A tattoo apprenticeship is the first step you take towards a career in tattooing. Through an apprenticeship, you learn about this artisanal trade, you learn about the hygienic and ethical requirements for the practice, and you get to put a gun to real skin for the first time. But the road to get there isn’t easy, and it’s often unpaid.
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Related: How To Open A Tattoo Shop
Are Tattoo Apprenticeships Paid?
Unfortunately, the reality is that most tattoo apprenticeships are not paid, and you will likely have to search out additional avenues of income while you are training. Consider it like college or trades school; you don’t get paid to attend and gain your certification in your department.
Despite this, it is one of the best avenues to build your career in the tattooing industry. No matter what you do, don’t think you can just buy a tattoo kit and begin your journey on your own. This is not recommended, and is not respected in the industry.
Will You Have to Pay Tuition?
When you are apprenticing, you are working under a mentor. This mentor usually has a decade or more of experience under their belt, and offering their time to teach you usually requires a fee. Tuition for an apprenticeship is similar to any other schooling, and could range in cost from $5,000 to upwards of $10,000. The fee depends on the artist, their skill level, and their notoriety in the industry.
Some states offer apprenticeship alternatives such as tattoo schools. These are state licensed educational schools that can last between one to two years time, and require no previous tattooing experience in order to attend. These can range in cost as well, but are generally more expensive than an apprenticeship.
The benefit of attending a tattoo school is that some state laws do not allow you to tattoo on skin in an apprenticeship until you have earned certification and licensing in understanding blood-borne pathogens and infectious diseases; a tattoo school provides you with that certification.
Tuition is intended to weed out apprentices who are not dedicated to the craft and to developing their practice and skills. Like any schooling, paying a tuition confirms your commitment to the program and demonstrates that you value learning the craft in a professional manner.
Is There Any Chance of Getting Paid as an Apprentice?
Depending on your skill level, you may be lucky enough to find a mentor who does not charge you for their lessons, but this is exceptionally rare. It is far better to find a shop with an exceptional reputation and an artist with immense skill if you truly wish to build your knowledge, and that will likely cost a tuition fee.
Sometimes tattoo shops will hire the apprentice for part-time shop work such as managing bookings, cleaning the shop, or organizing files. This would be paid work that could help cover the cost of your apprenticeship.
Can I Just Learn to Tattoo on My Own?
This is not only dangerous for yourself but it’s dangerous for others, as well. This industry, like every other artisanal craft, deserves the respect and dedication to learning the trade carefully and under the guidance of a professional.
Buying a kit, learning to tattoo on your own, and then proceeding to tattoo others could cause:
- Scarring to yourself or to others
- Putting yourself at risk to disease and unsterile conditions
- Opening yourself up to being sued by others
- Breaking laws against legal tattooing licensing
- Forming a bad reputation in the industry that prevents you from getting a job
How Do I Get a Tattoo Apprenticeship?
We have a few suggestions that will help you acquire a tattoo apprenticeship that will be most beneficial to you when you enter the industry as a professional.
- Research the Trade - Prior to diving into being an artist, you should do significant research on the industry. Read all the books, magazines, web articles (we’ve got you covered, there!), and case studies on everything from tattooing, to tattooing health and safety, to apprenticeship practices, to aftercare, etc.. Showing your potential mentor that you are not only interested in the industry but are well-versed in it demonstrates your dedication.
- Put Together a Portfolio - If you are wanting to get into tattooing, that means you are likely an artist and have a sense of style for your work. Put together a collection of your best art pieces that will demonstrate your skill level with working with your hands.
A tattoo apprentice portfolio is different from an artist portfolio. You should not, under any circumstances, showcase tattoos you’ve already done on skin as this will deter someone from mentoring you. Your work should demonstrate a style that is consistent and would be applicable for tattooing. It should be in a three-ring binder with easy-to-flip pages.
- Find a Licensed Mentor - When it comes to finding a mentor, you need to be flexible and persistent. Sometimes you will have to move out of town to find someone willing to take you on for an apprenticeship. Your mentor should be licensed and have at least a decade or more of experience tattooing professionally. You should not seek out mentorship from someone new to the industry.
When picking a mentor, you need to visit the shop in person and discuss your intentions. Jason of Swallows & Daggers says, “Don't waste our time telling us how much you want it, how many years you have dreamed of it (especially if you are only 18), don’t tell us how “good at it” your friend/mom/baby momma thinks you would be. Talk is cheap, show us by doing, not saying. Most prospective mentors want someone who is a hard worker who is humble, not a deluded maniac who will talk a good game and then baulk when they are asked to mop, practice drawing hands, or do other unglamorous parts of their apprenticeship.”
You should select someone who has mentored before, is eager to teach new people in the industry, and someone who will challenge you in the process, as well. Tattoo artists are generally very busy, so you will need to be persistent and follow up frequently to ensure you get the apprenticeship slot.
You should also choose someone who’s work you respect and whose style you could learn from or someone who has a tattoo art style that is similar to your own drawing style. Making sure you are a good fit with your mentor can help you not only develop your craft but could also lead to a connection that manifests in a job opportunity, down the line.
- Stay Focused and Dedicated - You may have to do seemingly meaningless tasks, you may have to “just watch” for months, you may not be able to tattoo skin for a year, but continue to stay focused and dedicated to the training. Show up to your apprenticeship eager and ready to work, and take this as seriously as you would any other professional training.
Are There Other Costs?
There are additional costs to consider when you are entering into a tattoo apprenticeship.
- Supplies - Tattoo apprentices usually need to purchase their own supplies. This means you will need a full kit, including tattoo guns, tattoo ink, gloves, and sanitary supplies. You do not want to go down the cheap route when it comes to these products, and your mentor will likely tell you which brands to go with. These will follow you into your tattooing career, so they’re worth the investment as it allows you to get to know the machinery and materials well.
- Licensing and Certifications - These are the most important costs you will likely experience in your apprenticeship, as they will be what allows you to tattoo on people and then get a career in the tattooing industry. Certifications and licensing will be related to health and safety, tattoo training records, vaccination records, certified CPR training, or even cosmetic artist registration. Tattoo licenses vary by state, but here is a list of each state licensing requirement.
- Record Keeping - If organization and bookkeeping is not your strong suit, you may need to pay someone to do record keeping for you. Sterilization records need to be kept for up to 12 months, and contracts must be stored years after the session.
How Do Tattoo Apprentices Make Money?
You can make money through working in the shop as you learn your trade, getting a part-time job elsewhere to cover expenses, or working hard towards completing your apprenticeship and then joining a shop as a beginner artist.
Our Final Thoughts
Tattoo apprenticeships are the safest, most thorough, and most highly respected way to enter into the tattooing industry. Though it may cost a fee to learn from a respected mentor, like all professional schooling, it’s worth the investment. Ensure you are doing thorough research prior to beginning your search into tattoo apprenticeship, and be aware and ready for any additional costs that may arise.