Over the years our instructors at Tattooing 101 have worked in shops all over the world. Now, we've pooled our knowledge to give back and help you (the next generation of artists!) become successful. This knowledge hub is designed to help aspiring tattoo artists find employment within a studio and land that dream tattoo apprenticeship.
Looking for an apprenticeship in your city?
Looking for detailed information on tattoo apprenticeships specifically in your city or state? The team at Tattooing 101 has compiled detailed guides on each major city in the US including:
- The best shops to apply at
- How competitive spots are
- The license rules for that state or county
It’s important to note, in today’s modern world if you want to become a tattoo artist there are actually a few different paths to success. You can learn to tattoo online, go to a local tattoo school, or enter an apprenticeship under a mentor. In this article, we'll be mostly looking at the apprenticeship path...and explain how to do it the right way.
95% of artists who ask for an apprenticeship do it the wrong way.
- Nathan Molenaar, Tattoo Artist
Making sure that you are properly prepared to enter into an apprenticeship is important. Most people decide they want to become a tattoo artist and head into a tattoo shop the next day asking for help. You wouldn't take this approach with any other career, and tattoo artists want to see that you're serious about the job.
Here's how to show a potential mentor that you're ready for a career in tattooing:
Have the right designs in your portfolio
The art in your portfolio will ultimately determine whether a studio will give you a chance or not. It's that simple. As such, it’s important to know what tattoo artists are actually looking for when you're building it. If you have a bunch of half-finished drawings, in a style that nobody wants, then your chances of being hired are slim.
Here’s what most professional tattoo artists will want to see they look through your portfolio:
If you can’t draw a straight line or create smooth shades on paper, then you're probably not ready to become a tattoo artist. Developing your own art skills by taking art classes or learning about fine art shows that you have the discipline to work at something until you're successful. Bottom line, this shows that you are less likely to quit halfway through your apprenticeship and waste your mentor's time.
There's an old saying in the tattooing industry that your drawing ability is the ceiling of your potential as a tattoo artist. The apprenticeship is not there to teach you drawing skills. You have to figure that out on your own before a tattoo shop will seriously consider taking you on as an apprentice.
If you want to become a tattoo artist, you need to show tattoo shops that you know how to present your work professionally. Someone at a tattoo shop will be able to immediately tell if you put time and effort into how your portfolio presents.
Get a nice black portfolio folder with plastic sleeves and place each piece of paper in its own sleeve. (Don't "scrapbook" things together.)
Don't just come in and show them your phone.
It makes you look lazy and unorganized.
Each drawing in your portfolio should be completely finished and show your skill as an artist. No tattoo artist wants to rummage through a bunch of half-done sketches. You want to show them the best art you are capable of producing.
Include designs people actually want
When you become a tattoo artist, you are making art for human skin. It’s not about what you like to draw, it's about what the customer wants to wear on their body.
A successful tattoo artist studies what styles of tattoos are popular so they can draw what people actually want. When you do start tattooing, staying "on trend" will make it much easier for you to get clients. Additionally, knowing what tattoos people want makes you a much better investment for the tattoo shop owner and they will be more likely to give you an apprenticeship.
Quality over quantity
More drawings are not always better. A tattoo artist can see your drawing skill by looking at just one piece . It's far better to only have 10 quality drawings in your portfolio that you spent 20 hours on each instead of hundreds of average designs.
Remember to be mindful of the tattoo artist's time. They have appointments all day and don't have time to go through 100 designs.
If you can show your drawing skills and an understanding of the art of tattooing (by showcasing various styles) in just a few pieces, the tattoo shop will have a reason to hire you.
Variety of styles
Tattooing is not just an art, it's also a business.
If you are only able to do one style, you are limiting your career as a tattoo artist. Not every walk-in client wants a Japanese sleeve. Becoming a tattoo artist means being able to do new school, neo-traditional, blackwork, etc.
Your portfolio should reflect this idea and show your versatility as an artist.
By showing that you at least have the basics down from a few different styles it makes you a much more attractive investment from the tattoo shop owner's perspective.
Your ability to draw is the ceiling of your ability to tattoo.
- Nathan Molenaar, Tattoo Artist
A real portfolio that landed an apprenticeship
Here’s some photos of the original portfolio that got Nathan Molenaar (Now Tattooing 101’s lead instructor) hired as an apprentice 10 years ago.
You can see that he focused on the principles above and worked hard to improve his art before preparing his portfolio. That’s why we focus on improving our students’ drawing FIRST in the Tattooing 101 online course curriculum.
Have the right expectations before asking for a tattoo apprenticeship
Many tattoo apprentices underestimate the time and dedication it will take to become a fully qualified professional tattoo artist. Knowing what the expectations for an apprenticeship are upfront, shows tattoo shop owners that you have put effort into researching how the industry works and are respectful of their time.
Working unpaid full time for free
Tattoo apprenticeships require you to work full time without pay for up to 2 years. This is seen as ‘paying your dues’ and is simply the way the industry has developed. You will need to live off savings or take a part-time job during this period to support yourself.
This can be a tough time for people with financial commitments. But remember, there are a limited amount of shops in the US, and they rarely take on apprentices. If you are lucky enough to get a tattoo apprenticeship, then you want to hold onto it. If you can’t afford to take the time off unpaid, then another option might be better suited for your situation.
Some may have fees
Some shops will want up to $10,000 upfront to pay for your tattoo apprenticeship. Typically this is non-refundable. If an apprenticeship requires money upfront, you want to make sure that they will be a good mentor. (We’ll explain how to pick a good mentor in the next section.)
Even if you manage to find an apprenticeship that does not charge you this fee, it's still a good idea to have some cash saved so that you can purchase your tattoo equipment when the time comes.
Research the right Studios/Mentors in your state
Knowing how to choose a good mentor is vital. You don't get any formal qualifications or a degree of any kind from completing a tattoo apprenticeship. All you have is the skills you learn on the job. If you can’t tattoo well, no one else will hire you. (And remember, tattoo artists talk with each other. You want your skills to build you a strong reputation.)
Make sure they are a good artist
If your potential mentor's tattoos are low quality, then yours will be as well. Before you ask them for an apprenticeship do some research on their career as a tattoo artist. Check their Instagram and Facebook. Is their tattooing work good? Do they have photos of healed tattoos as well as fresh ones? This is important. Many tattoo artists' work looks good when it is fresh, but when it heals it fades dramatically. You want to learn from an artist whose work looks as good healed as it does fresh.
If they don't have an online presence and you can't find examples of their work, this is usually a red flag and you should probably avoid them.
- Nathan Molenaar, Tattoo Artist
Is their shop successful?
Before you commit to putting in work at a particular studio, make sure it's doing well as a business. If you’re going to dedicate years of your life to becoming a tattoo artist whilst working for free, you want to make sure that THEY will be around for the entire length of your apprenticeship!
See what type of reviews they have online and how often they post work from their artists on social media. This will give you an idea of how busy they are. Also, consider whether they do any marketing for the artists.
The days of being able to rely on word of mouth to get business are gone. The beauty of social media is that it lets you reach new paying clients by showing off tattoos you've already been paid to create. The studios that do well know this. They work hard to promote themselves and invest in advertising.
Also, make sure to take note of how many apprentices they have working for them.
Finding Tattoo Apprenticeships in your City
Now you're armed with a killer portfolio, it's time to delve into the tattoo industry in your city. We’ve compiled the information below to help land you your dream apprenticeship wherever you’re located in the U.S. This covers the best shops to apply at, the competitiveness of apprenticeships, and the tattoo license rules in each state or county.
Find your City below:
The team is busily working on more guides....coming soon!
Approach the Tattoo Shops
OK, you’ve now got your shortlist of tattoo shops.. The next step is to reach out! Here are our top tips for the perfect approach to tattoo shops.
Research the shop before you walk in
Search their social media to get to know their tattoo artists and the style of work they do. Check their Google reviews as well to get a feel for the reputation of the shop.
The first time you go into a shop, don't ask for a job.
They don't know you yet. Book in to get a tattoo done with the tattoo artist that you want as a mentor.
After you have been tattooed once or twice by that tattoo artist, come in with your portfolio.
Ideally, you'll want to catch them in the morning before they start tattooing.
If they don't offer you a job on the spot
Ask for feedback on how you could improve.
Take their feedback and make any changes they recommend
As you continue to draw and gain experience, work that feedback into each tattoo design. If you listen to their advice they will be more willing to help you.
Go back to the shop after you have implemented their feedback
If you keep improving each time and you keep listening to the tattoo artists' advice, they will continue to help you and might take you on as an apprentice
Remember, don’t get discouraged! It’s very common to be knocked back the first time. Keep coming back and work on improving your art each time. If you come back more than once you will stand out. Most people get rejected once and never show up again.
The Apprenticeship itself and finally becoming a tattoo artist
So it’s taken blood, sweat and maybe a few tears, but you’ve done it. You’ve finally landed that dream apprenticeship. You may feel an overwhelming sense of achievement (and you should!) but we’re sorry to say that you won’t have much time for celebration as things are only just beginning!
Becoming a tattoo artist takes time as apprenticeships vary in length. They can be anywhere from 1-4 years. The speed at which you progress will depend in part on how fast your art improves, how quickly you pick up tattooing, and how much time your mentor can spend with you.
A day in the life of a tattoo apprentice
During the first year, you’ll spend most of your time ‘earning your stripes.' A tattoo apprentice is usually tasked with running errands for other artists in the shop, getting lunch for everyone, mopping floors, scrubbing tubes, answering the phones, and taking bookings. It's highly unlikely you'll actually get any tattooing experience during your first year. Most first-year apprentices are not allowed to touch a tattoo gun at all.
After your first year of the apprenticeship, you’ll finally pick up a tattoo machine and start learning about tattooing. This is where the real tattoo training starts. Initially, you’ll just watch the other artists' tattoo to pick up the basics. Then once you get a handle on things, you will start to tattoo on practice skin (as well as on yourself). Once you get comfortable with that, you'll be considered a junior tattoo artist and you’ll start tattooing your friends and family, slowly working up in size and difficulty as you improve your skills.
After your mentor is confident that you are ready to tattoo paying clients, you'll start doing small walk-ins and gradually work your way up from there.
Towards the end of your apprenticeship (depending on what state you live in) you may need to get a few certificates before you can become a fully qualified artist, such as your BBP (blood-borne pathogen) certification. You can get an understanding of what these are by checking out the information we have compiled here.
What if I can’t find an apprenticeship? Is there another way to become a tattoo artist?
You may have seen the term "tattoo school" floating around online. While these schools do teach you the proper sanitation necessary to become a tattoo artist, they don't require any art classes and don't provide much information about tattoo techniques or how to develop a tattoo design.
Art school does give you the foundations you need for a successful career as an artist. Taking art classes, learning graphic design, and understanding how to create pieces that accentuate beauty are all important elements of becoming a tattoo artist.
However, an art school degree costs a lot of money and teaches you nothing about tattoo equipment or how to work safely with human skin so you’ll usually need to combine your art school degree with a Tattoo Apprenticeship after you’ve graduated
We may be a bit biased but online learning combined with real coaching is the fastest way to become a tattoo artist. The Artist Accelerator Program is the world's largest and most in-depth online tattooing course. You'll learn everything you would in a tattoo apprenticeship (without the scrubbing and cleaning part). Learn from the successful careers of other artists and hear from people in the industry across the globe - all at your own pace! The Artist Accelerator Program is completely online so you can keep your day job (and your regular income) while learning to tattoo.
The Artist Accelerator Program breaks down the entire career path from "beginner" to "professional tattoo artist" into just 9 steps. With over 500 video modules explaining every concept of tattooing from the products you need and needle configurations to graphic design and making money as a traveling artist
You'll also receive LIFETIME ACCESS to our private mentoring group where students post their art and tattoos to get immediate feedback from professional tattoo artists so you can excel faster.