How to Become a Tattoo Artist

It can be difficult for a tattoo artist to earn true respect from the art community, and there are usually a number of factors working against them. For starters, many still unfairly assume that tattoo parlors attract an unsavory crowd, while others are turned off by its counter-culture roots. But no matter how many stereotypes exist and no matter how many artists try to brush aside tattoo artistry’s legitimacy, the fact remains that becoming a tattoo artist takes real artistic skill, and tattoo art can make the same impact on people and their lives that other kinds of art can. There is also no denying that tattoos and tattoo parlors have become far more mainstream in the last 20 years. In 2007, Inc. estimated there were about 15,000 tattoo parlors in America, making somewhere north of $2.3 billion annually and those numbers have almost certainly grown since then. Also, a Pew Research Center study shows that more than a third of Americans ages 18 to 25 have a tattoo, as well as 40 percent of folks in the 26 to 40 range. The cranky crowd can complain as loud as they want about the sketchy fringe of the tattoo community, but even they can’t deny that tattoo artistry has become big business and that successful tattoo artists have the opportunity to make a lot of money in the industry.

All of that said, the steady increase in the number of tattoo parlors and tattoo artists has made the industry that much more competitive and crowded. The success of some tattoo shops may seem enticing, but any professional tattoo artists will tell you that it isn’t easy to get your shop off the ground and that it takes a lot of hard work and persistence to create a successful tattoo business from scratch. This shouldn’t discourage aspiring artists from pursuing a career as a tattoo artist, but it should force them to do their research and ask around before they leap in to the industry with both feet.

Despite its increasing popularity, the tattoo business is still small enough for the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics not to care. The BLS doesn’t have hard employment and salary data for tattoo artists because they still lump tattoo artists into the “other artists” category along with folks like illustrators, calligraphers and others. There are some sources that estimate that most tattoo artists make between $35,000 and $50,000 per year, which isn’t that much in the grand scheme of things. But as you will come to understand, most tattoo artists don’t get in to the industry to get rich. They do it because they love the process of creating a piece of body art and then seeing their customers’ reactions to sentimental tattoos that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Despite what many might think, there is no hard or fast path to becoming a tattoo artist.

Getting your start in the industry takes more than just artistic skill and knowledge. Many tattoo artists start as apprentices under experienced and licensed tattoo artists where they learn the ropes and ins and outs of the business before larking out on their own. Some professionals try to start their own shop; others are content to work in someone else’s shop. Some are interested in growing their business quickly; others are content to work with a small, select, and loyal customer base. It is both the beauty and challenge of the industry that there can be such a diverse set of paths toward success. It may sound stressful, but the expert tattoo artists we spoke to unanimously agreed that they loved their job and wouldn’t rather be working in any other industry or field. In an effort to try and help aspiring tattoo artists navigate all of the information and possible career paths available to them, we asked a number of professionals to share their experiences and also created a visual to serve as an overview of what the industry looks like now.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Anji Marth

Tattoo Artist at Laughing Buddha Tattoo and High Priestess Tattoo

Quick Look Bio

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  • Anji Marth
  • Seattle, WA & Salem, OR
  • 17
  • Self-employed
  • @resonanteye
I am a high school dropout. I took art classes after getting my GED in the early 90s, mostly art history, color theory, and composition/life drawing classes. I was living on the East Coast at the time and left for the Pacific Northwest to take a tattoo apprenticeship. I spent two years apprenticing, learning everything about tattooing and the business side of it, before I began tattooing.I work second shift hours, so I start at 1:00 or 2:00 pm and then work until 9:00 or 10:00 pm. I have a lot of regular clientele, so I tend to do one or two bigger tattoo sessions each day. Usually, I get to the shop, answer emails, and then have a few consultations with new clients. I spend a little time drawing and getting my equipment prepared for the day, then I start tattooing. I tend to leave a few days a week open for walk-ins, I really love the spontaneity of smaller tattoos. I enjoy the process, and I really love to follow it from start to finish in one session sometimes.

The best thing about my job is drawing on amazing people all day. My clients are the best part of the job. The worst part of my job is probably the amount of people I see who have been incorrectly educated about what I do. I see a lot of clients who have been ripped off by non-tattoo artists selling them “tattoo designs”, people who have gotten bad tattoos by unlicensed or untrained “artists”, and people who have been ripped off for thousands of dollars for fake apprenticeships and the like. It makes me really angry to see tattoo collectors treated poorly or taken advantage of. I also dislike haggling about prices. Tattoos cost what they cost; each region has its own pretty standard rates that cover our costs, and you can’t really argue that away. The famous saying goes “Good tattoos aren’t cheap, and cheap tattoos aren’t good.”

Advice

Appreciate the kindness and generosity of the customers
I wish I had known that people were so kind. I was very shy before I was in this career. I was geeky, just totally scared of my clients because they seemed so cool. Over the years, I have come to realize that people can be very intimidated by walking into a tattoo shop; they feel nervous or shy. Part of my job is to welcome them, to make them feel at home, to feel safe. It’s important that they can see that I’m just a regular person too and that we can connect and be friendly and at ease with each other. Because I was so shy, it took me years to realize this.

It’s not all glitz and glamour, and don’t be discouraged easily
It’s a bad time to get into the business. There was a huge bubble, because of the TV shows, of people trying to get into tattooing. You have to realize that this career is just that –an actual career. It’s not a highly paid one though. Being self-employed means there is no workman’s compensation, no insurance, no backup, no retirement plan. While apprenticing, tattooing has to be the single most important thing in your life. Your family, kids, partner, hobbies, LIFE, all have to come second to tattooing during those early years. If you have to move 3,000 miles away to apprentice, that’s what you’ll have to do, and any excuse you have not to do that is a PERFECT reason why you should not be tattooing at all. This isn’t a career that you can make mistakes in –it’s permanent. It affects people. It changes them. It’s important. I think you shouldn’t pursue a career in tattooing. Tattooing is something you do as a career because you simply can’t imagine doing anything else! If you can become a plumber or an accountant, do that instead. You’ll get paid more and have more free time. If that discourages you, you aren’t meant to be doing this job.

Load up on art classes and apprenticeships
We have continuing education requirements here in order to maintain our licensing. I’ve taken tons of seminars about specific areas of tattoo craft, machinery, and equipment. I’ve gone to dermatology and pathogen-control classes, as well as taken CPR/first aid and OSHA blood borne pathogen and cross-contamination control every year for the last 15 years. On top of this, I attend any and every art class I can make time for. All of these are useful.

Don’t forget to actually get a tattoo
Honestly, the best way to get your foot in the door is to GET tattooed. Choose a tattoo artist you’d like to learn from, and go get a massive tattoo from them. Bring along your artwork, and ask them if they know of anyone who is looking for apprentices. Network. Keep your life wide open for the opportunity. And get lots of tattoos by artists you admire! Watching up close is a great way to learn and to connect to artists. A good way to get the door slammed in your face, though, is to buy gear online and try to teach yourself or “practice” at home. This is basically blacklist behavior –nobody wants to waste their time teaching someone who has already amassed bad habits and who disrespects the craft by putting people at risk of infection, or who is simply doing terrible work.

Chris “Crash” Midkiff

3rd Eye Tattoo Co. and Tattoo Artist Magazine

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  • Chris “Crash” Midkiff
  • Chattahoochee Hills, GA
  • 25
  • Self-employed
  • @tattooartistmag
I began tattooing professionally way back in 1990 (eeek) while pursuing an associate degree in Graphic Design and Illustration at the Art Institute of Atlanta. Before college I was just some do-it-yourself, punk rock kid from the suburbs, trying to find a way to make art my living. Like a lot of tattoo artists, I was influenced greatly by the music, attitude and philosophies of the 80s underground music scene. In fact, during high school, I made extra cash painting leather jackets and doing flyers and record covers for the local punk rock/metal bands until one of them asked me to design their band logo and tattoos. I briefly experimented with hand-poking tattoos on classmates after getting my first tattoo at 15 years of age, but it was too crude and thus quickly abandoned. When the band approached me about designing their tattoos, I picked up a few modern tattoo magazines to see what could be done and was blown away by the quality of work possible!

Inspired by the groundbreaking works of Ed Hardy, Guy Aitchison, Paul Booth, and a handful of others, I started to explore tattooing as a valid career potential, even while attending a commercial art school. A few weeks later, I was learning how to tattoo from their artist and soon employed by Painless Paul Nelson at his world famous Ace Tattoo Studio, Atlanta’s oldest and most respected tattoo shop. I worked at Ace for a few years, learning all I could from my teacher before eventually opening my own space, which is still around today and called 3rd Eye Tattoo Co.

Wanting to learn from a variety of artists, in 2000 I decided to pursue journalism in my spare time and began conducting interviews with acclaimed artists for many of the top tattoo magazines of the day. A few years into writing, I started getting a bit frustrated with the various publishers and their lack of respect for tattooing and the artists featured in their publications.About that time I met my next mentor, Mike “Rollo Banks” Malone, (a living legend at the time, RIP, and the man who inherited Sailor Jerry’s studio upon his passing), and we started discussing the idea of creating a tattoo magazine by and for tattoo artists. Soon after, Tattoo Artist Magazine was born. Since then, it has been one whirlwind ride after another. I’ve traveled the globe many times over, visiting exotic places, working at international tattoo conventions and collaborating with the best of the best in the tattoo community to create what has become the most respected tattoo magazine ever. What a joy and privilege it is to represent tattooing at this high level. TAM has always been a true labor of love because tattooing changed my life and the lives of so many successful and respected artists in the world –no matter what the background, upbringing or cultural environment. The TAM project is about sharing these stories and celebrating everything positive and transformative about the art and craft of tattooing.

Advice

Be aware of the bigger picture
I sure wish I’d have known that tattooing would one day be on television and become mainstream, or that tattoo artists would actually become pseudo-celebrities. I wish I’d known that the Internet and then social media would evolve to impact the craft of tattooing as much as it has. I also wish I had realized that so few artists would care enough about any of it to join together and help make a positive difference in the world of tattooing- for themselves, the history and future legacy of tattooing, or for their clients; I would have started working even harder to have a positive impact! Tattooing is an ancient and sacred craft, and it’s also an art. Both the advancements of tattooing and the preservation of its history are important. But more important than all of that is the welfare and education of our clients and future clients. People need to be taught. Our voices are much more powerful together than apart.

Work on becoming a great artist first
The very best advice I can give someone interested in a career in tattooing is to first focus all your effort on becoming the best ARTIST that you can be. Tattoo artists are a dime a dozen, but the REAL artists will ALWAYS stand out! Go to school, take classes, learn about line and light, shadow and texture, master some painting medium and learn all you can about design, flow, and basic color theory BEFORE even thinking about learning to tattoo. The field of tattooing is absolutely inundated with mediocrity, with only about 10 percent of working tattoo artists really being worth their salt. And only the few, perhaps even 1 percent, are true innovators and masters of the craft. Hence, the only way to thrive and make a name for yourself is to first perfect your art to a high level and then learn the skills of tattooing.

These two things are not the same; they are very distinct disciplines. Far too often I see kids trying to learn how to draw and how to tattoo simultaneously. In the old days it was possible to hone your art skills while growing as a tattoo artist, but the days of flash tattooing (designs on the walls of tattoo shops) and street shops are in quick decline. Tattooing is HARD! It takes 5-10 years of serious study to even start to understand what you’re doing to the people who entrust you with their skin and their futures. It needs to be taken much more seriously than it is. And if the public knew and understood this, they’d stop going to bad shops getting bad work from bad artists. Do your homework.

Apprenticeships can make or break a career
It comes from 25 years of experience –GET AN APPRENTICESHIP! And get that apprenticeship from someone who’s been tattooing for more than 10 years and has quality work to show for it; not the kid down the street who has no experience or training but opened a shop because he thought it would be easy! If you can’t find a reputable place to learn, then it is most likely because you lack the artistic ability to impress the pros enough to take you on. Work on your art and do it right. And PLEASE don’t buy a tattoo kit and start ruining peoples’ lives.

As I said, this is a HARD job and it takes years of training to understand and execute good, quality tattoos. Once you’re good enough to get in the door, pay attention, learn everything you can, study, be thankful, and get tattooed by the best artists in the world, building lasting relationships with as many as possible. Don’t ask questions, don’t try to impress anyone, just pay them for their skills and collect good tattoos. Those experiences and your reputation, combined with hard work, will carry you through.

Erika Jones

522 Tattoo – Co-owner

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I originally went to college to become an animator, but my first year in, I landed a tattoo apprenticeship. Now, I’m booked a few months in advance and have the luxury of knowing what I will be working on each day ahead of time. I always go in a little early so I can have some coffee, organize my thoughts and set up my work station. I’m co-owner of the shop, so I got to pick the people I work with, which makes every day amazing! We talk and laugh all day. My clients tend to be more like me, so we talk and laugh with them the whole time they are getting tattooed.

I’m truly grateful for having my job! I love working in a creative industry. I enjoy learning about my clients and the great conversations we have. I get to travel all over the world tattooing at friend’s shops or conventions. I don’t punch a clock. I don’t work in a cubicle. I don’t get TPS reports. It’s great that I’m not confined to just tattooing and that I can branch out to work on other projects like Worse Laid Plans.

There is a lot of ego in this industry, and it is exhausting. I can’t even begin to describe the “beginning of my career”. It was tumultuous, scary, unpredictable and far from structured. However, despite the dysfunctional environment I trained in, I made it out the other side stronger, wiser and with a healthy perspective. I’m not sure if knowing anything ahead of time would have made things better. Maybe I would have achieved success a bit earlier or had a little more confidence. I’m so happy with where I am at now and what I have overcome to get here, I doubt I would change much of my path even if I could.

Advice

Get an apprenticeship
Seek out an apprenticeship. Work hard. Don’t get a big head. Cultivate a diverse style. Be gracious.

Conventional education isn’t necessarily the best path
I don’t feel a conventional form of education (i.e. vocational school, college, etc.) is the way to learn how to tattoo. It’s like learning a language in school and then going to another country and getting laughed at because you sound like a robot and can’t speak conversationally. Total immersion is the best way to get the full understanding of that culture. Same with a tattoo apprenticeship. Nothing beats practical application/experience.

Make sure to put in the time and the effort
Due diligence! You will not be taken seriously unless you have put some serious time and effort into proving you can do it. Start by putting together a really great portfolio, and then shop it around. Reach out to other artists; cultivate a relationship. Then….don’t f*** up!

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Tattoo Artist?
  • The Academy of Responsible Tattooing
    With locations throughout the United States and on both coasts, the ART offers individualized tattoo and art education designed to look and simulate the experience of a tattoo apprenticeship. The teachers are some of the most accomplished and experienced tattoo artists, and the curriculum includes all kinds of art education. At ART, students get a solid grounding in the foundations, techniques, and strategies for creating incredible body art. And as they advance through the school, students get to learn the more nuanced tactics that will help set them apart from the crowded field.
  • Austin’s School of Spa Technology
    Although it may not sound like it, Austin’s School of Spa Technology doesn’t just have a tattoo program, it has a critically acclaimed program. This program is as comprehensive as they come as students will learn artistic technique; they will earn their blood borne pathogen certification; they will learn tattoo artistry history, and they will get extensive help developing a worthy portfolio. This unique hands-on program allows students to get creative while also providing the basis for a sound and technical tattoo education.
  • Master Tattoo School
    Master Tattoo Institute is a well-known and popular tattooing school in the tattoo hub of Miami. The program considers itself cutting-edge and backs up that bold talk by combining an experienced and talented faculty with some of the best resources for students available. The school also has a comprehensive curriculum designed to not only educate students on the skill-specific aspects of body art, but also give students a solid grounding in general artistic strategy and knowledge. The programs are cost-effective and offer a diverse set of skills and experiences. The school has been around for more than 50 years, which should tell you all you need to know about its prestige and success.
  • Denver Body Art School
    The first regulated tattoo school in Colorado first opened almost a decade ago and has grown into one of the better tattoo schools in the country in relatively short order. Its artists/instructors are some of the best in the business, and they offer students an incredible and multi-faceted body art education. The tattoo class is not only affordable, but the school supplies top-of-the-line resources to its students and helps many of its students get in the door of the industry by connecting them with industry professionals in the Denver area and beyond.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

Apprenticeships are the lifeblood of the industry. Unlike other professions where networking helps get you in front of other professionals and offers you a chance to show off your skill, tattooing relies on networking to help provide its next group of apprentices. Once you are an apprentice, all of our experts agree, you are on your way to being a professional tattoo artist. Some experts recommended actually getting a tattoo so you could see what quality looks like up close, but even those tips ultimately end up in the same place. That place is apprenticeship.