Getting your tattoo license is one thing if you want to become a tattoo artist, but the reality is that you also need to learn how to tattoo living flesh BEFORE you get a client in the chair. Even if you have friends who are willing to let you “practice” on them, you should have already tattooed lots of practice skin, and then yourself, before putting them through some of your early work.
But how can you start learning how to tattoo other people and yourself if you’ve never done it before? As we mentioned in the intro, you should have gone through your fair share of practice skin before you ever consider tattooing living flesh, but this is already getting ahead of the game. Before you ever even touch a tattoo machine, make sure you’ve gone through the list below.
This is maybe one of the most interesting parts of any tattoo artist training, and it’s definitely one of the coolest parts of the entire process too. Like the great Boog said:
“If you can’t get down on paper, you have no business getting down on someones skin.”
Drawing is a very good practice method. It allows you to maintain a steady hand, so you basically practice tattooing without even noticing. Plus, it also delivers a wonderful boost to your artistic career, and that can work to your advantage. As you’re drawing you’re building up muscle memory, hand strength, and have the ability to play with line weights, colors, and flow of the piece, before you permanently put it on someone.
The more designs you create, the easier it will be to learn how to tattoo yourself. You will get the confidence and focus that you need and at the end. Not to mention you now have a stack of drawings to choose from when putting together your portfolio and trying to get an apprenticeship.
Draw everything. Copy tattoos that you see in magazines, draw objects from real life so you understand how shadows and highlights really work, draw make believe things from your mind just to see how it will come out. JUST DRAW!
What my first mentor told me:
“Draw, draw, draw until you physically can’t draw anymore… THEN DRAW SOME MORE!”
Use henna to learn how you can add designs to body contours
Henna is a traditional dye, but it can help you learn how to apply some of your designs directly to the body. The nice thing here is that it’s “one shot” just like tattooing, and you’ll have the ability to work on a living medium without it being too permanent (if you wash it off right away).
Practice Lining with Tracing Paper
When you learn how to tattoo yourself or any other person, you have to be very good at following lines. After all, this is a huge part of the entire process, so you have to do all you can in order to keep your lines as consistent and “crisp” as possible.
It’s not an easy thing to do. That’s especially true if your hands are shaking and you can’t follow a straight line. Practice tracing tattoos that you find in books and magazines. Practice drawing “freehand” shapes and then getting the line work from them as if you were going to use the line work on a real client.
The most important thing isn’t following the lines 100% right on, the important thing is that you have clean line work – meaning no breaks in the line, no varying weight, etc.
Another great quote from an early mentor:
“The stencil is merely a suggestion of where I want the lines, I don’t take it too seriously.”
I even heard Joe Capobianco say the same thing about his lines when shading! Lol, but be careful wit advice like this when you’re first starting out, try and be as “clean” as possible.
Use a Weighted Pencil to Simulate the Tattooing Machine
You can’t use a tattoo machine all the time, it’s a good idea to use the weighted pencil as a simulation. This way you can put the pencil on your wrist and start building up the muscles needed for long sessions.
What many mentors due is tape a pencil so it can fit snug in the vice of a tattoo machine, and let the apprentice do their line work with this contraption. We have videos in our members community, and I’ll try and post a pic soon of what this looks like. Until then here is a stock photo of what it looks like to give you an idea.
Purchase pig skin for a realistic tattooing experience
What makes pig skin a very good and realistic practice material is the fact that it’s pretty similar to the human skin. Pretty similar, meaning not exactly the same thing. When tattooing pig skin, it’s a bit like that absolute worst client you’ll ever have, with the worst, toughest skin, full of blemishes and a terrible odor. But it’s best to practice on this before your friends.
You can find pig skin that can be used specifically for this type of practice at the butcher, or even in Chinatown (in most cities).
Once you get the hang of tattooing such terrible skin, any client after this will seem like a breeze as the ink goes in much easier,
Become an Apprentice Under a Professional
The next logical step, and the whole point of our courses and this website, is to give you enough information that you can confidently land an apprentice ship or artist position at a tattoo shop.
Be careful. Unfortunately there are shop owners out there that take advantage of this situation. They know that you’re hungry and wanting to do almost anything to break into the industry. We’ve heard crazy horror stories here at Tattooing 101 about all of the nasty things “apprentices” go through without learning anything.
I’ll save you some of the nasty details, but let’s say some of the BEST case scenarios is that students have lost 3 years of their lives and $15,000. Imagine what the worst case scenarios are?
Educate yourself, know what you’re getting into, who the artist is, and have your ducks in a row. Read blogs like this, and ask around in our community or others so you stay safe.
This isn’t to turn you off from the industry as these happen in any job, it’s just to keep you informed and aware.
Do Some Free Tattoos on Other People
Let’s face it, there are tons of people that want tattoos, but not a lot of them have money to get one. Once you have done your 10,000 drawings, practiced on fake skin, gotten the go ahead from someone watching over you (a mentor), and tattooed yourself… It’s finally time. Let’s tattoo your first client!
It’s gonna be stressful, it might not be 100% perfect, but it’s the first step in an actual tattoo career.
The tattoo itself should be something smaller than your palm (or else you’ll take 100 hours and stress more), solid black (so you can hide those early shaky lines), and on a good friend who understand where you are in your career.
My first few dozen tattoos were done on other sailors when I was serving in the Navy. A bunch of young 20-something year old guys heading off to combat. When I shouted “who wants a FREE tattoo?” I never had a problem running out of practice!
Don’t rush, and remember this will be the most stressful and difficult tattoo. It only get easier once you get more comfortable with the process.
Keep Practicing At All Times
You can’t become a professional if you don’t spend thousands of hours completing designs and trying out new concepts. This is not a simple career, it does require innovation, and you always require tons of focus. Yes, it certainly isn’t easy, but it’s definitely worth it.
If you’ve read this far into the post (more than ~1,500 words!) then you likely have the passion to become a professional. Never stop learning, never stop practicing, and never give up. This is the most rewarding career in the world, and this “barrier” of a difficult first few years is what keeps OTHERS out, not you… If you have what it takes.
Stay curious, keep learning, and join this or other tattoo communities so that you can stay motivated and informed with others who are on the same path as you. See you at the convention.