Tattoo schools were created as an alternative to the traditional tattoo apprenticeship, where aspiring artists work for a mentor who teaches them to tattoo. However, apprenticeships take years to complete, are unpaid, and often come with a lot of hazing. Additionally, mentors do not have a specific set of lessons they teach apprentices.
Tattoo schools are meant to use structured lessons in a classroom setting to teach people to tattoo in just a few months, making tattooing accessible to more aspiring artists.
But what are tattoo schools really like? What do you learn while you’re there? And what skills can you expect to have when you leave?
To find out, our Lead Instructor Nathan interviewed one of our graduated students about his experience in tattoo school. Chris lives in Oregon, where tattoo school is a requirement for getting a tattoo license. He also taught fine art for several years before he started tattooing, and many of his students went to tattoo school themselves after completing his classical art program.
In this Q&A article, we’ll be breaking down:
Some areas in the U.S. require you to go to a tattoo school to receive your license. State health departments will control the curriculum. However, tattoo schools do not have the right to give you a tattoo license. Licenses can only be issued by a local health department.
What Do You Learn in Tattoo School?
Nathan: What does the curriculum at a tattoo school look like? What do they teach you?
Chris: All the schools have the same program, and the state mandates what it looks like. There’s a certain number of hours they teach on each subject, and a certain number of tattoos you have to do to graduate.
For the first two months, they teach you sanitation and the mechanics of a coil machine by having you take it apart, do diagrams, and things like that. After that, you start tattooing.
Nathan: So, two months of sanitation and then they throw you onto people?
Chris: Pretty much. You have to do 10 hours of color theory, but it’s pretty much exactly what you would get out of a high school textbook. After that is 10 hours of client services, 20 hours on the tattoo machines tattooing clients, and 10 hours of design. But most of the people who teach in the schools don’t know anything about tattoo design.
Nathan: They don’t have you work on fake skins?
Chris: Most schools don’t do fake skins. After the two months of the state curriculum, they move you right on to live people.
Nathan: What does the actual tattoo training look like? Do they teach you how to draw?
Chris: There’s no drawing. Honestly, the state curriculum doesn’t care about the quality of the work, as long as you do it safely. So they get you really good at safety, and they don’t care if you can draw or pull a line or pack in solid black.
Most people who leave tattoo school can’t tattoo a straight line because they didn’t learn the fundamentals.
Who Are the Instructors?
Nathan: What about the instructors? Are they tattooers, or more like entrepreneurs?
Chris: I don’t know every tattoo school owner personally, but from what I’ve seen, they’re entrepreneurial. They realized they weren’t skilled enough to make good money as tattoo artists, so they charge students to teach the state curriculum.
Most of the time, they just try to take in as many students as they can to make money, even though they won’t be teaching them much.
Nathan: What does that look like when the students actually start tattooing?
Chris: When the students start tattooing, the state guidelines say you’re supposed to have one-on-one supervision for the first ten tattoos. So, if there’s 15 students, there needs to be 15 instructors. After that, you can drop down to one instructor for every four students, but they don’t enforce it. Usually, there’s one instructor for all 15 students, if that.
I’ve heard of students in the last part of their training having to teach the new students doing their first tattoos because the instructors are nowhere to be found.
Nathan: Have you heard of any exceptions? Are there any schools that have really good, professional tattoo artists teaching?
Chris: Obviously, the students want to learn from the guys who are booked out for two years, making 300 bucks an hour. But I haven’t heard of any of them teaching. They could either be making $300 an hour tattooing a bunch of clients…or they could be collecting tuition from 10-15 students.
The only “good” instructors are the ones that actually care about the students. But they usually aren’t great tattooers. That says something that the “good” instructors just don’t brutalize you.
What is the Tattoo School Environment Like?
Nathan: So, with the instructors, is it like an actual tattoo shop? Do they haze the students?
Chris: The information I have on this is a few years old, since it was back when most of my art students graduated from my drawing program and went to tattoo school. But, they all came back with horror stories.
They had to drink rinse water, or the instructor made the students get tattooed by them - and they’d even sign their name so no one else could work into it. They were forced to tattoo other students or get tattooed by other students, even though they didn’t want to. One of my guys had an instructor threaten him with a knife.
Nathan: Just like an old-school tattoo apprenticeship, then?
Chris: It’s way too much like an old school tattoo shop, especially because the instructors are competitive.
Since they already don’t know much about tattooing, when a student comes in who’s a really talented artist and wants to learn to tattoo, the instructors will feel threatened. They won’t teach them because they’ve got this chip on their shoulder.
Tattoo School Price and Professional Connections:
Nathan: Do the students go look for jobs on their own? Or do the tattoo schools have relationships with shops?
Chris: The schools don’t really have ties to the tattoo community. To be honest, if you own a shop, you don’t want people who are just out of tattoo school.
It’s hard to find anyone to help you learn more in a state where everyone went to tattoo school because they didn’t get to learn anything about tattooing.
Nathan: What do they charge?
Chris: That depends on where you go. But they charge you a lot for absolute garbage. One of my art students told me they handed her a book of rules and laws and told her to read it instead of explaining anything. And then they give the students cheap machines that they have to return at the end of the term.
There’s a few schools out there that will at least include a good machine in the price of the tuition. They’ll give you a Cheyenne Hawk or something with an ink set and some needles.
Nathan: What do you think the tattoo schools could improve on?
Chris: They’re really good at teaching sanitation, but they need better fundamentals - lining, shading, packing. If you can pull a good line and pack solid black, you can at least make some money. But right now, most people walking out of tattoo school can’t do that, so they can’t get a job in a shop.
Tattoo school is required here, but anyone who actually ends up being good at it learns on their own and teaches themselves because they really want to make this a career.
How to Find the Right Tattoo Education Resources
Most of the time, tattoo schools teach sanitation, but don’t give you real tattooing experience. This is because they are teaching the minimum requirements for a state school.However, this doesn’t mean that a tattoo apprenticeship is the only way to learn, and there are independent resources that teach you the skills to learn properly. You just need to know how to identify good learning resources to make sure you’re getting the information you need.
A good tattoo education program will include the following:
For example, the Artist Accelerator Program has modules dedicated to each of these topics, as well as an online community where you can get advice and feedback from professional tattoo artists.
Along with the skills listed above, you’ll also want a program where you can talk to professionals, and see the work of previous students. The best way to tell whether a program works is to see if the students are doing good tattoos.
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.
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.