If you want to land a tattoo apprenticeship then you need to build a rock-solid portfolio. To do this, you need to know what a potential mentor will be looking for. A well put together portfolio almost guarantees you an apprenticeship in the shop you want to work at. Plus, you won’t have to deal with the constant rejection most newbie artists face when they harass tattoo shops for a job. 

In this article, you’ll learn how to build a portfolio the right way, as well as: 

  • What a proper portfolio looks like
  • Which styles you need to include
  • The right way to approach a tattoo artist so they’ll actually look at your work

Here’s five ways to make sure you’re building a portfolio that gets you hired:

1. Make Sure You Have a Physical Portfolio

What Does a Quality Physical Portfolio Look Like?

In short, a physical portfolio is a collection of your best artwork. Always use a black folder. Black is professional, which is a quality your potential mentor will be looking for. Keep it about the size of an A4 notebook. As an apprentice, you’ll be doing smaller work, so you don’t need a portfolio of large scale work yet.

A real tattoo portfolio that landed an apprenticeship

Why You Need a Physical Portfolio (Why Won’t a Digital Portfolio Cut It?)

You need to have an actual portfolio with you when you approach a shop. Do not come into a shop only with the photos on your phone, even if you have an entire Instagram account with only artwork.

Coming in with a physical portfolio shows that you have put in effort - and that you take pride in your work. It makes you look more serious and professional, which will be important to a potential mentor. If you can’t be bothered to make a portfolio, then it’s unlikely you’ll last as an apprentice. A mentor will know this, and they won’t want to waste their time and effort training you.

How To Create a High-Quality Physical Portfolio

To create a hire-worthy portfolio, you’ll want to buy a quality folder (see the links below), decide on a medium that you are going to create your art with, and use the correct paper for that medium. It sounds complicated but it’s actually quite simple.  

When it comes to selecting a medium, there are three we recommend you choose from: pencil, marker, or digital (mainly the procreate app on an iPad). There are pros and cons to each medium, so what you use will come down to 1) your preferences, and 2) how much money you are willing to spend.

Below you’ll find links* where you can purchase everything you need to create a rock-solid portfolio, as well as a table that shows you the pros and cons of each medium so you can pick which one is best for you.

You’ll need the following tools:

Markers or Prismacolor pencils are recommended, since that will show your raw drawing ability.

However, your overall goal is to impress. You want to use the method that displays your best possible work, and that means understanding the pros and cons of each method before you start developing your images:

*This is not a sponsored post. These are, however, the materials we use ourselves.

Tattoo Portfolio Media Comparison


Pros

Cons

Hand-Drawn: Markers + Digital Paper

  • Best quality product
  • Faster to work with than pencils (create more art faster)
  • Markers can't blend as well as pencil
  • Refills are expensive
  • Can leak or dry out if lid is left off for too long

Hand-Drawn: Prismacolor Pencils + Strathmore Tanned Paper

  • Vibrant pigments
  • Ultra-smooth blends and sharper details (great for Realism work)
  • Slow to work with/takes longer to create artwork

Digitally-Created: iPad Work + Professional Prints

  • Never run out of colors - best of Copics and Prismacolor
  • Create super-fine details while working extremely quickly
  • Easily resize images
  • Assisted drawing features makes the technical side simpler (straight lines, shading, etc.)
  • "Undo" mistakes (most forgiving medium)
  • Bigger upfront cost (multitude of colors makes it cheaper longterm)
  • Some artists consider it "cheating" and thinks it limits artistic growth (The iPad straightens lines for you - something a tattoo machine won't do.)

Pro Tip: Use One Medium

Only use one medium while creating your portfolio. It will make your portfolio look cleaner overall, allowing for a more professional look.

2. Quality Over Quantity

What a Quality Portfolio Image Looks Like

The only images that should be in your portfolio are drawings or prints that are 100% done and could be tattooed on someone right away. These tattoos should be designed for a specific part of the body.

Each piece should not be rushed and should be done to the best of your ability.

Why Quality is More Important Than Quantity

If the artist you’re presenting to isn’t impressed by the first three images, they won’t go on to the fourth. Tattoo shops are busy (and sometimes hectic) places. Artists oftentimes have back-to-back appointments. They don’t have time to look at a ton of half-finished sketches and ideas.

It is much better to have ten amazing images than 50 “okay” drawings.

How to Put images Together in a Quality Portfolio

To create a portfolio that gets you an apprenticeship, you need to plan out your pieces before you draw them. Do not cut out a bunch of drawings and paste them together on a page. This “scrapbook” look is unprofessional.

Every piece of artwork should have its own piece of paper and its own page in your portfolio. The only exception is if you have multiple flash drawings on the same page.

Pro Tip: Visible Effort

Nothing gives a bad impression to a potential mentor like a book full of half-finished sketches. It gives the impression that you are disorganised and unwilling to put in the necessary effort. Showing up with a beautiful, professional portfolio goes a long way with first impressions.

3. Include a Variety of Styles

What Styles to Include:

Your portfolio needs to feature a variety of art styles. In short, you need “a little bit of everything.”

Beyond stellar art skills, your portfolio should show your versatility. Being a “one trick pony” will not land you an apprenticeship, even at a shop known for a specific style.

Why Versatility is Essential:

To a shop owner, the only real reason to invest in you as an apprentice is if you will make money for the shop. To be an asset to the shop, you need to be able to craft a tattoo for any client that walks through the door – no matter the style. If you can tattoo in any style, you’re far more likely to be hired.

Make sure your portfolio shows off black & grey work as well as color. Being able to do both makes you a more versatile artist and an even better asset to the tattoo shop.

Include at least 2-3 of the following tattoo styles:

Pro Tip: Specialisation 

As you become a more established artist, you can begin to specialise in your favorite style. However, when you’re first starting out, you’ll be expected to handle every style.

4. Be Aware of the Trends in Your Area

Knowing What Tattoos People Want: Trends

Trends come and go in tattooing. What's popular today won't necessarily be popular tomorrow. Tracking the trends in your area simply means understanding what styles clients are asking for in your area most often. Every area is different so it’s important to do some of your own research so you know what tattoos styles are popular. 

Why Understanding Trends is Important to Your Career:

If you become good at drawing art that people already want on their skin, your chances of getting an apprenticeship go way up. Why? Your work will be in demand, and the shop will make more money from your work.

It’s far easier to get customers by giving them what they want than what you want. It’s important to remember that, as a tattoo artist, you are drawing for clients, not for yourself. If you specialise in a style that is not popular - even if you are really good at it - you will struggle to get clients. If you can’t get clients, then you won’t make the shop and money. This means you will be much less likely to get hired by a shop.

When it comes to trends in tattooing, it’s far easier (and more profitable) to swim with the tide than against it. Specialisation comes much later in your career. When you’re first starting out, find out what clients want in your area and give it to them.

How To Identify Trends:

The best way to figure out what style is trending in your area is to look at the social media profiles of shops in your area. Look at their Facebook and Instagram, and see what styles and designs are commonly posted - and which posts receive the most attention.

Ask yourself:

  • What type of tattoos do they do on a daily basis?
  • Which artists are booked out and what type of work do they do?

To figure out which artists are the most popular in your area, you can call to see how far out they’re booked and check their follower count.

You can also check out which shops have the best reviews on Google. Typically, the shops that have the most reviews are the busiest. Look at their websites, find out who their tattoo artists are and follow them on Instagram. From there, you can figure out what type of work they do most often and look for patterns.

Once you start to see what is popular, make those trends the focus of your portfolio. If you can get really good at drawing those popular styles and designs, your chances at an apprenticeship will be much higher.

Pro Tip: Success Leaves Clues

As you learn who the busiest tattooers are in your area, try and figure out why. Observe how they promote themselves and their art styles. Are they running ads? Do they have a personal website? When you see what they are doing differently, you can model it for yourself. Finding the quickest path to success means finding someone who is where you want to be...and doing what they did to become successful. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel if it’s already been done before.

5. Get a Tattoo Artist to Look at Your Portfolio

Be Specific With What You’re Actually Asking For

If you put tons of effort into your portfolio, you obviously want a tattoo artist to look at it. Approaching an artist - particularly one you admire - can be intimidating. But getting them to take a look is easy when you go about it the right way.

You’ll need to be specific with what you’re asking. Do not ask “Are you hiring apprentices?” This will usually lead to their immediate reflex to say “No.”

Instead, say something like: “Hey, how’s it going?” (Wait for them to respond.) “Oh cool. Hey listen, I’ve put together a portfolio of tattoo designs that I’ve drawn. I was hoping you had a minute or two to take a look and tell me what you think of them.”

Why The Phrasing of Your Question is Important

If you walk into a shop and immediately ask about an apprenticeship, you’ll almost always be turned down. Essentially, you’re asking a person to put their own time and effort into your career. They don’t know you, and they don’t know your art.

Asking an artist to take a moment to look at your art is a much smaller commitment than asking for a job, making it far more likely they’ll look at your work.

Tattoo artists have to interact with “wannabe” artists coming in and expecting to have an apprenticeship handed to them all the time. Most of the time, they don't have a portfolio, they haven’t put in the time to learn how to draw well, and they don't want to work for free. Because they put in no effort, tattoo artists tend to get annoyed after a while. To deal with the issue before it takes up their time, they just say no to everyone. 

Coming in asking for a small favor and revealing an incredible portfolio will make you refreshing and exciting.

How to Approach an Artist

First impressions matter, and a potential mentor is going to be looking at more than just your portfolio. They’ll be noting your attitude and how you approach an apprenticeship.

  1. 1
    Go into the shop by yourself: Don’t bring friends with you. It will make you look unprofessional and timid, as if you were scared to go alone.
  2. 2
    Don’t bring friends with you. It will make you look unprofessional and timid, as if you were scared to go alone.
  3. 3
    What to wear: Jeans and a shirt. You should dress well and wear clean clothes, but there’s no need for a collared shirt or tie (you’ll get made fun of). You want to look neat and casual, so don’t have any holes in your shoes.
  4. 4
    When to go: On a weekday early in the morning before everyone starts working or near the end of the day when things are winding down. Those are the two times it will be less busy – and you’ll be more likely to get someone to look at your work. Don’t go on the weekend. That is the busiest time for the shop.
  5. 5
    How to approach the shop: Casually. Do your best to relax and go to the front counter. You can ask them how it’s going. Then, you can ask them if they have a minute to look at your work.

If you work is good, they'll show your portfolio to the other artists in the shop. They'll ask you more about yourself and your art, and a conversation about apprenticeship can bloom from there.

If you work is good and you're still denied, it could be a test. Some shops may deny you just to see if you have the resilience to come back with an updated portfolio.

If you work isn't good enough, they will tell you what's wrong with it. While it might sting, listen to this feedback. Go, make adjustments to your portfolio, and come back in a few months when you've improved and fixed the issues.

Pro Tip: Resilience

Whether your art needs work or you’re suspicious a shop might be testing you to see if you’ll return, don’t lose hope if you get rejected. It’s not over unless you decide to quit.

Moving Past the Portfolio

Having a great portfolio is only the first step on your journey to becoming a tattoo artist. And even a killer portfolio doesn’t guarantee success in the industry. You still need the right mentor, and many apprenticeships mean working for two years full time with no income. Not to mention the hazing many go through to “earn their stripes” and the trial-and-error process of learning to market yourself to actually get clients.

Making it in tattooing requires so much more than being a good artist. A big mistake most people make is believing their art will sell itself and bring in enough clients to make a living. In addition, many people call it quits when they realise most apprenticeships don’t even let them pick up a machine for the first year. This leads to many amazing artists quitting because the traditional apprenticeship process does not set them up for success.

That’s why we created Tattooing 101, the world’s first online tattooing education platform. Whether you’re a complete beginner or you’ve been working as an artist for years, our Artist Accelerator Program breaks down everything you need to know to find success in 9 easy-to-follow modules.

Avoid getting stuck with bad mentors that keep you from progressing and keep your day job while learning to tattoo online at your own pace. Over 2500 Tattooing 101 students have done it already, and so can you.

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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