How to Become a Tattoo Artist

Whether you’re self-taught or decide to go through an apprenticeship, every tattoo artist has to go through the same process. However, sifting through online sources can make it hard to piece together the right information. So we've create a comprehensive resource on how to become a tattoo artist with all the steps you'll need to take.

In this article, we’re breaking down:

  • Every step you need to take to become a successful tattoo artist
  • How to practice tattooing
  • How to find work as a tattoo artist

1

Learn How to Draw Tattoo Designs

If you’ve looked at any other articles about how to become a tattoo artist, you’ll see that learning to draw is the first step.

This is true, but it helps to be more specific. Learning to draw tattoo designs is different from simply learning how to draw. You have to take the body’s shape and how the person’s muscles sit into account.

Design was create with the shape of the shoulder and bicep in mind

How to Learn to Draw Tattoo Designs

The best way to learn how to create tattoo designs is to emulate famous tattoo artists you admire. Draw their tattoos without tracing them, and try to take note of why that tattoo seems to be working. Over time, you will learn what good tattoos look like and how they’re put together.

When you’re learning to tattoo, remember that you don’t need to “reinvent the wheel.” Learning to draw by modeling a successful tattooer’s designs lets you leverage their years of experience. Instead of figuring everything out yourself, you’ll be using their experience to get the hang of drawing tattoo designs faster. 

Note

Never use designs by another artist in your own portfolio. This is for practice only.

You don’t have to take expensive art classes to become a tattoo artist. Check out our article How to Draw Tattoos.

Learn to Use Procreate + iPad

Drawing with pencil and paper is a key part of being a tattoo artist. You cannot tattoo better than you can draw. 

However, being able to design digitally lets you work much faster. Drawing with Procreate on an iPad lets you make straight lines and smooth blends in seconds instead of spending hours on perfect pencil drawings. 

Note

A lot of tattooers are against new artists using iPads because they think it doesn’t prepare them for real skin. However, digital drawing is the future of tattooing. Anyone who doesn’t adopt it is putting themselves at a disadvantage, especially when you're trying to become a tattoo artist. 

With an iPad, you can make more art and develop a style faster while also posting more often and building a following. However, even if their art improves quickly, new tattooers still need to get enough practice on fake skin and friends before moving to clients.

Knowing the History of Tattooing Helps You Understand Tattoo Design

Tattoos are nothing new. In fact, they date back to earlier than 3000 B.C. However, our more modern styles are still evolving today. 

While knowing about the history of tattooing isn’t mandatory to becoming a tattoo artist, lots of tattoo artists consider it important to understand how the craft - and the designs we tattoo - have changed overtime. Learn more about the History of Tattooing

2

Build a Portfolio and a Following

Your tattoo portfolio is a folder with plastic sleeves that display your best work. When you walk into a tattoo studio looking for an apprenticeship or a job, the only thing a shop owner will care about is how good your work is. So, you want to focus on building a solid portfolio. 

Note

The images in your portfolio should be finished artworks. Do not bring in sketches or anything that is half-finished.

Why You Should Also Have an Online Portfolio

An online portfolio is a social media page where you have posted your work. Instagram usually works best. It should not replace a physical portfolio. However, it’s a good idea to be posting your artwork consistently online. 

If you can gain a following and prove to shop owners that people are already interested in your work, they’ll be more likely to hire you because when you make the transition into tattooing, it will be easier for you to get clients. This means you're not having to rely on the shop for walk-ins and taking work from the other artists. Instead of being another mouth to feed, you’ll be an asset to the business.

3

Get Your Bloodborne Pathogens Certification

Bloodborne Pathogens (BBP) Training is a course that prepares you to protect yourself and your clients from potentially deadly infections, which you’ll need to do every day as a tattoo artist. Almost every state requires you to have a valid certification to get a tattoo artist license, so you’ll need to take a BBP training course to legally tattoo in your state. 

When getting your BBP certification, make sure that the course you are taking is OSHA-approved. You can register for the class online and get certified through the American Red Cross’ BBP Training. 

4

Decide on an Apprenticeship or Self-Taught

Most people you ask will tell you there is one way to become a tattoo artist. This is not true. Tattoo artists enter the industry in many ways. It’s up to you to decide which one is right for your learning style and your life situation.

However, if you decide to learn independently, your end goal needs to be building a great portfolio. If you can show that you’re great at tattooing, you’ll be able to get hired in a tattoo shop without having had an apprenticeship.

Option 1: The Tattoo Apprenticeship

Tattoo apprenticeships are considered the traditional method of learning tattooing. An aspiring tattoo artist will work under a mentor who teaches them how to tattoo in the shop. Apprenticeships usually last 2-4 years and are unpaid. In many cases, the apprentice will pay the mentor around $5,000 and will not be allowed to pick up a tattoo machine until their second year. 

Apprenticeships can be great learning experiences, but most come with hazing and abuse, as apprentices spend their time being the “shop slave.” A good tattoo apprenticeship will act as a ladder toward your future success, while a bad apprenticeship feels like a never-ending downward spiral.

Note

No job is worth physical or verbal abuse – even your dream job. If your apprenticeship is going nowhere fast, it’s time to leave and find a mentor who loves the craft and is willing to teach you without taking your money, sanity, or self-esteem. Becoming a tattoo artist should never mean suffering in a toxic environment.

Additionally, apprenticeships can be hard to find. There are only a few open slots in each city, and most get taken by friends or someone who already has a connection. Just like any business, it’s not always about talent, it’s about who you know.

Option 2: Self-Taught

The potential waste of time and money scares a lot of talented artists away from the industry every year. Additionally, for beginners past their teens and twenties, having an income is not optional. Instead, they decide to become a tattoo artist without an apprenticeship. 

Reading books about tattooing, watching YouTube videos about technique, and spending time on tattooing forums can help you piece together the information you need to develop your skills. The major downfall to learning on your own, however, is that not all the information you’ll find online is correct, or even safe.  

Note

Self-taught artists get a lot of criticism because many do not take the time to understand sanitation and proper tattooing techniques before starting on skin. Make sure you understand how to handle your tattoo machine and get your BBP certification before making the jump to skin.

Option 3: Online Learning

The biggest challenge for self-taught artists researching how to become a tattoo artist is the amount of information available online. It’s difficult to wade through a million Google searches trying to pick out little bits of helpful information. On the other hand, while aspiring artists in apprenticeships might receive clear information, they have to work for years with no income. 

These are both incredibly time consuming options that force talented artists to abandon their passion for tattooing.

This is why we created the Artist Accelerator Program. We break down the entire process of learning how to tattoo into 9 easy-to-follow modules. Learn how to tattoo in a structured way proven to guide complete beginners to becoming professional tattoo artists in as little as 90 days. 

The course contains a proven structure that teaches you how to tattoo in the most systematic way possible. Over 2500 successful students have been through this program. Taught by instructors with a combined 40 years of experience in the industry, students get personalized feedback from professional tattoo artists, a supportive online community, and the ability to pursue their passion on their own time.  

If you think the Artist Accelerator Program might be the right fit for you, you can learn more about it here.

FAQ: How long does it take when becoming a tattoo artist?

This depends on the person. If you’re an apprentice, your apprenticeship can last anywhere from six months to four years. 

This is why it’s best to have a contract when you’re going into an apprenticeship. Unfortunately, it is normal for shops to take on “apprentices” who are used for free labor in the shop. Here’s a few questions to consider asking before accepting an apprenticeship:

  • What specific criteria would I have to meet in order to start tattooing in this apprenticeship?
  • How long will the apprenticeship last?
  • What percentage will I be on when I start tattooing and when I finish my apprenticeship?
  • What hours and what days do you want me to work?

Not all apprenticeships are free. Some tattoo shops will require you to pay them in order to teach you. In this case the last question can help you establish milestones with your mentor. If they want $5K, offer $7.5K but only pay $2K up front. You can then pay in increments as you achieve the milestones you have both agreed on. For example:

  • 1st month of tattooing clients
  • 3rd month tattooing clients

Paying in milestones ensures your mentor will be invested in your progress and success as an artist. 

If you’re self-taught, it really depends on how much time you can devote to learning. Searching the internet for bits of information can take years. If you’d rather not waste all that time, the Artist Accelerator Program puts everything you need in one place so you can cut years off your learning and go pro faster.

5

Learn to Use a Tattoo Machine

Your tattoo machine will be your main piece of equipment, and you’ll be using it every day. (Check out our suggestions for Beginner Tattoo Machines). Every artist will do things just a little differently, so you need to decide what works best for you before you begin tattooing other people

You must be able to do these 3 things confidently on practice skins before you move onto tattooing people:

  1. 1
    Lining: Tattooing straight, even lines with a round liner (RL) needle.
  2. 2
    Packing: “Filling” the skin with ink to make a solid plane of color.
  3. 3
    Shading: Creating lighter and darker areas with smooth transitions between shades.

All other tattoo techniques build off of these three skills.

Note

If you’re learning on your own, it can be really valuable to watch a professional perform these skills and learn from their technique. Book in with a tattoo artist you admire and watch how they tattoo.

How to Practice Tattooing

There are three different ways to practice tattooing, and each build on one another.
  1. 1
    Attach a tattoo machine to your pencil. Attach a machine to your drawing pencil to get used to the feel of it. This will help your hand get used to the weight. 
  1. 2
    Practice on fake skin. Tattoo fruit, pig skin, or synthetic skin to:
  • Learn how to control your needle depth
  • Learn how to tattoo a straight line
  • Experiment with needle groupings
  •  Experiment with machine stroke
  • Try different machines
  • Figure out how to complete a tattoo without overworking it
  • Get used to applying colors in the correct order
  • Learn how to blend properly
  • Figure out how to add highlights to a tattoo design

Remember to treat the fake skin like a real client. Wash the skin, wear gloves, and follow any sanitary measures you would for a real person. This will help you build up good habits. That way, when you move to real skin, you have no doubts about how to keep yourself and your clients safe.

  1. 3
    Tattoo yourself or close friends. If your first few tattoos suck, don’t get discouraged. Everyone's do in the beginning. However, you can massively reduce the number of bad tattoos that you do on your friends if you learn to tattoo on practice skin before moving onto the real thing. Keep these first pieces smaller than the size of your palm and very simple. The big stuff will come later. 

Note

If you want to get an apprenticeship and you’ve already been tattooing, don’t mention that upfront. It will reduce your chances of getting hired. Most shops want an apprentice to be a “blank slate” with no prior experience.

6

Get Licensed in Your State

tattoo artist license / tattoo licensetattoo artist license / tattoo license

Each state has different licensing laws. Some states require artists to be licensed as individuals. Others just require the shops to be registered and for artists to have Bloodborne Pathogens Training. If you’re not sure how to become a licensed tattoo artist in your state, you can find the requirements here

Note

Whether their state requires it or not, a good tattoo artist will know the health risks of tattooing. Even if you don’t have to take a Bloodborne Pathogens course, we highly recommend it.

7

Find Work at a Tattoo Shop

become an established tattoo artist

If you’re looking for an apprenticeship at a tattoo shop, you should always go in person. If you ask for one online, the answer will always be no because it makes you appear less committed than someone who takes the time to go to the shop in person. 

If you want to work as an artist in a shop, it’s best to go in person if you want to be taken seriously. If you are an established artist or if you are from out of town, you can email about an open spot, but those are the only two exceptions. 

Before you talk to a shop owner, make sure you have your BBP certification, license (if required), and portfolio ready to go.

Consider What You Can Offer the Shop Owner

Shop owners want to hire artists who bring in money. If you want to work in a particular shop, being able to show that you bring something other than just your ability to tattoo makes you a better candidate:

  1. 1
    Clients: If you have a big following on social media, you should mention that to the shop owner (in a subtle way without bragging). To them, you are more valuable if you come with a lot of clients for the shop.
  2. 2
    Variety of Skills: When it comes to getting clients, it’s better to be known for one style than to be a jack of all trades. However, most tattoo shop owners will prefer that you show versatility, especially if you’re a new artist because when you start out, you’ll be doing a lot of the walk-ins. So, it’s a good idea to include a variety of styles in your portfolio early in your career. Once you have a foot in the door, you can start to develop your style. 

Understand the Shop Experience and Where You Stand

You’ll be spending a lot of time at the shop. You want to tattoo in a place that is drug and drama free. (Google reviews will often clue you into the general atmosphere of the shop.) 

Tattoo shops come with a hierarchy of authority and a good amount of unspoken rules you can only learn after working in the industry. To learn more about shop life, getting paid as a tattoo artist, and how to find great clients, check out our article about Working in a Tattoo Shop. It explains exactly what to expect, and what you need to know before you start working.

Know Your Worth as an Artist

Lots of artists get taken advantage of at their first tattoo shop and agree to making less money than they should. As a tattoo artist, you should either be on a 60/40 split (where you keep 60% of the money you make on a tattoo, and the shop gets 40%), or a 50/50 split. If you’re only keeping half your money, the shop should be providing disposables for you and doing marketing to get you clients. 

If a shop wants to take 60% of the money you make, it’s time to look for another shop.

Note

50/50 is the normal “apprentice pay” once apprentices are allowed to start tattooing.

For many tattoo artists, the end goal is owning their own studio. While you’ll be responsible for additional tasks like marketing, hiring, and keeping the shop in line with local health codes, you also get to keep 100% of your earnings and receive commission from the artists in your shop.

Become a Tattoo Artist With the Artist Accelerator Program

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 for how to becoming 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 studios and tattoo all around the world.

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

Inside, 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.

Join the Artist Accelerator Program and begin your tattooing journey TODAY.

Read more related articles

Free Tattoo Artist Training

May 24, 2022

If you’ve been searching for tattoo artist training online, you’re probably found ...

Free Tattoo Artist Training

How to Practice Tattooing

March 8, 2022

Most aspiring tattooers know they can’t just pick up a machine and ...

How to Practice Tattooing

6 Tips for Aspiring Tattoo Artists

October 22, 2021

Becoming a tattoo artist requires hard work and dedication. However, there are ...

6 Tips for Aspiring Tattoo Artists

Complete Guide to Tattoo Safety Tips 2021

September 21, 2021

The worst thing a tattoo artist can do isn’t a bad tattoo. ...

Complete Guide to Tattoo Safety Tips 2021

How to Practice Tattooing

September 20, 2021

Most aspiring tattooers know they can’t just pick up a machine and ...

How to Practice Tattooing

How to Draw Tattoos

August 24, 2021

Some tattoos just look better than others. But why? As a beginner ...

How to Draw Tattoos

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.

write a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

SUGGESTED ARTICLES FOR YOU

MORE FREE CONTENT FOR YOU
September 26, 2019

Image from Improb Obi-Wan Kenobi famously described Darth Vader as being “more ...

Biomech Tattoo: Your Ink, Evolved
November 17, 2021

Sacramento, CaliforniaSacramento has an estimated 114 tattoo studios and we've rated competition ...

Tattoo Apprenticeships – Sacramento
October 26, 2021

Looking for tattoo artist advice from working professionals? Our tattoo artist tips ...

Tattoo Artist Tips & Advice

Our Community

Join the Tattooing 101 Community today and get free, instant access to tools and resources that take you behind the curtain of all things tattooing. From apprentice to shop owner, we've got you covered.