So you want to be a tattoo artist when you grow up? Where do you begin? There are tattoo trade schools and opportunities to refine your drawing abilities in a traditional art school, but many old-school tattooers would advise against spending money on courses — especially when you consider some tattoo apprenticeships pay well.
Tattoo artists can be reluctant to give up trade secrets but that didn’t stop us. Here, a few pros share some vital tips for new tattoo artists.
Respect your elders
Tattooing isn’t easy. Your days are long, your hands will cramp after long sessions and your back will ache after behind hunched over all day. The toll tattooing takes on an artist’s body cannot be diminished, which is why most of the artists we spoke with wanted to remind new artists to respect their elders. As Nickhole Arcade, owner of Waterproof Black Tattooing in Olympia, Washington, says, you’re standing on the shoulders of giants. Don’t expect to come into the industry totally green and outperform your predecessors. Instead, take the time to learn from them. Jes Valentine, owner of Haven Tattoo Studio, recommends learning from an artist who you respect and going through a proper apprenticeship.
Troll, an artist in Helena, Montana, reminds new artists to constantly practice their art skills. “Colored pencil, watercolor, graphite, charcoal, and so on. Practice your color theory. This is the stuff that will help you grow as a tattooist. Get a portfolio of drawings of finished pieces together, sketches, black and white, color, whatever you can do. Be flexible with your art because you have to be in this field. Get it critiqued, and take the criticism to heart. Make the suggested changes.” In the Facebook group Ask a Professional Tattoo Artist, another pro suggests new artist should draw every day and bring their work to different studios for feedback. Tattoo artistry is different than a studio, so Troll also suggests reading books like The Coloring Book Project for fresh ideas and tips.
You can’t be a blank canvas
Would you trust a sushi chef who never eats fish? A dog walker who hates animals? The same goes for tattoo artists. If you want to be one, you should have tattoos yourself. Not only does it show your appreciation for the industry, but it’ll also give you perspective when clients have questions about pain, aftercare, healing, and more. At Troll’s studio in Helena, he won’t consider a new artist who does not have any tattoos themselves and it also helps him get to know the person who wants to work under him. Similarly, Valentine believes going into a studio with no tattoos and asking for a job is insulting. She says it’s better to “establish a relationship with a shop and/or a tattoo artist,” and one way to do that is by getting tattooed by them.
Don’t try this at home
An important addition to our list of tips for new tattoo artists. In the Ask a Professional Tattoo Artist group, one newcomer asked if they could try tattooing at home and were met with a resounding NO! While an artist may establish an up-to-code tattoo station in their home and practice excellent hygiene and sanitation, home-practice isn’t recommended for artists who want to be taken seriously. Not to mention, in many states and countries it is illegal. Although you shouldn’t tattoo from home, Valentine does stress the importance of having your own, high-quality tools, which shows you’re invested and take the trade seriously.
Penelope, one of the group’s administrators, noted that if an artist’s apprenticeship ends unexpectedly, the next step isn’t to buy a machine and set up shop at home. “If you plan on making a career, it’s important to seek out another apprenticeship before you attempt tattooing outside of a shop,” which brings us to the next and, possibly, most important tip…
Apprentice makes perfect
Instead of classes — many of which aren’t accredited or valued by your potential employers — apprenticeships are core to starting your career as a tattoo artist. But they are not for the faint of heart. Troll, who comes from the “you get one chance” generation, reminds newcomers that “it’s not an easy job. It’s hard work to get into. It’s hard to finish. You will be stressed to the point that you will want to quit.” In his opinion, this is the purpose of an apprenticeship and the job of the artist teaching them to push new artists to their breaking point in order to see how serious they are about this career. Other artists report that, as a still male-dominated industry, women have a more difficult time during apprenticeships — something they may want to consider when seeking out artists under whom to study.
Securing an apprenticeship can also be more difficult than the apprenticeship itself. While some studios have an application process, others are able to rely on walk-ins. So come equipped with your resume, portfolio, and a willingness to do some grunt work. Valentine started as a shop assistant, cleaning up after artist’s sessions (and scrubbing bathrooms), before securing an apprenticeship and, later, opening her own studio in Brooklyn. The shop owner saw how seriously she took her assistant duties and interest in tattoos that he offered to train her himself.
Treat your entry into the tattoo industry as you would any other job application or interview. Over-prepare, practice and learn the industry lingo. Be eager, earnest, and willing to get your hands dirty (with gloves, of course), and don’t give up until you get what you want.