How to Become a Tattoo Artist


Learn the Basics of Tattoo Art

The art of tattooing is more than just altering the body by inserting ink into the skin. A tattoo is often a rite of passage, a mark of status, or a symbol of bravery. Tattoos can be purely cosmetic – to enhance a person's appearance, or as a form of medical reconstruction and cover-up of scars or deformities. No matter the reason, the art form of tattooing has gained enormous popularity over the past twenty years, and the career field has exploded.

At one time, tattoos were frowned upon by many people who thought of the art subversive, and left for pirates and other rebellious individuals. Today, people as old as 80 are using tattooing as a form of self-expression or as a memorial to a loved one. Some individuals simply get tattooed because it’s cool.  The reasons are as many and varied as people who get inked. 

Although there is no specific category for tattoo artists listed by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, tattoo artists are considered fine artists and are therefore listed under that category. However, as job growth for fine artists is only two-percent, and slower than average for all careers, tattoo artists have seen an enormous gain in employment opportunities, especially if licensed in the state they wish to work. Depending on years of experience, location, and reputation, a tattoo artist can make upwards of $60,000 – $80,000 per year. Still, this is not a get-rich-quick career. Your ability to please your customers and gain a stellar reputation locally or nationally will ultimately decide your annual salary.


Find an Apprenticeship

Becoming a tattoo artist is a commitment, as the learning never stops. Some artists will consider taking courses at a community college, online, or even graduate with a degree from a university to broaden their artistic abilities.  But, most tattoo artists learn by acquiring an apprenticeship.   

To gain an apprentice, tattoo artists will have a portfolio filled with sketches, photos, and drawings showing off their diverse artistry.  A good portfolio will have anywhere from 50 to 200 sketches showcasing your ability to shade, show dimension, a wise use of colors, etc.  And, as an apprentice, you will also learn the different parts of the tattoo machine and how to take it apart and resemble quickly. You’ll learn how tattoos fit on various body parts and study color application.

Networking while in school, when sitting for your own tattoos, visiting tattoo shops, and attending conferences and events are great ways to network and gain industry connections. These are the people who will ultimately hire you as an apprentice or as part of their shop’s team. After years of tattooing, you may even want to open your own shop.  Taking business courses in college or online can help ensure your shop is expertly run.  After all, you may be the greatest tattoo artist this side of the Mississippi, but if you fail at gaining the proper licenses and permits, or hire the wrong people, you may be back where you started.


Master the Fundamentals

Tattoo Artists Must Understand Formal Concepts & Develop Advanced Skills

To be successful as a tattoo artist, you must be artistic and have strong fundamentals. The ability to draw everything from animals to skulls and roses is an absolute necessity. Even artists who choose to specialize in one form of tattooing, such as New School or Realism, must be able to draw.

Because you will apply ink to all areas of the body, understanding of the contours of the body, how a stencil will line up, facing inward our outward, and how the pattern will affect the overall outcome of the tattoo. For example, will a tattoo on the arm flow down the arm, around the arm; or will it cross the elbow or shoulder area.  These are all things an artist must think about and discuss with the client prior to sketching. After all, once you start tattooing, the pattern will be in that location for the rest of the client’s life.

Sometimes a stencil of the final tattoo will transfer too light onto a client’s skin, and the tattoo artist must freehand parts of the design.  Again, this is where the ability to draw comes into focus. Ink is typically tattooed on sideways or forward, ensuring the needle has a constant flow of ink. Tattoo artists will shade areas of a tattoo, outline, add color and ink different styles of tattoos, like New School, Tribal, Watercolor, New Traditional, Script, and Realism. Understanding how one color plays against another and how a bolder outline will affect the overall outcome of the final design are things all tattoo artists must grasp to be successful in this industry.  Creativity, manual dexterity, the ability to clearly communicate to clients, and the physical ability to sit for long periods of time (some tattoos can take hours) are also skills no tattoo artist can do without.

An artist must also understand and master the tattoo machine. Considering the tattoo machine is like a brush to an artist or a scalpel to a surgeon, it’s important to the know the parts of the machine, why and how it works, how different size needles impact your design, and the five ‘P’s’ of tattooing – proper needle depth, proper angle, proper assembly, proper strokes, and proper training.  Artists must also understand the sanitary aspects of tattooing; why alcohol and antiseptic solutions are necessary, why you must wear gloves and disinfect the tattoo table or bench, and how major germs and viruses such as Hepatitis, HIV, and other contaminants can harm both you and your client.

Helpful Resources

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