesses right away. You should have between 12-19 images, no more and no less.
When you are finally accepted as an Apprentice, learn as much as you can from your teacher. This includes their cleanliness habits and workplace management, along with the equipment you need. You can find out more about setting up a tattoo shop here. There’s a reason for every little action they take while working, from the way they interact with clients to the way they store and clean their tattoo machines. Ask about everything you can, and you will find there is an answer. While you may not be tattooing right away, there is a lot to learn behind the counter of a Tattoo Shop. Spend as much time as you can in an Apprenticeship, preferably three years or more. This is the best way to learn how to become a tattoo artist!
Lastly—and this is the most important part—you will need to get your license. This is so that the state knows you are aware of health hazards, occupational requirements, and tattoo artist obligations. With the license, you can choose to work at other stores or open up your own shop. Different states have different requirements for licenses, but if you have managed an Apprenticeship, getting that license will be a breeze. What’s more, all that experience you gained while working as an Apprentice will help you land a job.
Once you’ve done that, you’re an official tattoo artist! Be sure to keep your license up to date and your artistic skills polished, or you may find yourself in trouble later on. When you set up your own tattoo shop, check out our tattoo chair article for the equipment you need. Remember: becoming a tattoo artist is not a sudden process. It usually takes at least five years, but can take even longer. This is why it’s so crucial to get a different job or invest in a degree that can be used elsewhere, that way you have a way to support yourself while you get situated.