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Tattoo Artist Tips, Tattoo Business

Building An Empire of Ink, Part 1: How to Make Your Tattoo Business Stand Out

Chances are that when you started your tattoo business, you thought the hard part was over. After all, you just survived nearly drowning in an ocean of paperwork and regulations! However, the real hard part of owning tattoo shops is marketing them. There are more tattoo artists emerging each and every day, leaving you with a clear question: how can you make your tattoo business stand out?

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Inspiration, Tattoo History

A Guide to Russian Prison Tattoos

The ink worn and created in Russian prisons is a mysterious and often intimidating underside to the world of tattoos. Each marking represents a crime, a vicious act, a hostile set of beliefs or the bearers standing in the criminal underworld. For a cop, they can give vital information and sometimes enough to send that guy back to prison or even to save the life of the man with the badge.

We took a look at a new book – Thief in Law: A guide to Russian prison tattoos and Russian-speaking organized crime (Schiffer Publishing) written by our friend Mark Bullen, the former British police officer responsible for investigating the Russian Mafia, and training Western Europe’s police on Russian criminal tattoos. With more than 100+ original photographs taken in prisons and police stations by the author and other officers, the book decodes and explains what each of these secret criminal markings mean and explains how the Russian Mafia became so dominant in the world of organized crime.

The tradition of prison tattoos in Russia goes all the way back to the start of Stalin’s rule over the Soviet Union and the formation of the infamous Gulag network. Prisoners used tattoos as a way to show their resistance to the new rule of the Communist Party, a secret language using ink was born.  Crude images depicting the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB) as devils, pigs or wolves and Lenin being displayed as the biggest thief of all became common, as did images showing where the owner was from or the crime that had caused his incarceration.

After the Second World War a split emerged in the criminal world and men began creating more intricate and discreet tattoos, these became a way of displaying their skills and past achievements to their fellow convicts. A feather showed the wearer was skilled with a knife, each tower of a church or castle showed how many terms the wearer had served in the zone and X’s on the hand showed how many escape attempts he’d made.

Russian female prisoners also started to tattoo themselves, not as crudely as their male counterparts, instead they’ve gone down a more melancholic and poetic route. Swans, violins, hearts and roses all denote the wearers’ sexuality or the part love has played in her life or why she’s ended up in jail. Phrases like may my love lie on you like a tombstone and grab grief, fall in love with me became the sort of thing seen on Russian female prisoners as they pass their time as part of the world’s second biggest prison population.

Marks new book is a wonderful companion for anyone interested in underworld tattoos, Russian history, or just a bizarre, often unpleasant landscape and is an easy, enjoyable read. Thief in Law is a fine encyclopedia of Russian prison tattoos as well as a guide to the country’s prison history and culture.

Thief in Law is available in to order now on Amazon worldwide, and will be in all good book shops in the USA after September. More information on the subject is on the authors website www.markgbullen.com


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Tattoo History

Historical Tattoo Techniques

Historical Tattoo Techniques

The history of handmade tattoos is an extensive one and dates back over 5000 years. The first evidence was on Ötzi the Iceman who lived at some point between 3370 and 3100 BC.


In this post, I’m going to cover the entire history of tattoos made by hand. From Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece to the more modern Thai Sak Yant (pictured above) and of course, Western DIY hand poke tattoos.


The reasons for acquiring permanent markings on the skin vary from culture to culture. In some societies they are seen as forms of amulets, protecting the wearer from harm. Elsewhere, the reasons can vary widely, from symbols of class, one’s religious beliefs, aesthetics or even as a form of punishment.


So let’s get started with our friend Ötzi in our journey through the history of tattooing.


Ötzi the Iceman


Ötzi is the name of the oldest tattooed body ever to be found (upper right in above photo). He was discovered in the Ötztal Alps in September 1991 (hence the name Ötzi) and dates back to around 5200 years ago. He had been marked with a method known as ‘soot tattooing’, where the skin is cut and soot is used as ink by rubbing it into the open wounds with one’s hands.


It is believed Ötzi was marked in an attempt to relieve joint pain caused by strain-induced degeneration. This is due to the 61 tattoos being placed on his lower spine, knee and ankle joints, all places that aren’t very visible and are liable to degenerate over time.


It’s believed the dots and crosses were simply there as a result of a therapeutic practice rather than to distinguish status or express any belief.



The exact date that the Ancient Egyptians started tattooing is a highly contested subject, but as far as we know it wasn’t till way after Ötzi’s time.


There are figurines dating from 4000-3500 BC that clearly have markings on their legs and bodies. These tend to be spots and symbols that many argue are representations of real people who were tattooed.


However, the oldest mummies found with bodily markings, that fully confirm the process of tattooing are dated at around 2000 BC.


Interestingly, Egyptian mummies that have been found with these markings are exclusively women. For a long time archaeologists assumed that these markings were made to mark women as prostitutes or to act as protection from sexually transmitted diseases.


However, there is a contradicting theory that has recently emerged. It claims that these were actually used as a permanent amulet, a good luck charm that was placed on women during pregnancy. This idea is supported by analysis of the placement and design of the tattoos that have been found on mummified bodies.


Most styles found on mummies were dotted patterns of lines or diamonds but 2 common designs especially stood out –


  • A net-pattern of dots on the abdomen was often found. This would expand during pregnancy and seemed to replicate the protective bead nets the Egyptians used in the process of mummification.

  • The other common design was a figurine of the deity Bes. This was found on multiple mummified females thighs. Bes was the deity that protected women in labour, again supporting the pregnancy protection hypothesis.

Egyptian tattoos were done in a similar way to good old Ötzi’s. As opposed to ink, soot was used and small bronze instruments consisting of sets of needles would make the incision. These were found in northern Egypt and date back to 1450 BC, making them the oldest confirmed tattooing tools ever found.


Japanese Tebori

The history of Japanese body art possibly dates back even further than the Egyptians.


Clay figurines dating to around 5000 BC have been found with what seems to be tattoos on their faces, out dating any of the figures found in Egypt.


There are however no Japanese mummies and so we can only be certain that tattooing started there in 297 AD where Chinese writings documented the fact. The writings regarded it very negatively and detailed how no matter what age the men were they would tattoo their faces and bodies with designs.


It is assumed these early designs were to symbolize status and were highly revered. Over time, however, this changed and in 720 AD there are written records of Japanese people being marked as a form of punishment for rebellion or treason.


Up until the end of the 1600’s marking criminals for their wrongdoings was a widespread practice in Japan and brought with it great social exclusion. Crosses or lines were inked onto parts of the body, the placement depending on which crime had been committed. Numerous symbols were also used depending on which region the crime took place in, for example, one particular region famously would tattoo the Kanji for dog on the offender’s forehead.


By the end of the century, this form of punishment was phased out being largely replaced by incarceration, solitary confinement and capital punishment. One reason for this is the popular emergence of decorative tattoos, and the problem of offenders covering up their ‘punishment’ tattoos with bigger decorative designs. This is where the infamous relationship between tattooing and the Japanese mafia, the Yakuza, started.


The eighteenth century came around and tattoos had started becoming popular. Due to their association with crime the elite wanted to put a stop to this and so made all forms of tattooing illegal.


This didn’t have the effect they wanted.


It made those already inked forced to live a life of crime as they were shunned in regular society and the idea of getting a respectable job was out the window. The tattoo culture within the Yakuza was further embedded. Because of the pain, they showed bravery. Because of their permanent nature, they showed loyalty. Because of their illegality, they showed commitment to a life of crime.


These days the association with crime is still a strongly held belief in Japan and some hot springs and swimming pools still ban those who have them from entering.


So how is this millennia-old tattooing technique carried out?


‘Horishi’ is the name given to a Japanese tattoo artist. Before gaining this status they must train under a qualified Horishi for years, attentively watching each part of the process. Before this training is over they can’t tattoo another person, during the time they are simply watching and learning from their master. Partly due to this, the quality of work from Japanese tattooists is second to none.


The needles are made by hand, held tentatively and then poked into the skin. Japanese designs tend to cover large parts of the body and often take years to fully complete because of their size and cost.


In the 1800s, an artist would first draw a picture onto someone’s skin with a brush and then a tattooist would simply trace over this design. This is still sometimes done today but now it is more common for the Hiroshi to do the artwork as well.


Ancient Greece


In 700 BC tattooing became widely used in Greece as a form of punishment and to permanently mark some citizens. This was especially used in slavery, marking them as slaves for life and making escape impossible.


The public despised the practice and many Greek authors complained about the injustice of it. Writings depict how criminals would be permanently marked on their foreheads saying what crime they had committed, a tough lifelong punishment.


There are no reliable accounts of the method behind how the Ancient Greeks would permanently mark people, but it is likely similar to the Ancient Egyptians.




The origins of this Polynesian technique of tattooing is greatly disputed between countries but goes back to at least 1722 when three Dutch ships went to Polynesia.


Where it originates from though we’re still not exactly sure. The Fijians claim the technique came from Samoa, while the Samoans claim it originated from Fiji.


Samoan mythology tells a tale of twin sisters swimming from Fiji to Samoa. They brought with them tools to tattoo with and while swimming sang a song about how only women may receive this art. On the way, however, they saw a clam and swam down to fetch it. On their way back up their song had changed and now they sung that only men can have tattoos and not women.


Interestingly ‘Tatau’ is where the western word tattoo, meaning to permanently mark the skin, originates from. Captain Cook on his exploration voyages to Polynesia saw the tattooed males, heard the word and brought it back to the west.


The procedure is carried out with a set of handmade tools made of bone fragments that are lashed to bits of turtle shell. This is then lashed to a piece of wood which is used as a handle. The ink used is made from burnt candlenut soot which is kept in a coconut shell. A tapping mallet is then used to push the bone fragments into the skin and the ink is dripped in.


The design of Tataus is as important to tradition as the procedure itself. Uniquely the person getting tattooed won’t be allowed to choose their design, instead, it is created spontaneously as the artist pushes the needles into their skin.


Designs tend to be drawn on the thighs. They are symmetrical and consist mostly of straight lines and large blocks of ink.

Taking weeks or even years to complete it is a long procedure to undertake. They are notoriously painful and are not a process many people take lightly.

In Samoan culture males who get tattooed in this way are highly respected for the courage they have shown. Un-tattooed males instead are seen as naked and it is seen as incredibly shameful if a male has started the procedure but then doesn’t complete it due to the pain.


Sak Yant


This method originated over 1000 year ages in Kambuja, which today is known as Cambodia. The method spread throughout Southeast Asia and is now especially prominent in Thailand. Here it has become deeply ingrained in their culture.


The artist will be a Buddhist monk who pricks the skin with a steel needle top that is attached to the end of a long piece of bamboo. Traditional black ink is used and religious writing or designs are marked onto the skin.


Many different religious philosophies have influenced the Yant method, but they all bear the concept that the marking will act as an amulet, giving protection and good luck to those have it.

Ta Moko

Ta Moko was brought to New Zealand from Eastern Polynesia in 1769. Since then it was popularly used to represent particular tribe membership. It did however also have other meanings, for example, to signify wealth, travels, or one’s strengths.


Unfortunately, colonization greatly disrupted this practice and almost put a complete stop to it in the 1800s, as it was seen as ‘distasteful’ and barbaric.


However, the old beliefs within New Zealand still hold true today and it is still considered as an incredibly sacred form of art.


Due to this and their belief that the head is the most sacred part of the body, this is the only place that gets inked. Within the Māori people having your face tattooed was a rite of passage and there is a strong sense of ritual around the process, which tended to begin at adolescence.


Instead of needles, fragments of albatross bones are used to chisel into one’s face. Ink is then rubbed into the new wound and a tattoo is born.


It’s supposed to be incredibly painful and the process looks quite gruesome but it does result in a very unique effect. When the cuts heal, they heal as bumps, indentations on the skin, where other methods the skin heals smoothly, with Ta Moko you have grooves.

Earth Lines / Skin Stitching


No one knows exactly how old skin stitching is. But it has been past down from generation to generation in traditional Native American families for hundreds and hundreds of years.


A thread is dipped into ink and then stitched through the skin. As the thread is pulled through the holes in your skin it leaves a trail of ink behind it.


While being one of the more intense methods, they tend to simply be gotten for their aesthetic looks although some believe they have medicinal remedies as well.


Stick and Poke


The history of stick and poke is a vast one, all the previous methods I’ve talked about are a form of stick and poke and as such it dates back over 4000 years.


These days they have grown infamous since the days of their notoriety within Russian prisons where inmates get covered head to toe in designs. However people have been giving each other stick and poke tattoos for thousands of years. It’s always been a more intimate way to share the experience, especially when a more complex, professional tattoo isn’t in the budget, or simply isn’t wanted.


More recently since the 1960s, there has been a surge in popularity within the Western counterculture, especially with youths inking their friends as a form of expression and rebellion. Now many people are either switching over from being artists who use tattoo machines, or simply never bothering to learn modern ways of tattooing at all.


With the popularity of stick and poke tattoos growing, we see artist making six figure careers by doing simple designs, as people love the uniqueness of the process, and the different design it gives.


However, this does not mean pick up a sewing needle and some ink from a pen! Sterilization of the equipment, body and environment is essential. Infections can be life-threatening and are no joke. Not to mention you could forever change someones life, not in a good way.

Too many young kids get messed up designs or fall seriously ill from attempting stick and pokes in unsanitary environments or with improper ink. Don’t make yourself one of them.

Don’t let this turn you off from learning the correct, and safe way to learn stick and poke tattooing. After dozens of trips to Japan, learning the correct way and safe way to tattoo by hand I’m putting together a series of kits to teach you how to safely start out in this exciting industry. Wether you want to make it a career or simply want to make a few small tattoos on yourself or your friends.

It’s launching soon! Sign up for the elite tattoo artist insider to be the first to grab one of these kits, as well as learning more insider tips on the art of tattooing.




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Tattoo Artist Tips, Tattoo Instruction

5 Traits of a Successful Tattoo Artist

Tattoo ArtistThe world of tattooing is a competitive one, and in order to be successful, you need to have passion and be willing to work hard.

There are a number of skills that you need to learn, from the basic operation of a tattoo machine, to art and design skills, to understanding the business end of things.

However, there are some traits that will be necessary to turn your love of tattooing into a full time career…

Tattoo Trait #1:  Artistic Ability

Whether or not artistic talent can be taught has been debated for a long time.  There’s no doubt however that certain skills and techniques can be learned in order to improve whatever abilities you already have.

Those who are most likely to succeed in tattooing are the people who love art, and view tattooing as their medium.  Just as some people choose oil and canvas to paint, the tattoo artist chooses ink and skin.  The client’s main concern is going to be what the final tattoo looks like, and those with artistic ability have a better likelihood of having a visually pleasing finished product. (As long as the artist is also comfortable and and has the technical ability to use the tools of the trade to translate the image into a tattoo.)

Tattoo Trait #2:  Attention to Detail

Attention to detail might not seem like the most exciting trait needed to become a successful tattoo artist, but it is one of the most important.  Tattooing is very exacting work.  You must listen carefully to clients’ ideas in order to turn them into pieces of art that fit their desires.  The tattoo machine is made of many tiny parts that have to be used and maintained regularly.

Tattooing also requires a thorough knowledge of safety procedures and strict adherence to laws and regulations put in place to keep both artists and customers safe. Remember, “how you do anything is how you do everything”, so never settle for good enough in any area of your life, and you’ll see your tattoos consistently improving.

Tattoo Trait #3:  Curiosity

The tattoo industry changes all the time.  New tools and techniques are developed that advance both the art and science of tattooing.  Trends change as well, with styles going in and out of fashion.  Keeping up with these changes and advances makes for a better prepared, and more successful, tattoo artist.  Fortunately, there are lots of trade magazines that you can read to keep up on what’s happening in the industry, and trade shows and conventions are not only educational, but also a lot of fun.  Someone with innate curiosity will have fun staying informed and continue to become a better and better artist. Following sites such as this one, signing up for our educational newsletter, and reading this far into a post about tattooing already proves you’re the type of person who is curious and diligent enough to do well in this industry.

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Tattoo Trait #4:  Work Ethic

Tattoo artists work very hard.  While there may be a   perception that their days don’t start until noon and their nights are full of parties, this is not a true representation of how hard tattoo artists really do work.  The truth is that they often work late into the evening, they must find their own clients, and they have to continue to develop new skills and keep up with the industry. Tattooing really does “take over your life.” To get ahead in tattooing you’ll often need to take you work home with you. Fortunately for us, our “work” is painting and drawing, which is fun, and why we love it!

However that’s AFTER they become professionals.  The path to becoming a tattoo artist is full of challenges and hard work.  From learning how to hold the tattoo machine to becoming skilled at different styles of shading, every step of the process takes practice, practice, practice!  Add to that the likelihood that you’ll be doing a lot of the “grunt” work during your apprenticeship, and you can see why having a strong work ethic is an important trait for someone who wants to become a tattoo artist.

Don’t let this discourage you. I wouldn’t trade the ability to travel the world, set your own hours, and make a career doing something I love for anything. The “juice is definitely worth the squeeze.”

Tattoo Trait #5:  Adaptability

Clients will have different ideas about what they want, where they want it, and everything else regarding their tattoos. Some may change their minds many times during the consultation, and even occasionally not show up for an appointment. While you will be the professional who will guide them through what will look the best on their skin, you will still need to be flexible enough to give them the experience they’re looking for with an outcome that reflects well on you.

While this list is by no means exhaustive, I hope it gives you a bit of insight into the traits you’ll need to have outside of the technical aspects of the craft. If you found value in this post please share it with a friend. If you’d like to learn about something not listed in the blog, don’t hesitate to drop me a line here, and finally, if you’d like to stay updated on current events in tattooing and how to become a licensed professional you can sign up for our newsletter here.

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Inspiration, Tattoo Instruction

How To Become a Tattoo Artist In 13 Easy Steps

Learning how to become a tattoo artist can be intimidating, but the true challenge is in learning it properly so you can make a successful career out of it.

In order to learn how to tattoo at a professional level, we created a list with some of the best tips that you’ll need to keep in mind during your apprenticeship and beyond.

Believe it or not, becoming a good tattoo artist is not as hard as you may think, yet it does require an understanding of the fundamentals, a bit of practice, hard work, and plenty of commitment.

Here are some of the tips and ideas you’ll need.

  1. Educate Yourself First

You can’t learn much about tattooing unless you commit to  educating yourself. You need to do all you can to expose yourself to the best techniques and styles in the industry. You will always get to try out some new ideas and techniques. When working in a shop you never know what will be coming in the door. In one day you may be asked to do a more realistic style black and grey piece, to a traditional eagle, to some simple script. While you should specialize and be sought out for a style that you can master, it’s important to be able to do a solid version of whatever may come in the door, especially early in your career.

Sure, you won’t be able to do everything great right from the start, but the more your practice (especially in your sketchbook), and the more you try, the better you’ll get. If you know you’ve done all that you can to educate yourself, have practiced (on paper first!) this type of style, don’t be afraid to take in that challenging piece. Of course make sure you have guidance and assurance from someone more advanced than you, and be honest with yourself. Don’t attempt a realistic portrait when you’ve only ever done one or two average black and grey pieces in your entire career.

You should first just take your time and focus on the educational aspect of tattooing. Drawing, painting, and practicing on fake skin. Take your time. At the end of the day, learning how to become a tattoo artist is as easy as learning any other trade, as long as you have the right focus and work very hard to achieve your goals.

You can learn more about this at EliteTattooPro. This is the world’s most comprehensive online tattoo course. Learn the fundamentals of tattooing from a master craftsman.

  1. Tattoo Safety Essentials

Make sure that you clean up and sterilize all of your equipment, following all cleanliness procedures. The reason is simple, you can easily get and give infections if the items and area are not sterilized. The health and safety of your clients is in your hands. Educate yourself, and even if not required in your state consider getting your blood borne pathogen certification from a reputable place like the American Red Cross.

Make sure you’re using new needles, ink caps, and either properly sterilized or disposable tubes for each tattoo. Of course, make sure that the ink you use is sterile, and suitable for tattooing. Avoid cheap inks coming from China or unknown/dangerous sources. These inks may contain heavy metals and other contaminants and should never be used on a living organism!

Check expiration dates on packages. Inks and needles are sterilized and will remain so (unless opened or damaged) until a certain date. While these materials “should be” fine past that date, it isn’t worth risking your clients safety or your name to save a few bucks. If in doubt, throw it out.

  1. Tattoo Equipment

When you’re learning how to become a tattoo artist, you will need to acquire some proper equipment. When you’re just starting out it’s ok to have some “cheap” equipment. This allows for practice on fake skin, the ability to take apart your machine and learn the mechanics and geometry, and really “run it hard” to find the limits and get comfortable with the equipment. Your first car likely wasn’t a Mercedes, and you likely didn’t take care of it as best you could.

Just like everyone else that first “tool” was something to learn in and not worry too much if you dinged it up. As you progress you’ll be able to afford that nice “Mercedes” tattoo machine of $400-$700+ and know you’re able to take care of if anything were to go wrong since you practiced on your cheaper machine and learned the basics in the early days (more on machines below). Tattooing for beginners is less about machine secrets, and more about nailing down the fundamentals. On your journey it’s important to stay well rounded. Focus on your drawing and design skills just as much as how to properly use your tools.

After your machine, you will need to purchase tattoo needles. Some professionals work with a single one, others want more to suit different tattoo techniques and styles, up to 14-18RL (round liner) in some cases.

You’ll need to purchase a power supply for your tattoo machine. As with the tattoo machine, something cheap but reliable in the beginning will get you through the early stages of your apprenticeship. The main thing you want to look for in a power supply is something compact, durable, with a steady/clean supply of power to your machine. Having something too cheap can however give you extra headaches, such as inconsistent “surging” of the machine which leads to broken/choppy line work.

Next you need to focus on finding some good tattoo inks. As we mentioned earlier, avoid Chinese inks, homemade inks (for now), and anything you can’t trace back to a reliable source.

Depending on your shops policy, you may need to get your own gloves, disposable razors, and some antibacterial or “green” soap. The key is to stay sterile, and stay safe. Don’t focus on being too fancy with your equipment in the beginning, you have to crawl before you can run.

  1. Tattoo Machines

Modern tattoo machines tend to use electromagnetic coils which move the armature bar down. Although many, if not most, artist are switching over to rotary machines it’s still important to learn the basics on a simple coil machine. This includes knowing how to assemble and repair things like broken springs, grounding, tuning, etc.

Some different variations on the tattoo machine include:

  • Pneumatic machines are powered by an air compressor. What makes them very distinct is the fact that they are super light, and that does offer them a very good quality and impressive power. Something to keep in mind here is that they use pressurized air in order to power the machine and drive the needle up or down. The drawback is of course need an air compressor, hoses, clamps, etc. This makes them inconvenient for travel.
  • Coil machines are the oldest ones out there. Originally created from a door bell mechanism, little has changed in the basic design since the early 1900’s. Coil machines have between 6 and 10 wraps around two separate coils. When these coils are energized they attract the armature bar down, driving the attached needles down, and into the skin. I’ll post pictures soon to further illustrate this, and we go over it in depth on the inside. 
  • Most artists, myself included, typically still use a coil machine for lining and a rotary for shading. Although it’s important to learn how to properly use any type of machine (start on coils!) as you never know what your career and travels will bring.


  • Rotary tattoo machines are somewhat newer and there are many versions coming out all the time. The basic design is an electric motor sitting in a housing. On one end is a cam, which offsets the drive of the motor and drives the needle. Again, I’ll post pictures soon to further illustrate this, and we go over it in depth on the inside. 


  • Shader machines are designed in two different ways and can be either rotary or coil. One to be hard hitting and pack in solid color and  more traditional look, while black and grey shaders have a shallower depth and are built to accommodate multiple passes necessary for softer black and grey or color blends.
  • Liner machines are of course set up for single pass lines. There are fine liners which are used from 1-5RL (round liners), and the more “slappy” type machines that are typically used for larger groupings, say 9-15+RL.


  1. Tattoo Needle Types

There are multiple types of tattoo needles, and each one of them has a different way of entering your skin, and producing a desired result.

Round liners (RL) are the most used as most tattoos that come in will require some type of outline, depending on the style of course. Everything from super tight single needle to loose 14+RL are available.

There’s also the round shader as well as the texture round shader. These can be used for lining, but be careful as they often don’t look that crisp after healing. They’re used more for filling in tighter areas where your mag can’t get in, as well as other “specialty” uses.

Magnums are used for packing in solid color as well as blending colors and doing black and grey. You also have the bugpin magnum, and the curved magnum as well. Just like liners there are so many options available for every type of tattoo. This is where it comes back to education and learning as much as you can about the industry and the incredible assortment of tools available to you for each tattoo. Don’t get overwhelmed, while there is much to learn just take it one thing at a time and we’ll get you through it.

  1. Types of Tattoo Inks

We mentioned inks briefly above, but when you’re first starting out you should just stick to a reputable ink manufacturer, such as the ones offered here. Our partner inks have been around for more than 30 years and are in the tattoos of some well known celebrities such as Sylvester Stallone. Shameless plug, I know, however it’s the easiest way when you’re first getting started. As you progress we’ll get you into the hand made inks, blending and mixing inks, and even creating your own washes.

  1. Basic Tattooing Setup

A very basic tattoo setup isn’t too complex. Your number one priority should of course be working on a clean environment with sterile equipment.

Getting a starter kit and setting it up is maybe the best option for beginners. While we aren’t recommending you get one of our kits and start tattooing your friends, these kits will let you get comfortable with the equipment, practice on fake skin, and have something to show a shop owner when you go in trying to find an apprenticeship.

  1. Practice

Once you have the setup ready, you obviously want to make sure that you practice as much as you can. No enthusiast becomes a professional without the right amount of work. First start on paper, as Boog said “if you can’t get down on paper, you can’t get down on skin.”

Next you’ll want to pick up some fake skin. While this skin is pretty good for practicing your line work it isn’t very realistic when it comes to shading. As your first few tattoos will be mostly line work or solid color (black), this practice skin is perfect for just starting out.

Next you should head to Chinatown and pick up some pork skin. I know, I know, gross. However, this is the closest thing you can get next to tattooing humans and will let you get a feel for a client with the absolute worst skin.

All the above are fine for the practice inks that came with your kit. However once you’re ready for the fourth step, tattooing yourself, you’ll want to switch over to our proven and sterile inks. Most tattoo artists start out tattooing anywhere they can hide and reach. Yes, it’s difficult to tattoo yourself (when it hurts you can just stop!), however if you’re a responsible and considerate artists this is the best way.

  1. Tattoo Stencils 101

The Tattoo Stencils are an outline of the tattoo design that is created before the artist starts working on the skin. Why do you need Tattoo Stencils? The reason is simple; you can’t create what you don’t have a blueprint for.

A stencil is a carbon copy of the line work, which occasionally can include some blueprints for the shading, but that comes at a more advanced level.

The most common way is to use a thermo-fax, or stencil machine to make a quick copy of your line work. Although if you’re just starting out you can simply tape your design to some transfer paper, and trace over it with a ball point pen. The pressure will provide a carbon copy for you to use, no machine required! Just a bit more of your time.  Check it out here.

Another way is the sharpie method that we describe here. You’ll need 3 different colors of varying darkness. I like to use yellow, mint green, and red.

With yellow I do my initial sketch directly on the skin, just the rough outline, as I would do my initial sketch in red pencil.

Next, with the green, I’ll start to get some more exacting shapes. Finding the lines I actually want to use and darkening them.

Finally I’ll use my red sharpie to pick out the EXACT lines I want to tattoo, using solid lines for hard lines and dashes for washed lines or shaded areas.

Keep in mind these lines, just like the carbon stencil, are just “guidelines” and aren’t always followed with laser precision. This whole process is described in detail here.

  1. Line Work

After you have a stencil on it’s important to focus on producing a clean, solid outline. One of the most common questions I get is “how do I get good line work?”

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received from a mentor was “focus on the beginning and end of a line, the middle will take care of itself.” I’ve expanded on this with a driving analogy.

When you drive a car you don’t focus on what’s immediately in front of you. Meaning you aren’t hyper focused on what’s inches in front of your bumper at all times. If you did you’d be swerving all over the place every few feet.

Instead you keep an eye on the horizon and your surroundings which produces a nice, smooth ride.

The same is true for tattooing. Hopefully you’ve been practicing with the pen method on paper, your machine and practice inks on fake skin, and have developed the confidence in your muscles and mind to pull clean lines.

If you have proper machine control (holding and using your equipment correctly), are well practiced (on paper and fake skin), then you’ll build confidence in yourself as time progresses.

Don’t be discouraged, I’ve worked with a few celebrity tattoo artists who can only do small, one inch lines at a time. The important things is to be able to cleanly “pick up” and “join” your lines seamlessly to keep that smooth look and feel in the piece.

  1. Color Work

Color work can vary from solid black, bold/bright traditional work, to smooth and blended layers depending on the design of the tattoo. If you’re just starting our I’d recommend solid black or solid colors.

Preferably solid black as you get a chance to practice your line work, and any sections that aren’t as clean as you’d like them to be can be easily hidden or covered up when you go to shade it in.

  1. Black and Grey Work

Black and grey is similar to smooth blended colors in application, although with black and grey you can get a away with more passes if your machine is tuned properly.

Machines set up for black and grey tend to have a shallower depth, and are used in conjunction with bug-pin needles. This allows for less trauma to the skin, meaning you can do more layers without overworking. Just don’t try to do solid color with a set up like this.

  1. What To Do After Tattoo Is Done?

Tattoo care is as important as making sure that the tattoo was done properly in the first place. The more you invest in a good aftercare routine, the better the results will be in the end. So, the bandage needs to be kept at on at least until the client gets home and is able to shower.

Advise the client to take the bandage off while in a warm shower to ease the removal of any tape holding the bandage on. While in the warm shower let the water hit slightly above the fresh tattoo. While using a mild antibacterial soap use the palm of your hand to gently wash off the dried blood and grease.

Gently pat the design dry with a clean paper towel and allow it to air dry.

For the first few days I just let that tattoo get as much air as possible, meaning don’t put any heavy creams or lotions on it that could clog pores and prevent air from getting to the skin.

After the first few days, when it starts to scab up and get itchy, you can use a thin coat of unscented lotion or tattoo ointment as we’ve detailed here, and available here.

Remind the client not to pick the scab, soak in water (tub, ocean, pool), and to follow up with you if there’s any concern in the healing.

At the end of the day, it’s not too complex to become a tattoo artist. These 13 steps will get you started and thinking about what you’ll need to pay special attention to. It’s an incredible opportunity to become a tattoo artist, and one that will return any effort or extra work that you put into it. At the end of the day, you have to realize that practice makes perfect, so the more you put into it, the better the results will be.

Again, there is always something to learn, but that should be exciting instead of daunting. Just focus on one thing at a time, and before you know it you’ll be a professional artist. We’re always here to help, and if you didn’t see something listed or want to know more drop us a line here, and be sure to sign up to our newsletter to stay on top of tattoo news and specials!

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