Best Tattoo Setup for Beginners: Advice from Professionals

A “tattoo setup” includes everything you’d find in a tattoo artist’s station: from chairs and trays to tattoo machines and needles.

Knowing how to prepare each of these pieces is incredibly important - both the health and safety of your client (and yourself) and to the entire tattooing process. A great tattoo workstation means an easy, relaxed tattoo.

However, if you’re a new artist, setting up for a tattoo can cause a lot of anxiety. That’s why we created this step-by-step guide explaining how we set up for our tattoos.

After reading this article, you’ll know exactly how to confidently set up your tattoo station.

In this article, we’ll break down how to:

  • Sterilize your tattoo equipment
  • Set up your tattoo tray
  • Wrap your machine
  • Safely break down your station
Note:
If you’re new to tattooing, we recommend doing this whole process while setting up to tattoo fake skin. This will help you practice tattooing with good habits and make sure you’re comfortable with basic tattooing techniques before moving on to yourself or a friend.

Step 1: Clean Your Station

tattoo artist tray
cleaner for tattoo artists
tattoo massage table

What you need:

  • Gloves
  • Bleach
  • Mop
  • Madacide (in a spray bottle)
  • Paper towels
  • Massage table
  • Rolling stool or chair
  • Tattoo tray
  • Lamp
  • Power supply
  • Foot pedal (if using coil machines)

After washing your hands with antibacterial soap, put on a fresh pair of gloves and spray down all furniture and your tray with Madacide. This solution will kill germs and viruses and needs to be left for 3 minutes before wiping it away with clean paper towels.

In the meantime, mop the floor of your work station with a bleach-and-water solution.

Note
A personal studio should only have non-porous furniture. Use metal folding chairs or a massage table instead of a wooden or cushioned chair. Use a metal table and tray instead of a wood or plastic workspace. Never use carpet in a private studio. Make sure your floors are made of a non-porous material and are easy to clean (like tile).

Step 2: Set Up Your Barriers

licensed tattoo artist using barrier tape

Use barrier tape to make safe “contact points” on your tattooing station.

What you need:

When setting up your barriers, you need to consider where you’ll be placing your materials and what you’ll be touching during the tattoo process. Make sure to wrap the entire massage table with plastic wrap, even if you’re only going to be working on a small area.

Make sure you put on a fresh pair of gloves before setting up your barriers.

Cover Your Tattoo Tray

First, you need to cover your entire tray (whether you’re using the top of a non-porous tool box or a stainless steel dental tray) with plastic wrap.

Make sure the plastic wrap reaches down and around all the edges of the tray and that any separate pieces overlap one another. You can use tape to secure the plastic wrap.

Next, place a dental bib on top of the wrapped area and secure with tape. The dental bib should have one waxy side and one softer side. The waxy side faces down.

Cover Areas You’ll Be Touching During the Tattoo

Sometimes, it will be difficult to wrap an area with plastic wrap. This is why we like to use barrier film sheets over the following:

  • Power supply screen (in case you need to change the voltage mid-tattoo)
  • Lever on your rolling stool (to adjust stool higher or lower)
  • On the hood of your lamp (to adjust the position of the light)
  • On the stand of the lamp (to move the entire lamp, if needed)

Step 3: Set Up Your Tray

tattoo artist explaining the tattoo area

Screenshot from Tattooing 101’s Artist Accelerator Program

What you need:

  • Tincture of Green Soap (1/10 solution)
  • Distilled Water
  • 70% Isopropyl Rubbing Alcohol
  • Squeeze bottles*
  • Plastic rinse cup
  • Ink caps
  • Paper towels
  • Razor
  • Popsicle Stick
  • Vaseline
  • Extra rubber bands (if using a coil tattoo machine)
  • Tattoo needles
  • Extra Nitrile Gloves‡

Squeeze Bottles

On your station, set up two squeeze bottles. The first will contain a 1/10 solution of tincture of green soap and distilled water†. (For example, 50ml of green soap with 450ml of distilled water.) 

The green soap bottle will be used to clean the skin before shaving. The Isopropyl rubbing alcohol will be used to strip the skin of oils after shaving.

Razor

Place an unused disposable razor on your dental bib. Make sure the guard stays on until you use it and place the guard back on after.

Rinse Cup

Fill a plastic rinse cup about 3/4 full with distilled water. You can dip the tip of your needle in the water while tattooing to clean it out before using another color.

Vaseline

Using a popsicle stick (to avoid cross contamination), scoop a generous amount of Vaseline and place it on the dental bib. While you will use this to protect the stencil while tattooing, we also recommend putting a little bit of vaseline on the bottom of each ink cap to keep them from sliding around while you’re tattooing.

Paper Towels

Tear as many paper towels as you think you’ll need and set them on your tray. 

Do not keep an entire roll on your tray as that can cause cross contamination.

Ink Caps

Place an ink cap on your tray for each color⸷ and grey wash you’ll be using. Fill each ink cap. We recommend filling the caps from left to right in the order you’ll be tattooing them (darkest to lightest). 

Do not keep ink bottles on your tray while you’re working. This can put your inks at risk of becoming contaminated.

You will need to know how many needles your tattoo design requires before tattooing. Plan out what you’ll need in advance for both your line work and shading, and place those needles on your tray.

Both traditional tattoo needles and needle cartridges will come in sterile packaging. Make sure that the needles have not expired. If they have, they need to be sterilized in an autoclave again before you can use them on a person.

Occasionally, you’ll come across bent needles. Discard these entirely. They’ll cause more pain for your client, keep you from pulling a solid line, and mess up the tattoo.

*You can also use spray bottles.
‡You can also wear latex gloves. However, you can develop a latex allergy overtime.
†You can use sterile water if you’d like. Never use tap or bottled water.
⸷ If you know that you’ll be using a lot of a certain color, fill two ink caps instead of refilling mid-tattoo.

Step 4: Set up Your Tattoo Machine

tattoo artist showing the armature bar and contact screw

What you need:

  • Tattoo machine(s)
  • Disposable grip
  • Traditional needle bar or needle cartridges
  • Clip cord (coil machines) or RCA cord (rotary machines)
  • Machine bags
  • Clip cord cover
  • Medical tape

How you set up your tattoo machines will depend on whether you are using a coil, rotary, or pen machine. However, no matter what machine you’re using, you need to make sure to cover your machine with a machine bag. You can then secure the bag using medical tape or grip tape. You must use disposable grips if you do not have an autoclave. (Most tattoo shops require that artists use disposable grips to avoid the risk of bloodborne pathogens.)

Next, slide your RCA cord or clip cord through a clip cord cover and connect it to your machine and power supply. Place your machine on the tray with the needle facing away from you until you’re ready to use it. Never leave a tattoo machine on the tray with the needle facing you or hanging off the side of your tray; doing so increases the risk of a needle stick injury.

Pro Tip:
If you don't have a strong work ethic, then you’ll struggle to find success in tattooing.

If you need help setting up your power supply and tattoo machine, check out these resources:

Learn how to adjust the armature bar, tattoo tube, contact point screw, tube tip, and more on a coil machine.

Get advice on which voltage to run your machine at and how to change your voltage to improve your line work.

Here’s the easy-to-follow, step-by-step instructions you need to set up your tattoo machine fast.

Step 5: Cleaning Your Tattoo Station

Of course, a huge part of your tattooing setup is keeping it clean.

When you’re done tattooing, pull the wrap off your chair before moving on to your tray or trolley. Dispose of your razor and needles in an appropriate sharps container first, and then tear down the rest of your materials. (Because your ink caps, Vaseline, paper towels, etc. are all on the dental bib, you can easily roll it all up and throw it away as one piece.) 

Once you’ve thrown the barriers away, put on a new pair of gloves to remove the barriers from your bottles, machines, etc. Throw away all barriers according to your area’s biohazard waste standards and then spray everything down with Madacide and Cavicide. These cleaners need to sit for a few minutes before you wipe them away. Put on another new pair of gloves before doing so.  

If you’re tattooing multiple times in a day, you’ll need to repeat each of these five steps for each client.
tattoo artist based learning

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 set up a tattoo workstation and safely work with clients. 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 years 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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