How To Become A Tattoo Artist - A Guide To Starting Your Career In Ink

Written by: Pete
Last Updated:

Becoming a tattoo artist is no easy feat, and like every other professional craft, it requires patience, determination, and commitment to the trade. Whether you’ve thought about it in passing or are looking to make your next steps, our thorough beginner’s guide will help you better understand how to become a tattoo artist.

Related: How To Open A Tattoo Shop

Thinking of a Career in Tattooing? Ask Yourself These Questions First

Before you dive into pursuing your dream job in tattooing, you should ask yourself these questions.

  • Are you artistic? Art and drawing skills can be learned but many of them come naturally. It is even more difficult to work on human skin than it is to work with paper.
  • Are you flexible? The tattooing industry survives on opportunities being open to you and you grabbing them. This may mean you have to move around a lot.
  • Are you a people person? Tattooing is a career that revolves around building relationships with your clients. These turn into repeat customers or recommendations. Otherwise, a bad reputation in the industry could lead to you losing job opportunities.
  • Are you persistent? Tattooing is a trade that is continuously developing, so you need to be willing and able to continue learning. It takes a few years before you are even able to tattoo human skin. In addition, there may be moments where it becomes difficult to make a living through this passion; you need to persevere through these stages.
  • Are you organized? Many aspects of the tattooing industry require immense organization, including filing, sanitary measures, and ongoing communication with clients. When you are in the middle of a session, you also need to be ready for everything, so having your space neat and organized is essential.
  • Do you have money to invest in your career? Apprentices usually cost tuition, and you don’t get paid when you are an apprentice. In addition, you need to invest in quality equipment, sanitary materials, and additional credentials that allow you to tattoo legally.

Do You Need Any Credentials to Work as a Tattoo Artist?

While you don’t need a specific degree to enter into the industry as a tattoo apprentice, as you move forward into your career, you will need credentials to practice as an artist and run a shop.

Here is how you can start your career as a tattoo artist and gain your credentials in the industry.

How To Become A Tattoo Artist

Step One: Secure an Apprenticeship

While there are tattoo schools available and although some people like to learn on their own from home with a kit, securing a tattoo apprenticeship is the best way to build your reputation in the industry. We do not recommend trying to learn on your own, because it can put you and others at risk, and will not be taken seriously when you finally go to apply for jobs at your local shop.

When pursuing an apprenticeship, you need to keep a few factors in mind:

  • It will cost money; having a mentor as your teacher of the trade means they are investing their time and their knowledge in you. There is a price to pay for that.
  • You want to choose a mentor with experience in the industry and an eagerness to teach others. Choose someone who has had at least a decade of tattooing, and whose work you admire or aligns to your style.
  • You have to put together a tattooing portfolio that demonstrates your skills as an artist, specifically with pieces that could be tattooed, and makes a potential mentor eager to help you learn. Do not, under any circumstances, copy the work of other tattoo artists.
  • You need to be willing to do meaningless jobs as you apprentice, as it is all a part of the trade. This may include cleaning the shop, organizing paperwork, or getting coffee for artists. It won’t be glamorous, but it will be rewarding in the end.
  • You may not be able to tattoo people for many months or even a year into your apprenticeship. Some states do not allow apprentices to tattoo until they are licensed.
  • You will have to sign an apprentice contract which will require certain responsibilities from you. This may also include rules or regulations against tattooing others outside of the shop. Read this carefully and discuss any concerns you may have with your artist, prior to signing.

Have a look at our article for a thorough rundown on securing a mentor and better understanding the apprenticeship stage.

Step Two: Invest in Quality Equipment

Like all trades and craft work, you are creating with your hands and with tattooing equipment. Investing in quality equipment not only demonstrates your commitment to the profession, but it means they will move with you as you transition into professional tattooing.

Most mentors will not let you use their equipment as it is too much of a financial risk for them. Costs for equipment may vary but could go into a few thousand dollars, very easily. Some of the equipment you will need to purchase are:

  • Two or more tattoo machines
  • Needles
  • High-quality ink
  • Sanitary equipment such as gloves and wipes
  • Stencil equipment (if it is not offered by the shop to use)

When you’ve established a mentor, they will be able to provide you with recommendations as to what equipment and materials they prefer for their work. While you don’t need to use the same products as them, it may be helpful to learn with their recommendations.

Step Three: Learn The Trade

An apprenticeship will teach you so much about the tattooing industry, including, but not limited to:

  • The risks involved in the practice
  • Design and placement of tattoos
  • Tattooing for different skin types
  • Operating certain machines and working with specific ink
  • Hygienic work practices and sanitary measures
  • Customer service and professionalism with clients
  • How to transition into professional tattooing

Take advantage of this opportunity and come in like a sponge, ready to soak up every experience. If you show professionalism in your apprenticeship, it could lead to opportunities opening up to you within the shop when it is complete.

Step Four: Obtain Your Licenses and Certification

Your mentor will likely inform you of what licenses and certification you will need to not only practice on human skin but to also work, following your apprenticeship. This varies from state-to-state; here is a list of licensing laws by state.

Some of the certifications you may require are:

  • Blood-borne pathogen certification
  • Sanitary certification
  • Training for skin disease and disease prevention
  • Tattoo practice licensure

Remember that the majority of these certifications are an additional cost, separate from your apprenticeship tuition.

Step Five: Start Your Professional Career

After you’ve completed your two (or more) year apprentice, you can begin to apply for beginner tattooing positions. Applying at a tattoo shop usually means that you rent the open chair in the room and take your own clients. Some shops offer “guest artists” if you wish to try it out and see if you’re a good fit for the atmosphere of a certain shop. Or you could look into opening up your own studio with some of your favorite colleagues. Evaluate your decision based on your comfort level, your financial abilities, and your career goals.

Step Six: Take Care of Your Body

Tattoo artists are prone to muscle and ergonomic issues. This requires that most artists take great care with how they are tattooing clients, breaks they are taking for their personal health, as well as how they maintain their body outside of work (exercising, eating healthy, etc.).

Some tattoos may take hours to complete which can become rough on your fingers, wrists, arm, or even your back as you bend over the client to tattoo a specific spot. Even a tight grip for a very detailed tattoo could lead to some pain.

Long-term issues in tattoo artists include wrist problems and back issues. You need to consider this when scheduling clients, organizing your breaks, and planning your career for the future. Some people do client-centered work for three days a week while focusing on organizing, building their portfolio, or doing administrative tasks for the other two. Some artists also invest in more ergonomic tattoo chairs or learn to tattoo with wrist guards for more protection.

How you manage your pain is up to you, but it is essential that should you choose this career path, you stay on top of any concerns.

Our Final Thoughts

Breaking into the tattoo industry isn’t complicated, but it does take a little bit of natural talent and financial investment. This industry is pretty in-demand, so you must be willing to be flexible if you wish to pursue it. If you’re ever unsure about whether it is the right path for you, you should have a conversation with tattoo artists you admire and gain a thorough understanding of the pros and cons for this career choice.

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