There are so many paths that lead to a career as a professional tattoo artist, and one of the only things they have in common is the belief that the path one person took is the BEST path for everyone. This really isn’t true, or else there wouldn’t be so many ways to end up in the industry.
So, this article isn’t saying that this is the “only” way to fulfill the dream of becoming a tattoo artist. Instead, it’s offering advice on what is a tried-and-true method for how to get to where you want to be.
Following a path along these lines provides a good progression toward becoming a tattoo artist…
Foundation #1 – Understanding Art
There’s a reason that they’re referred to as tattoo artists. Those that create solid tattoos do so because they are passionate about their artwork. Being a good artist takes some talent, for sure, but it also requires a whole lot of practice. In addition to learning all about the art of tattooing, it’s a good idea to learn about other types of art.
A tattoo artist generally needs to be good at sketching out ideas for clients. Many tattooists go even further by coloring their drawings in with markers, colored pencils, water colors, or full on digital or oil renderings. For those who are especially interested in life-like designs and the play of light, it can be helpful to have the ability to sculpt a design in order to see it in three dimensions, and then take photos for reference in the actual tattoo design.
There are lots of ways to learn about art, from checking out a few books from the library to learning during an apprenticeship to taking art classes at a college or university. What’s vitally important, no matter what route you take, is to be continuously practicing your craft. As you know from other articles, all forms of art are connected in some way. Meaning the muscle memory, understanding of contrast and line weights, etc all translate directly into other art mediums, such as tattooing.
Foundation #2 – Flexibility
As we’ve already mentioned, there is no one sure path to becoming a tattoo artist. Those who are interested in pursuing this kind of career should be open minded about the opportunities that present themselves. The field itself has some specific cultural expectations that an aspiring artist will want to learn in order to fit in, communicate, etc.
For example, most trades require some sort of formal education, usually in a classroom setting. While tattoo schools and courses do exist, (such as the one available here) they are not a means to an end, and should lead you naturally to an apprenticeship.
Job opportunities may not be exactly what one expected, either, so flexibility helps increase employment opportunities. It might be necessary to work in a different environment than the one you originally envisioned or to relocate to a different part of the country to reach your career goals. If you’re living in a rural town for example, it may mean moving into a larger town or city, where there are more clients available.
Foundation #3 – Apprenticeship
As mentioned above, the path to becoming a tattoo artist will almost always include an apprenticeship. This is not an easy part of the experience, but it’s when most of the learning takes place. An established artist will take on an apprentice for an agreed-upon period of time, usually a couple of years. During the first part of the experience, the apprentice will probably spend most of his or her time doing menial tasks around the tattoo shop. From sweeping and cleaning, the apprentice will move up to being able to handle needles, set up for other artists, learn proper cleanliness, and eventually, to tattoo.
Both during shop hours and on their own, aspiring tattoo artists will spend much of their time practicing with the machine, and drawing. In some cases, they will build muscle memory by drawing with the weight of a machine attached to a pencil (image here). In other cases, they will practice tattooing on fruit or fake “skins.” After lots and lots of observation and practice, the apprentice will finally be allowed to use the tattoo machine to ink living skin.
Foundation #4 – Perseverance
Tattooing isn’t a job that is simply handed to you. As you can see, it’s something that really has to be earned. One of the traits that separates those who make it from those who don’t is the ability to be persistent. Whether a person is taking art classes at the local community college, practicing on fake skins before getting the go-ahead to tattoo on others, or seeking out an apprenticeship, there is a big need to stick with it. Often times, as was the case with me, I never handled a tattoo machine for the first 1.5 years of my career. How you do one thing is how you do everything so that time is spent learning attention to detail, proper sterilization techniques, and customer service.
Even once a person is a well-established tattoo artist, perseverance is still necessary. He or she will always be learning about new advances and techniques and should always be striving to become better at the craft. There’s also an ongoing need to bring in new customers while continuing to please tattoo collectors so they will become repeat clients. We love this career so dearly because it provides the opportunity to never stop learning, and always be trying something new.
Foundation #5 – Attention to Detail
There are a ton of details surrounding professional tattooing, and a successful artist is one who keeps them all in mind. The most obvious types of detail that come to mind are those in the artwork itself, but there’s much more to it than that. The artist needs to plan the design out in advance so that colors are applied in the right order to avoid staining and ruining the lighter colors. His or her drawers need to contain tons of extra little pieces and parts in case a band snaps or a spring breaks on the tattoo machine in the middle of a session.
There are recipes to follow for making inks, hygienic procedures to protect customers, licensing and certification to keep up with, and a whole lot more. From the early days of learning as much as possible about tattooing to the later period in which the artist has a steady stream of clients, there never ceases to be a million little details to keep in mind.
Detail-oriented people will have an advantage when it comes to succeeding in tattooing. Many of the activities of a tattoo artist do become habit, but early on, there is a need for concentration and a willingness to learn the best procedures for just about every aspect of the work.
Luckily if you’ve found this blog, and taken the time to read this far, then you’re the type of person who is curious and diligent enough to make it in this industry. We’d love to have you.
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