Tattooing For Beginners

Written by: Pete

Entering into the world of tattooing can be an overwhelming and intimidating thing. There is so much to learn, so many skills to acquire, and so many rules to be followed. We’ll answer just about every question you may have about tattooing as a beginner, and we will dive into all the tips, tricks, and techniques in the industry that you just need to know.

What Do I Have to Do to Become a Tattoo Artist?

Tattooing For Beginners

Perhaps you’ve considered becoming a tattoo artist because a friend said you’d be good at it, or maybe you have a passion for tattoos and have many yourself. Whatever the reason, there are numerous things you can do in order to begin dipping your toes into the industry.

Improve Your Artistic Skills

While not every tattoo artist needs to be a pen-to-paper artist, development of your skills is essential. You could have a certain style that you specialize in, or you could be really skilled at tracing, but you need to continuously practice the art in order to get better at it.

Most artistic skills are natural, but some can be learned over time. If you focus on your personal development as an artist, you could put together an impressive portfolio that will be beneficial to you as you start to enter into the industry. You could even show digital drawings imposed onto body pieces as a way to demonstrate how they would look on skin. This is often a technique used by professional artists when they are advertising their flash pieces.

While you could be skilled in numerous styles, it is always recommended that you stick to one art style and try to master it. You may not know which one you like tattooing more until you begin to work on fake or real skin.

Become an Apprentice

No matter how much you may want to dive into tattooing through teaching yourself with a kit at home, becoming an apprentice is how you gain respect in the tattooing industry. It is difficult to find employment if you are not willing to learn through apprenticeship.

There are a few things you need to keep in mind when you are searching for an apprenticeship.

  • They are unpaid and often require a tuition fee for the time and education offered by a mentor. They can range from five to $10,000, depending on the experience and skill of the mentor.
  • You need to put together a portfolio and demonstrate a passion and eagerness to be considered for an apprenticeship.
  • You may have to do meaningless tasks around the tattoo shop as part of your apprenticeship training.
  • You may not get to tattoo on real human skin for a long time, and some states do not let apprentices tattoo without a license.
  • You should seek out a mentor with at least a decade of experience in the industry, an eagerness to teach, and a style that is similar to yours or one that you admire.
  • Apprenticeships help build your experience as well as your connections in the industry, and they are the best way to break into tattooing.

Have a look at our complete article on apprenticeships and securing a mentor.

Get the Right Equipment

The saying goes, a man is only as good as his sword, and the same could be said for tattoo artists: an artist is only as good as their tattoo gun. You want to invest in quality equipment because it will give you more impressive artistic results. It will also last longer and it will be equipment that you can take with you when you begin to tattoo professionally.

Most mentors will not lend out their products or equipment; it presents a financial risk to them, but they also want you to show your dedication to the field by investing in your own material.

Some of the items you will need are:

If you are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of everything you need to get, you can start by purchasing a tattoo kit, which will have everything you need at a discounted price. While it may not be the machine you use long-term, it will be beneficial for your apprenticeship. Have a look at our article on The 8 Best Tattoo Kits For Every Budget.

Don't forget to check out our guide on how to set up a tattoo gun!

Practice Tattooing on Skin Alternatives

After you’ve drawn on paper until you’ve run out of ink, it’s time to move to putting gun to skin - fake skin, that is. Before you begin to tattoo yourself or others, it’s important that you gain practice working on different mediums with different textures, contours, and densities.

There are numerous skin alternatives available to beginners in tattooing, such as:

  • Fruit peels (banana and honeydew melon seem to work best)
  • Synthetic skin or silicone body parts
  • Pig skin

Our favorites are silicone body parts because they mimic the shape of the human while also giving a life-like texture to tattoo. One thing to remember is that while you are tattooing on faux skin, you are able to rotate it as you need to; this cannot be done with a real human. In addition, you cannot stretch fake skin like you must do when tattooing real skin. Keep these factors in mind when you are practicing on synthetic skin.

Develop Basic Tattooing Skills

While you will likely discover a style that you excel at over your experience practicing or apprenticing, there are some skills that you will absolutely need to learn.

  • Learn About Depth - The key to successful tattooing is learning about needle depth. You are not tattooing the epidermis (the upper level of skin) but are depositing ink in the lower layers of the dermis, above the fat. You’ll only know you’ve hit that layer through a “feeling” as you tattoo, unfortunately.
  • Outlining - This is a tattoo basic and is applicable to tattoos of any size. You need to learn how to steady your hand to create smooth and even outlines on images. Depending on the needle used, you will achieve different densities in your lines and these have to be learned and adjusted to your needs. Angling your tattoo gun just right ishow you'll get the straightest lines.
  • Coloring From Darkest to Lightest - When tattooing color, you should always work from the darkest tones and go down the lightest.
  • Tattoo Shading - Different needles offer varying shading techniques. You need to learn how to add depth to your design using exactly the needle you require to have the impact you desire. You also need to experiment with pressure and inks to see what works best for you. Your mentor will also teach you about the composition of gray wash (ink dilution) which will help you with shading.
  • Lettering - People love to tattoo words or sentences on their skin, and being able to copy, trace, or design lettering is a useful skill to have. Computers make finding a perfect font easy to ink, but you may have people who come in with hand-written notes they’d like tattooed. Practice with tracing your own handwriting and the script of others. Keep an eye on letter spacing. But most important, check and double-check for spelling errors!

tattoo spelling error

You may have a few “regerts” if you tattoo lettering with a spelling error.

Learning about proper grip techniques, steadying your hand, pivot points over skin textures, and adjusting the depth and strength of your needle to meet your needs are all techniques that need practice and patience to master.

Study Safety and Sanitation Standards

There is nothing more important to tattooing than health and safety. Apart from ensuring the environment is disinfected, having a clear discussion with your client to learn about their personal health, and ensuring your equipment is completely sterilized, you may have to pursue educational training in health and sanitation.

Many states require that you obtain certifications or licenses prior to tattooing as an apprentice. Many of these do cost money. These could include but are not limited to:

  • Blood borne pathogen course completion
  • Client ethics, consent forms, and legal obligations
  • Sterilization standards and record keeping
  • CPR or allergen certification
  • Vaccination records
  • Tattoo licensing

You will also need to purchase items for, and become familiar with, sterilization of your environment. You will need items such as:

  • Disinfectants
  • Antibacterial and antiseptic soap
  • Disposable gloves
  • Wooden sticks (to grab product out of containers)
  • A needle disposal container
  • Alcohol wipes
  • Saran wrap or equipment bags to wrap your guns and machines for each use

Remember that you should not touch your equipment or a client’s skin without gloves.

Learn How to Market Yourself

When you step into the professional world of tattooing, you need to show a shop why they want you to fill their empty chair. Demonstrate your commitment and passion for the industry, and show them a portfolio of your proudest work. You may need to be flexible when it comes to finding a place to tattoo.

Even if you have a spot in a shop, a lot of tattooing is much like being an entrepreneur and it requires marketing yourself. The easiest way to achieve this is to build a strong repertoire with your clients who will not only return to you for more work but will also recommend you to others.

Social media is another great way to expand your reach. When photographing your work, it should be with a solid, non-distracting background. You should also be using relevant hashtags and adjusting your location placement to reach your demographic as these are easy ways to get noticed. You can also create a personal website or email newsletter where you showcase your work, using it as a digital portfolio of your proudest pieces.

The number one way to market yourself is to be engaged. When people comment on your photo, thank them and interact with them. You cannot just post your content and hope the job is done; you need to engage with your audience to build the trust that pushes them over the conversion edge and turns them from just an admirer to someone sitting in your chair.

Tattooing For Beginners - FAQs

Is tattooing easy to learn?

Like every other trade and craft, tattooing is not easy to learn. This is why apprenticeships can take around two years to complete. In addition, tattoo artists are constantly learning and developing their craft, which means it is ever-changing. It is worth the time and financial investment if you are passionate and eager to persevere in the industry.

How deep should a tattoo needle penetrate?

A tattoo needle should penetrate past your epidermis and into the lower layers of your dermis which is around 2 mm deep, depending on where on the body you are tattooing. Your dermis is the middle layer of your skin organ, and below it sits fat. You do not want to deposit ink into the fat, and you do not want to tattoo the epidermis, as both will lead to very poor tattoos when healed.

What is tattoo blowout?

Tattoo blowout is what happens if the needle goes too deep and deposits ink into the layer of fat below the dermis. It makes the lines of your tattoo appear blurry, fuzzy, or smudged and they are very difficult to fix, often needing to be covered up.

Tattoo Blowout

An example of tattoo blowout.

Why was the tattoo faded or missing ink when it healed?

This is likely a result of tattooing the epidermis rather than depositing the ink in the dermis of your client. It can be rectified with a thorough touchup and more depth practice.

What does it mean to “Float the Needle” and “Ride the Tube” and which should I use?

There are two ways that you can comfortably tattoo a client’s skin; either you can rest the tube of the tattoo gun against your client’s epidermis as you stroke and tattoo, or you can have your tattoo machine off the skin and estimate the depth based on the length and stroke of the needle.

Most people begin tattooing by “Riding the Tube” because it gives a more tangible comprehension for depth, but this can be painful for your client because it rubs up against the raw damage done to their skin. Most professional artists learn to “Float the Needle”.

Do you stretch the skin when tattooing?

Skin needs to be stretched tightly when you are tattooing to help the ink settle in the skin and to ensure you are creating smooth and precise lines. This is one of the negatives of tattooing on skin alternatives, as you cannot gain the practice of holding the skin taut while tattooing. Not stretching the skin can lead to the needle jumping.

Stretch the skin in the same direction as the line you are drawing. 

Why did the needle jump when I was tattooing?

This happens when the needle sticks to the skin as you are tattooing. It can be caused by poor equipment not having been properly tested, the machine running too quickly and it doesn’t sync with your stroke movements, not stretching the skin tightly when tattooing, or the needle not deep enough in the dermis.

How do I keep comfortable while tattooing?

There are three possible points of contact that you can use to make tattooing a more comfortable experience for yourself.

  • Putting your elbow against your ribs or on the tattoo table
  • Resting your wrist against your tattoo chair or the table
  • Putting the pinkie of your hand that is tattooing against the hand that is stretching your client’s skin

An example of a point of contact - resting the pinkie of your tattooing hand against your stretching hand.

Is there skin that I should not tattoo?

You should discuss the health history with your client and should not tattoo people with heart disease, autoimmune issues, or blood-borne illnesses. Make sure to discuss all concerns with your mentor or shop owner.

Our Final Thoughts

Like all creative careers, becoming a tattoo artist requires passion, dedication, practice, and perseverance. There is a huge learning curve to overcome and a few financial investments you have to make in order to turn your tattooing dream into a stable job. Finding an experienced and knowledgeable mentor will make the process much easier for you, and you’ll be able to learn valuable tips and techniques that will propel you in the industry.

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