Originally published 10/26/2007
As a tattoo artist for many years, I’ve seen many people who are interested in learning the trade. I’ve also seen many make the mistake of trying to take a shortcut to becoming a tattoo artist at home, or as a hobby.
If you are planning to tattoo “for fun” or as a hobby, you should know that in most states this is illegal. The biggest, and most serious reason, is for the health and safety of your (potential) clients. Tattooing in a bacteria-ridden space, with unsterilized equipment, or even worse, non-disposable equipment, is extremely risky.
The risks associated with home tattooing start with minor Staph infections and end with septicemia (which can be fatal) and transmission of serious, life-threatening viruses. Also, using your home as a tattoo studio puts you and your family at extreme risk of infections and diseases. Simply put, this is not safe, and is most likely against the law.
When you decide to learn tattooing it’s best to be careful. There are unscrupulous people who will try to take advantage of your interest, and knowing the usual steps taken to become a tattoo artist can help you avoid them.
Having an interest in tattooing and being able to draw, while necessary, are not the only things you’ll need. You’ll also require a lot of dedication, patience, and sociability. It is hard to become a tattoo artist. A typical apprenticeship is tiring, demanding, and difficult. The process of apprenticeship is designed to weed out those who are not capable of dealing with the stress of the job, and those who are not patient enough to cope with its demands.
If you apprentice, you will be granted the respect of your peers, and have more access to knowledge, equipment, and skills than if you try to muddle through (dangerously) on your own.
Artists the try to learn on their own do, rarely, become respected in the field- but this takes decades of hard work, rather than a few years.
Most will never achieve acceptance if they have not apprenticed properly.
If you’re the typical starving artist, tattooing can look very lucrative compared to where you’re at right now, but it’s not really a craft you can learn on your own (despite what those unscrupulous people might say).
If you can’t be patient and persistent, you won’t be a good tattooist anyway.
Dealing with clients is much more difficult than learning to tattoo, and without the barriers and obstacles to learning there would be no way to ensure the temperament of potential tattooists.
- * Tattooing is a job in which you will permanently apply images to other people’s bodies. You will be exposed to needlestick hazards, infectious diseases, unconsciousness, rudeness, vomiting, blood, bad smells, and frightened folks. You’ll have to know how to write “strength” in chinese, japanese, and farsi, and how to soothe a large scary biker who is crying for his mommy. You’ll be busy at work for a full shift and then go home to draw for five hours to get ready for the next day.
- * You will have to get vaccinations, business licenses, and confidence in your drawing ability. And you’ll be rewarded by working with people you love, looking how you like, and creating art that people love enough to wear forever. If you’re really good, you might even become famous, work at conventions, be published in magazines, or write books.
- * It’s a serious job and carries a lot of responsibility. It involves the trust of every person that you will tattoo-that you know how to keep them safe, and how to do the tattoo correctly.
- * Tattoo artists are unwilling to apprentice people who are not interested in tattooing as a career. The amount of work and time it takes to properly train someone to tattoo safely just isn’t worth it. Learning on your own will not allow you the ability to use modern techniques and equipment, since most retailers will not sell professional-grade equipment to amateurs. Despite what you may have read on the internet, there are NO books that will teach you everything you need to know to be a tattoo artist. These will only give you bits of information, and without good, working equipment and true, complete information, you just can’t tattoo all that well.
- * If you’re planning on doing this for fun, don’t bother. It is an actual, honest-to-god, real-life career, and should be approached as one.
- * If you decide that you do want to make a career of tattooing, you’re halfway there. Making the commitment to learn is the same as any other skilled occupation-it will take a few years to become proficient, and it will take initiative to learn. Most tattoo artists eventually have one or more apprentices, so if you are dedicated and persistent your chances are good.
- * Start by making a resume. List your work experience, and your art background, if you have any. As your cover page, write a brief synopsis of the reasons you’d like to become a tattoo artist, and what it means to you. Seeing a professional resume instead of being asked verbally to teach makes a great deal of difference, and puts you ahead of the dabblers. It gives you a professional appearance, and allows the artist you want to learn from to take you seriously.
- * Assemble a small portfolio of drawings, photographs, and paintings you’ve done, and make several bound copies of it at kinko’s on the color copier. If you don’t draw, consider taking an art class or two before you start trying to learn tattooing. Despite events on recent television shows, it’s much easier to learn one skillset at a time. You can ask a tattoo artist for guidance about which classes might apply or be useful, but a basic drawing, color theory, or figure drawing class is good even for experienced draftsmen.
- * Include in your book anything you really think is good, some things that aren’t, and things you think are possible to make into tattoos. This will give the artist you speak with some idea of what your abilities are and what you might be capable of as a tattooist.
- * If they ask you to come back some other time, try to get a specific time and don’t show up late. Remember that not all tattoo artists want to or have time to teach. If they blow you off at the start, think of it as a cue to try someone else as a teacher. They may be trying to soften the blow by saying they’re too busy to talk to you, not trying to be rude. Ask if they know of anyone else you can speak with, since they may know someone who can help you. Becoming a tattoo artist is a process, and it may take time to find people who will take you seriously and help you out.
- * You may have to move to a different city or area in order to learn. Think of this as paying your dues. Many many people have to move to go to the college of their choice, and never end up working in the field they got a degree in! You can rest assured that with dedication, your sacrifice will be worth it. If there are other priorities in your life that prevent you from moving, and you can’t find anyone close enough to teach you, it’s probably not meant for you to become a tattoo artist.
- * The demands of the work often interfere heavily with other priorities and “having a life”, so think twice if there are reasons you can’t move. Tattooing will interfere with them even if you end up learning locally and you may regret the decision later. Divorces are common in this industry.
- * Contacting artists on the internet is always a good idea. Write to people whose art you admire and ask them if they take apprentices, or if they know of anyone who does.
- * Getting your portfolio color-copied and bound at kinko’s may cost a few dollars, but it is a good idea because you can ask these artists for help, advice, and criticism. Some experienced artists will accept your book and resume and give you help with it. Asking if you can send them something to look at and asking for criticism can help you find someone to teach you, as most tattoo artists have a professional network of friends. Corresponding with one person can bring your desire to learn to the attention of many.
- * When soliciting criticism, try to take it well. Becoming defensive or making excuses will only stop the other person from helping you again. Listen to their advice and try to use as much as you can. Don’t waste time defending your mistakes; you won’t be helped a second time if you can’t appreciate criticism.
- * When you find someone who will apprentice you, for your own protection you should get a written agreement to teach. This should be something like a contract that lists what they will teach you, and states what will happen to you when you’re done learning(i.e. will they hire you? for how much pay? for how long?) It should also estimate the length of the apprenticeship to within a few months/year. The price of the teaching and the amount of “gruntwork” should also be listed. This can easily be put together by sitting down together and just writing down as much of the information as you can, and both signing it. It can be vague or as simple as you feel comfortable with- this doesn’t have to be legalese, it is just so you know where you stand.
- * To be a tattoo artist, you’ll need OSHA training in bloodborne pathogens and cross-contamination controls, as well as CPR/first aid. You’ll also need to learn a lot about dermatology and the nervous system. Learning about equipment, maintenance, and supplies is also pertinent, as is learning about the engineering of the human body.
- * Tattoo artists are cross-trainers; their knowledge straddles many fields. Learning from a good artist is the best way to obtain all of this, and learning one-on-one is the best way to do it.
- * Be very wary of “schools” that have more than one or two students for each “instructor”, and be cautious about paying for any apprenticeship that lasts less than ten months. These may be state-licensed but can’t possibly give you the worth of your time and money. The amount of information you’ll need to work as a tattoo artist is vast, and can’t be taught in a classroom or seminar, or in a few weeks.
- * You should try to apprentice from someone who will hire you when you are finished. The demand for brand-new tattoo artists is so low as to be negligible. Try to get a job with your instructor when you are done, at least for a year or two. Talk about this before you pay any money or invest time in learning. If they won’t hire their own student, that says very little about the quality of their teaching!
Last but not least, if you are serious and determined about tattooing, if you love it more than anything, and if you are willing to spend your life with it, you WILL find a teacher. Don’t give up hope! As a famous tattoo artist once said, “Tattooing is a special job for special people, it takes care of its own, and you’ll always get out of it what you put into it.”