How to Become a Tattoo Artist in 2021

There’s no one “right” way to get into the tattooing industry. Because of this, finding your path can be a confusing process. 

However, hearing the stories of other artists who have built a career in the industry can help you get a better understanding of how you can reach your goal of becoming a professional tattoo artist. 

In this article, our tattooing instructor, Brandon, explains his story and how he found tattooing, got an apprenticeship, and now owns his own shop.

Art School and Learning Graphic Design

13 years ago, I got out of high school and decided to go to college for graphic design. I figured out very quickly that college really wasn't for me, but I really didn't know what field I was going to go into. So I stuck around because I really didn't know what I was going to do with my life. 

Throughout that period of time, I thought about what I wanted to do, and I knew that from the beginning it was going to involve art in some way. Now, that could be super tricky if you're in the artistic field. There's a ton of starving artists out there that do great work, but they're not in a field and they're not doing things that make a ton of money. Even though they may be happy just doing these things, I needed something to sustain myself, to try to grow myself and to become better and be able to live a happy life doing what I want to do. 

So, after I went through that period of time, I had a really good friend come visit me in college where I moved to go to the school. He had just gotten his first tattoo, and tattooing wasn't something that was super big when I first started. It's not like how it is today where you see it on social media and TV shows. He explained his whole story of going in the shop, picking out the design, figuring out what he wanted, and getting the tattoo.

For some reason, as soon as he said that, something clicked. I decided that's what I want to do. I didn’t know how to get there, but I could draw, and I could create art on people forever. I just knew immediately that was my goal in life. 

I went to a few tattoo shops in the area. It definitely isn't like it is today. Today, there’s so many things on YouTube, there are classes you could take, and people are more open to give out information on tattooing. 

So, I went to a couple of shops with some of my drawings, and they just really shut me down super quickly.

They really didn't give me a chance to let me talk. I told them that I have the passion for this, and that I’d do everything I can to make this happen. But every shop just shut me down. And it really kind of put me in a spot where I was super discouraged; I didn't think it was ever going to work out. 

I decided I was going to focus full time in college and not worry about tattooing anymore. I didn't really think it was for me, which is something that a lot of people feel. It's really discouraging when you go to a couple of different shops, and you're just getting shut down time after time. 

Luckily, after this period of time - two months went by - my buddy called me and said that an artist he got tattoos from wanted to talk to me and wanted to give me a shot.

Leaving College to Start as an Apprentice

I communicated with him over the phone a few times and sent him some of my work. He went over it and said “you really do have the ability to become a great artist.” Through talking to him I decided that I was going to pack up all of my things and drop out of college to pursue my goal. 

I knew that this was all I wanted in life and I was going to make it happen no matter what. 

I finally got to the shop; it was a really small, hole-in-the-wall shop. You could tell that it wasn't really a walk-in shop. This dude's been tattooing forever. So, his clients just come to him. There wasn't really much artwork on the wall. But, that was the shop that first gave me the chance. 

Talking about my mentor, he was an old biker dude, so he was really hard. But luckily, I've learned in my life that I really react well to criticism to make me better. I work really well within that pressure. So, it actually helped me out a lot. 

So, everything was going as well as possible for someone working at a place for no money at all. I did everything I could to help out everyone in the shop. And it went on like that for about six months. The biggest issue was when I first started tattooing. 

I was really into art all of my life doing paintings, drawings, everything. So, when I got into tattooing, once I learned the fundamentals, I kind of took that and ran. I learned very quickly that it caused problems between me and my mentor because he was super old school.

He did things a certain way for 30 years and he didn't really want to change. And as things progressed with tattooing and I got better, there was some resentment built up. Not that I was getting better than him or anything like that. I just started to feel like he didn't really like me when I first started tattooing. To this day, I don't really know why. But that definitely caused a problem, which affected my tattoo career in a bad way. 

At that point, I thought it was a really bad thing, but it turned out to be the greatest thing ever. 

I started talking to other artists and other tattoo shops around the area explaining what was going on and what I was doing. And I learned really quickly that I was not learning to tattoo the right way. A lot of the things my mentor was teaching me wasn't really the appropriate way of doing things.

Especially when it comes to things like talking to clients and sanitation - all of these things are main focal points of tattooing. But at the shop, it was kind of focused on him wanting money over anything else. So, a lot of those things were overlooked just as long the tattoo looked good. And that's not really the mentor that you want. 

You want someone that's fully rounded, who knows all the sanitation stuff and what machine to use and explains to you exactly what you're doing. Because at the end of the day, you are learning from them. You are going to become them. And if you have a good mentor, they want you to get better than them.

That is their goal for you: to become better than they were. At least, that's how I feel. 

Obviously, it wasn't for the first place I worked at, and that caused a lot of issues. And a lot of that resentment just kept building up, and I knew it was about to blow up at any moment. 

Leaving an Apprenticeship to Learn Alone

So, I decided to let him know that this isn't for me, and that I was going to pack my bags up and leave. This was the second time I gave up on my dream. Thinking back on it now, it's just such a crazy thing to think about that I actually threw in the towel. But at the moment, I didn't feel like I had any other choice. 

I was super young, I had just gotten into this industry, and the first shop that I actually got into had taught me the wrong way to tattoo. So, from there I left the shop. But, I did not give up completely on tattooing. I still focused on drawing and bettering myself. I tattooed on my brother when I could in sterile places.

Since there wasn't YouTube or anything to help, everything I learned and studied, I kind of had to learn on my own. I had to retrain myself in everything because I knew everything that I learned at first starting out was completely wrong - like him wanting me to ride on the tube all the time instead of learning control and letting the needle hang out. It's kind of like he wanted to hold me back to some extent. 

After relearning all these things and studying and figuring out the best way I could possibly do a tattoo, I built up the confidence to walk into a tattoo shop.

I heard from a buddy that they were looking for an artist since one of their artists was walking away. So, I thought this was my perfect opportunity. I'd been in this industry, and I knew what I was doing now - not to the extent that I could do anything, but at least I was confident at this point of my career that I could walk in, know what I was talking about, and get into a shop. 

So, I walked in there and I spoke to an artist that was really nice. He looked through my stuff, and he told me he didn’t think I was ready. I told him I just needed a shot, and I asked him to let me talk to the owner. I told him that I was going to make this happen, no matter what. Whether it was there or somewhere else, I was going to be a tattoo artist.

At this point, I still did not have my license. In the state of Pennsylvania where I was, there's really no health department, so there really wasn't a license. But, you do go through an apprenticeship and get a piece of paper. This meant I would have to restart this cycle of apprenticing under someone again.

So, I talked to the owner and he said he’d give me a shop. He told me to bring my brother into the shop and tattoo him so he could see my tattooing. 

A Shot at a Second Apprenticeship

This was still the beginning of my career. I was super nervous, and all the confidence I had, as soon as he said come in here and tattoo, went out the door. I stayed up all night preparing what I was going to do, studying it.

I drew it 16 times to make sure it was everything I wanted it to be, and I went in and did the tattoo and he asked how long I’d been tattooing. 

I was honest, and I told him the whole story. He said: “I'm not saying that this is great work, but it is a start.”

So, from there he helped me get better. He gave me the tools and explained everything.

I was only using traditional machines at the time, and I got on a rotary, which really helped me out a lot because traditional machines just weren't for me. I still use them to this day now that I do have the knowledge behind them, but there's so much to learn to get them tuned correctly that at that point in my career, I just didn't know. So, finally after going through all these things with the other shop, I finally was able to get into a shop and start tattooing.

This was the first time I'd be able to actually start making money. Now, I was nowhere close to knowing what I was doing being a professional artist. But for the first time, this felt like my golden moment, because I was actually having income from what I wanted to do for a living, which is a major milestone in your career. Especially after everyone telling me I'm not going to make it, and that it's too hard of an industry to get into. 

People said that even if I did get into it, I was not going to make good money. All of these things kind of held me back. Anytime something would go wrong in a tattoo shop, I'd think: They told you. They said this was going to happen, and you should have listened.

So all of these things would go through my head until this moment where it felt like everything was clear, and I knew exactly what I was going to do. Everything was going really good. 

I tattooed at this place for about a year and a half, but it was in a hard part of town. There were some issues going on that I didn't necessarily like and I didn't really want to be around anymore. 

So through a couple of these situations that happened in the shop, I decided that I was ready to move on with my career. I was confident, I knew what I was doing enough to move forward and be able to do something that I wanted to do, and get into a shop that I could grow in. Because I felt like I was in this shop, and I had gotten to a point where there was no way to grow. 

Moving States and Tattooing Professionally

From there, I decided to move to a different state. I ended up moving to Tennessee and started in a tattoo shop here where everything was great. The owner was super nice. He would let me use machines and try out new machines. It was just an awesome experience. 

I had a great time there, and I grew so much there. All the knowledge I know today would've been from that period of time. 

I was able to meet different artists coming into town, go to tattoo conventions, and pick up things throughout the years from other artists. 

Opening a Shop

After tattooing there for about five years, I knew it was time to focus on myself. I wanted to open up a shop that I wasn't just doing constant walk-ins every day - I was super busy tattooing from noon to midnight. I really did not like tattooing that late. That's when certain kinds of people come out of the woodworks, and you have to deal with drunk clients and all sorts of stuff that, at that point in my career, I didn't want to have to deal with anymore. 

So, I decided that my goal was to open up my own tattoo shop. I studied everything I needed to do, all of the business aspects of everything, and read books about business so I could get a mental understanding of what to do in this situation. And then finally, the perfect location came up, and that is the tattoo shop I own today.

I opened that up about a year and a half ago and it's been going great so far. This story is the reason I'm so passionate about trying to help other artists that were in the same shoes that I was in. I feel like I wasted so much time  when I could have had so many more opportunities if I just had one person guide me in the right direction. 

Final Thoughts

So, thanks for reading my origin story. I hope that this is able to help some of those artists out there that are in the same cycle that I was back in the day. I hope this gives you the clear picture that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that there is money to be had in this industry.

Become a Tattoo Artist With the Artist Accelerator Program

Having a career in tattooing is not only fulfilling, but it’s also the most stable way to make a living as an artist. However, for decades, the process to become a tattoo artist has been notoriously difficult.

The apprenticeship process requires aspiring tattoo artists to work 50-60 hours a week without pay for 2-4 years. That, combined with the toxic culture of abusing apprentices, makes getting into the industry almost impossible for newcomers.

That’s why we created the Artist Accelerator Program. Our online course provides a simple, structured way of learning to tattoo that has been proven to work by over 2500 successful students, with many of them having gone on to open their own shops all around the world. 

Inside the program, we’ll take you through every step of the tattooing process in 9 clear, easy-to-follow modules and support you along the way within the Tattooing 101 Mastermind online community.

In the Mastermind group, you’ll collaborate with other students, get answers to your questions, and receive personalized video feedback on your artwork and tattoos from professional tattoo artists. With this friendly community of both new and experienced tattoo artists, you’ll never be stuck again. 

When you join the Artist Accelerator Program, you’ll have instant access to the full course and the Mastermind community, as well as our 30-Day Flash Challenge and recorded interviews with tattoo artists from all over the world. 

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
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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