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Learn How to Become a Tattoo Artist.

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Make no mistake: the tattoo industry is extraordinarily competitive.

Just think about it: not only do tattoo artists work for themselves and self-advertise against others providing the same service, but the service happens to be applying art permanently to human canvasses.

For a potential human canvas, the skill, cleanliness, and customer service of the tattoo artists that he/she has to choose from are very important factors to think about, if he/she wants to avoid having a permanent disaster. For some, the only thing more painful than getting a tattoo is getting one removed. You want to get it right the first time.

With over 20,000 tattoo shops across America, there are literally hundreds of thousands of tattoo artists to sift through and choose from. Some cities across America are a hotspot for tattoo shops and have dozens of shops, all competing against each other to prove to potential clientele that they’re the safest and most reliable source for body art.

If you’re a tattoo artist or aspiring tattoo artist, these numbers can be even more daunting. With all that competition out there, how are you going to prove yourself, especially if you’re just starting out? What will give you the best advantages so that your tattoo career can become a success?

In short, where are all the tattoo artist jobs?

Are You Qualified?
The busiest tattoo artists all have a few things in common: impressive ability, extensive knowledge, and their ability to create return clientele.

While a few awesome, professional artists exist that are self-taught, the vast majority went through formal training to become a tattoo artist, typically in the form of a tattoo apprenticeship under an existing, talented artist who was willing to pass on his/her trade secrets. Such an apprenticeship typically takes between one and three years to complete, and the hands-on experience in the industry (not to mention the dedication to stick around for that long—apprenticeships are unpaid) is a fundamental building block for a successful tattoo career. Teaching yourself to tattoo often takes years of trial and error at the expense of your customers, and it can set you back years in your career when compared to learning the art properly.

During and after your apprenticeship, the skills learned and applied to your tattoo work should be showcased by a portfolio. A portfolio of your handiwork visually informs customers of what you can do and gives them a scope of what you can accomplish. A well-balanced portfolio is key to bringing in customers that have never seen your work before, and should include examples that speak best to your strong points, whether it’s traditional style, color tattoos, tribal, etc. Very few tattoo artists don’t carry a portfolio, and those are the ones waiting around for business.

Another aspect that is often overlooked initially in the tattoo world is the importance of good customer service skills. After all is said and done and your tattoo work is on par with many of the artists around you, providing a good tattoo experience will be the one feature that sets you apart from the competition—and create a base of return clientele.

Walk-in clients are a great source of income, but they cannot be relied on given the multitude of tattoo shops across the country that must share all of them. If you give walk-in clients a great experience, however, and make them feel heard, respected, and valuable, then they’ll forget all of those other shops and put their trust in you. They’ll tell their friends about you and rave to anyone who asks about their tattoo that you are just the bee’s knees, and then maybe you’ll gain additional customers, just for being a decent people person! If you are rude, snarky, and condescending, then your client will remember to tell that to people they know that are in the market for a good tattoo, and it won’t matter how amazing your portfolio is, or how knowledgeable you are because those people will never make it to your chair.

Location, Location, Location
It’s also in your best interest to research how well the tattoo industry is received in the area where you are or will be working. Naturally, some cities have a higher supply of tattoo shops and tattoo artists than others, and some cities have a higher or lower demand for them. The best areas to work in are those that have a high demand for tattoo artists, but have very few shops and artists available to them. In these areas where there isn’t much competition, tattoo shops always seem to be busy. If the city where you’re located has a tattoo shop on every street and they all seem to have a mediocre amount of foot traffic, well, you should probably look elsewhere for employment.

Areas that are crowded with tattoo shops, in addition to having to worry about attracting the most of a limited number of clientele, also have to worry about one more thing: price competition. Places with a high demand for tattoo shops can generally charge higher prices because they lack local competition with other artists, but tattoo hotspots across the country often have to maintain a lower price to look more appealing than their neighbor shop down the street. While attracting clients with an extraordinarily low rate can be a good strategy when you’re just starting out, to work up experience and add to that portfolio, it’s rarely sustainable long-term. We all have bills to pay, right?

Plus, once you get better and better, you’ll no longer be willing to work for such low wages and will either have to step up your customer service a notch to make your raised price worth it, or move to an area where it makes sense to charge a little more.

The Best Cities for Tattoo Artists
The West Coast is one of the birthplaces of some of the types of tattooing that are popular today, and it’s still a prevalent place for body art among the tattoo community. Los Angeles is an obvious choice to get your foot in the door and has a reputation for being very tattoo-friendly, thanks in part to shows like L.A. Ink. While it has a plethora of shops (150 within 10 miles of the city center—wow!), the city also has an enormous populace that are highly interested in tattoos, which brings its shops per capita to about 4 shops per 100,000 people. Las Vegas is another great location; while it has a fairly crowded 16 shops per 100,000 people, it is a tourist town with an ever-revolving population. Tattoos are a tourist attraction in themselves here, therefore making the abundance of shops less of an issue with price competition than in Los Angeles or other large tattoo cities.

However, don’t discount the smaller towns; as previously mentioned, a lack of competition will make you one busy artist if there’s enough demand. Billings, Montana has a mere 15 or so tattoo shops in its entire 42 square mile metropolitan area, but it’s also the most populated city in the state. Its citizens’ median age is in the mid-thirties range, which is the age group reported to have the most tattoos overall in America. Kurt Roper, owner of 7 Sister Tattoo Parlour in Billings, was originally a tattoo artist working in Denver, Colorado and relocated to open his own shop, which has had abundant success. Tattoo shop start-ups are rough in Denver because there are literally thousands of shops already in business, but Billings was highly receptive to a new addition to its body art repertoire.

The Worst Cities for Tattoo Artists
Some areas just don’t have a huge demand for tattoos, and of course you’ll be hard-pressed to find work or successfully open a shop of your own without an existing desire by others for your trade. A lot of towns with fewer tattoo shops incidentally also have a high percentage of citizens who are 65 or over in age, such as Anderson, South Carolina or Punta Gorda, Florida; a third of the latter’s population is made up of senior citizens (the city also has three times as many golf courses as tattoo shops).

Furthermore, cities whose populations have a decent-sized opposition of tattoos in general, such as the largely Mormon Salt Lake City, have a few tattoo shops to choose from, but chances are these shops are already well-established and already meet the demand for their particular area without need for additional artists.

More than 1/5 of the U.S. population sports at least one tattoo, and it’s safe to say that they’re generally pretty widely accepted. But as you can see, every city is a little bit different, and it pays to do your research to make sure that you choose the best location for where you are in your tattoo career.

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The intricate process of tattoo application has been around for literally thousands of years, and first came to the western world at the latter end of the 19th century. Especially early in its history in America, the tattoo industry held the reputation of being a business full of mystery and rebellion with hardly any rules or regulations to speak of. And it’s true: during and after WWII, when the industry began to gain fame and some of the most well-known tattoo legends were discovered, there were very few rules governing tattoo artists and their shops, leading to many shut-downs and a temporary all-out ban in some states (New York, for example) until it could be properly regulated.

A lot has happened since then, including increased knowledge about the spread of HIV and other illnesses in the 1980′s, and the expansion of federal regulation as it applies to small businesses. Today, tattoo shops are regulated by OSHA standards (the same that are practiced in nursing and dental facilities) and many states across the U.S. require the possession of a tattoo license to work. Due to these heightened regulations, learning how to get a tattoo license has become common practice for all aspiring tattoo artists.

Is Getting a Tattoo License Required?
It’s important to note that the businesses that hire tattoo artists are actually more closely regulated than the artists themselves, and they are subject to annual examinations by their local county Health Department to make sure that the operation is being run safely. For businesses, tattoo licenses are mandatory.

While tattoo businesses are required to be licensed, the same doesn’t always hold true for individual tattoo artists (though it is a misdemeanor crime to not have one in some states, like California). In fact, some states or counties don’t even offer individual tattoo licenses, and simply require all businesses where tattoos are conducted to be inspected and licensed. Having this said, however, the fact remains that having licensed employees in states that offer it certainly adds a bit more professionalism to the image of a company, and clients usually have more confidence when they know that a tattoo shop licensed as well as each of its employees.

The tattoo licensing process functions on a county-based level, and as such, obtaining one can vary greatly even within state lines. For instance, the state of Wisconsin does require every county to accept only licensed tattoo artists, but the application for this license only requires that an individual apply for the license and send in a fee amount. In Denver County in Colorado, applicants are required to submit proof of Bloodborne Pathogens certification along with their fee, while neighboring Jefferson County doesn’t require a tattoo license at all, only that the shop where an artists works practice OSHA standards and pass the annual inspection. In still other counties, a CPR certification is also needed to obtain a tattoo license in addition to all of the above.

Despite these differences, there are a few commonalities that exists within all counties in order to have a tattoo license.

What Tattoo Certifications Will I Need?
While success in the tattoo industry is based on skill, there is actually no requirement to prove oneself as a talented artist or stellar business owner in order to obtain a license. Instead, certification is mostly focused on compliance with standard safety measures to protect potential customers.

The Bloodborne Pathogens training course is a common prerequisite that nearly all states require in order to obtain a tattoo license. It must be offered by a legitimate organization that provides certification, such as the American Red Cross Association. It costs about $25 to take the class and get the certificate, which it is valid for one year before it must be renewed for the same price. The course can either be taken on-site at your place of business by a licensed course provider (preferred if an entire shop full of employees needs to take or renew their course at the same time), or you can take the course online. At the end of the course, you’ll be required to take a test. If you pass with an 80% or above, you’re certified!

Bloodborne Pathogens training covers topics that are important in the tattoo industry in order for you and your client to be safe, such as:

  • cross-contamination of clean supplies with ones that have been contaminated with blood, ink, or other dangerous fluids
  • proper use of non-porous barriers on equipment
  • proper hand-washing techniques
  • review of blood borne illnesses that are a concern within the tattoo community
  • etc.

Even if your county doesn’t require this training, it’s a vital asset to have simply to make sure you aren’t putting yourself or your clients at risk.

How Much Does Tattoo Licensing Cost?
In the states that offer them, there is a fee for tattoo licensing for both tattoo shops and individual artists. Generally, because licenses are given out by the state, the fees are the same for all counties, only depending on whether the license is for an individual or a business. For tattoo establishments, the nonrefundable fee can generally be expected to be about $1,000, with an additional fee if the shop also performs piercings.

Unlike the individual tattoo license, the fee to run a tattoo establishment is non-negotiable. For individuals, the fee can range from as low as $25 (California), to $100 (New York), or even up to $250 in many other states (Washington and Oklahoma, for instance). These are normally legitimate for a period of between one and three years before the license will need to be renewed, typically for a lower cost than the original fee in areas with higher fees.

Because there is such a huge variation in the level of regulation in regards to obtaining a tattoo license, things can get confusing. It is very important that if you’re interested in getting one, that you check the requirements and fees for your county. Go to your state’s website, and it’ll help you find which office you’ll need to go to in order to apply for the licenses offered in your state.

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