Becoming a tattoo artist can be a satisfying, lucrative, and energizing job choice, especially if you’re not too keen on the daily grind of a 9-to-5 job. Because the distinctive and unique art of tattoos has become more widely accepted today than it was several decades ago, more and more people are getting them, and the demand for tattoo artists is higher than ever.
The tattoo industry locks its trade secrets behind a guarded wall that requires a lot of time, commitment, dedication, and effort to break down. However, if you’ve ever walked into your local tattoo shop and observed the artists at work in their skillful trade, it can be difficult to initially see all of the hard work that goes into making a job as a tattoo artist into a career. Most artists study for at least two years under the supervision of a talented, experienced artist before they themselves begin practicing the art of tattoo—and even after that, it can be a long and bumpy ride.
So, you have the drive, you have the commitment, you want to dedicate the time, and you want to do this right. Maybe you’ve already looked into an apprenticeship, and you could even be one right now. Your interest in becoming a tattoo artist has already manifested itself, which is a great first step towards putting your foot in the door of this industry.
But just in case you haven’t already discovered this on your mission, the job isn’t as easy as it looks (and I know it does look easy sometimes). There are some very important things that every aspiring tattoo artist should know as they climb the ladder to making a career in the art of permanently decorating human flesh. Keep them in mind!
This is Not a Get-Rich-Quick Career
Having so many shows on television that glamorize the tattoo industry easily colors the profession with rose-colored sunglasses. It is true that some of the artists featured on these shows, such as Nikko Hurtado, Kat von D, and Meghan Massacre, make big bucks doing what they do, charging anywhere between $300 and $600 per hour. The networks make sure to show the ritzy houses, cars, and shops that these talented artists have accumulated with their skill, and it makes us all think, “Wow, I wish I could be a tattoo artist and make hundreds of thousands of dollars like that!”
When you take off the rose-tinted shades of Hollywood, you see an estimated 20,000+ shops strewn about the United States, sometimes with dozens of them in the same neighborhood, all vying to prove to their clients that they are the best choice for your permanent body art. Prices in cities such as these can get pretty competitive, and even the best tattoo artists are forced to lower their prices to match the increased supply of tattoo shops with a demand that is only slightly more increased by comparison.
The bottom line is that you have to be really, really good (and likely a tattoo shop owner, which takes many years of experience) to make the kind of money that you see famous tattoo artists making, and it will take a long time. Expect the first year, possibly longer, to be a financial struggle as you solidify yourself and make yourself known and available to your clientele.
Tattooing is All About Customer Service
Speaking of clientele, it should be starkly pointed out that tattooing is considered a service industry. An artist that I was learning from as an apprentice told me that becoming a successful tattoo artist is 50% skill, and 50% customer service. I completely agree, and may even argue that customer service is even more important than that.
With so many tattoo shops and tattoo artists, potential clients have their pick of the litter when it comes to finding an artist that they like enough to get tattooed by him/her. They’ve found dozens of artists whose work is both affordable and high-quality; what will separate each artist if their work all measures up?
Consider it this way: as an aspiring tattoo artist, your clients will be sitting with you (or someone else) for an extended period of time, unable to move and normally in a fair amount of discomfort. Putting yourself in that situation, would you want to spend that time with someone who is a jerk to you, who dismisses you or sometimes even your ideas for your own tattoo? I certainly wouldn’t. I would want to be treated with respect and know that I wasn’t just another dollar sign.
Also consider that the better you can identify with a potential client about the tattoo design that they want to get, the faster and more efficiently you’ll be able to come up with a design that is exactly what he/she wants. If you can’t listen to your client well enough to understand what service he/she wants you to do, then you’ll quickly lose business to someone who is more savvy with this ability.
You can be the most talented artist in your neighborhood, city, or state, but no one will know that if you don’t sell yourself as a relate-able, creative professional. Outstanding customer service will always be an enormous factor in being a successful tattoo artist, so I hope you’re a people person—or at the very least that you’re good at pretending to be one!
Tattoo Artists Are Self Employed
Another little-known fact is that tattoo artists are, to put it simply, considered self-employed. We are regarded as freelance contractors, regardless of if we do or do not work for someone else, or if we have a set schedule at the place where we do our work.
This means that you’re responsible for budgeting the money for your own taxes each year, including the half of your social security that your employer would normally pay. It means no employer health insurance, no 401k, and no paid vacation time; if you miss a day of work because you’re sick, then you’re missing out on potential money that day. Your vacation to the Bahamas will cost the amount you budgeted for the trip, plus an additional week’s worth of work that you’ll be sacrificing.
Being self-employed also means that there is no hourly wage—most artists get paid on commission. A percentage of whatever the tattoo artist charges for the tattoo is given to the business where they work; normally, a standard rate is that the artist gets to keep about 50%, but it varies depending on the shop and your experience. Don’t forget to factor in the cost of supplies like ink, needles, and gloves, which are tax-deductible, but that you’re personally responsible for. Most shops provide medical supplies in exchange for the commission they charge, but the tools actually used for the tattoo are normally purchased by you, not your employer.
The tattoo industry, much like others, also goes through times where the artists are very busy, and others where it’s very slow (usually the winter months when people are saving for the holidays). It is very important that you have a good idea of how to budget your finances if you are to be self-employed, not only to make it through the slower seasons without struggling, but also so that you don’t get in trouble with the IRS for not paying your taxes. If you can’t budget your income, then you shouldn’t be self-employed. Seriously.
You Get What You Put Into It
Finally, this is one of those careers where you are in charge of your own future, your own success. It can be very liberating knowing that the only thing holding you back is you, but it’s also a lot of pressure on yourself to always be advancing.
Tattooing is something that you really have to have a passion for in order to succeed, because you’ll constantly be learning about your environment, your clientele, and your skill level, and you’ll constantly be working to improve these things. You won’t always get to tattoo what you want, and sometimes you’ll have less-than-desirable customers (that’s where that customer service comes in). There will be great days, and there will be that inevitable day that you mess up a tattoo so badly that it makes you want to put your machines away forever. Will you be able to persevere through that? Will you endure as many years as it takes as an apprentice to tattoo well, or will you get frustrated and give up?
The tattoo industry is absolutely about getting out of it what you put into it. If you slack off, are easily put off by a challenge, and if you have a sensitive ego and aren’t willing to push yourself, then becoming a tattoo artist might not be for you. However, if you continue to dedicate the time and effort into improving yourself and your skills within your career, and if after looking at all of the points made here, you still can’t think of anything else that you’d rather do…then hey, you’ll get a rewarding career and life experience out of it.