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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.

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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.

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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.

Get to Know Our Experts

Anji Marth

  • Title:
    Tattoo Artist
  • Company:
    Laughing Buddha Tattoo and High Priestess Tattoo
  • Where:
    Seattle, WA & Salem, OR
  • Experience:
    17 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    3rd Eye Tattoo Co. and Tattoo Artist Magazine
  • Where:
    Chattahoochee Hills, GA
  • Experience:
    25 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Co-owner
  • Company:
    522 Tattoo
  • Where:
    Lake Forest, WA
  • Experience:
    20 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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!

    Tattoo Artist Infographic