If you’ve decided you want to become a tattoo artist, it’s important to recognize right away that this isn’t a vocation you can just jump into it. Rather, one to three years of training and apprenticeship is involved.
Get your portfolio ready
Like many creative fields, a tattoo apprenticeship starts off by compiling a portfolio of your artwork, which should feature approximately 25 to 50 pages of your drawings, paintings and other tattoo-related sketches. Once you have that portfolio compiled, you can begin to share it. “The next step would be going around to local shops and showing the owner/ manager your work and asking if they were looking to take on an apprentice” says Liz Kantner, who owns the tattoo shop Divination in Asheville, NC with Chris Evans.
“Approach it with respect and reverence. Be humble. Take advice from the other artists at the shop, every artist has something to offer you,” says Tyson Weed of Sentient Tattoo Collective in Tempe, AZ
“It’s also important to do research for your own area, and see what requirements exist there for apprenticeships. Apprenticeship has changed a lot in recent years, and some states (e.g., Oregon) now require or prefer graduation from a tattoo school instead of apprenticeship,” says D. Angus Vail, co-author of Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing.
Find an apprenticeship
Traditionally, one would earn an apprenticeship by hanging around a shop for a long time and getting tattooed there, explains Vail. “Sometimes artists will offer apprenticeships, but more frequently collectors ask for them. The collector/apprentice would then pay the artist—$10,000 was not an uncommon amount for a long time—for the privilege of having access to the process and asking questions,” he adds.
But don’t expect to be doing a lot of art while you are there, especially at first. “It’s a lot of time cleaning toilets. 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. It will often be more than a year before you get to tattoo anyone. You always start on yourself. After awhile you get to tattoo friends for free in the shop and under supervision. When you start working on the public, you’ll frequently be limited to small tattoos for at least a year. Most apprenticeships used to come with a 5/5 contract,” says Vail who explains that means you had to work for your training artist for five years, and when you finished, you had to move at least five miles from the shop.
And the length of that apprenticeship will vary for different people. “The length of your apprenticeship depends on your motivation and how much time you’re willing to put in. For me, I was able to get through my apprenticeship in seven months but that was being there open to close, seven days a week. In my opinion, an apprenticeship is the only way to become a tattoo artist,” says Weed.
Expect the hours will be long, too. “You are expected to be at the shop the same hours your mentor keeps, some may be flexible on a part time work schedule,” says Kantner. Usually apprentices have other jobs. “When I was apprenticing I would work my job that paid in the morning until noon and then would be at the shop until my mentor finished—as late as midnight some nights. Set up and breakdown work space for mentor and then while he was tattooing, if he wanted me to watch and ask questions I would, otherwise I’d be drawing, painting or cleaning,” she adds.
A lot has changed in the tattoo world since those rough outlines, standards and ethical codes, though. “Your best bet really is to talk to different artists from a variety of different states to find out how it’s done in their respective locations. Regulation goes by state, so standards and laws will vary at least by state. Some states, it may vary by county,” says Vail.
The key is to be persistent when trying to get that apprenticeship you want. “If your art isn’t up to a level they [the artist you are seeking an apprenticeship with] believe it should be ask for constructive criticism and put in the hours to improve,” says Kantner.
Remember: first impressions count
Just like any job, especially when you are making a first impression, you need to put your best effort forward. You are expected to always be doing something productive. “If you aren’t talking to clients and getting them set up to be tattooed by an artist in the shop you should be honing your skills and drawing flash, the term for popular tattooable imagery—mostly in the American traditional style, meaning strong outline and solid coloring,” says Kantner. If you aren’t doing that you should be cleaning. “An apprenticeship in the tattoo world is still done how they have been for the last 30 years,” says Kantner. It will be tough, but the payoff is one hundred percent worth it.
If it feels like the shop you are visiting is giving you a hard time and are being tough on you, don’t take it personally. This is all part of the learning process. They are tough for a reason, to weed out the people who aren’t completely serious about progressing the craft of tattooing. “You may not even pick up a tattoo machine until you are a year into your apprenticeship because your drawing and technique needs to be adapted to tattooing,” says Kantner. “If your art is there and you have the drive then tattooing is a great way to make money in the arts. Just know that the path is not an easy one when done correctly.”
Ultimately, be prepared for a long journey. No one becomes a tattoo artist overnight and it’s a lot of work to get to the place you want to ultimately be. Becoming a tattoo artist takes between one and three years of apprenticing under a master tattooist. And that’s time you will need to be working hard and also be working elsewhere to support yourself: Tattoo apprenticeships are earned and are unpaid internships. But ultimately, it’s going to be so worth it. You’ll be the tattoo artist you admire.