Tattoo artists are so cool. Why wouldn't you want to be one? For starters, learning to tattoo is a labor of love. Even if you're an exceptional artist on canvas, that doesn't mean you'll start off tattooing like you were born with a tattoo machine in hand. You'll need to spend at least a year doing an apprenticeship, get certified in first aid and OSHA's Bloodborne Pathogen Standard, get a license (if required in your state), and practice, practice, practice! And that's just a down-and-dirty overview of what it takes to become a tattoo artist.
If you think you want to be a tattoo artist, we're behind you 100%. Piercing and tattoo artists are our bread and butter, and we're always happy to see fresh new talent on the scene. We just want you to know what's involved before you take the plunge, so that you can make an informed decision about choosing this career path--a path that more and more artists are choosing as tattoos become progressively more mainstream and demand for great ink continues to rise.
So what is involved in becoming a tattoo artist? Is it enough to be a good artist on canvas, or does tattooing require a different level of artistic talent? Is it a skill you can develop or something you're either born to do or not? Is an apprenticeship absolutely required? How do you find a reputable shop to employ you when you're ready? We may not have the answer to every question about becoming a tattoo artist that's bouncing around your brain, but we can tell you enough to help you make an informed decision as to whether or not tattooing's the profession for you.
Study Art. To be a successful tattoo artist, you need to have an innate ability to create art. You don't have to be Picasso, but you need to be able to draw fairly well. Being able to paint or create art in other mediums is a plus, but not required. A knack for the craft of creating art isn't enough, though; as with other trades, tattooing requires specialized training. Some of that training can be done at a traditional college or art school, since basic art classes are a great foundation for learning the art of tattooing. What kind of art classes should you consider taking? Drawing, portraiture and even calligraphy classes will all give you some essential building blocks for inking great tattoos later on.
Get Basic Medical Training. It's also important to learn about first aid, bloodborne pathogens, and lab safety. You'll need your first aid certification so you can handle yourself and the situation if an issue arises with a client--say, if someone passes out or starts having an allergic reaction to skin prep, tattoo ink or even your gloves. (Latex allergies are all too common these days, which is why we offer nitrile gloves, too.)
OSHA requires that all tattoo and piercing shop employees have their bloodborne pathogens certification, and it's good for you because it will teach you how to avoid incidents like nasty accidental needle sticks. Lab safety may seem like the odd man out, but think about the clean room at the heart of a tattoo and piercing shop; it's essentially a lab! Learning about sterilization methods and how to safely maneuver around a lab setting will only make your life as a tattoo artist easier. Plus it'll help protect your and your clients' health and hopefully prevent you from running into the legal issues that can arise from not maintaining a sterile work environment. (See our Tattooing Safely: A Guide for Tattoo Artists article for more on this subject.)
Do a Tattoo Apprenticeship. Next up, find a tattoo apprenticeship. There are tattoo artists who get around this step and still become successful, but hands-on training with a mentor is truly the best way to learn this craft. You may have to comb shops well beyond your area--possibly even go to another state--to find one that wil take you on as an apprentice, but it'll be worth your effort. You can pull together a list of shops where you might like to do an apprenticeship and/or specific artists who you'd be honored to have mentor you using the internet. Then, start making calls, or better yet, hit the pavement. You may have to return to a shop repeatedly before they'll consider letting you apprentice there, but if you feel strongly about having a specific artist or team of artists train you, don't give up!
Nico Negron of Tattoo Afterlife in New York downright hounded Bili Vegas to mentor him for ages. Bili turned him away repeatedly, but Nico didn't give up. He'd go home and practice, and then practice some more, often working from 5 a.m. until late at night to perfect his skills until he finally put together a portfolio that made Bili pause. His raw talent was amazing, particularly since he was just a kid as far as Bili was concerned. So Bili took Nico on as an apprentice, and now Nico is one of the hottest young tattoo artists on the scene--all because of his perseverance and hard work. If there's an artist you're that passionate about working with, show them why you're worth their time, and maybe you'll be the next Nico Negron, who was a tattoo prodigy before the age of 20!
Practice, Practice, Practice! There's nothing like experience to make you an experienced tattoo artist. At first, you should use practice skin or even fruit to practice. (Oranges work best if you go the fruit route.) Next, you might upgrade to tattooing yourself or try to convince friends and family members to lend their skin. Eventually you'll be able to work on real clients, under your Master's supervision and with the clients' consent, of course. (It's amazing how many willing, paying customers will take advantage of a lower rate even at the cost of a newbie permanently marring their skin!) The more practice you get, the better your tattooing skills will become, and the more great pieces you'll have done that you can show off in your portfolio.
Find a Job. After a year-long apprenticeship, which likely paid zilch, you'll need to find a job and start making some money. How much can you expect to earn? It's hard to say, since there are a lot of variables that impact average salaries. Location, economic conditions, and your talent level are just a few of those factors. That said, the average U.S.-based tattoo artist makes anywhere from $30,000 to $45,000 annually according to Indeed.com (varies by region, with Northern California being one of the higher pay range areas). When you get started, you aren't likely to hit the average, but it isn't impossible. Striking out on your own could eventually allow you to make more money, but when you're first getting started, it's usually better to go to work in a shop.
Sometimes shops will ask their apprentices to stay on and become resident artists after they finish their studies. That isn't always the case, though, so be prepared to start looking for a job in another shop as you wrap up your apprenticeship. Your Master may have some suggestions for you or pair you up with friends at another shop, or you may have to hit the pavement again. Make sure you take a portfolio with you when you go. Business cards and a letter of recommendation from your Master are also good assets to have handy when you're looking for a new tattoo shop to call home.
Build Your Reputation. Great tattoo artists who aren't constantly letting the world know how great they are are poor tattoo artists. You have to actively work on building your reputation if you want to make a living tattooing. The internet is your best tool for brand building. Get on Facebook, Instagram and any other social media site you can keep up with regularly, post photos of your work, make announcements about special events where you'll be, share tips like tattoo aftercare--anything you can think of to engage people. Create an online portfolio in our Gallery, and share a link to it on your business cards and social media profiles. Sign up for listings on tattoo directory sites. Attend conventions. Make glossy, full-color flyers that feature your work and pass them out to anyone who will take them. Get creative! There are so many ways you can promote yourself. As long as you pursue a few of them and you're a decent tattoo artist, your client base should grow steadily over time.
If you're sure that tattooing is the profession for you after hearing what we've had to say on the subject, then congratulations on your career choice! We'll be here for you as you get started on the path to becoming a great tattoo artist. We have everything you could possibly need to tattoo, including the all the tools of the trade and more great informational resources in the Shop Safety and Tattoo Information sections of our Info Center. When you're ready, you'll find the physical tools you need on the pages listed below. If you spend $100 or more, you can shop in our Wholesale Store instead to take advantage of specially-reduced prices just for industry professionals. We also include coupons in our weekly emails and on the Events tab of our site. If you need guidance on what to buy, email us any time at [email protected]. Happy shopping and tattooing!
All Tattoo Supplies
Tattoo Kits & Practice Skin
Tattoo Power Supplies & Accessories
Tattoo Ink Cups & Holders
Tattoo Flash & Stencil Tools
Tattoo Aftercare Products
For more information on how to become a tattoo artist, check out our full-length article on the subject, Is Tattooing the Right Profession for You?