There used to be a time when tattooing was seen as not only an undesirable profession but an unskilled one too. This was because people didn’t know much about it, tattoos themselves were seen as “bad” or a symbol of the dangerous underbelly of society.
Whether people like tattoos or not, most would now acknowledge that tattooing is a kind of artistry. It takes skill, patience, and precision to become a great tattoo artist, and it takes hard work to break into the profession and create a stable career. But with U.S. citizens spending USD$1.65 billion a year on tattoos, if done the right way, it can be a lucrative and dependable career too. (1)
If you’re interested in starting a path to becoming a tattoo artist, here are some foundational steps you can take:
Not all artists can tattoo, but tattoo artists need to be able to draw. You don’t have to go to art school or take an expensive professional course—although there are some good ones out there—but you do have to hone your skills and develop your drawing abilities.
Whether at school, at home, or somewhere else, you should take the time to learn the basics before perfecting your shading, line work, composition, and so on. Tattooing is not just tracing designs from a book. Statista reported that 43% of individuals decided to get their tattoos to honor a loved one and some 29% do so for self-identification. It’s clear from this that most people want unique designs developed for them by an artist. So, before you even think about getting supplies like tattoo machines or body ink, you first need to master how to design with a pen and paper. (2)
The art skills you develop overtime will help you not only with the basics, but also with becoming a great tattoo artist.
Build a portfolio
This is an important step, and much like learning the basics, it’s something you can’t rush. Even before you approach studios for an apprenticeship, you need to have a solid portfolio. This will take time and effort, perhaps more than you might imagine.
When creating your portfolio, you want to demonstrate not just your skills but your individuality and innovation too. At this stage in the game, you might’ve dabbled in at-home tattooing, but your portfolio will be made up of your designs. A professional will need to see if your skills can be transferred from paper to skin. A good tip is to always include a few non-tattoo pieces, but really try and include drawings that could clearly be seen on someone’s body.
Find an apprenticeship
Here is where you’ll really learn the trade, because ultimately the best way to learn anything is by actually doing it. Take your skills, and your portfolio, to different licensed tattoo artists. It can be hard to find the right mentor or studio to take you in, but the trick is to find a place where you could see yourself working and a mentor who really wants to teach. With tattooing being the sixth fastest growing industry in the US, you’re sure to find a mentor somewhere. (3)
During an apprenticeship, you will work with artists who can show you the ropes, give you insight into the profession, and give you a chance to grow and learn. Apprenticeships can take a long time, sometimes even a few years, and oftentimes are unpaid, but you’ll be getting something money can’t buy—experience.
During your apprenticeship you will work with different people and meet different tattoo artists. It’s important to make contacts for the future. Where you apprentice might not be where you end up working, regardless it’s always good to set up a support network for design tips, history and insight into the profession, job prospects, and client referrals.
License and certifications
Now that you’ve got the skills and you’ve got the experience, it’s time to get licensed. It’s required for all tattoo artists to have a tattoo license to practice professionally. It’s not too difficult to get one but it does depend on the state you live in.
Mostly, you’ll need an ID, to undergo a police check, and to give details about your previous and current employment. There is also usually an application fee and forms to fill out.
Apply for work
Now that you have these foundations you can start to apply for real, paid work. This is where your mentor for your apprenticeship and the network you have built up can come in handy. With all the necessary boxes checked, you can put yourself out there to get hired, or you could even start your own studio if you have the means! Either way you have the skills, the experience, the professional insight, and the license to practice tattooing and make it your career.
- “Tattoo Statistics – How Many People Have Tattoos?” Source: http://www.historyoftattoos.net/tattoo-facts/tattoo-statistics/
- “United States – Reasons for getting a tattoo 2019,” https://www.statista.com/statistics/721517/reasons-for-having-a-tattoo-done-by-americans/
- “38 Tattoo Statistics: 2020/2021 Industry, Trends & Demographics,” Source: https://comparecamp.com/tattoo-statistics/