How to Tattoo for Beginners

If you’re new to tattooing, the amount of information about how to tattoo can be overwhelming.

That’s why our experienced artists have put together this all-in-one guide explaining how to:

  • Start tattooing for the first time
  • Get professional tattoo equipment
  • Draw tattoos and get your first clients

How to Tattoo

Working with a tattoo machine takes some getting used to. You don’t want to jump onto human skin and accidentally do a bad tattoo. This is why it’s so important to learn how to tattoo on fake skin.

Linework

A big part of doing perfect lines is making sure your tattoo machine is angled correctly. The machine should be pointing toward where the line is going.

Where the needle enters the skin will be just a little behind where the ink is actually going to be delivered. When you push the needle forward, the ink continues its forward motion too, leaving you with a crisp line. If you pull a line “across” or to the side, one side of the line will be sharp, and the other will be fuzzy because the ink is “blowing out” to the side of the line.

Note

A big part of lining is moving at the proper speed. To learn more about hand speed and machine voltage, check out our Hand Speed and Machine Voltage Tutorial.

Use 3 Points of Contact

tattoo artists use 3 points of contact

Like a tripod balances a camera, having three points of contact will keep your hand steady. 

Here is how to establish 3 points of contact:

  • Put the pinkie finger of your tattooing hand against the thumb of the stretching hand
  • Lock elbow in against your ribs or on massage table
  • Plant your wrist against table or tattoo chair  

In this position, rather than move your hand to tattoo a line you want to keep your hand stiff, hinge at your elbow, and move your entire arm. This will help keep “wobbles” out of your lines. 

Should you start off using thick or thin lines in your tattoos?

The thicker the line, the easier it is to get straight. This is why many beginner tattoo artists practice tattooing the thick outlines of traditional-style tattoos first when learning how to tattoo.

However, it’s harder to get the ink in the skin with a bigger needle. While this means fewer blowouts, it can also mean that it’s difficult to get a larger line into the skin with a single pass.

Thin lines are harder to keep straight. Any wobbles are much more noticeable. But because there is less surface area on the tip of the needle, it is much easier to get into the skin to do a solid line.

However, this is a double edged sword, because it makes it easier for you to go too deep in the skin, causing blowouts. 

Stretching the Skin

When stretching the skin, stretch in the same direction of the line. If you stretch the skin in the opposite way, the skin will stretch unevenly and the line will come out looking wavy.

Break Up Your Lines

If you're pulling a line and you start to feel uncomfortable, instead of trying to push through and do the whole line, you can break the line into separate pieces.

To do this, you whip out at the end of your line, and then when you go back in, you start back a little bit so that your “pieces” overlap. This will give the illusion of a consistent line.

Needle Depth

“Needle depth” simply refers to how far into the skin the needle is going. Getting the right tattoo needle depth is important not only for preventing pain, blowouts, and scarring, but it’s also key to making sure the ink in the tattoo’s image is clear and will last.

There are three layers of the skin:

  • The epidermis, or the top layer.
  • The dermis, which is the middle layer.
  • The hypodermis (sometimes called subcutaneous tissue), which is the third layer made mostly of fat. 
layers of the skin

When you are tattooing, you need to put the ink in the middle layer of the skin.

  • The top layer of the skin will push the ink out, and the tattoo will fade very quickly.
  • The middle layer is the sweet spot. Unlike the top layer, ink sits well in the dermis.
  • The particles of the bottom fat layer are loose and liquidy. If tattoo ink is put in this layer, it will disperse. This is what causes “blowouts.”  
How to Tell if You Have the Right Needle Depth

Getting the right tattoo needle depth is something you have to get a “feel” for as a tattoo artist. If you’re tattooing a line, you’ll feel the vibration in your stretching hand that indicates you’ve hit the right depth in the skin.

Whether you have the right needle depth depends on what part of the body you are tattooing. For example, the skin on the shins is very different to skin on the arm or eyelid. Additionally, the skin’s thickness will be different for every person. But as a rule of thumb, you can expect men’s skin to be a little thicker than women’s skin. And the older someone is, the thinner their skin will be and the more gentle you will have to be.

Should You “Float the Needle” or “Ride the Tube”?

You can use two different methods to determine your needle depth.

Controlling tattoo needle depth.
Controlling tattoo needle depth.

Ride the Tube: This means pushing the tube all the way down on the skin. You can use this method to make it impossible for you to go too deep in the skin and get blowouts. However, riding the tube makes ink splurt from the tip of your machine, which makes it hard to see your stencil.

Float the needle:
“Floating the needle” means keeping the machine off the skin. The machine stroke will have to be long enough that you can get the right needle depth. (Sometimes this is called “hanging the needle” out of the tube.) While you do have to control the depth manually, no ink will spurt from the needle tip, and you can see your stencil, which allows you to tattoo more accurately. However, blowouts are possible if you’re not sure how to manually control the depth properly.

You must have a long enough stroke to be able to do this so that your needles fully retract into the cartridge/tip with each up and down cycle. If it does not, then you wont get good ink flow, and your lines will not come out solid. For more info on this check out our article on machine stroke.

Note:

Many new artists “ride the tube” when they’re learning how to tattoo. However, you should aim to “float the needle” later on, as it will give you more accuracy with your linework.

Shading Techniques

When shading, you’ll usually use the whip shading and pendulum shading technique.

Note

When you are shading with just black and grey, then you can have your needles a bit more shallow than what you would do if you were packing color. Also, curved mags and bugpin needles will help you gut much smoother shades than standard needles.

Mixing your own Grey Wash

Black and grey tattoos are easier than color tattoos because they rely only on shading (as opposed to shading and color). However, without the grey wash mixed at the right solutions, you can’t achieve those different values. If you want to make your own grey wash in individual caps, you can learn how in our Tattoo Shading Guide

If you want to make your own in large batches, make sure that you wear gloves while mixing, your area is sterile, and that you do it over a sink. You will need four sterile 50ml bottles, one in each of the following concentrations:

  • 50mls black
  • 5 mls black, 45 mls witch hazel
  • 2.5 mls black, 47.5 mls of witch hazel  
  • 1.25mls black, 48.75 mls of witch hazel

Many artists prefer to buy premixed grey wash. All you have to do is put the ink in your ink caps, and you’re ready to go.

Note:

Keep in mind grey wash heals 30% lighter. While shading tattoos, always go just a little darker than you think they should be.

Packing

Packing ink into the skin means making a solid fill on the skin by moving the needle in a small, oval formation. 

Because tattoo needles contain multiple needle barbs, you want to avoid all the barbs lining up and cutting the skin. Tilt the needle on an angle so the needles never line up when doing oval formations (see below).

Always angle mag tattoo needles.

Packing Color

When packing color, tattoo dark colors first. 12-gauge needles work best for color because the individual needle barbs are thicker and space between the barbs is wider, which means you can pack more ink into the skin, faster. Additionally, you want your needles to be standard taper. Longer tapered needles pack less ink, slowing you down. 

Where to Buy Tattooing Equipment

Here’s our recommended shopping list.

Tattoo Machine

Inkjecta Flite Nano Lite

Machine Battery Pack

Critical Connect Universal Battery of EZ PG3 Battery Pack

Tattoo Needles

Da Vinci V2 1203RL, 1209RL, 1207CM, 1215CM, 1223CM

Black Tattoo Ink

Dynamic Black Ink + Witch Hazel for Gray Wash

Colored Inks

Solid Ink, Intenze Ink, or Eternal Ink brands

Stencil Paper

Spirit Stencil Paper

Practice Skins

ReelSkin or Pound of Flesh

Station Essentials

Green Glide, Stencil Stuff, Ink Caps, 4 Squeeze Bottles

Paper Products and Barriers

Dental bibs, paper towels, tongue depressors, cling wrap, nitrile gloves, bottle bags, machine bags

Cleaners and Soaps

Green Soap, Alcohol, Madacide/Cavicide

Tattoo Machine

Inkjecta Flite Nano Lite

Machine Battery Pack

Critical Connect Universal Battery of EZ PG3 Battery Pack

Tattoo Needles

Da Vinci V2 1203RL, 1209RL, 1207CM, 1215CM, 1223CM

Black Tattoo Ink

Dynamic Black Ink + Witch Hazel for Gray Wash

Colored Inks

Solid Ink, Intenze Ink, or Eternal Ink brands

Stencil Paper

Spirit Stencil Paper

Practice Skins

ReelSkin or Pound of Flesh

Station Essentials

Green Glide, Stencil Stuff, Ink Caps, 4 Squeeze Bottles

Paper Products and Barriers

Dental bibs, paper towels, tongue depressors, cling wrap, nitrile gloves, bottle bags, machine bags

Cleaners and Soaps

Green Soap, Alcohol, Madacide/Cavicide

To avoid knockoffs, we recommend buying directly from tattoo suppliers, not on Amazon. Kingpin Tattoo Supply and Painful Pleasures offer a wide range of options.

Find our full list of tattoo equipment recommendations in our article, “How Much Does it Cost to Become a Tattoo Artist?” 

If you’re not sure that being a professional tattoo artist is right for you, then you can try out less expensive tattooing equipment while learning how to tattoo. 

However, you don’t want to just buy the cheapest equipment out there. Cheap machines make practicing harder because you’re battling with something that doesn’t work as well as a professional machine. 

If you aren’t sure where to look for quality materials that won’t break the bank, here’s a few of our favorite machines and kits for beginners:

Note

Never call a tattoo machine a “tattoo gun.” Other tattoo artists will often be offended by that term.

Get Your Bloodborne Pathogens Certification

Before you dive into tattooing a client’s skin, you need to make sure you’re prepared to tattoo safely. This means putting on a new pair of gloves before working, using new needles for every client, and sticking to all the hygiene rules in the tattoo industry.

Making sure you are tattooing in a way that is sanitary and safe is the most important part of doing any tattoo. If you do not take care of sanitary precautions, you can give someone a lifelong bloodborne disease. 

To make sure you know how to avoid cross contamination, you need to get your Bloodborne Pathogens (BBP) Certification. Many tattoo artists complete their certification as an online course.

Note

In most places, it is illegal to tattoo anyone (even yourself) without having your BBP certification. In states that regulate the tattoo business, BBP certification is part of the licensing process. A shop owner will not hire you without it.

Do a (Very) Small Tattoo and Get Your First Clients

skull tattoo art
fish design for tattoo artist
tribal design for tattoo artist

Odds are, the first tattoo you ever do won’t be your best work. That’s why you want to keep it small and simple while learning how to tattoo - about the size of your palm or smaller. That way, you can touch it up - or even cover it up - later on.

Note

Some “easy” tattoo designs will look simple to draw...but they’re actually difficult. If you need some help finding a design, check out our guide to Easy Tattoos for Beginners. There’s 100 designs to choose from (plus a few tips and tricks).

How Much Should I Charge for My Tattoos?

Your first tattoo should be on yourself. Then, you should be giving friends and family small, free tattoos. Technically...they’re doing you a favor by giving you some experience on real skin. 

Once you are consistently doing good tattoos with straight lines and solid shading, then you can begin to take your first clients (most likely friends of friends). Keep the price low during this time - just enough to cover the supplies you’ll use during the tattooing process.

People Expect Professional Work if they Pay

If you charge for your tattoos when you first start out, people will expect your work to be as good as a professional tattoo artist who has been tattooing for years because they’re paying you. If you can’t tattoo at that level yet, they’ll complain and you could end up with a bad reputation as a tattoo artist before you get into a professional tattoo studio.

If you’re tattooing for free, the expectations will not be as high.

You Get More Practice if You Tattoo for Free

The more practice you get while learning how to tattoo, the faster you’ll improve. However, your clients won’t be able to pay for new tattoos every other day, meaning they can’t get tattooed as often. Because you want as much practice as possible, giving free tattoos will let you tattoo people regularly, even if they would normally have to wait and save up money. 

As your skills improve, you can begin charging for your work.

Note:

If you’re tattooing yourself for practice, we recommend tattooing your thigh. It’s an area that’s usually hidden, you don’t have to bend at odd angles to reach it, and the skin is easy to stretch.

How to Draw Tattoo Designs

tiger tattoo design

Doing small tattoos is great to practice your tattooing skills. But to be a good tattoo artist, you need to learn is how to draw. Your ability to draw is the “ceiling” of your potential as a tattoo artist. The better you are able to draw, the better you will be able to tattoo.

For some people, this is a natural skill. Others have to invest time into developing their drawing skills. Luckily, it’s possible to speed up the learning process if you follow these steps:

STEP 1

Pick One Style: Traditional or Realism

If you want to learn fast, traditional tattoo designs and realism are both great starting points for new tattoo artists who want to sharpen their skills. Here’s why:

Realism

A lot of the time, what slows artists down is figuring out what to draw. With realism, you do not have this problem. You just have to copy a photograph. 

Additionally, realism is a great style because it’s in demand. No matter where you are in the world, realism is one of tattooing’s most popular styles. If you can do realism, you can make a living anywhere in the world. As a beginner, stick with black and grey. You’ll only need to focus on the values of the image as opposed to trying to work with color on top of everything else.

Note

Realism allows you to focus on the technical side of drawing (shading and correct tones) without having to learn other difficult drawing concepts (perspective and proportion). However, it’s a difficult style. You’ll need to nail realism on paper long before you touch human skin. It requires less creativity than coming up with your own designs - but your technique has to be perfect. 

Traditional

Traditional tattoo designs are the easiest to draw, and it’s what most tattoo artists start off doing. 

The cool thing about traditional is that lots of the design elements are repeated over and over in each tattoo. After drawing 50-100 or so traditional style tattoos you’ll learn how to draw stuff like ships, flames, water, flowers, and more. 

Once you learn how to draw these elements, designing tattoos becomes a lot easier. You won’t need reference images because you’ll have muscle memory and experience to rely on. After that you’ll be able to knock out designs even faster, and it will get easier and easier.

Whatever style you choose, stick with smaller designs at first. You’ll be able to draw them faster and learn quicker from mistakes. This will also prepare you for when you first start tattooing, as you’ll only be doing smaller designs at the beginning of your career. 

Note

When building a portfolio, most shop owners will want to see a variety of styles before giving you a tattoo apprenticeship.

STEP 2

Pick 1-3 Artists and Emulate their work

Find an experienced tattoo artist whose work you admire (check their Instagram account). Try to replicate their tattoo designs without tracing. If you trace every design, you won’t learn a thing. However, when you replicate, you learn:

As you continue to replicate the work of famous tattoo artists, you’ll pick up on these three things and start to naturally use them in your own style later on. Picking these instincts up by studying an artist’s work will save you a ton of time. Why?

Reason 1: You Skip the Trial and Error

You don’t have to waste time trying to figure out what designs work in tattoos...and which ones just don’t. When you use practice drawing this way, you can leverage the decades of experience from other people and skip the trial and error of learning how to design tattoos on your own. You’ll quickly pick up what looks good on skin.

Reason 2: You Don’t Have to Make Up Your Own Designs

Emulating professional artists takes the creativity out of the process so you can draw more designs per day (no staring at the wall trying to think of a design). You’ll be able to produce more art, make more mistakes, and therefore learn much faster.

Note

Do NOT put any of these drawings in your portfolio. Someone looking at your portfolio is not only looking at your drawing skills, but also your design skills. Passing off someone else’s design as your own is stealing. You only want to do this exercise for practice. When you get good, create your own designs and use them in your portfolio.

STEP 3

Pick One Medium

If you are trying to learn how to use watercolors, acrylic/oil paint, charcoal, digital, graphite and copic markers at the same time, you will spread your focus - too thin. It will take you much longer to reach competency in any one of them compared to if you just focused all your energy and effort into one. If you want to progress quickly, focus on one medium. Graphite pencils or iPad is what I would recommend starting with.

FAQs:

How Much Does it Cost to Start Tattooing?

This depends on what equipment you buy and how you want to learn. 

We’ve written up a full breakdown of costs from equipment to training to fees and certifications in our article: How Much Does it Cost to Be a Tattoo Artist?

How Do I Start a Career in Tattooing?

We already touched on getting your BBP certification. But if you’re ready to begin working in a studio, you’ll probably also need to be licensed (depending on where you live), have a strong portfolio, and begin marketing yourself to get more clients - whether you plan to work in a tattoo shop or your own private studio.

That being said, there is a hierarchy inside the tattoo shop that’s helpful to know before you start working there. We break it all down in our article about
Working in a Tattoo Shop.

Is it Hard to Get into Tattooing?

It’s difficult to get into the tattoo industry, but it’s getting easier. 

In the past, the only way to become a tattoo artist was to go through a years-long unpaid tattoo apprenticeship. 

However, online tools are changing the game. Today, the Artist Accelerator is the largest and most comprehensive online tattoo program in the world. We’ve helped over 2500 students break into the industry by boiling down the process of learning how to tattoo into an easy-to-follow, 9-step process that anyone can use to become a professional tattoo artist.

Click here to check out our framework.

Become a Professional Tattoo Artist with the Artist Accelerator Program

examples of students own tattoo

Learning how to become a tattoo artist is an important step in beginning your journey, but it can also be pretty eye-opening to how difficult tattooing can be. Without the right knowledge, it’s impossible to level up your skills and become a professional tattoo artist.

However, finding the straight-forward information you need to learn how to tattoo is difficult. And with so much out there online, it’s hard to avoid picking up bad habits from incorrect and outdated resources.

This is one of the biggest struggles new tattooers face, and too many talented artists have given up their goal of getting into tattooing because of the years it would take to unlearn their bad habits.

That’s why aspiring artists are learning to tattoo with the Artist Accelerator Program’s structured course. As a student, you learn every step of the tattooing process from professional artists with the experience and advice you need to build your skills and create incredible tattoos.

With the Artist Accelerator, you can become a tattoo artist and stop wasting time searching through incorrect information. You just get the clear, easy-to-understand lessons you need to start improving fast… along with support and personalized feedback from professional artists in our online Mastermind group.

Over 2500 students have already gone through the course, with many of them opening up their own studios. If you want to join them and learn the skills you need to start tattooing full time faster…

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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