Here’s Everything You Need to Know to Become a Tattoo Artist

what do you need to become a tattoo artist
Credit: Sarah Harvey

If you’re looking to become a tattoo artist, odds are you have a lot of questions. The good news is that we’ve got answers. However, consider that plenty of practice, a great mentor, and procuring a license are a few of the must-haves to get into the field.

1. Hone your artistic skills

First things first: how much innate artistic talent do you need to succeed as a tattoo artist? “Artistic ability is very important, or else you are limited to what you can copy,” explains Nicole Eveland, owner of Idlewild Tattoo in North Carolina. “If you aren’t interested in making art, this is not likely the job for you,” she says, but supplementing natural creative gifts is possible—and recommended, too. “Experience comes with the job, though the more you have beforehand, the faster you will progress,” Eveland says. “Taking any art classes, drawing every day, finding instructional books and videos will all help you start out stronger.”

Aside from any supplemental art technique reading you might want to check out, you won’t need to hit the books much in order to tackle this career path. It’s more about talent (naturally occurring, and gained over time) and people skills than it is about rote memorization in this truly hands-on field.

2. Land an apprenticeship

“Education should consist of an apprenticeship under a skilled mentor in a shop,” Eveland says. You should not tattoo out of your house, garage, basement, trailer—this is dangerous, disgusting and usually ends with very poorly done work.”

What’s more, “learning from a master tattoo artist that has years of experience is by far better than any art school,” explains Charles Taylor, a tattoo artist at Sentient Tattoo Collective in Tempe, AZ, of the value of an apprenticeship, which he says typically last around two years “to really learn the ropes.” An apprenticeship can involve giving dozens of free tattoos, though some artists may do three figures, i.e. 100 tattoos worth of gratis ink during a training stint.

Know that apprenticing under an ink maverick is crucial for much more than simply technique. “Paying your dues and learning the culture is an important part of becoming a tattoo artist,” he says. “The first part of the apprenticeship isn’t about tattooing, in fact, you usually don’t tattoo at all. You’re mostly learning the basics like how to set-up and break-down for a tattoo. You’ll learn the routine of a master tattooer, where they get their inspiration from and how they create amazing art. You’ll also learn how to deal with clients.”

Patience is important when trying to land initial, foot-in-the-door opportunities to enter most fields, and tattooing is no exception. “Finding an apprenticeship can be tricky,” Eveland says. “Compile a portfolio of your best drawings or paintings and take them to shops around you,” she suggests, underscoring that persistence is key: “You will get a lots of ‘No’s’; keep trying until you get a ‘Yes.'”

3. Practice designs—on paper first, please

Found a suitable place to work, with an experienced artist to help guide your tattoo form? Great! Now, a few key pointers on how to hone your craft: “Practice on paper should happen before practice on anything else,” says Eveland, who suggests graduating from there to some surfaces found in your local produce aisle, a common practice surface used for budding tattoo artists.

But inking fruit is more about getting the hang of the tools, not for a simulation of the surface you’ll be working on (a.k.a., actual skin), Eveland explains: “Practicing on a grapefruit or melon is helpful to give the feel of drawing with a machine vs. pen or pencil; fake skin products will be closer to working on real skin than working on a fruit, but there is nothing that gives the exact effect of working on real skin.” Fruit nor prosthetic skin products can compare to real skin’s natural variances—and then, there’s the kinetic factor, too. “There are different skin types and tones, skin stretches, and unlike fruit, people move!” Taylor points out. “Your first tattoos will be small, then you’ll work your way up in size.”

And one more thing: Being vigilant about hygiene from the very start is key. “Aspiring artists should be learning about cross contamination from the very start; you’re working with people’s blood and body fluids,” Eveland says. “Learning proper hand washing, the right way to put on gloves, when to change your gloves, how to clean your work area, how to dispose of needles, and how to properly protect yourself and your equipment is very important.”

4. Obtain the proper license

Once you’ve practiced thoroughly, how do you go about obtaining a license? “Requirements vary from state to state, so it’s best to contact your local health department for regulations in your area,” Eveland suggests. “There is usually a yearly fee for your license, and always an inspection, at least once a year,” she says, noting that some states require BBP (Bloodborne Pathogens) certification as well.

5. Understand salary potential

When starting off in the industry, don’t expect to make much money—and line up other gigs or income sources accordingly, especially when you’re first learning the ropes. “Apprenticeships are not paid, so be sure to have a plan to support yourself,” Eveland explains. “I worked full time at a restaurant in the mornings and full time at a shop at night through my apprenticeship; I was also a piercer at the shop as well.” To wit: The current average salary for tattoo artists is $50,026, according to Simply Hired, while Indeed estimates a slightly higher average salary for the profession, at $50,653.  

6. Acquire the necessary tools

The main tool to acquire, in Taylor’s opinion, is a tattoo machine. “Please don’t call it a gun. We make art, not war!” he says. There isn’t a particular machine to seek out, though through an apprenticeship, you’ll be exposed to particular, well-vetted types of equipment: “There are many different types of machines, but usually, artists have a couple of favorites,” Taylor says.

The other essential is ink: Really, you just need black ink to tattoo, but other colors are nice to have if you’re creating a vibrant color piece. Another optional, nice-to-have (but not essential) item: Stencils, which Taylor calls “helpful, but not 100 percent required to create a tattoo.” However, Eveland stresses that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to building a kit of basic essential tools. “Every tattooer is going to use different machines, needles, and inks, based on their personal preferences,” she says.

7. Exercise patience in developing your signature style

Besides the necessary gear, how exactly should you build a personal ink aesthetic? Be patient, Eveland suggests. “Style comes with time. Pay attention to what you like, emulate that and your style will evolve from there. Starting out, it’s important to only take on what you can handle, so keep your projects small and simple, until you develop the necessary skills to complete larger more complex pieces.” Make sure you utilize a similarly patient approach to building a portfolio at the beginning. “Your portfolio will grow along with your skill level,” Eveland says. “You should only keep your best pieces in your portfolio: less is more.” Also, that portfolio really needs to be comprised of work in a proper, professional environment, definitely not from your basement. “If you don’t have experience in a shop or studio, don’t bring a portfolio of tattoos you’ve done at your house—it’s bad form, and we call those people scratchers,” Taylor says.

But excellent teachers, tools, and techniques will only get you so far. “Have a good attitude, and be humble: it’s important to me to not to get in the mindset that I know everything, so I’m constantly learning, and take criticism; that’s the only way to improve.” Oh, and some solid career advice applicable across fields, and certainly worthwhile in the tattoo industry, per Taylor: “Don’t be a jerk! Nobody wants to work with a jerk.”

Related: What’s the Average Salary of a Tattoo Artist?

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