Becoming a tattoo artist requires hard work and dedication. However, there are also a lot of unspoken rules you’ll have to be familiar with to succeed as a tattooer.
While you can work your way into the tattoo industry through trial and error, understanding these unspoken rules can help aspiring tattoo artists cut years off their journey toward going pro. The earlier you learn them as a beginner, the faster you can use them to steer your future tattoo career.
This article, we’re breaking down:
Learn How to Design Tattoos
(Don't just get better at drawing. Develop your tattooing style.)
A lot of tattooing blogs will say that one of the first steps to becoming a tattoo artist is learning how to draw. And this is true...kind of.
Being able to draw well doesn’t immediately mean being good at tattooing because there is a new element being added: drawing for a 3-D surface. You could spend years practicing drawing, but without learning how to create designs that flow with the shape of the body, your tattoos will always look average at best.
Tattoos should “fit” the body part, not a piece of paper. Additionally, the design needs to “flow,” or move in the direction of the body’s muscles. Without these two elements, a tattoo will look awkward, no matter how well it's tattooed.
Try Different Tattoo Styles, and then Specialize
It’s good to have an understanding of different tattooing styles, but it’s even more important that you develop your own unique style. That way, you can set yourself apart from other tattoo artists.
The easiest way to do this is to first try drawing all different tattoo styles. Once you find one you love, put your focus on developing that style and learning to put your own twist on it. As you improve, you’ll have one style you are great at, which will put you above other tattoo artists who are “okay” at all styles but have no speciality.
Build a Proper Tattoo Portfolio
(Here's What Tattoo Shop Owners Want to See)
You cannot become a tattoo artist without a solid portfolio. Your portfolio is the only thing a shop owner will look at before deciding to give you an apprenticeship or a job, so it needs to show off your skills.
Versatility vs. Specialization
As mentioned above, specializing in a specific style is the best way to set yourself apart from other tattoo artists.
However, most shop owners will be looking for versatility in your portfolio (especially if you are a new artist). This is because of a leftover attitude from 20-30 years ago. Before social media, tattoo artists needed to be able to tattoo every style because they needed to be able to take any customer that walked in the door. At the time, the more styles you could do, the more money you could make.
Now that customers can look up tattoo artists online, they are looking for someone who specializes in their favorite style. If you’re not a specialist, clients will rarely seek you out, and your career will be limited.
Understanding Shop Owner Mindset
Unfortunately, a lot of shop owners have not kept up with social media trends in tattooing and still hold to the idea that you need to be able to tattoo every style.
So, What Should I Put in My Portfolio?
It’s best to show some versatility in your portfolio if you’re a new artist, especially if you want to work at a shop with an owner that holds to those older views. Include a little bit of everything, but feature your best style more often to show your skill.
After you get some experience under your belt, you can update your portfolio to show off more of your unique style.
What’s Most Important:
Make sure the pictures you take of your work for your portfolio are clear and in focus. Additionally, the size of the pictures in your portfolio should be big enough to see the detail, but not so big that any tiny mistakes look huge.
What You Don’t Need:
Buy Quality Tattoo Equipment
(Cheap Kits Make it Harder to Learn)
Tattoo equipment is expensive, and it’s tempting to buy the cheapest kit off Amazon. However, using cheap materials can keep you from developing your tattooing skills because they are much harder to tattoo with. Even a professional artist will struggle with doing a solid tattoo using an Amazon machine, let alone someone who is a beginner.
Luckily, you don’t need to go straight to buying top-of-the-line equipment when you’re first learning to tattoo, and there are plenty of reliable options that won’t break the bank. Not sure what to get? Check out our Beginner Artist Shopping List. It shows you everything you need to get started tattooing.
Practicing with Your Tattoo Equipment
Once you have all the equipment you need, the best way to practice is on fake skin. Our recommendation is Reelskin, as it is the closest to human skin. You need to get comfortable lining, packing, and shading small tattoo designs on fake skin before moving on to yourself or a client.
Getting quality tattooing materials is key. But understanding the risks that come with tattooing is even more important. Before you use your tattoo machine on a real person, you need to have your Bloodborne Pathogens certification in order to keep yourself and your client safe. To learn how to get certified, check out our Complete Guide to Bloodborne Pathogens Training.
Don’t Go it Alone
(Connections Help You Progress Faster and Find Opportunities)
Whether you are apprenticing in a shop or learning on your own, you need guidance from someone who has been in your shoes to grow. Getting feedback from professional tattoo artists will shave years off the learning curve and stop you from making unnecessary mistakes.
Joining an active forum connects you with a community of artists where you can get opinions on your art, feedback on your work, and ask questions to more experienced artists.
If you have a chance to have your work reviewed by a professional tattoo artist, make sure to take their advice into account. If you can show that you listened to their critiques, they’ll be more likely to respond again if you ask for help.
Finding a professional to give you advice online can be difficult. In the Tattooing 101 Mastermind group, students get critiques of their work from professional artists to help them improve fast. If you’d like to get personalized video feedback of your own, check out the Artist Accelerator Program.
Your Work Won't Sell Itself; Learn How to Market Your Tattoos.
(The difference between a broke artist and one that makes 6 figures is knowing how to sell)
“Marketing” simply refers to the ways you advertise to potential clients and book appointments. As a tattoo artist, you’ll mostly be building a brand online through social media. This helps you develop a relationship with your audience so they know and trust you.
This is why there’s a massive connection between how good you are at marketing and how much money you make.
Using Marketing to Boost Your Career Fast
Most artists struggle for years focusing solely on their tattooing ability. They spend all their time trying to catch up to artists who started ten years before them.
However, few tattooers take the time to refine their marketing skills, making it much easier and faster to become the best marketer as opposed to the best tattooer.
This doesn’t mean you should skip building your tattooing skills. Great tattoos are easier to sell than bad ones. However, a novice tattooer who’s great at marketing will outperform a 10-year veteran who believes “their work will sell itself.”
As a tattoo artist, you have to sell your work to clients to get paid. If you want to see success fast, then marketing should be your focus. (For specifics on how to market to new clients, visit How to Grow Your Tattoo Business.)
Word of Mouth Marketing
Word of mouth is powerful, but you can’t control it. If a client is happy with your work, ask them to leave a review but don’t let your career depend on their reviews. If you do, you will have no control over how much money you make or how quickly your career progresses. You still need to build a brand yourself on social media.
Most of the time, posting tattoos and getting tagged in photos from clients is a great thing for marketing. However, there are times when this can hurt you. If you take on a tattoo that is too advanced for your current level or decide to do a tattoo that is offensive, it can destroy your reputation as an artist. If clients see a bad or offensive tattoo, they’ll stop going to that artist for tattoos. Not sure how to turn down a tattoo? Here’s How to Refuse Service to a Tattoo Client.
Apprenticeships Aren’t the Only Path into the Tattooing Industry Anymore
(What Really Matters When Getting Hired)
Most tattoo artists will insist that you have to go through a 2-year unpaid apprenticeship in order to become a tattoo artist. This might have been necessary in the past, but now that people are using the internet to learn and enter the industry as self-taught artists, an apprenticeship is optional.
When you are ready to start working fulltime as a tattoo artist, you will not be judged on whether you had an apprenticeship or not, you will be judged on the skills you show in your portfolio.
That being said, if you think an apprenticeship is right for you, you’ll find everything you need to know about what to expect and how to find a good mentor in our article, How to Get a Tattoo Apprenticeship.
The Future of Tattoo Education is Online.
Apprenticeships and learning as a self-taught artist have the same problem: they both take years to complete.
Apprentices are often not allowed to touch a tattoo machine at all during their first year. Self-taught artists struggle to find all the information they need to learn how to start tattooing, even if it’s buried somewhere on the internet. It’s even harder to find an uplifting tattooing community and constructive feedback that help you improve.
Our Artist Accelerator Program gives everything you need to know to become a professional tattoo artist in an easy-to-follow roadmap. No years scrubbing in a tattoo shop or hours spent searching for answers required.
We break down the entire process of learning to tattoo into 9 steps that over 2500 students have successfully used to become tattoo artists, many of them working fulltime as artists and shop owners.
With the Artist Accelerator Program, you’ll also have access to a supportive online community where you’ll connect with other students on the same journey as you and receive feedback on your work from professional tattoo artists.