Becoming A Tattoo Artist - Everything You Need To Know
Being a tattoo artist isn’t the most glamorous job and very few people earn an extravagant paycheck from it. Yet it’s still one of the more reliable and profitable ways to earn a living as an artist.
Still, it’s more than just the money. Most people who want to become tattoo artists do so because they feel it’s their calling. They’re drawn to the idea of being the person who helps give people the look they want or help them permanently commemorate something important.
If that sounds like you, you’ve probably wondered what steps you have to take and what hoops you have to jump through to become a professional tattoo artist. We’ve compiled all that information here so you can get all the answers you’re looking for.
Do You Need Any Credentials to Work as a Tattoo Artist?
There are no credentials required to become a tattoo artist. (If you operate your own tattoo shop, you’ll need certification, including a business license, but that’s another matter.)
On the other hand, many aspiring tattoo artists get formal training or education in fine arts, whether they do it by going to art school, taking a series of classes, or participating in several workshops.
While you don’t need a college or technical school degree to work as a tattoo artist, you might need a tattoo license.
Getting a Tattoo License
Some states require only the tattoo shop itself to have a permit to operate, not the individuals working in it. Although, in many jurisdictions, you’ll need a personal license to work as a tattoo artist. Even if you work in a state with no licensing requirements, there may still be municipal regulations that you must comply with.
To acquire a tattoo license (where one is required), you’ll need at a minimum to be at least 18 years of age and have successfully completed an apprenticeship with a professional tattoo artist.
Regulations vary across states and some may have additional licensing requirements, such as the completion of a course on understanding and preventing the spread of blood-borne pathogens. First aid and CPR training is also required in some states.
You may also need proof that you have received a hepatitis B vaccine – and even in states where this is not a requirement, it’s prudent for anyone working in contact with blood to be current with their vaccines.
In most cases, you’ll have to pass an exam to acquire your license. Some states will also require you to show proof that you’ve completed a certain number of tattoos.
If you intend to tattoo in a different state (perhaps to attend an out-of-town event or workshop), your license won’t carry over. You will need to acquire a temporary tattoo license from the state you’re planning to tattoo in.
Secure an Apprenticeship Under a Professional Tattoo Artist
Everyone wishes they could jump in and start earning a living right away, but tattooing is a high-stakes activity and it takes some getting used to. You’ll need supervision from an experienced tattooist, who will give you a controlled environment where you will get to do some limited work to gain experience.
You’ll also acquire knowledge that is critical for operating in a professional and safe capacity. Not only how to properly operate the tattoo machine and other equipment, but also how to ensure that everything you use is properly sterilized.
Unfortunately, those apprenticeships are unpaid, or minimally paid. Though, this is your professional education. Think of it like going to college or a technical school, none of which pay you but they are important first steps for many careers. Just remember, you will earn a good tattoo artist salary if you continue to push through and complete your learning.
Unless you can live with your parents while you’re apprenticing, you’ll have to get a job to pay the bills while learning your trade on the side. Slinging coffee, washing dishes, and mopping floors probably aren’t part of your career plan, but after a year or two, you should be able to start pursuing your dream of tattooing for a living.
What Your Apprenticeship Will Be Like
Working in a tattoo shop might be exciting, but an apprenticeship isn’t exactly glamorous.
You’ll start by working on the most menial tasks. It’ll be your job to keep the shop clean, do some basic paperwork, and run errands (don’t be surprised if you learn everyone’s coffee order within your first week).
Soon, you’ll get to do some of the work that is adjacent to the tattooing itself. You’ll be laying out equipment, mixing ink, sterilizing the gear, and you might even be made to tattoo on things other than human skin (practicing on fruit with rinds is common).
After all that, you’ll have finally worked your way up to actually tattooing people. However, you might not be allowed to tattoo the actual clientele at first. Many apprentices have to bring people in with the promise a free tattoo – friends and family, often.
By the end, if you’ve proven yourself, you’ll probably be allowed to ink simple designs on actual customers.
How to Get an Apprenticeship
So, an apprenticeship is needed, but how do you get one?
The first thing you need to do is have a way to show your work. Like any visual artist, you’ll need to put together a portfolio before somebody can consider training you up.
Being a tattoo artist is often less like being a painter and more like being a graphic designer. You’ll be helping customers bring their visions and their styles to life. That means you’ll be working with a wide range of artistic methods and techniques.
While other artists might be able to just specialize, tattoo artists also need some general skills. To demonstrate that, you’ll need a portfolio that shows how much you can do (sorry, showing up with 100 drawings of skulls and roses won’t be enough).
Include 100 to 200 sketches that not only show different kinds of designs but also makes a case that you can skillfully handle shading, use colors creatively, and make dimensions pop.
The next thing to do is to network. If there are tattoo events in your area, attend them. If you’re getting tattooed, get to know your artist. It’ll be easier to get an apprenticeship if you’re already a familiar face.
How Much Does It Cost?
Becoming a tattoo artist isn’t free. There are a lot of costs you’ll have to foot before you can start earning money.
Invest in Quality Equipment
Like any major artistic work, tattooing involves a lot of equipment.
Since you’re dealing with people’s skin, blood, and wounds, you can’t start off cheap. You need to use the right equipment to do the job well and do the job safely.
So, what are you looking at in terms of equipment cost?
You’ll need more than you probably think, including:
- Two or more tattoo machines / guns
- Disposable needles
- Professional grade tattoo ink
- Disposable gloves
- Skin pens (these are used to draw the outline of the design on the skin before tattooing)
All of that, along with some assorted odds and ends, will bring the starting cost to a few thousand dollars. The costs can vary, but go into it ready to pay around $4,000 just for the gear.
Plus, of course, that’s just your starting equipment. You’ll eventually need to refresh your ink supply, buy more needles, and so on.
Unfortunately, apprenticing under a tattoo artist doesn’t mean you get to use their equipment. Keep in mind how much work is involved in showing you the ropes and supervising you – time that takes them away from their own tattooing. They don’t want to have to pay for your gear on top of all that.
Some apprenticeships are free, while other tattoo parlors will charge you a few thousand dollars for the privilege of learning with them.
In the more heavily regulated states, an apprenticeship will cost a lot more, approximately $10,000.
You will need to pay a modest fee to apply for your tattoo license or renew an expired one. Most tattoo licenses expire after one year and must be renewed to continue working legally.
Some Natural Talent Is Needed
No one likes being told that it will take more than just the right training to get the job that they want. Though unfortunately, that’s the case with being a tattoo artist. It really isn’t something just anyone can do.
There’s a certain amount of raw talent and artistic flair involved. You can get all the training you want, but no one is going to want you to tattoo them if it looks like a nine-year-old drew the designs.
Now, that doesn’t mean that just because you’re acing art class, you’re ready to start inking people. Tattooing skin with a needle is a completely different experience than painting a canvas or rubbing charcoal on sketch paper. You’ll need practice no matter how good your design skills are.
A steady hand also makes a huge difference. There are no erasers when it comes to tattooing (okay, fine, there are laser treatments, but try telling your client they need to undergo laser tattoo removal because you screwed it up). You can cover up small errors, but for the most part you just get one chance. If you’re the kind of person who might slip up and need a second draft, then you either need a lot more practice or to find a different line of work.
Take Care of Your Body
You don’t need to be an athlete or work out until you look fit to be a tattoo artist, but you will need to take reasonably good care of your body.
Tattooing is a marathon activity. You can spend hours working on a single tattoo, inking in every detail and getting the shading right. You need to have the energy and the endurance to go through that.
If you lead a really unhealthy lifestyle, you might not be able to put up with the work without succumbing to fatigue. Everyone needs to take an occasional break, but no one wants to be tattooed by someone who can only do thirty-minute sessions before they start to feel tired or shaky.
If you want to make it through your apprenticeship, taking care of your body (including adequate nutrition and sufficient sleep) is not optional.
Avoiding Ergonomic Injuries
There’s another, more serious reason to take care of your body.
Many tattoo artists worry that they won’t be able to do the job for life. That’s because tattooing full time can lead to debilitating ergonomic injuries.
Just look at the way tattoo artists have to sit, lean, and contort themselves to ink a design on a customer’s skin. Then there’s the small motions they have to do over and over when handling the tattoo gun.
It’s not unusual, then, for tattoo artists to develop back problems or succumb to repetitive motion injuries.
When they’ve been in the business long enough, some tattooists adapt to their injuries by opening up or managing a tattoo shop. That allows them to tattoo only part time while spending the rest of their work days on administrative tasks.
Those who can’t find a way to stay in the business while scaling back the amount of tattooing they do, simply have to hang up their equipment and find a line of work that doesn’t cause their injuries to flare up.
That’s unfortunate, but what does this mean for you as an aspiring tattoo artist?
You need to take good care of your body, now and when you’re apprenticing.
Watch your posture when you’re tattooing. Do your best to find a comfortable way to sit. If possible, move your stool or chair as you work on different parts of the tattoo instead of trying to lean over too far or stretch your arm out in an uncomfortable position.
Make sure you take breaks. You’re probably eager to do as much work as possible and show off how quickly you can work, but it won’t be worth it if you’re putting your wrists, fingers, and elbow through enough punishing, repetitive stress that you develop tendonitis.
That kind of care doesn’t just start and end at work. Make sure you keep a good, comfortable posture during your off hours. If you throw out your back at home, you won’t be much use in the shop except to sweep the floors, sterilize the gear, and answer the phone.
In other words, you need to take care of your body so that it doesn’t give out and get in the way of your tattoo career before it even starts.
Becoming a tattoo artist isn’t complicated, but it is hard work.
You’ll need to buy your equipment, secure an apprenticeship, and acquire a license.
Once you’ve done that, the rest is all patience and perseverance.