Have you been sketching great pencil portraits since you were a kid? Are you a painter whose works reflect the styles of artists like Monet, Picasso or other historical Masters of the Brush? Maybe you're a graphic artist who's looking for a new niche where you can see your work come to fruition more quickly? Whatever your artistic background, if the art of tattooing fascinates you, it might be time to start thinking about becoming a tattoo artist.
If your goal is to sling ink with skill akin to world-renowned artists like Mario Barth, Bob Tyrell, Mike DeMasi, or Boris, you've got a lot to learn. Where do you start? What do you need to know to become a tattoo artist? Is an apprenticeship required? How can you find a reputable shop to employ you? What kind of income can you expect to earn?
We may not have all the answers, but we can definitely give you a basic understanding of how tattoo artists get started, what they make on average, and how they grow their brands so that you can make an informed decision as to whether or not tattooing is the right career for you.
How to Become a Tattoo Artist
What's involved in becoming a tattoo artist? First, you need to have decent artistic abilities. Second, you have to get the right education. Combine those key elements with a little bit of business and marketing know-how, and the sky's the limit for you as a professional tattoo artist.
As a tattoo artist, prospective clients will often ask you to sketch designs for them. You'll need to be able to draw or use graphic design software to turn their tattoo ideas into solid designs, create stencils, and then turn those designs that look good on paper into tattoos that look great in the flesh--tattoos that people will be proud to have permanently inked on their bodies for the rest of their lives. Some clients may even ask you to sketch designs right on them--but that probably won't happen until much later, when you're an established tattooist with a known style and you have regular clients who love your work enough to trust you to freehand tattoos for them. To get to that point in your career, you have to be a pretty phenomenal artist, and you won't know if you have the potential to become a great artist until you actually start tattooing. Unfortunately, that's rarely as easy as picking up a tattoo machine and poking oranges, yourself, your friends, and anything or anyone else you can get your hands on. It requires a very specific type of education.
If you've placed a big check by "Artistic Abilities", the next thing you need to think about is education. When it comes to tattooing, there are three primary types of education you should explore: art classes, safety and sterilization, and a hands-on apprenticeship.
You don't have to take art classes to become a great tattoo artist, but since they can only help you, it's worth at least considering taking a class or two. In particular, drawing classes will serve you well when you get into mocking up designs for clients. Lessons on capturing human anatomy and even calligraphy classes may also be helpful.
Safety and Sterilization
Are you certified in first aid? If not, you'll need to sign up for a class before you start practicing your craft on paying clients. You'll also need to get your bloodborne pathogens certification. It's an OSHA requirement that you can learn more about by reading OSHA's Bloodborne Pathogen Standard.
As for sterilization, it's a HUGE part of tattooing. You have to protect yourself and your clients first and foremost, and maintaining a sterile work environment is the first step towards doing that. You have to keep your work area clean; wipe down tattoo beds and chairs with Madacide constantly; use pre-sterilized needles, sterile disposable tubes or reusable grips and other tools that have been autoclaved between uses; wear latex or nitrile gloves while you're working; and much more. It's hard work, but work that pays off by preserving your and your clients' health and by protecting you from legal recourse. You can start your sterilization education by reading these articles:
Apprenticeships are the best way to learn the art of tattooing, and in some areas, an apprenticeship is required in order to begin a professional career in tattooing. Finding someone who is both a skilled tattoo artist and a good teacher to mentor you is one of the most crucial steps you'll take in the process of becoming a professional tattoo artist.
If you're a tattoo collector, talk to your favorite artist to see if s/he would be interested in mentoring your or if s/he knows someone else you can ask. If you don't yet have someone in mind or don't get a good recommendation from your artist, visit shops in your area, talk to the artists, look at their work, and if you feel that you could learn from any of them, speak to the owner of their shop about doing an apprenticeship there.
It can take time and persistence to find somewhere to do an apprenticeship, especially if you want a specific artist to mentor you. Most shops and artists will only take on one apprentice at a time, and some aren't interested in having any apprentices at all. You may have to widen your circle, visit other shops in your state, talk to artists at conventions, or reach out to artists online to find someone somewhere who will take you on.
If you're lucky enough to find an apprenticeship, don't be bummed out if it doesn't pay. It isn't uncommon for shops to treat apprenticeships like regular internships, which are also typically unpaid. Most likely, a hands-on education in tattooing will be the only payment you receive in return for your hard work over a 12-month+ period. That said, you may be able to make some money by helping out around the shop, sweeping up, taking out the trash, sterilizing tools, etc.--or you may be expected to do all that as part of your unpaid apprenticeship. Bottom Line: Be prepared to pick up a part-time job to pay your bills during the time you're a tattoo apprentice.
When you first get started, it's best to practice tattooing on fruit. Oranges in particular make good practice "skin". You can also purchase practice kits that come with practice skin, ink and needles, sheets of practice skin, tattooable mannequin heads (particularly good for those aspiring to be cosmetic tattoo artists), or Pound of Flesh silicone hands, feet and arms, which you'll find are worth the investment, because they feel more like the real thing than nearly anything else on the market.
In addition to practical tools like practice skin, it's a good idea to brush up on all the tattoo media and literature you can find. Read tattoo magazines and books, watch educational tattoo videos, and keep up with what's new in the world of tattooing via the internet. There's a wealth of tattoo educational materials online ranging from articles like this one to the instructional tattoo videos you'll find on our YouTube channel to tattoo tips and designs by your favorite artists and much, much more.
As you finish your apprenticeship, your Master should start talking to you about things like getting licensed, if your state requires that tattoo artists be licensed. As tattoos grow in popularity, there are an increasing number of rules and regulations that professional artists must abide by, and getting licensed is becoming a more common requirement for professional tattoo artists.
You'll also need to find a place to work--unless the shop where you've been learning is interested in bringing you on staff officially at the end of your apprenticeship. That's an ideal situation, but not always an option. It depends on your skill level and the traffic the shop gets, among other things.
Once you've built a portfolio, you can visit shops and start looking for one that needs an artist and is interested in what you have to offer. It's also a good idea to create an online version of your portfolio, so that you can easily share your work with shops you're communicating with via email. If desired, you can use our Gallery to build an online portfolio for free. Just create an account, log in, upload photos, and then share a link to your profile page with prospective employers. Finally, if possible, get a letter of recommendation from your Master and/or the owner of the shop where you did your apprenticeship to share with prospective employers.
Since so many tattoo artists are self-employed and work widely varying numbers of hours in vastly different economies and at dramatically different skill levels that demand different rates, it's hard to say exactly how much a new tattoo artist can expect to make in a year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has yet to provide average tattoo artist salary data, but Indeed.com can give you an idea of what you might be able to make in your area. For instance, tattoo artists in Tennessee make an average of $30,000 a year, while tattoo artists in Northern California make upwards of $44,000. Will you make as much as an average tattoo artist in your area? When you're just starting out, probably not, but with time you may make much more than an average tattoo artist. It depends on how good you are, how many people know about you, how much walk-in traffic your shop gets, how many hours you work each week, and whether or not you also work the convention circuit, just to name a few factors.
Part of making a living is building your reputation. You may be one person, but your name is your brand, and only well-marketed brands succeed in business. There are many things you can do to market your abilities as a professional tattoo artist, grow your brand, and expand your client base accordingly. Establishing an online presence is a must these days. You should be on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and as many other social media sites as you can keep up with regularly. Publish your portfolio online, and update it regularly. Hand out business cards--or better yet, flyers that show your work in glorious full color--to anyone who seems remotely interested at every opportunity that arises. You'll have to make those opportunities a lot of the time, by talking people up whenever you spot fellow tattoo collectors. You can also create your own page on Tattoo.com and other tattoo directory sites, often for free with the option to upgrade to a paid partnership that will get you some extra advertising or allow you to post photos of your work alongside your directory listing. You should also work tirelessly to get your work published in major tattoo magazines, attend conferences, and consider seeking out guest appearances at other shops once you're established.
Tattooing isn't a 9-5 job, and it isn't easy to be successful in this profession. Unless you're blessed to be a tattoo savant whose work is so amazing that magazines and websites are practically banging down your door to get an interview with you, it'll be hard work to get your name out and establish your reputation. In addition to the late nights and long weekends you'll spend tattooing, you'll also need to spend countless hours at a computer, talking on the phone, and talking people up in public to build your brand. There are thousands upon thousands of other tattoo artists in the world, many of whom are so good that people are willing to wait a year or more or travel thousands of miles to get tattooed by them. You'll be competing with all of those artists to draw clients, not to mention your fellow coworkers if you work in a multi-artist shop.
The tattoo industry isn't an easy industry to make it in, but if you're persistent and work hard to constantly hone your craft, it can be incredibly rewarding. On a daily basis, you'll be helping people commemorate milestones in their lives. You may even help give a few people a new lease on life--for instance, a cancer survivor who's had a double mastectomy could feel like a new woman if she comes to you for artistic aureola reconstruction. But above all, you'll be creating living, breathing, walking art on a daily basis. What better reward is there than that for an artist?! If that thought excites you, then you may have just found your calling.