Getting a tattoo apprenticeship can be one of the most challenging obstacles to overcome in your quest to become a professional tattoo artist. However, if you want to get a job in a professional setting—and not just give people tattoos on your couch—then an apprenticeship is something that is necessary.
Here I have the nine steps required to become a tattoo artist. It’s not an easy road, but it’s well worth the hard work if your goal is to be a top-notch tattoo artist!
A Strong Portfolio
Before you even begin thinking about seeking out a tattoo apprenticeship you need to build up a strong portfolio of your artwork. After all, the lifeblood of a tattoo artist is their ability to draw! And no one is going to take an apprentice with no talent in regards to drawing.
You’re going to want to fill your portfolio with works from many different artistic styles ranging from tattoo style drawings, paintings, pen drawings, watercolors, etc.. And these are to be complete and finished pieces of works not doodles!
You also want these to be original pieces of work—meaning no stealing tattoo designs off the internet—they can, however, be inspired by another tattoo artists work. If they are, though, make sure to know the artist’s background well.
You need your portfolio to look professional, meaning, in a hardcover binder with each piece in a laminated sleeve. And the more artwork, the better, in fact, the closer to over a hundred piece the better. You want to show off your talent as an artist here, but make sure to be humble about it.
Don’t Start Tattooing Before You Get an Apprenticeship
This is a big one. Tattooing without professional training is often referred to as “scratching,” and is highly frowned upon within the industry—for many reasons. The biggest one that applies to you is it’s hard to unlearn the many bad habits you might develop through teaching yourself. A professional tattoo artist doesn’t want to take the time to teach you the proper way while trying to break your bad habits.
If you have already been tattooing but are looking to become a professional, it’s best to keep this a secret, and definitely, do not include any of the tattoos you might have done in your portfolio! If you are labeled a scratcher it could be next to impossible to get an apprenticeship anywhere, so it’s best just to wait and learn the proper way.
With that being said, it is smart to learn everything you can from an education standpoint; you should read books like The Basic Fundamentals of Modern Tattoo, you should attend conventions, and learn the history of tattoos.
Pick a Good Studio With Great Artists
Now that you have your portfolio as professional as it can be, you are ready to start looking for a shop to take you on as an apprentice! This is one of the most important steps. You want to target shops that have a good reputation and have very talented artists. If the place is known for being shady, or their tattoos aren’t up to par, then it’s not the place to train. Your reputation is everything as a tattoo artist—you are your own brand—and if you develop the wrong reputation because of where you were trained, you will be shooting yourself in the foot before you even begin.
Another thing, an apprenticeship can cost you anywhere from nothing to thousands of dollars. This is something you need to be aware while out searching. You’re already not going to be paid for your efforts, so be aware of any costs associated with an apprenticeship!
Get to Know The Artist You Want to Train You
Once you find the perfect shop for you, it’s best not just to be straightforward and ask if they will take you on as an apprentice—chances are you will be shooed out the door. Instead, get to know the artist you want to teach you. Get a tattoo or two from them, maybe even pick out one from your portfolio for him to do, and send them a couple of referrals before asking them to take the time to teach you. You have a better shot once you have built a little rapport with the artist.
Be Determined and Stand Out
Chances are, even after you get to know the artist, you will still get shot down. It’s not easy to take on an apprentice, and a lot of artists won’t just do it for anyone. If you do get turned down, don’t get flustered and rude, it’s gonna take some hard work and determination to get an apprenticeship!
Now, just because you’ve been turned down doesn’t mean the battle is over, no, it has just begun. You also have to keep in mind, chance are, you’re not the only one asking to become an apprentice, and to outshine your competition a little determination and sucking up can go a long way!
Continue to stop by the shop a couple of times a week (don’t bug the artist or pester him while he is trying to work), but stop by to chat, or see if you can run and go get them lunch, maybe even if you could watch him tattoo for a little bit. However your approach it, just make sure you are consistent and determined.
However, it’s smart to not put all of your eggs in one basket. At this point finding a couple of other shops, to try and apprentice at, might be wise.
Know Why You Want to Be a Tattoo Artist
A question you need to be prepared to answer is, “Why do you want to become a tattoo artist?”
You should think long and hard about this, and have your answer ready, and it better not be because you love the lifestyle or that LA ink is your favorite show!
You need to be in it for the love of the art, or because you’re obsessed with drawing. The reality of working as a tattoo artist is not what you see on TV. In fact, it can be a very demanding, and stressful, job.
Be Prepared for Hard Work
Once you finally land an apprenticeship—and you will if you are determined and talented enough—the real hard work begins!
Don’t think you’ll be getting right to the nitty-gritty of learning how to tattoo. Oh no, you still have to prove your mettle. By this I mean you will be doing typical intern work: taking out the trash, getting coffee for everyone, setting up stations, restocking supplies, not to mention you’re going to be on the wrong side of everyone’s jokes—and to top it off you’ll be doing it all for free!
Fear not, and hang tight, for this is simply the rite of passage, and your teacher also wants to make sure you’re not wasting his or her time and are going to stick around. So throw on a smile and bust your butt! It will be worth it in the end.
Since you are going to be unpaid, and maybe even having to pay, you might need to work a second job to make ends meet. It will be hard, but there is light at the end of the tunnel, an apprenticeship usually lasts anywhere from six months to a couple of years, and then you’ll be a professional getting paid to tattoo!
Be Prepared to Learn
After the grunt work phase, you will start to learn how actually to tattoo. Initially, you will just be doing a whole lot of watching your teacher tattoo, be extra attentive, and watch every little move he makes and learn why he is making it.
Before you ever pick up a tattoo machine, you will become blood borne pathogen certified, learn to make needles, use the autoclave, learn how to bandage and care for a tattoo, and all of the other health precautions required.
Once you finally pick up a machine, you will spend a lot of time practicing on things like tattoo practice skin or even on fruit. Usually, the first time you will put ink to skin, it will be on yourself. This is another rite of passage in many shops!
Eventually, you will move on to tattooing people, and when you do you will be doing them all for free, and tons of them. Take this time to ask questions and really hone your skill. You want to leave your apprenticeship knowing everything your teacher can teach you.
Get Your Certification
Depending on your state, once you have completed the required amount of hours, or once your teacher feels you are ready, your apprenticeship will be officially done, and you can get your tattoo license!
The requirements to obtain your tattoo license vary from state to state, even from county to county, so make sure you research your state for their specific requirements.
Some states just require you to be blood borne pathogen certified (which you should be anyways) and 18 years or older, while other states, will require a certain amount of apprentice hours, also, you could be required to take a written exam. Depending on where you are, the license will run you between $25-250, and some last for three years while other expire yearly.
Once you have obtained your license you can legally charge people for your work, and will officially be a professional tattoo artist!