If you’ve been searching for tattoo artist training online, you’re probably found a lot of checklists about “how to become a tattoo artist” that don’t actually teach you anything. 

Getting proper training as a tattoo artist is important to tattooing correctly and safely, but you don’t need years of prep work to get it.

In this article, we’ll be going through the first lessons you’d get in a tattoo apprenticeship. We’ll break down:

  • How to line and shade tattoos like a professional
  • How to safely practice tattooing
  • Different types of tattoo training (plus portfolio tips!)

How to Tattoo Lines

The first skill every tattoo artist learns is how to tattoo lines. However, because skin stretches (or bunches up) and tattoo machines vibrate, tattooing a line is much more difficult than just drawing a line on a piece of paper. If you know how to stretch the skin and hold your tattoo machine correctly, tattooing lines will become much easier.

Making sure you are holding the machine in a way that is comfortable and keeps the machine secure will make a huge difference in your linework. We recommend putting your fingers around the cartridge instead of the grip. This gives you more control, and lets the grip of the machine rest comfortably in your hand.

tattoo artist working in a tattoo shop

How to Stretch the Skin

To make sure your tattooed lines turn out super straight, you need to stretch the skin properly. Always stretch the skin in the direction of the line you’re tattooing.

how tattoo artists tattoo lines

Stretching the skin is part of your “3 Points of Contact,” which is how you can make your hands more stable while tattooing. Your first point of contact is your elbow, which you can anchor against the massage table. 

The second point is your wrist, which you can place on the skin. The third is the pinky finger of your tattooing hand. Connect it to the thumb of your non-tattooing hand as pictured below to keep your hand still while you tattoo a line.
tattoo artist tattooing a line

How to Tattoo a Line

Now that you’re holding your machine correctly, your hands are stable, and you’re stretching the skin in the right direction, it’s time to tattoo a line.

Note:

We recommend practicing on fake skin ONLY until you have built up your skills. (Reelskin and Frankenskins are our favorites.)

Push or Pull Your Tattoo Machine

tattoo gun tattooing human skin

You should always push or pull the machine. Moving the machine across the skin can shoot ink in the wrong direction under the skin, make your line look fuzzy, and cause a blowout.

Put Ink in the Second Layer of Skin

The skin has three layers, and the middle one is where you want to put tattoo ink because it holds ink particles the best. 

Most of the time, the middle layer is about 2mm deep into the skin. However, it can be deeper on people with thicker skin, and it can be more shallow in areas where the skin is stretched over bone or in more delicate areas.

Watch a Professional Tattoo Artist

One of the best ways to correct your technique is to watch a professional. Here’s a video of our tattoo instructor, Brandon, breaking down everything you need to know to start tattooing lines:

How to Add Shading to Tattoos

Shading refers to the dark areas in a tattoo. Adding shading gives tattoos depth and allows them to last longer. Out of all ink colors, black holds the best in the skin. If you include black shading in your tattoos, they’ll still look good decades later.

How to Pick Tattoo Needles for Shading

When you’re shading a tattoo, it’s best to pick the largest needle the tattoo will allow. For example, if you’re shading a huge area, you wouldn’t want to use a small round shader. But if you’re shading in very small details, a small round shader - or even a round liner - might be a better choice than a mag needle.

If you want super-soft shading (like in a portrait), you’d want to use a curved mag because the edges will be less harsh than a traditional mag needle.
needle configurations for professional tattoo artists

The 3 Types of Shading All Tattoo Artists Need to Know

Professional tattoo artists use 3 types of shading: pendulum shading, whip shading, and packing.

  • Use pendulum shading if you want a dark area with gray shades on all sides.
  • Use whip shading if you want to shade next to a line and fade out to gray.
  • Use packing in areas that you want completely black.

Pendulum Shading

pendulum shading for tattoo artists
tattoo of fine art sculpture

To use pendulum shading, the needle “swings” in and out of the skin. Because the needle is more shallow in the skin as it goes in or out, the ink will appear lighter, making a gray gradient on either side.

Whip Shading

whip shading for tattoo artists
screenshot from tattoo art classes

To use whip shading, put your needle in the skin and then “whip” up and out. The area where the needles are on their way out of the skin will look more gray, even if you’re using black ink.

Packing

packing shading for tattoo artists
screenshot of packing example from tattoo art classes

For packing, you want to move the machine in tiny, tight ovals so that the skin is entirely saturated with ink. If the ink turns out too light or patchy-looking, you need to make your ovals even smaller, or do the ovals in a different direction than the first to create a cross-hatching effect. 

Watch A Professional Tattoo Artist

Shading is one of the most important skills you’ll need to become a tattoo artist. Without it, your designs will look flat and washed-out. As an aspiring tattoo artist, you will pick up a lot of tips just by watching how a more established artist tattoos.

In the video below, Brandon will explain how he adds shading to his own tattoos so you can learn how to get your shading dark and keep your gradients smooth.

How to Practice Tattooing Safely

Now that you know how to line and shade, it’s time to practice your skills. However, before you dive in, you must understand tattooing safety

Having proper knowledge of skin diseases, blood borne pathogen prevention, and sterilization will make sure that you and your future clients are safe.

Building Your Skills with Sanitation in Mind

Here’s the steps you need to follow to learn the right sanitation for tattooing and practice following those rules.

Get Your Bloodborne Pathogens Certification

BBP certification for tattoo artist

To become a licensed tattoo artist, you need to have your bloodborne pathogens certification. Getting certified requires going through an approved disease prevention course. Your local health department will determine which courses are approved. In most states, you can take the full course online in just a few hours.

Some states require aspiring artists to learn sanitation through a tattoo school before entering the tattoo industry as a professional.

Build Your Skills on Fake Skin

successful tattoo artist working on fake skin

We recommend that all artists - whether you’re in a tattoo shop or learning from home - practice on fake skins first. This allows you to build up your skills and confidence without leaving bad tattoos on yourself or others and there’s no risk of bloodborne pathogens if you’re practicing on fake skins.

However, we do recommend acting like you’re working on a real client by using the proper barriers and cleaning supplies. This will make good sanitation an easy part of your process that feels like second nature before you even start on human skin.

IMPORTANT:

A lot of aspiring artists buy tattooing materials off Amazon. You can only use these materials on fake skin. Because different regions have different rules about sanitation and labeling, you do not want to use tattoo equipment off Amazon on real skin - even if it says it's sterile. You can get safe materials directly from manufacturers (we recommend CNC Tattoo Supply). 

Practice on Yourself

artist tattooing abstract art in his own shop

Most tattoo artists do their first tattoo on human skin on themselves. Even though you are tattooing yourself, you can still get sick if you don’t use sterile materials and wear gloves. We highly recommend taking this step in a tattoo shop where you can make sure you’re in a sterile environment. You should follow all the same sanitation protocols for yourself that you would with a client.

If you are practicing in a private tattoo studio, you must still be able to follow all the same safety and sanitation protocols.

IMPORTANT:

Do not tattoo yourself in an area where there is carpet, fabric seating, or food. All surfaces should be non-porous and sanitized with CaviCide. Unless you have access to an autoclave, all materials should be single-use and disposable.

How to Set Up a Safe Tattooing Station

Knowing how to prepare a professional tattooing setup is the foundation for every tattoo you’ll do. Every tattoo artist will have specific products they like, but the use of barriers, safety equipment, etc. should be a part of every setup. 

If you’re not sure how to set up your own equipment, the video below will give you a good start:

How to Build a Tattoo Portfolio + Tips on Advanced Tattoo Artist Training

If you’re trying to get into a tattoo shop, you will need a tattoo portfolio. What type of portfolio you need will depend on whether you want to be a tattoo apprentice or go into a shop as a full-time artist.

If you learn the skills we’ve discussed in this article and have continued to build your skills at home, then you can build a tattoo artist portfolio of your completed tattoos and look for jobs as a full-time artist. 

If you want to continue your education as a tattoo apprentice, you will not include pictures of tattoos you’ve done. You will only put tattoo designs in your portfolio. (Many tattoo mentors will want their apprentices to be a “blank slate,” so you would not mention your practice with tattooing, just your practice drawing tattoo designs.)

Preparing Your Tattoo Designs

Most states do not require any other type of formal education to become a tattoo artist. However, you do need drawing skills so you can design tattoos. Some aspiring artists will take art classes at a local community college or study graphic design before they start pursuing becoming a tattoo artist. 

However, taking art classes isn’t required. If you want to build your artistic ability and start designing tattoos, we recommend looking at the work of other artists you admire and drawing their tattoo designs. Of course, these designs won’t go in your professional portfolio, but drawing others’ designs will let you see how tattooers create art that flows with the body.
bridge showing two point perspective drawing skills
design inspired by famous tattoo artists

This is a good drawing, but it wouldn’t make a good tattoo design because it would not fit well on any body part.

This is a good tattoo design because it will fit well on a body part, like a bicep or calf.

It will also give you experience with what elements look good on skin, since skin is very different from any other artistic medium. There is a difference between a visually appealing drawing and a good tattoo design. Once you can tell the difference and learn to draw tattoos that are meant for the body, you’ll be able to make your own designs and build your portfolio.

Moving From Basic Skills to Professional Tattoos

Learning entirely on your own can get you started - but it’s very hard to get past basic skills without the help of professional tattoo artists. If you’re ready to take that next step, you can get training from professional artists in 3 ways:

We’ll take a look at the pros and cons of each type of training:

Traditional Apprenticeship

tattoo artist using basic equipment

We’ve discussed the portfolio you need to create in order to get a tattoo apprenticeship. Once you are confident in your portfolio, we recommend getting tattooed by a potential mentor a few times before asking them to take a look at your work and give feedback.

PROS:

A successful apprenticeship allows you to spend a lot of time around professional tattooists and learn from all the artists in a shop. Additionally, being an apprentice usually means you’ll be working in that shop as a full time artist when your mentor thinks you’re ready. You won’t have to go job hunting, and you’ll already be comfortable with how that shop runs.

CONS:

Tattoo apprenticeships are full-time and unpaid. (In many cases, you’ll have to pay your mentor $5-10K for your education.) Apprenticeships also come with a lot of extra chores and tasks that have nothing to do with your tattooing skills (like running errands, answering phones, and cleaning). 

Also, apprentices usually have to put up with a lot of hazing from the artists, which can often create an abusive environment.

Tattoo School

tattoo coil machine

Tattoo schools have a state-mandated tattoo curriculum. This curriculum mostly focuses on tattooing safety and building basic tattoo skills (like those shown in this article). Unfortunately, very few tattoo schools teach advanced techniques, and many of them include the type of hazing found in a traditional apprenticeship.

PROS:

Attending tattoo school will ensure that you have a strong foundation in tattooing safety. Some states require tattoo artists to go to tattoo school. So for some people, attending is the first step toward getting a tattoo license.

CONS:

Most schools do not teach students how to design tattoos, how to get good at different styles of tattooing, or help them get into tattoo shops. The teachers are usually not experienced tattooers and class sizes are large, which means students do not get feedback or tips to improve.

Online Tattoo Education

online formal education for becoming a tattoo artist

Learning online is a great option for people who are working full-time or want a more complete education than what most in-person tattoo schools offer.

PROS:

Online tattoo programs let artists learn in their free time at their own pace, which makes tattooing accessible to more people. It’s also usually the most cost-effective option as apprenticeship fees and tattoo school tuition tend to cost several thousand dollars upfront.

CONS:

Because there are no in-person lessons, improvement relies more heavily on artists to be self-motivated and disciplined. Additionally, many programs don’t provide a way to get feedback. (A good program will have a way for you to ask questions and get feedback on your work.)

Note:

No tattoo training program (even an apprenticeship) can give you a tattoo license. You must go through your local department of health and safety to get a license or permit.

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 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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