How Long is a Tattoo Apprenticeship? Tattoo Artist Timeline

If you’re interested in becoming a tattoo artist, the traditional path into the industry is going through a tattoo apprenticeship. Getting guidance from an experienced artist is a great way to improve your skills. However, not every mentor is a good one, and tattoo apprenticeships can drag on for years longer than they should. 

Knowing how long a tattoo apprenticeship should be - and what you should be learning during that time - can help you choose the right way to learn for you. To help, we’re answering all the tattoo apprenticeship FAQs. 

In this article, we’re breaking down:

  • How long tattoo apprenticeships should last (and what hours apprentices work)
  • What factors affect the length of an apprenticeship
  • How to have more control over the length of an apprenticeship

How long is the average tattoo apprenticeship?

 tattoo artist using a tattoo machine

The average apprenticeship is about 2-3 years. However, they can extend for as long as 5. 

Option 1: The “Normal” Apprenticeship

Year 1

Chores and working in the shop

Year 2

Learning to tattoo/tattooing yourself

Year 3

Tattooing friends and clients on apprentice pay

Usually, tattoo apprentices spend the first year “earning” their education by cleaning, working the front desk, answering phone calls, etc. to make up for the cost of their mentor’s time and teaching. In this case, you won’t pick up a tattoo machine for the first year of your apprenticeship. 

Option 2: The “Short” Apprenticeship

Year 1

Learning to tattoo / tattooing yourself

Year 1.5

Tattooing friends and clients on apprentice pay

If you’re paying for your education, your apprenticeship should be shorter. Instead of paying for your education through working for free, you should start learning pretty much right away because you’ve already paid.

Option 3: The “Long” Apprenticeship

Year 1

Chores and working in the shop

Year 2

Learning to tattoo/tattooing yourself

Year 3

Tattooing friends and clients on apprentice pay

Year 4

Tattooing full-time as an artist in the shop

This type of apprenticeship follows the path of a “normal” apprenticeship, except you have also agreed to work in the shop as a full artist as part of your tattoo apprenticeship contract.

Beware: The “Neverending” Apprenticeship

Unfortunately, some “mentors” only offer an apprenticeship to aspiring artists because they want someone to work the front desk for free. They don’t teach the apprentice enough for them to grow as a tattoo artist, and use this as an excuse to lengthen their apprenticeship and keep an employee they don’t have to pay.

Year 1

Chores and working in the shop

How many days a week is a tattoo apprenticeship?

Usually, apprentices are expected to work 5-6 days a week. 

How many hours a week is a tattoo apprenticeship?

This depends on the mentor. Some will be more lenient and allow flexible hours so the apprentice can keep a part-time job to support themselves. Others will expect apprentices to be there 50 or even 60+ hours a week. In this case, they’ll be arriving before the artists to clean the shop and stay late to clean up after the last client leaves. 

Do tattoo apprentices get paid?

tattoo artist working in a tattoo shop

Apprentices do not get paid until they start tattooing people. Normally, this means the apprentice does not make any money their first year or two. When they do start tattooing clients, they are on an “apprentice split.” This means the shop gets 50-60% of the money the apprentice makes from their tattoos. 

Note:

normal split for a tattoo artist is 60/40, which means the artist keeps 60% of the money they make from their tattoos, and gives the shop 40%.

How long does it take to start tattooing in a tattoo apprenticeship?

When an apprentice is allowed to start tattooing is up to the tattoo artist mentoring them. Usually, after a year of working in the shop at the desk, mentors will start showing apprentices how to tattoo and might let them practice on fake skin. 

When it comes to tattooing people, apprentices always practice tattooing themselves. Then, they can begin tattooing friends for free before their mentor approves of them charging clients.

Note:

Some tattoo shops will hire apprentices and have them start tattooing clients right away before they are ready. This is a major red flag in an apprenticeship because the owner of the shop is placing how much money they might make that week over your reputation as a good artist for the rest of your career.

How long does it take to get a tattoo apprenticeship?

How long it takes to get a tattoo apprenticeship depends on a few different things:

Your Artwork

feather tattoo done by a tattoo artist
flower tattoo done by a tattoo artist
dragon tattoo done by a tattoo artist

Most mentors do not want to teach an apprentice how to tattoo and how to draw, so they expect hopeful apprentices to have a portfolio that shows their art skills are up to par. For people who don’t have much drawing experience, this can take several years before they even begin a 2-4 year apprenticeship.

Note:

You do not have to go to art school to learn how to draw, but there are ways to speed up the learning curve. Check out our 3-step process in How to Tattoo for Beginners.

How You Ask for an apprenticeship

Apprenticeships are different from most entry-level jobs. You can’t walk in with a resume and ask for a job. If you walk into a shop and ask for an apprenticeship right away, you will get turned down. People ask professional tattoo artists for apprenticeships everyday, and “no” is their go-to answer. 

The best way to ask for an apprenticeship is to build a relationship. This means getting tattooed by the artist you want mentoring from, asking if you can do anything to help around the shop, and eventually asking them to take a look at your portfolio of tattoo designs. If they like your work, the artist might open up a conversation about an apprenticeship.

If a tattoo artist turns you down for an apprenticeship, they might be testing you. Some artists will give aspiring apprentices critiques to see if they fix their artwork and have the guts to come back and ask again. 

Note:

Need help creating a tattoo apprenticeship portfolio? Learn what a tattoo mentor is looking for with our Portfolio Guide.

Having connections does help

A lot of artists are able to get into the tattoo industry faster because they already have a few friends in the tattoo community.

How long do you have to be a tattoo apprentice?  

In some places, there are legal requirements regarding your tattoo education. However, it mostly depends on your progress and how long it takes for your mentor to feel like you’re ready to graduate from your apprenticeship. 

Here’s a few things that can factor into the length of your apprenticeship:

  • Your drawing skills and growth as an artist
  • If you’re able to work on fake skin. (Being allowed to use fake skin will help you prepare for real skin faster.)
  • How often you are able to tattoo. (The more practice you get, the faster you’ll improve.)
  • How much time your mentor has to teach you.

How much time your mentor has to teach you is a huge part of the length of your apprenticeship. It’ll be impossible for you to progress if your mentor is too busy to teach you. Additionally, if there are a lot of apprentices in the shop, they won’t have as much time to dedicate to you

If a shop has a lot of apprentices, there’s a good chance that the mentor isn’t serious about teaching aspiring artists and just wants free assistants (see “the neverending apprenticeship”).

How to gain more control over the length of your apprenticeship:

tattoo apprentice working to become a tattoo artist

Apprenticeships are a big risk for aspiring tattoo artists. It can be difficult to know whether a potential mentor is looking to actually teach you, if they just want free labor, or how long the process will take. 

The best way to protect yourself - and years of your time - is to create a tattoo apprentice contract with your potential mentor. 

In the contract, you’ll agree on milestones in your apprenticeship. For example, after a certain amount of drawings, you’ll be allowed to start practicing with a tattoo machine.

If you’re paying for your apprenticeship, these milestones will be paired with payment installments. Do not pay the full amount of the apprenticeship up front. It is common to hear stories of apprentices paying $5K just to be fired from their apprenticeship a month or two later with no explanation.

Note:

The best way to get a picture of what an apprenticeship will look like with an established tattoo artist is to talk to their graduated apprentices. This will help you figure out what they teach, how long it’ll take, and what type of experience and success you can expect.

Do you have to have a tattoo apprenticeship?

designs by tattoo artists
You do not have to go through an apprenticeship to break into the tattoo industry. The reason so many professional tattoo artists will say you must have one is because 10-15 years ago, that was true. The only way to learn was from another artist in a tattoo shop. 
However, overtime, hazing and even abuse became a normal part of “earning your stripes” in the industry. And between the mistreatment and years of work without income, aspiring artists began to look for another way to learn. 
Which is why so many artists are learning from home and at their own pace with the Artist Accelerator Program. As the world’s most comprehensive online tattoo course, the Artist Accelerator Program gives you all the information you’d learn in a tattoo apprenticeship in an easy-to-follow, 9-step framework.

Inside the program, you’ll get step-by-step tattooing tutorials, lessons in design, and personalized feedback from professional tattoo artists in our online Mastermind community.

Over 2500 students have used the Artist Accelerator to break into the tattooing industry, with many of them going on to open their own studios and tattoo in shops around the world.

If you want to learn more about the framework they used…

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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