Perhaps your friends and family have often praised your artistic ability, and maybe you have an interest in art. You see your local tattoo shops, the array of different designs framed onto their walls, and you can’t help but be fascinated. Perhaps you already know a little bit about tattoos, and you might even already have one or two–or a lot more of them–yourself. Regardless of your reasons, you have taken an interest in the age-old industry and would like to become a tattoo artist.
But in the strange, taboo, behind-the-scenes world of the modern-day tattoo industry, where does one even begin?
Many individuals who strive to become a professional artist will take matters into their own hands and opt to buy a kit online that includes most of the necessary tools to do the job, without any of the guidance or skill. These types of individuals will set up the equipment in their kitchen, their basement, or even their living room and either take a stab (pun intended) at tattooing for the first time on themselves, or perhaps on a willing friend. These individuals are known as “scratchers” in the tattoo industry, and they often end up struggling for many years through the self-taught techniques of trial and error. Many give up altogether, and very few of these go on to become professional tattoo artists or shop owners.
The tried and true method of learning how to tattoo is to become a tattoo apprentice. This involves learning a trade from somebody who already practices the skill and has a number of years of experience doing it, and who is also willing to take the time and effort to take on a student.
Back in the day, an apprenticeship was one of the only ways to learn a trade job of any sort, including construction, electrician, plumbing, and mechanics; today, the job of tattoo artist is one of the very few left that actually still practices them. Because they’re a dying breed, they can be unfortunately hard to come by. Be prepared to spend weeks or even months looking for a tattoo apprenticeship, and keep an open mind about your experiences looking for one. It also doesn’t hurt to be prepared with a little information about how a tattoo apprenticeship works.
Normally, apprenticeships do not pay you for the many hours of time that you’ll be dedicating, so you’ll essentially be working a part-time or full-time job for free. You’ll also spend a lot of time proving yourself (read: a few months at least) before your chosen artist will start to pass on any of their knowledge to you. In addition, very few artists and shops offer apprenticeships for free; most of them charge some sort of cost for you to learn that can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
Most tattoo shops don’t outwardly advertise for apprenticeships (though there will be some that do), and many of them will reject you even if they do offer them, if you aren’t correctly prepared when you embark on your search. From one tattoo artist to a hopeful, here’s a quick list of helpful hints to keep in mind:
1. Do some research.
Before you even ask the staff of any shop if they offer apprenticeships, make sure that it is a shop where you admire their work and that you’d be excited to learn from them. The best places to start are at a shop where you’ve already been tattooed, or where you know one of your friends or a family member has gone. Get to know a place and the artists that work there; get a feel for the atmosphere there to make sure that you’ll be a good fit.
2. Get a tattoo.
Need I say more? If you’re interested in a career decorating human flesh, hopefully you’re just as interested in decorating your own. It is also commonplace to be your own first guinea pig when you’re finally allowed to pick up that tattoo machine, so keep that in mind.
3. Come prepared.
To preface, a tattoo artist is not looking for your knowledge of the tattoo industry and a portfolio of your tattoo experience. In fact, it is very starkly the opposite; we want to take on someone who knows very little to nothing about tattooing at all! Remember how the “scratchers” self-teach themselves how to tattoo? Along the way, they pick up some bad habits that are hard to unlearn before new information can be taken in, and some artists are just too busy for that and lack the patience. It’s best if you have never picked up a machine (it’s a machine, not a gun) in your entire life, and if you have, then it’s best not to bring it up.
But, we do expect that you’ll have something to show that you already possess some skills that are prerequisite of learning how to tattoo. The best way to do this is with a portfolio of your art.
We’ll be looking for someone who can already draw, since design is a very important component to the job at hand. Your portfolio should include an array of art that focuses on certain tattoo-specific traits, such as line consistency, an understanding of color theory, design flow, and uniqueness of the designs.
For bonus points, research common and popular tattoo designs, and draw and color your own unique renditions of these. Collections of related tattoo designs on one sheet of paper are known as ‘flash art.’ They are normally formatted on 11-inch by 14-inch sheets of paper, but any format will do as long as you’re demonstrating a basic understanding of how to draw and compile tattoo designs. Include a copy of just the line drawings of these designs to go with them. As an apprentice, you’ll be doing a lot of line drawings to prepare you for permanent application of art to the skin, so it will help to show them that you already have a leg up on this exercise with your own art.
4. Determination is key.
Some shops, including the one that you fell in love with and have gone to several times for tattoo work, just aren’t interested in offering apprenticeships. However, some of them just want to know that you aren’t wasting their time. No one wants to accept the challenge of dedicating hours of their time to teaching someone a trade, only to have that person walk away in a few weeks.
The best way to show that you won’t disappear is to, well, keep appearing. Don’t become a nuisance, and don’t bother the artists while they’re working, but come by just to say hello sometime and let an artist know how much you love the tattoo he/she did on you, or bring down a friend (artists love referrals) and watch him/her get tattooed. Offer to get lunch for them if everyone is too busy to leave the shop. Ask if there’s anything that you can do for them while you’re there, such as take out the trash or help one of the customers pick out a design. Offer to give them some of your tattoo designs to use or hang in the shop if they’re interested.
There are literally a hundred ways to show an artist or a shop that you appreciate their service and that you’re interested in becoming a bigger part of what they do.
Even if the shop that you’ve been wooing still won’t give you an apprenticeship, maybe they’ll know someone who will. Research other shops in the mean time, and periodically visit your choices over the coming months to see if they’ve changed their mind.
5. Attitude is even more key.
I can’t think of a single employer that likes to deal with someone who has a bad attitude. Though tattoo shops often have a laid-back environment, and while the job may be atypical, it is still a job, and the artists are there to work. Be respectful of this at all times, even if an artist is disrespectful towards you.
Don’t ever act like you know anything about the industry just because you’ve gotten tattoos, because you’ve seen shows about them on television, or because you know someone who does tattoos (if they’re that good, wouldn’t they work in a shop and you’d be learning from them already?). Artists absolutely hate that; you’re here to persuade these folks to teach you, not to tell them how much you already know. How disrespectful! Maintain an attitude of humility at all times about your attempts, your portfolio, and your skills.
Finally, never, ever hold an artist’s decision not to apprentice you against them. While you may be frustrated that things aren’t coming to you as quickly as you’d hoped, remember that an artist is never obligated to help you out. To be outwardly frustrated at this first setback can only be a sign of things to come, as far as your attitude goes, during a learning experience that can take years to complete. Having a great, positive outlook about your future in the tattoo industry, and staying determined, is likely the most helpful piece of advice that I can give you as an artist. Stay sharp, and good luck!