Everything You Need To Know About Becoming A Tattoo Artist

If you've been thinking of turning your lifelong love of art into a profitable and fulfilling career, becoming a tattoo artist might be the path for you. However, this nontraditional job doesn't require you to follow a standard degree path with classes and textbooks and boring office internships, so how do you go about becoming one?

"There is no clear-cut, linear path to becoming a tattoo artist," assistant professor Dr. David Lane shares with Illinois State University News. "Typically you go to a tattoo shop, get tattooed, spend time convincing people there that they want to have you around." Others may put together a portfolio of artwork and travel to different tattoo shops marketing their work and inquiring after an apprenticeship. Despite the various paths available for burgeoning tattoo artists to take, once you obtain an apprenticeship you will be exposed to extensive training under a licensed and experienced tattoo artist, given time to develop your art skills and portfolio, and simply learn the basics of how a tattoo shop operates. It's a big commitment, both financially and time-wise, and there's a lot to learn.

What does a tattoo artist do?

Being a tattoo artist is more than simply drawing permanent pictures on people's skin with ink, although for many artists that is one of the best parts. In reality, tattoo artists wear a number of hats. They are skilled craftsmen that are passionate about the work they do and the clients they work with. They have an in-depth understanding of the tattooing process and can offer feedback and suggestions on proposed designs. They are knowledgeable about the ins and outs of tattoo techniques and the necessary equipment, hygiene and maintenance, tattooing different skin tones, and tattoo care. Often, tattoo artists are customer service professionals or administrators, working with client management software to book appointments or perhaps communicating with clients over the phone or email.

Tattooing can be a lucrative career for art-minded individuals who have the drive to complete a tattoo apprenticeship. Established tattoo artists can make a comfortable living with their combined skill sets making between $57,000 and $94,000 per year.

Drawing and design knowledge are essential skills

It stands to reason that a certain level of talent for drawing and design are important skills to have if your goal is to become a tattoo artist. While not all tattoos are complex, lifelike portraits or dazzling landscapes, if you can't draw so much as a straight line, you're going to struggle to find clients that want your work on their bodies.

This doesn't mean you have to go to art school or pursue a bachelor's in graphic design to be successful. The majority of reputable tattoo shops do not require formal education from their artists, relying instead on the artist's portfolio and references. That being said, many tattoo artists do just that to further their own knowledge of color theory, technique, and fine art. "I've met people who've come out of art school who are very talented and take to tattooing quite quickly, and they've really pushed the envelope on the medium," tattoo artist John Montgomery tells The Daily Bulletin

Whether you take a single class or pursue an entire degree, exposing yourself to art history and new styles of art is a great way to broaden your creative horizons and push yourself to create amazing work. If you're worried you don't have any natural artistic talent, fear not. While talent certainly helps in any creative field, taking free online drawing courses or working one-on-one with a mentor can help you learn the skills you need to become a tattoo artist.

Focus on building a strong portfolio

The importance of an aspiring tattoo artist's portfolio cannot be understated. In the competitive world of tattooing, having a strong portfolio is what makes or breaks an aspiring artist's career and helps them get their foot in the door. Whether it is housed on a website, social media account, or a print copy, a portfolio showcases the artistic skills of the artist and demonstrates their potential as a tattoo artist. The pieces you choose to display should be high-quality, creative works that include your best completed projects, as well as a smattering of common tattoo styles like gothic lettering or tribal symbols.

Your portfolio doesn't need to have examples of tattoos you've inked. On the contrary, if you are an emerging artist looking to acquire an apprenticeship to learn the craft, it probably shouldn't. Instead, it should showcase your drawing style, how you play with color or use shades of gray, and your mastery of linework or specific techniques. A strong portfolio will also indicate your personality. An experienced tattoo artist will be able to look at your portfolio and determine how you bring pieces to life and if you have the ability to translate ideas and concepts into physical images. They will also gain an understanding of your grasp of modern tattoo trends.

Apprenticeships are necessary and often unpaid

With or without formal art school training, you won't simply be hired as a tattoo artist. The majority of artists apprentice under an experienced artist for a lengthy period of time before becoming tattoo artists on their own. Apprenticeships typically last between two to four years depending on the speed of their mentor and the amount of time spent in the shop.

To get an apprenticeship, you will likely need to take your portfolio around to local shops and inquire if they are looking to take on an apprentice. If you have been frequently tattooed by a particular shop and have an established relationship with them, you may ask if they have any openings, as well. However, don't expect to get to tattoo anyone immediately after being offered an apprenticeship. "It's a lot of time cleaning toilets," tattoo book author D. Angus Vail explains to Inside Out. "Eventually you learn how to make needles; then you learn how to build and/or tune machines. It's a long time before you get to practice drawing." 

The majority of apprentices take several months observing their mentor tattoo others, practicing drawing, working on stencils and tracing shapes, and tattooing fake skin before being allowed to tattoo people under supervision. Tattoo apprenticeships are mostly unpaid and require you to be in the shop several days a week when your mentor is there tattooing people. This means you will have to figure out how to fit in part-time employment for the duration of your apprenticeship.

Certifications and licenses are required

In order to legally tattoo others when their apprenticeship is complete, artists are required to obtain a license from their state that indicates they know how to safely tattoo. Regulations and requirements vary from state to state, and there is no federally recognized certification for becoming a tattoo artist. However, the majority of states require each artist to have a solid understanding of proper sanitation, protective personal equipment (PPE), and the various health hazards associated with tattooing.

These licenses, which may include a cosmetology license and a body art license, indicate the artist also has a basic understanding of first aid and bloodborne pathogens. The nature of tattooing skin involves coming into contact with another person's blood, requiring artists to understand how these pathogens are spread and what to do if they are directly exposed. These certifications and licenses come with a fee and may require taking a class or passing an exam. The individual tattoo artist is normally responsible for paying these fees out of pocket and taking the necessary continuing education steps to stay in compliance throughout their career.

Invest upfront in quality equipment

It is necessary for a new tattoo artist to purchase their own equipment, usually during their apprenticeship. Your kit should include tips, grips, tubes, and ink. It will also need to include needles, and like paintbrushes which serve different functions depending on what you are trying to paint, there are many needle types and cartridges to choose from. It's wise to have a selection to choose from, but if you have a particular artistic style, you will likely need to research what kinds of needles are best suited to making that art a reality. Finally, you will need to acquire at least one machine and a power supply, although most tattoo artists require multiple machines to create more elaborate artwork.

Finding the right equipment can be a bit of a learning curve and is largely based on the experience and recommendations of your mentor. "If you don't know who builds high-quality machines, or how to talk to who is building the machines, you will struggle to find quality tools and materials," notes Dr. Lane to Illinois State University News.

Although tattoo apprenticeships are unpaid and high-quality equipment doesn't run cheap, the money you spend on better equipment now will pay off when you actually start tattooing people. Not only will your tattoos look nicer, but you won't have to replace the equipment when your apprenticeship is over, ultimately saving yourself major bucks in the long term.

You should like working with people

It goes without saying that the art of tattooing wouldn't exist without people to be tattooed, which makes being a people person a necessary requirement of the job. It's as much a customer service job as it is an artistic one, and as tattoos become more mainstream, so does the importance of the customer experience.

In addition to killer art skills and mastery of the overall craft, tattooing requires good communication skills. You should feel comfortable talking to strangers and be able to discuss concepts with a client, but you should also be comfortable putting up boundaries and politely telling people when their idea isn't a good one. It is also necessary to be a good listener, not only to turn a client's meaningful ideas into a breathtaking piece of body art but so that you can understand if they are uncomfortable or nervous. Many people get tattoos that signify something important in their lives or as memorials to people they've loved and lost. Being able to listen to your clients talk about the stories behind their new ink enhances their experience and makes you a better, more empathetic artist in the long run.

Mistakes are inevitable

Most new artists worry about making a mistake while tattooing. After all, the results of that mistake are pretty permanent and can live on a stranger's body for decades. However, just like with anything else in life, mistakes are inevitable. Even for the most skilled and experienced tattoo artists. "Mistakes are made all the time," Portland-based tattoo artist Seven McDougall tells Inside Out. "No artist on earth is perfectly flawless."

Although you as the artist will know if you've messed up, most of the time the mistakes you make won't be noticeable to the client or anyone else. If they are noticeable or cause a drastic change to the agreed-upon artwork, you will need to have a discussion with your client as soon as possible. Usually, this looks like calmly acknowledging your mistake and proposing a change that fixes it, be it making a few lines thicker or adding in a different color that wasn't originally supposed to be there. The mistakes you make can usually be easily balanced or repaired with little consequence, and with plenty of practice and patience, you will learn how to avoid basic mistakes over time.

It is also important to remember that mistakes can also happen when your canvas is a living, breathing being that twitches, itches, and occasionally has to sneeze or use the bathroom. Rest assured that time, patience, and experience will teach you how to avoid those types of mistakes and correct them when they occur.

Tattoo artists are also salespeople

In addition to being a people person and possessing strong customer service skills, it is wise to remember that tattoo artists are also salespeople — at least some of the time. Tattoo artists make beautiful body art, but they are competing for clients in a world full of talented artists with potentially similar skills. As a result, learning how to market yourself, your particular art or tattooing style, and communicating your expertise with potential clients is a major part of the job.

Being familiar with social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok and updating your accounts with regular content is also necessary to showcase your work and attract new clients. Like with any business, a website or social media account is often the first impression a client has of you. These digital platforms should showcase your personality and your shop's vibe or unique aesthetic in addition to the work you produce. Although it isn't strictly necessary, taking a business class or a marketing and branding course may help you boost any sales skills you lack.

Tattooing is not a traditional 9 to 5 job

If you're looking for a position that allows you structured time off as well as your nights and weekends free, working as a tattoo artist probably isn't for you. Although this type of work comes with ample creative freedom and a certain level of flexibility, it is not a traditional 9 to 5. This means that many of the time benefits that come with a guaranteed 40-hour workweek are absent.

For starters, many tattoo shops don't open until 11 am or noon and stay open until well after 5 pm. They are also open on weekends. Being a tattoo artist also involves dedicated time outside of the shop working on client artwork, updating your portfolio, and promoting your own work on social media to attract new clients. Many artists schedule time for certification and licensure updates, paperwork, and client consultations in the mornings and evenings after the average person has left the office for the day. The work is time-consuming and can take up more than 60 hours per week. 

As tattoo artist and shop owner Phil Kyle explains to The Guardian, "When you're in, it's your life. You don't clock out." It is therefore vital that you have a passion for tattooing and can fully devote yourself to it, especially if you hope to make it your life's work.

The job is hard on your body

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable, because tattooing is not easy on the body. The work requires sitting for long periods of time, usually hunched over in a way that can cause chronic pain in the neck, shoulders, and back. Holding a vibrating instrument can also lead to stress on the hands and wrists, which damages the nerve endings and capillaries there. "I had carpal tunnel. I also just have a lot of hand pain and wrists," Debra Yarian, a tattoo artist based in Alaska, shares with Allure. "My hands, my wrists, my forearms. A lot of people don't think it's hard work, but it is physically demanding."

The cause of this pain is largely due to the fact that tattoo artists are required to sit in one position as still and steady as possible for long periods of time. This static positioning prohibits the artist's muscles from getting proper blood and oxygen flow, which eventually leads to chronic pain that can impact their quality of life. Although all jobs come with some form of occupational hazard, tattooing is exceptionally hard on your physical well-being. Strides in tattooing technology and a general emphasis on physical health among tattoo artists are being made, but you will have to prepare for the likelihood of discomfort as the result of this career path.

Being a tattoo artist is difficult but rewarding work

Overall, being a tattoo artist is rewarding but difficult work that comes with its fair share of highs and lows. The path to becoming an established tattooist is long, requiring years of patience, dedication, and persistence. As a beginner, the pay is next to nothing if not nonexistent, the hours are long and occasionally inconsistent, and the work you do focuses as much on learning how a tattoo shop runs as it does actually tattooing human beings. Once you are comfortable tattooing people, each tattoo requires hours of steady and meticulous work that can lead to chronic pain.

But, if you are willing to work hard, practice, and cultivate the necessary technical, artistic, and people skills required for this unique career path, you will have the opportunity to experience a rewarding career unlike anything else. You will have the chance to meet new people every day and forge meaningful relationships with the people you tattoo. Being a tattoo artist also allows you to work independently and be in control of your own schedule, be it in a shop with others or out of a shop you run yourself. Most importantly, tattooing offers you the chance to express yourself creatively and share your artistic talent with the world in lasting and meaningful ways.