A career as a tattoo artist has long been revered as mysterious and taboo for many decades, fascinating many with its unique implementation of a permanent design onto skin, and leaving them wondering about the long-held secrets of learning how to master the skillful trade. During recent years, tattooing has become more mainstream, regarded less as a fearsome mark of a rebel and more as a form of art that anybody of any age can enjoy. As such, its guarded secrets of the trade are coming out of the woodwork, and as its shroud of mystery falls away, more people are becoming interested in the field.
The most traditional way to become a tattoo artist has always been to take on a tattoo apprenticeship, where you, the eager student, learns closely beside an experienced tattoo artist in a reputable shop one-on-one. However there is an alternative method. It does not require you to go from shop to shop advertising yourself as a worthy contender for the position, and it is gaining popularity among potential artists: tattoo artist school
Understanding Their Purpose
Forty or fifty years ago, the concept of tattoo artist school legitimately teaching the art of tattoo would seem outrageous! The well-kept trade secrets of tattoo artistry, passed on only to those most dedicated and who have proven themselves worthy of learning the skill, are being handed out to anyone who has an interest in the field? Sailor Jerry is probably rolling over in his grave.
When you think about it, though, doesn’t it make sense? Most other skilled trades, such as carpentry and mechanics, have said goodbye to the traditional apprenticeship and adapted to modern societal needs by switching to vocational and technical schools. And, as with most of these skilled trades that have made the change, the tattoo industry has changed over the years, too.
For instance, tattoos shops were frowned upon by the general public when they first became popular in America in the early 1900‘s, and their lack of initial health standards earned them a further negative reputation from both society and the law. Today, nearly 1 in 4 U.S. adults have at least one tattoo, and there are hundreds of thousands of tattoo shops closely regulated by the same health standards as dentist and doctors’ offices. Tattoos are very trendy in today’s society, and one might agree that a vocational school is the best way to keep the industry ahead of the times.
While learning to tattoo in a safe, controlled environment sounds helpfully modern–and like a blessing for those who have been unable to find an apprenticeship–there is a lot of controversy and uncertainty surrounding it, especially among tattoo artists.
A few hopefuls who have been looking into tattoo school as an alternative to an apprenticeship are drawn in by the promise of guaranteed progress in exchange for their time. “If I’m learning from one artist, I have to learn under his/her schedule. What if he/she doesn’t have time for me, or is just out to get my money? What if he/she is an amazing artist, but a bad teacher?” These are indeed legitimate questions to think about when scouting out an apprenticeship, questions that you wouldn’t think you’d need to consider when looking into a licensed teaching facility. Tattoo schools involve workshops, controlled environments, peers to compare with, certificates and guaranteed teacher feedback, right?
Unfortunately, because tattoo schools haven’t really taken off until recently–even though they have been around since as long ago as the late 60‘s– they aren’t very closely regulated, and their results can vary greatly in terms of time, cost, and quality of education. They can vary a lot.
Some Tattoo Schools Are Legitimate
In Texas, a tattoo school exists called the International Institute of Tattoo, and it began by establishing an apprentice program in 1993. The artists behind it knew exactly how difficult it was to break into the tattoo industry, and wanted to provide a more stable, educational environment for those who wanted to learn so that aspiring artists didn’t end up teaching themselves in their basements, potentially spreading a slew of blood-borne diseases along with less-than-par body art.
All potential students must fill out an application that includes a short questionnaire that asks about your personal interest in tattooing, any credentials in the art or tattoo industry that you already have, and what styles of tattoo/art that you are most interested in.
The institute has a heavy focus on sterilization and health regulations, and also includes a lesson on the history of tattoos., all of which come before any further study. Students are required to learn about tattoo machines and build one from scratch, along with their own needle bars which are soldered by hand (to give you an idea, this is so old-school that it was only briefly covered in my own two-year tattoo apprenticeship).
The program will take about a year to complete, and students demonstrate their knowledge on participating clients after about 6-8 weeks of training. The cost of this school is about $20,000 and includes an additional fee of $550 to purchase the necessary equipment.
…and Some Tattoo Schools Aren’t
By comparison, The World’s Only Tattoo School, located in Louisiana, has been in operation since 1968, long before tattoos became trendy and before the concept of tattoo school was a serious consideration, and is purportedly the first institution of its kind. This school offers a 2-week course in Artistic Tattooing for the price of $5,600, and is inclusive of tattoo equipment.
If you think that you read that wrong, you didn’t–two weeks is all it takes!
The curriculum for this course indeed has all of the basics of learning how to tattoo that you’d learn in an apprenticeship, from drawing and designing flash, to learning about sterilization and cross-contamination, to machine building. It even has a course on tattoo business management.
The difference, though, is that the knowledge crammed into this 2-week crash course would take between 1 and 3 years, sometimes longer, to learn from a reputable tattoo artist.
This concept denotes some lack of credibility, especially compared to schools like the International Institute of Tattoo. To me, this seems like it would go as well as learning how to become a practicing dental assistant in two weeks.
Furthermore, as if to discredit this program even more, albeit unintentionally, TLC made a reality television show about the World’s Only Tattoo School that began airing in 2012, which pits students of the school together in a tattoo competition after completing the course.
How Tattoo Schools Are Gauged Among Artists
The most important thing to consider if you’re thinking about trying out a tattoo school as an alternative to a traditional tattoo apprenticeship, aside from the quality of the education, is the implication of graduating from a school and whether or not these credentials will be taken seriously when you complete your education and enter the job market to actually seek a job as a tattoo artist.
It has been widely regarded among tattoo artists that most tattoo schools (not all) attempt to condense too much knowledge into too unrealistic of a time frame. Especially regarding tattoo schools that offer 2-week or 1-month courses, tattoo artists, myself included, are offended and appalled by the idea. Imagine spending years learning how to do a specific skill, and then being told that it really doesn’t take that long, and that you wasted your time doing it “the right way” because the skill is so easy that it can be learned in 2 weeks. We take pride in our work and the concept seems belittling to our dedication at the very least.
Additionally, tattoo schools lack a very important component to working in the tattoo industry: becoming familiar with the industry itself. Sure, you may learn how to tattoo from a reputable school, and even to tattoo well. But when it comes down to getting customers in the door, advertising yourself, and really seeing how your customer service skills integrate into your line of work, you’ll be left clueless, while an apprentice who has been helping out at a shop long before he/she ever picked up a tattoo machine will seamlessly be able to handle this end of the business. Understanding how to be professional and efficient as an artist is every bit as important as learning the art itself; without this monumental skill, your tattoo career will be either very short-lived or financially rocky for your first few years.
Becoming a tattoo artist is not just a job, or even just a career–it is a lifestyle and is, in a way, a world of its own. If tattooing is something that you’re passionate about and that you think you can live and breathe, then make absolute sure that you’ve informed yourself about all possible options to get there in the best way possible.