How to Start a Tattoo Career – 5 Steps

If you’re new to tattooing and don’t know where to start, it’s easy to get lost in hundreds of videos and tons of equipment options. 

It’s important you get off on the right foot because you can quickly form bad habits and set your learning back several years if you’re using the wrong information to learn.

That’s why, in this article, we’ll be breaking down:

  • How to build your tattooing skills
  • Where to get equipment
  • How to get licensed and work in a tattoo shop

Step 1: Build Your Drawing Skills

prints of custom tattoos

It can take years to develop your drawing skills. If you haven’t been drawing since you were a kid, you can still be a tattoo artist. This just means that your drawing abilities are something you’ll build up during your career, instead of before. 

Should I Take Art Classes?

Art classes are great if you have the time to take them. They’ll make sure that you are drawing consistently and that you have a strong understanding of traditional art, shading, color theory, etc. However, art classes will not teach you how to draw tattoo designs

The human body isn’t a flat canvas, which means you have to learn how to make sure each tattoo design flows with the shape of the muscles. That idea will not be talked about in normal art classes. 

How Do I Learn to Draw Tattoos?

As you start to design tattoos, it’s best to pick a few successful tattoo artists you admire and draw their designs. It’ll help you pick up on how tattoos work with the shape of the body, as well as what types of designs look good on skin. 

Pro Tip:

While it’s great to use other artists’ designs for practice, it’s frowned upon to tattoo them on people without the artist’s permission. (It can even keep you from getting a job later.) 

However, if you’re still early in your career, it can be hard to come up with your own unique tattoo art. 

To help, our professional artists put together over 70 designs into a Sketchbook - you have our full permission to tattoo them on clients. Check out the Tattooing 101 Sketchbook here.

Step 2: Practice Tattooing

Of course, to become a successful tattoo artist you need to be able to tattoo correctly.

What Equipment Do I Need to Start Tattooing?

Learning what kind of equipment is right for you is a huge part of your tattoo training. We’ll go into some basics below, but for more information, check out our Complete Guide on Tattoo Equipment.

Tattoo Machine

blue tattoo machine

Your tattoo machine the most important pieces of equipment you’ll need when you start tattooing. 

As a new tattoo artist, you’ll need to learn how to choose machines with the settings you need. For example, if you plan to do black and gray realism, you might want to pick a machine that has a shorter stroke that will allow you to build up layers of shading.

Here is a look at the basic differences between common types of tattoo machines:

Coil Machines

Coil tattoo machines work by completing and breaking an electrical circuit over and over. Coil machines have a bit of “give” to them, so the needles will bounce off the skin if you go too deep, which can prevent you from overworking the skin. 

One thing to look out for with this kind of tattoo machine is that they require a lot of upkeep. You have to frequently tune a coil machine, which is a difficult process that is easy to mess up.

Rotary Machines

Rotary machines use a “direct drive” motor to drive the cam wheel, which moves the needle up and down as it rotates. Rotary machines don’t require tuning, so they’re ready to be used as soon as you turn them on. 

Rotary machines are often quieter, lighter, and easier to handle than coil machines. They are generally thought to be more gentle on the skin, but it’s important to know that the direct drive motor means the needle will not ease up if it goes too deep into the skin. This can lead to blowouts and overworked skin if you aren’t careful. 

Our tattoo artists like the Inkjecta Flite Nano.

Pen Machines

The third basic type of tattoo machine is the pen machine. Most pen machines operate with the same “direct drive” motion as a rotary machine. However, instead of having the motor sit horizontally on top of the tattoo artist’s hand, it’s held inside the pen casing.

Pen Machines are usually quieter and cause less vibration than both coil and rotary tattoo machines. The limited vibration makes it easier to make straighter lines, and the lack of cords makes it easier to maneuver the machine. 

The drawback to pen machines is that some of them don’t have an adjustable stroke. Like with rotary machines, the direct drive system can lead to the needle going too deep into the skin, so be sure to keep that in mind when trying out a pen machine. 

Check out our Guide to Pen Style Machines for more information.

Tattoo Needle Cartridges

needle for tattoo machines

Needle cartridges are single-use and can be snapped in and out of a tattoo machine for easy changing and cleanup. (With traditional needles, you have to slide them through the tube, which can damage them if you’re not careful.) 

Cartridges are slightly more expensive than standard tattoo needles, but they are extremely easy to use and compatible with most machines. 

Here’s our purchasing guide for Needle Cartridges.

Tattoo Ink and Ink Caps

tattoo ink

Choosing the right tattoo ink is a matter of practice, preference, and doing your research to decide what’s best for you and your clients. For example, some artists prefer thicker or thinner ink.

Tattoo ink is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which means that there are tons of types of ink made with different materials out there available for purchase. As a beginner, it’s a great idea to do some research about what types of ink are out there, what’s in them, and what concerns clients might have about the ink you use. 

Here’s our directory for Tattoo Ink and Ink Caps. Our artists prefer Solid Ink, Intenze, and Fusion Ink brands.

Warning:

There are lots of fake inks sold on Amazon, and it can be really hard to tell from the packaging if you bought the right one. We highly recommend buying directly from a tattoo supply company.

Fake Skins

Frankenskins dark skin

Fake skins are a great way to practice tattooing your designs without the risk of tattooing human skin. Fake skin provides the relative texture, color, and experience of tattooing skin without the tattoo actually being done on a person (and without having to get pig skin from the butcher to practice). 

There are tons of benefits of using fake skin including trying out your tattoo designs, playing with color and shading, learning how to use your tattoo machine, and getting in tons of technique practice when you don’t have access to human skin. 

Another great benefit of fake skin is that the tattoos you’ve done on practice skins can make for really good portfolio pieces. If you’ve done a tattoo on a practice skin that you think looks good enough to use as marketing material to gain future clients, you can keep that skin around to show off. Here’s a guide for cleaning fake skins in order to preserve them. 

Our artists recommend practicing on Reelskin or Pound of Flesh fake skins.

Pro Tip:

Practice drawing your designs before you begin tattooing them on skin. This will increase your muscle memory and make it easier to tattoo.

Other Tattoo Supplies

In addition to tattoo machines and other tattoo equipment, you’ll need to keep some other items around. These items include:

Note:

The materials listed above are the bare minimum you need to start practicing on fake skin. Before you move onto real skin, you need to have all the barriers, personal protection equipment, and cleaners you need to keep yourself and others safe.

What Skills Do I Need to Know as a Professional Tattoo Artist?

Tattooing 101 Instructor Brandon Over

You’ll always be learning more about tattooing throughout your career, so you should not try to master all tattoo styles before you ever step foot into a tattoo shop (or else you’ll be waiting decades). Even the most experienced tattoo artist is constantly learning. 

However, every tattoo can be broken down into 3 skills. Getting comfortable with them will put you on the right track.

Lining

This is usually the first skill you’d learn in a traditional tattoo apprenticeship. If you’re struggling to tattoo a straight line, visit our Tattoo Linework Techniques guide or watch our Tattoo Lining Techniques videos.

Shading

To shade tattoos, you need to be able to fill in an area with black (without it looking patchy), as well as use whip shading and pendulum shading techniques. You can learn how to do all three in our article about Tattoo Shading Techniques.

Packing Color

Putting color into your tattoos without damaging the skin can be tricky. If you want help learning, check out our article on How to Pack Color into a Tattoo.

How Do I Know I’m Ready to Tattoo People?

There are three things you need to do before you’re ready to tattoo people.

You Have Your Bloodborne Pathogens Certification

Every licensed tattoo artist must first go through bloodborne pathogens training and get certified. Even if you’re tattooing yourself, you need to understand how to make sure your equipment is sterile and you’re being safe while tattooing. 

Bloodborne pathogens training can be done online and in just a few hours.

You Have a Safe and Sterile Environment

It doesn’t matter how good your skills are on fake skin - if the only place you have to tattoo is on a fabric couch or at your kitchen table, you should not tattoo people. Whether you are in a tattoo shop or you’ve set up a studio in a non-carpeted area of your home, make sure you’re in a sterile environment that can be easily cleaned with Madacide. 

You’ve Passed the “Nautical Star Test”

One of the best ways to tell if you’re ready to move from fake skin to human skin is to tattoo a traditional nautical star. If you can get through all the straight lines and solid fills required, then you’re off to a good start, and you’re ready to try a tattoo on real skin. 

How Do I Know I’m Ready to Tattoo Professionally?

The first few people you tattoo will probably be friends or family. We recommend giving these away as free tattoos, since they’re allowing you to use them for practice. But when do you take the jump to clients and start making money?

Once the tattoos you’re doing for free have perfectly straight lines and solid shading, you probably have the skills to start tattooing clients and charging for your work. (You’ll still be nervous tattooing your first clients. If your nerves are messing you up, keep working with people you’re comfortable with until you can stay calm.)

Note:

Even if you’re tattooing full-time as a professional tattoo artist, you’ll still want to stick to small tattoos at first. Once those are turning out nearly perfect, then you’re ready to take on bigger pieces.

Step 3: Start Building Your Social Media

Tattoos by Tattooing 101 Instructor Brandon

Social media is not just for famous tattoo artists. It’s how clients find you. You don’t have to be a social media guru or have a million followers to be successful as a tattoo artist, but it will help you get clients as a new artist and put your name out there.

The problem with building a social media presence is that everyone is on social media. Here’s a few tips to help you photograph your tattoos and get started:

Use a ring light

Even the work of a skilled tattoo artist will not stand out if their photos have bad lighting.

Having good lighting in your pictures will make all of your work look better. Ring lights are cheap and easy to move around, making them a great investment if you’re just starting out.

Only post art

While you occasionally will want a picture of you, your pet, or your hobbies outside of art, you don’t want to confuse people who follow you for tattooing. Keep a majority of your posts related to your art. (You can get a second account on most apps if you want separate personal and professional accounts.)

Post regularly 

Social media algorithms reward people who are using their app a lot. This means that you’ll reach more people if you post consistently. Anytime you draw, paint, or tattoo something, post it.

Daily is good. You can go through and polish your social media pages later (and take out any early stuff that no longer reflects your best work). 

Here’s a few ideas for images you can post:

  • Your tattooing equipment
  • Time lapse of you designing tattoos
  • High quality tattoos you’ve done recently
  • Your work in a different art form or medium (ex: sculpting, painting, etc.)
  • How you’re actively improving your work (ex: taking drawing classes)
  • Promotions for your tattoo business (ex: flash day)
  • Drawings you’ve done in your favorite art styles

Note:

Algorithms tend to push accounts that engage in multiple ways. If an app has an option for video and posting pictures, it’s best to do both. If someone leaves a nice comment, make sure to comment back.

Additionally, your audience wants to feel like they know you personally. Using videos and live streams are a great way to connect with the people who follow you.

Use local hashtags

Hashtags make it easier for people to find you. However, using local hashtags will ensure you’re reaching people in your immediate area (which will help find your first clients). For example, if you live in Austin, TX, instead of using #tattooartist, you might use #tattooartistaustin.

To learn more about using social media to build your career, check out our article “15 Steps to Growing Your Tattoo Business.”

Step 4: Get Licensed

If you want to work in the tattoo industry, you will need to get licensed. What you have to do to get licensed will vary by state (even county by county in some areas), but there are generally four categories they fall into.

Tattoo School and State Exam 

Some states require you to go to a state-mandated tattoo school and take an exam.

Note:

To learn more about what tattoo schools teach, visit our article “What Do Tattoo Schools Teach? Can You Get Licensed?

Tattoo Apprenticeship

There are a few states that require you to go through an apprenticeship with an established tattoo artist and complete a certain amount of work hours in a tattoo studio. A health department official might also come into the shop and watch you do a tattoo.

Note:

Many of these states will accept “equivalent training.” If you take a course or you learned how to tattoo in a different state, you can check with the county to see if you can skip an in-state apprenticeship.

Basic Tattoo Safety

Some states will be only focused on safety. To become a tattoo artist, you’ll need to take a bloodborne pathogens course, a First Aid and CPR class, and sometimes a basic safety exam.

No Regulations

There are a few states that have no regulations, and you do not need a license to tattoo. In these areas, only tattoo shops are licensed, and the shop owner is responsible for making sure their artists know how to tattoo safely.

Note:

Not sure what you have to do to get licensed in your state? Check out our guide: “How to Get a Tattoo License in Every State in America.”

Step 5: Find Work in a Tattoo Shop

Images from Tattooing 101 Lead Instructor Nathan’s apprenticeship portfolio

If you can draw and tattoo solid designs, you have clients from social media, and you’re licensed, you’re in a good place to look for work. 

Build Your Portfolio

Before you walk into any local tattoo shops, however, you need to have a portfolio ready.

Tattoo Apprenticeship Portfolio

If you’re in an area that requires an apprenticeship before getting licensed, your portfolio should show your drawing skills. Don’t include pictures of your tattoos - some tattoo artists prefer their apprentices to be “blank slates.”

We recommend including flash designs in an apprenticeship portfolio.

Tattoo Artist Portfolio

If you’re applying to be an artist, you should include well-lit, unedited photos of your tattoos. 

Note:

Every aspiring tattoo artist needs a portfolio of their best work. If you’re not sure what to include or how to format your portfolio correctly, visit our article, “How to Start a Tattoo Portfolio.”

Starting Your Own Tattoo Studio

A tattoo studio is a business. To open your own tattoo studio, you’ll need to learn professional business skills alongside tattooing. If you’re not sure where to start, check out our article, “How to Start a Tattoo Business.”

Note:

If you’re just starting out in the tattoo industry, we recommend getting experience in one or more tattoo shops before starting your own. This will allow you to build connections in the industry and improve your craft before you have to deal with the zoning laws, inspections, etc.

Become a Tattoo Artist With the Artist Accelerator Program

student work from the Artist Accelerator tattoo artist training programs

Having a career in tattooing is not only fulfilling, but it’s also the most stable way to make a living as an artist. However, for decades, the process to become a tattoo artist has been notoriously difficult. 

The apprenticeship process requires aspiring tattoo artists to work 50-60 hours a week without pay for 2-4 years. That, combined with the toxic culture of abusing apprentices, makes getting into the industry almost impossible for newcomers. 

That’s why we created the Artist Accelerator Program. Our online course provides a simple, structured way of learning to tattoo that has been proven to work by over 2500 successful students, with many of them having gone on to open their own shops all around the world. 

Inside the program, we’ll take you through every step of the tattooing process in 9 clear, easy-to-follow modules and support you along the way within the Tattooing 101 Mastermind online community.

In the Mastermind group, you’ll collaborate with other students, get answers to your questions, and receive personalized video feedback on your artwork and tattoos from professional tattoo artists. With this friendly community of both new and experienced tattoo artists, you’ll never be stuck again. 

When you join the Artist Accelerator Program, you’ll have instant access to the full course and the Mastermind community, as well as our 30-Day Flash Challenge and recorded interviews with tattoo artists from all over the world. 

Click here to learn more about the Artist Accelerator Program.

Looking for a tattoo apprenticeship?

Tattooing 101's Artist Accelerator 90 day program is the closest thing to a real apprenticeship

  • 500 video modules
  • Professional tattoo artist coaches
  • Private mastermind community
AUTHOR
Nathan Molenaar

Nathan is a licensed professional tattoo artist with over 8 years’ experience working at studios across the globe, including Celebrity Ink, the world's largest tattoo studio chain.

When he's not tattooing, he spends his free time sharing his experience and knowledge with aspiring artists who dream of pursuing a career in the tattooing industry.

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