Day in the Life of a Tattoo Apprentice

As a tattoo apprentice, you learn the art of tattooing under the instruction of a professional artist. But what does that actually mean, and how does that look day to day? 

Beyond knowing how to get a tattoo apprenticeship or how long an apprenticeship should last, it’s important that you know what your education as an apprentice will look like before making a years-long commitment to a mentor. 

In this article, we’re breaking down:

  • What a typical day looks like for an apprentice
  • The general timeline of learning in a tattoo apprenticeship
  • What tattoo apprentices charge for their work
  • Hazing, taking time off, and more.

What Does a Tattoo Apprentice Do?

tattoo artist drawing
tattoo artist working on an iPad
tattoo shop equipment

Tattoo apprentices do chores around the shop to help out all the artists working (not just their mentor), work the front desk and interact with customers, draw a lot, and learn bits and pieces about tattooing over time.

Tattoo Apprenticeship Daily Timeline

While these times will vary depending on the shop, most apprentices have a long work day:

~11:30am: Get to the shop and start cleaning

Depending on how many artists the shop has, apprentices are usually asked to pick up food once or twice a day. They’re also sent to the store if any of the artists run out of supplies. 

Artists won’t stop working on a tattoo to eat, so the times you grab everyone’s lunch will be different every day. Your lunch break will be whenever the artists you got food for are also eating. 

Note:

If you’re going out, make sure to ask each artist if they need you to pick something up - and always write down a list so you don’t forget anything.

~2:00-5:00pm: Food and supply runs for the other tattoo artists

Depending on how many artists the shop has, apprentices are usually asked to pick up food once or twice a day. They’re also sent to the store if any of the artists run out of supplies.

Artists won’t stop working on a tattoo to eat, so the times you grab everyone’s lunch will be different every day. Your lunch break will be whenever the artists you got food for are also eating.

Note:

If you’re going out, make sure to ask each artist if they need you to pick something up - and always write down a list so you don’t forget anything.

All Day: Cleaning and drawing

Whether you have to clean up after every tattoo for just your mentor or every artist will depend on your mentor. Some mentors will set up their stations themselves, others will have the apprentice clean and prep the stations for every artist before every tattoo.

If you aren’t watching a tattoo, cleaning, or setting up stations, you should be drawing. If you’re not sure what to draw, practice drawing roses and traditional tattoos.

Note:

Don’t spend time on your phone unless you’re looking up reference photos for your drawings. You want to show that you’re serious about tattooing and you want to progress as fast as possible to keep from extending an unpaid apprenticeship even longer. Drawing instead of wasting time scrolling through social media will help you improve much faster.

~10:00-11:00pm Closing Duties

many tattoo parlors are open at night

The last clients of the day usually leave an hour before closing, however it’s normal for artists to stay late to finish a tattoo. You need to be prepared to stay an hour later than the shop’s closing time to finish cleaning the shop. Before you leave, make sure the trash is emptied, the floor is mopped and swept, and the bathroom is clean.  

Do’s and Don’ts in a Tattoo Apprenticeship

successful tattoo artist working with a client

Going the extra mile can make your mentor more likely to share tips and help you along, while getting in “trouble” can lead to extra chores - or even get you fired.

However, some of these do’s and don’ts are obvious. Here’s a few you need to know:

DO: Extra Station Setup

  • Tattoo artists have to do a lot of prep work on their stations before the clients even get there. Tearing and folding paper towels, restocking razors and other disposables, or keeping up with what needles your mentor needs to order can earn you brownie points as an apprentice.

    Showing that you’re invested in their career (even in a small way) will make them more likely to invest back into you. Additionally, The fewer extra tasks your mentor has to do - the more time they’ll have to teach you.

Tattoo Outside the Shop

  • Once a tattoo artist starts teaching the apprentice to tattoo, they’re expected to leave their machines in the tattoo shop. Most mentors won’t allow you to work with practice skin at home since they’ll want to supervise and correct you while you work.

DO: Show that You’re Taking Criticism

  • If your mentor (or another tattoo artist in the shop) give you critique on your drawing, make sure you put those changes into practice. Showing that you’re listening and improving will make them much more likely to give you more advice.

Invite Friends to Hang Out at the Shop

  • Having friends come hang out in the shop while you’re an apprentice will get you in trouble with your mentor. You’re there to work and learn.

Wear the Right Clothes for Tattooing

  • Tattoo artists do not wear open-toed shoes because there could be blood, ink, etc. on the floor. Some tattoo shops will not allow you to wear shorts, and most tattoo artists wear dark clothes to hide any ink on their clothes.

Show Up on Time…Be Early

  • Tattoo apprentices are expected to be the first at the shop. Showing up “on time” makes you late. Showing up early means you’re on time.

What do Apprentices Do Outside the Tattoo Shop?

Working a Second Job

It’s normal for tattoo apprentices to have a second job to support themselves. This means a lot of your off-time is still spent working. 

Drawing Even More

Tattoo apprentices spend hours drawing in the shop, but they’re usually expected to draw while they’re at home, too. 

Social Media

Building a tattoo career means reaching new clients. This is why many tattoo artists and apprentices spend a lot of time building their social media following. As an apprentice, posting artwork every day is a great way to find fans that will later become paying customers.

What You Learn Each Year in an Apprenticeship

Every tattoo artist will teach at a different pace. However, there is usually a general timeline that tattoo apprenticeships follow, as well as a few red flags to look out for:

Year 1 - First 6 Months

tattoo shop station
disinfecting agent for tattooing safety procedures
tattoo art station

As an apprentice, most of the first year is spent doing “grunt work” to pay for your tattoo education.

What You DO:

Most of the day is spent mopping, cleaning the bathroom, preparing the artists’ work stations, answering phone calls, etc. Any spare time you have will be spent drawing

What You LEARN:

During this time, apprentices learn proper sanitation, get introduced to how the tattoo industry works, learn how to set up a tattooing station, and get comfortable talking with clients. 

Year 2+

licensed tattoo artist doing a tattoo
tattoo artist tattooing flowers

After about a year in the shop, you’ll be allowed to start working with a tattoo machine. 

What You DO:

You’ll tattoo fake skin before tattooing yourself. Once your mentor is confident you can tattoo on other people, you’ll tattoo a few friends in the shop, and start taking clients (usually charging a discounted rate or tattooing for free). A lot of the time, apprentices take on smaller tattoos or walk-ins that the more experienced tattoo artists don’t want.

What You LEARN:

During your third year, you will master line work, shading and packing, and build out your tattoo portfolio. 

Charging for an “Apprentice Tattoo”

Apprentices are not expected to be at the same level as a professional tattoo artist. However, that also means they can’t charge the same amount as a more experienced artist. 

No-Charge Tattoos

At first, apprentices might not charge for their tattoos. 

To become a successful tattoo artist, you have to practice. The people willing to give up their skin to help you learn and grow your tattoo portfolio are the ones doing you a favor. So, the only money you make from those free tattoos will be tips. 

Low-Charge Tattoos

Once an apprentice starts charging, it’ll still be at a “discounted rate” compared to an experienced tattoo artist. 

Most tattoo artists charge around $100-150/hr when they first start out in a full-time position. Apprentices charge half of that, usually around $50-60/hr. The shop will then take between 50-60% of that pay, as their part of the split. 

Tattooing as an Apprentice: Critiques and Improvements

bicycle design by tattoo artist
butterfly design by tattoo artist
spaceship design by tattoo artist

A big part of any apprenticeship is getting feedback from your mentor. 

What Designs You Tattoo as an Apprentice

At first, you’ll be doing small, palm-sized tattoos on clients. However, as you (and your mentor) grow more confident in your skills, you’ll be able to take on larger, more detailed work.

What Getting Critiqued as an Apprentice Looks Like

As an apprentice, how you’re critiqued will depend on whether you’re working with a client or on fake skin.

If your mentor is watching you work on fake skin, they’ll probably coach you while you work. They’ll correct mistakes immediately, and they might tattoo a bit themselves to show you what to do.

If you’re working on a client, your mentor will only stop you if you’re making a major mistake or tearing up the skin. They won’t critique you in front of the client, but they might ask you to take a break so they can talk to you. Otherwise, they’ll wait until you’re done working to critique you.

What a Mentor is Looking For in an Apprentice Tattoo

When critiquing your tattoos, a mentor will be looking for good line work, smooth shading, and saturated colors. They’ll also be checking to make sure your depth is right and that the skin is not overworked. 

How to Improve from Your Critiques

Once you know what you need to work on, practice on fake skin until you’ve fixed the problem. 

Building Your Tattoo Artist Portfolio

There are two different types of portfolios that tattoo artists have. The first is a tattoo apprenticeship portfolio. You’ll create this before you start working in the shop. It should show off your art skills and is full of tattoo designs. Because some mentors want their apprentices to be “blank slates,” apprenticeship portfolios shouldn’t include any real tattoos. 

The second portfolio is your tattoo artist portfolio. You’ll start building this portfolio as an apprentice and it will show pictures of the tattoos you’ve done. However, because you want your tattoo portfolio to show off your best work, you’ll continually update it throughout your career. 

FAQs

Where can you find a tattoo apprenticeship?

Most shops will not post that they are looking for apprentices. In most cases, you have to do research on the tattoo shops in your area and ask in person. If you don’t know how to approach a shop and ask for an apprenticeship, check out our article on How to Get a Tattoo Apprenticeship.

How do I build a tattoo portfolio?

Most shops don’t want to see a sketchbook, they’ll want to see tattoo designs and flash sheets. To learn more about how to put together a high-quality portfolio (and get a peek at our Lead Instructor’s apprenticeship portfolio), check out our guide on How to Start a Tattoo Portfolio.

How hard is it to get a tattoo apprenticeship? 

Tattoo apprenticeships are pretty competitive. There will only be a few artists accepting new apprentices in your area, and it’s normal for an artist to “test” a potential apprentice by telling them no several times. 

To learn more, check out our article on How Long is a Tattoo Apprenticeship?

Do tattoo apprentices get days off?

Apprentices are usually expected to work all day, 6 days a week. If the tattoo shop is open, then the apprentice is probably there. While some mentors might allow vacation time, it’s highly unlikely.

Can I start tattooing while I’m an apprentice?

In most apprenticeships, you won’t be allowed to pick up a tattoo machine until after your first year. You’ll probably only be allowed to tattoo under your mentor’s supervision, and you won’t be allowed to take your machines home to practice.

The Dark Side of Tattoo Apprenticeships

Tattoo apprenticeships are known for being a grueling process, but the difficulties apprentices face aren’t usually caused by the work it takes to become a tattoo artist. They’re actually caused by the apprenticeship process:

Financial Struggles

Tattoo apprenticeships aren’t possible for a lot of people because they ask aspiring artists to work full-time with no income for 2+ years. This either means living on a shoestring budget or working a second full-time job to pay bills. 

Social Isolation

Between long hours at the shop and working a second job to pay bills, it’s normal for apprentices to be busy all the time. Not having the time (or money) to see family and friends can take a major emotional toll.

Hazing and Abuse

Good shops and great mentors do exist. And in those environments, the apprentice will get picked on by the tattoo artists in the shop, but the teasing has a “family” feel.

Unfortunately, it’s much more common to hear about apprenticeships where that line gets crossed, leading to hazing or even abuse and harassment. A lot of the time, this occurs in “apprenticeships” where the mentor doesn’t actually teach the apprentice how to tattoo - they just want someone to work the front desk and will string along an aspiring artist to get free labor. 

Learn to Tattoo Without an Apprenticeship

In the past, learning in the shop through an apprenticeship was the only way aspiring artists could learn to tattoo. Today, however, artists are skipping the apprenticeship to learn on their own time at home with the Artist Accelerator Program.

The world’s oldest and largest online tattoo course, the Artist Accelerator Program’s easy-to-follow, 9-step framework lets anyone go from complete beginner to professional tattoo artist without the year of grunt work or hazing. 

Inside the program, you’ll be taught everything you’d learn in a traditional apprenticeship by professional tattoo artists and receive feedback on your art and tattoos in the program’s private online Mastermind community.

Over 2500 students have used the Artist Accelerator Program’s 9-step framework to break into the tattoo industry, with many opening their own studios or working in shops around the world. 

If you’d like to see the framework they used, 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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