If you’re seriously interested in a career as a tattoo artist, your best path to success is through a tattoo apprenticeship. Even if you have some artistic chops already, tattooing is also a craft and a business, and there’s a lot to learn before you’re ready to tattoo on paying customers. If you’re wondering how to become a tattoo artist but aren’t sure where to start, we’re here to help.
Is Tattooing Right for You?
You shouldn’t even consider looking for a tattoo apprenticeship if you aren’t already dedicated to making art. The ideal tattoo apprenticeship candidate is someone who loves drawing and practices every day. If you want to become a tattoo artist but you aren’t in the habit of making art every day, that should be your first goal.
Building Your Portfolio
Before you start visiting tattoo shops to inquire about an apprenticeship, you should prepare a portfolio of your work for them to see. According to David Evans of Underground Art in Memphis, TN, a good apprenticeship portfolio should contain “concise drawings” in “a range of sizes” with “a good variation inline weights.” Though you might want to present only a selection of what you feel are your best pieces, Evans believes “it’s important to have a large range of items in your portfolio, even just sketches right out of your sketchbook” in order to give prospective mentors a good idea of your style and your range of abilities.
Where to Look
There are plenty of tattoo shops out there, but if you’re looking for a worthwhile apprenticeship, you should look for shops that are clean, reputable, well-established, and that you already have or would like to be tattooed in. This is important because tattooing isn’t only about art — it’s a craft that requires deep knowledge of its tools and health practices, as well as a business. If you wouldn’t want to get tattooed there, you shouldn’t seek an apprenticeship there, either.
How to Approach a Shop About Apprenticeships
Once you’ve identified the shops or artists you’d like to apprentice with, approach them as you would approach any other professional job interview or application. Make sure you’re clean and presentable when you go to the shop, and have a copy of your portfolio with you. According to Jake Meeks, tattoo artist and founder of the Fireside Tattoo Network, “It’s probably not a bad idea to introduce yourself to everyone in the shop, let them know what you’re trying to do,” since you’ll be working with everyone there, not only your mentor. Additionally, Evans says, “leave [your portfolio] more than an hour or two...to give the entire shop a chance to look at it. You may get some votes in your favor that you didn’t know you had.” Make sure to leave your name and contact info when you come to retrieve your portfolio.
Be Persistent and Open to Feedback
Amy Nicholls of Tattooed Heart Studios in Hanover, MD says that in your search for an apprenticeship, you’re “going to get a lot of noes.” It’s not uncommon that shops or artists aren’t looking for apprentices at a given time, or that they think you need a bit more practice before they’re willing to take you on. Evans says that one of the most important things a prospective apprentice can do is “get used to people critiquing your work.” If artists see that you’re serious and persistent, he adds, “they might [point you to] shops that they like and that are reputable...or they might say ‘stick around, we might have room later,’ just having [you] come back and actually [have] your work critiqued more than once. You might find that the artists at that shop get a little more familiar with you and actually want to take you on.”
That’s how it worked out for artist Kelsey Kansas of Traditional Tattoo in San Luis Obispo, CA. “I was determined,” she says, even though the shop she wanted to work in was not taking on apprentices when she first contacted them. “So I kept bothering them and getting tattooed [there],” she said, until they told her they might hire her for one day per week in a non-apprentice position. “I called them every day for two weeks, got an interview, called again for two weeks, got the one day a week spot and started scrubbing tubes for the shop.” Shortly after, the shop’s counter person quit and Kansas began to work full-time. “I ran the shop for six months taking on every responsibility I could before I was apprenticed.”
Getting an Offer
Once you do get an apprenticeship offer, know that your work has just begun. It will likely be months before you actually get to practice tattooing on another human, and in the meantime, you’ll be doing a lot of observation and tasks around the shop to learn about tattooing equipment and procedures, as well as health and business practices.
Kansas says that her apprenticeship included everything from responding to emails and ordering inventory, to jewelry and piercing sales, to cleaning the shop and running errands, to building needles and tattoo machines, to actually shadowing artists and having her drawings regularly critiqued. When you receive your offer, be sure to sign a contract that clearly states the terms of your apprenticeship, including any costs or compensation.
Good luck to all you prospective tattoo artists out there, and remember that PainfulPleasures carries all the tattoo supplies and equipment you need once you’re on your feet as an artist. For more information about tattoos and tattooing, artist interviews, shop features, and more, visit the PainfulPleasures blog.