Over the years our instructors at Tattooing 101 have worked in shops all over the world. This knowledge hub is designed to help aspiring artists gain employment with a tattoo studio as a junior artist or apprentice.
“95% of artists who ask for an apprenticeship do it the wrong way. - Nate Molenaar, Tattooing 101 lead instructor”
With that in mind you want to make sure that you are properly prepared
Step 1. Have the right designs in your portfolio
our portfolio is the biggest factor that decides if a studio will give you a chance or not. It’s important to know what tattoo artists are actually looking for in an apprentice when you build your portfolio. If you have a bunch of half finished drawings, in a style that nobody wants then your chances of being hired are slim.
Here’s what most serious tattooers will want to see they look at your work:
If you can’t draw a straight line or do a smooth shade on paper then you're not ready to be tattooing skin. Having developed your own art shows that you’ve had the discipline to stick with something until you got good at it. This shows that you are less likely to quit halfway through your apprenticeship and waste your mentors time. There's an old saying in the tattooing industry that your drawing ability is the ceiling of your potential as a tattoo artist. The apprenticeship is not there to teach you how to draw. You have to figure that out on your own before a shop will seriously consider taking you on as an apprentice.
How you do anything is how you do everything. Make sure you put time and effort into how your portfolio presents. Get a nice black folder with plastic sleeves. Don't just come in and show them your phone. It makes you look lazy and unorganized. Also make sure all your drawings are finished, there's nothing worse than seeing a bunch of half done sketches. You want to show them the best art you are capable of being able to produce. Not a bunch of random ideas that you didn’t bother to finish.
When you become a tattoo artist you are making art for other people. It’s not about what you like to draw, it's about what the customer wants. Make sure you study what styles of tattoos are popular. Trends come and go and it's important that you draw stuff that people actually want. That way when you do start tattooing it will be much easier for you to get clients. On top of that it will be a much better investment for the shop owner and they will have far more incentive to take you on.
Some people think that the more drawings they have the more likely they will get an apprenticeship. This is false. A tattoo artist sees what level your ability is by looking at a single drawing. It's far better to only have 10 amazing drawings that you spend 20 hours on each instead of hundreds of average designs. Also be mindful of the tattoo artists time. If they are popular they will have multiple appointments per day. They don't have time to go through all 100 designs.
Tattooing is not just an art it's also a business. If you are only able to do one style then it limits the amount of tattoos that you will be able to do from ‘walk in’ in customers. Not everyone wants a japanese sleeve, some people want new school, neo traditional, blackwork etc. By showing that you at least have the basics down from a few different styles it makes you a much more attractive investment form the shop owners perspective. They are far more likely to hire you if they are confident you will be able to handle a wider variety of customers when you eventually get good.
“Remember - Your ability to draw is the ceiling of your ability to tattoo”
Step 2. Have the right expectations upfront
Many apprentices come in and underestimate the time and dedication it will take to become a fully qualified artist finding themselves unprepared. Knowing what the expectations for an apprenticeship are upfront, shows shop owners you have put effort into researching how the industry works, know the game and are respectful of their time.
Working unpaid fulltime for free
Tattoo apprenticeships are not like other jobs. In the beginning you will have to work full time without pay for up to 2 years. This is seen as ‘paying your dues’ and is simply the way the industry has developed. You will need to live off savings or take a part time job during this period to support yourself. This can be a tough time for people with financial commitments but remember - There's only a limited amount of shops in the US and they rarely take on apprentices so if you are lucky enough to get one then you want to hold onto it.
Some may have fees
Not all apprenticeships are free. Some shops will want up to 10k upfront to begin your apprenticeship. Typically this is non refundable so if they are asking for any type of money upfront then you want to make sure that they will be a good mentor. We’ll show you how to pick a good mentor in the next section. Even if you manage to find an apprenticeship that does not charge you this fee, it's still a good idea to have some cash saved so that you can purchase your tattooing equipment when the time comes.
Step 3. Research the right Studios/Mentors in your state
Knowing how to choose a good mentor is vital. You don't get any formal qualifications from completing a tattoo apprenticeship; All you have is the skills you learn on the job. If you can’t tattoo well, no one else will hire you even if you did an apprenticeship so choosing the right mentor is vital
Make sure they are a good artist:
People can only teach you what they know, if their tattoos are below par then chances are yours will be as well. Before you ask them for an apprenticeship do some research on them. Check their instagram and facebook. Is their work good? Do they have photos of healed tattoos as well as fresh ones? This is important - Many artists' work looks good when it is fresh but when it heals it fades dramatically. You want to learn from an artist whose work looks as good healed as it does fresh. If they don't have an online presence and you can't find examples of their work this is usually a red flag and you should probably avoid them.
Is their shop successful:
Before you commit to working in a particular studio make sure it's doing well as a business. If you’re going to dedicate years of your life learning from someone and working for free then you want to make sure that they will be around too! See what type of reviews they have online, how often do they post on social media, this will give you an idea of how busy they are. Do they do any marketing for the artists?
The days of being able to rely on word of mouth to get business are gone. The studios that do well work hard to promote themselves and invest in advertising. Also make sure to take note of how many apprentices they have working for them.
Tattoo Apprenticeship Information state by state
So now what? Next step is to delve into the tattoo industry which exists in your state. We’ve compiled the information below to help you land the perfect apprenticeship wherever you’re located in the US. This covers the best shops to apply at, competitiveness of apprenticeships and tattoo license rules which vary state by state.
Step 4. Approach the Shops
Once you’ve got your shortlist of tattoo shops the next step is to reach out to do the approach! Here’s our top tips for the perfect approach
- Research the shop before you walk in. Look at their social media and get to know their artists and the style of work they do. Check their google reviews as well to get a feel for the reputation of the shop.
- The first time you go into a shop you don't want to ask them for a job. They don't know you yet. Book in to get a tattoo done with the artist that you want to teach you.
- After you have been tattooed once or twice by said artist, come in with your portfolio ideally in the morning before they start tattooing.
- If they don't offer you a job on the spot then ask them for feedback on how you could improve.
- Take their feedback and make any changes they recommend. This is important if you listen to their advice they will be more willing to help you
- Go back to the shop after you have implemented their feedback. If you keep improving each time and you keep listening to their advice they will continue to help you. If you come back more than once you will stand out. Most people get rejected once and never show up again.
Step 5. The Apprenticeship Itself
Tattoo apprenticeships vary in time. They can be anywhere from 1-4 years. The speed at which you progress will depend on how fast your art improves, how quickly you pick up tattooing and how much time your mentor can spend with you.
To give you an idea of what your day to day will look like as an apprentice, during the first year you’ll spend most of your time ‘earning your stripes’. Things like Running errands for other artists in the shop, doing lunch runs, mopping floors, scrubbing tubes, answering the phones and taking bookings are what you’ll be doing.
After your first year you’ll start learning about tattooing. This is where the real mentoring starts. Initially you’ll just watch the other artist's tattoo to pick up the basics. Then once you get a handle of things you will start to tattoo on practice skin as well as yourself. Once you get comfortable with that you’ll start tattooing your friends and family slowly working up in size and difficulty as you improve your skills.
After your mentor is confident that you are ready to tattoo paying clients then you will start doing small walk-ins and gradually work your way up from there.
Towards the end of your apprenticeship (depending on what state you live in) you may need to get a few certificates before you can become a fully qualified artist. You can get an understanding of what these are by checking out the information we have compiled per state in section 3.
What if I can’t find an apprenticeship or it’s not for me? Is there another way?
The short answer is yes. A traditional tattoo apprenticeship isn’t the only way to become a tattoo artist. If you find yourself unable to get into a shop or an apprenticeship simply isn’t for you then you may want to consider the Artist Accelerator program from Tattooing 101.
The artist accelerator program is completely online so you can learn at your own pace in your own time. This allows you to keep your day job while you are learning to tattoo so you don't have to go without an income.
It breaks down the entire process of learning to tattoo into 9 steps with over 500 video modules explaining every concept of tattooing in detail. You also get lifetime access to our private mentoring group where students can post their designs/tattoos and get immediate feedback from professional tattoo artists.
Click here to learn more about the artist accelerator program.