Tattoo Apprenticeships: How to Get One and Why You Need It
In order to become a tattoo artist, an apprenticeship is one of the first steps you must take. Doing a formal apprenticeship is like enrolling in a trade school—you do it for the skills and knowledge you will acquire, for the connections you'll make, as a step towards certification, and for your professional résumé.
Apprenticeships are not easy to do, not easy to get, not easy to prepare for, and not easy to pay for. Nobody says it's going to be easy, but it will help you get where you want to go. This article will help you learn the advantages of getting a tattoo apprenticeship and how to go about getting one.
Do I Really Need to Be an Apprentice?
To become a tattoo artist, you absolutely need an apprenticeship. There is a long list of reasons why, but mostly it's because most states require a tattoo artist or piercer to have a license. Since most licenses require training, and one of the only ways to get training is an apprenticeship with a licensed artist, you need an apprenticeship. This means that you need to find a veteran tattooer who thinks you have enough talent to merit the the time and energy it will take to train you.
Here are the basic steps to an apprenticeship. Every shop and teacher will be different, but what follows is a good idea of what to expect.
How Do I Become a Tattoo Artist? What Steps Do I Take?
- Be an artist. This is the first and most important step. You can't become a tattoo artist without first being an artist.
- Build a portfolio. I mean a tattoo apprenticeship portfolio, not a tattoo artist's portfolio. They're different. Learn more below.
Find a certified tattoo artist-mentor who will take you on as an apprentice. This might be tricky. Learn how to approach a shop below.
- Learn the trade. During your apprenticeship, you'll do a lot of menial tasks, but you'll also learn professional business skills, best hygienic work practices, and tattoo design.
- Get certified. Every state has its own requirements; learn more and find links below.
- Find a shop to work in. After your apprenticeship and certification, you'll be ready to start getting paid! But first, you'll have to find a shop to work in.
Each of these steps is described in detail below, including answers to all the most frequently asked questions about the process.
Steps to Becoming a Tattoo Artist
1. Be an Artist
Some people hear the term "tattoo artist" and fixate on the word "tattoo" instead of the word "artist." Yeah, it's a cool job, but you must not only have to have natural talent as an artist, you have to practice, learn, and work that talent into something special. Everyone wants to be a tattoo artist these days, so the competition is pretty fierce. You'll need some mad artistic skills. That means you've taken classes, made art, developed a personal and unique style, and practiced, practiced, practiced.
No tattoo artist wants to teach you to draw. They can only teach you to tattoo. So the purpose of your portfolio is to show them that you have the artistry it will take to succeed.
If you are having a hard time deciding what to draw, think of different life experiences that people might want to get tattooed with. Tattoos may be about commemorating a time in one's life, remembering something or someone, or simply adornment. In your career, you will constantly be doing these kinds of tattoos. Ask your friends what tattoos they would get, and draw those. There's no better way to prepare yourself than to talk to people who may be your potential clients someday.
Draw every day. Make every drawing your best. Try to master new skills and try things that don't come naturally to you. Don't give up on an idea just because it's too hard or boring because you will not always have a choice about what a client wants.
(By the way, in most states, you'll also need to be at least 18 years old, and in many places, you'll need a high school diploma or a GED certificate to tattoo legally.)
2. Build a Portfolio
Do not walk into a shop with a portfolio of actual tattoos you've done. This will probably backfire on you for several reasons:
- You don't have any idea what you are doing, and that will be obvious to anyone who sees it.
- You may have caused harm or irreparable damage to the people you tattooed . . . and then you took a picture of it. This shows a lack of respect for both the client and the art itself.
- Any artist who takes you on as an apprentice will have to take time to not only teach you the right way to tattoo, but also to wean you off "scratcher" habits. So your portfolio full of amateur work warns them that you'll be extra difficult to mentor.
Bottom line: You should not be tattooing unless you have been trained by a licensed professional—and if you have, it's nothing to brag about.
What does a tattoo apprentice portfolio look like?
The book itself: Your artwork should be showcased in an actual portfolio, matted if necessary, and placed inside sheet protectors. You'll probably want three rings that open so you can easily move and remove pages. Every page should be full, so take out empty pages. Don't just use that battered three-ring binder you found: Choose something that looks professional.
What to include inside: Your portfolio should include from 25 to 100 finished drawings. The important word here is "finished." You don't want to walk into the shop with a book full of doodles, sketches, and half-baked ideas. Choose only your best work—the stuff that best showcases your talent.
As far as drawings go, you want to have a wide variety of work. Include things that people might get tattooed (including your own creative ideas) but also any drawings you've done that showcase your talent but might not translate well into a tattoo. Include color work—watercolor and ink are widely thought to be most similar to tattooing. DO NOT copy other artists' work. If that's your idea of tattooing, then you had better find a different career.
If you scroll down to the bottom of this article, you'll find a list of ten tips to help you put together a great portfolio.
3. Find a Licensed Tattoo Artist Who Will Take You as an Apprentice
Find a shop with a good reputation, maybe one you'd like to work at someday. Many shops take artists based on their personal style. If they specialize in a style you're good at, that could work—but if you have a style or talent they don't have covered, that could work, too. But don't worry too much about this. Mostly, look for reputable, professional shops that get plenty of business.
Don't text, call, or email. Go in, say hi, and ask them if they'll take a look at your portfolio. If they take a look, listen to any advice they have for you. If not, leave a card and try again on another day. Be friendly, professional, courteous, and appreciative of their time.
What to look for in a tattoo mentor:
Ideally, you want to learn from someone who actually wants to teach, who's mentored before, who has a good educational background, and who will challenge you. This person will be responsible for helping you learn the basics and some of their own tricks for tattooing, so you want the best.
Persistence is absolutely key in this process. If possible, get tattooed by the artist you want to learn from. Even better, get tattooed as much as possible (there are many reasons for this advice). Hang out in the shop if they'll let you. Ask the artists you meet how they learned, who taught them, what advice they have. You might even volunteer your time to help build a relationship with the artists there.
Will I get paid to be an apprentice?
This would be a miracle. Most tattoo apprenticeships are unpaid. Just like students are not paid for attending college, you won't be paid for doing your apprenticeship. You'll probably need to work a side job until you get your license.
Do tattoo apprenticeships cost money?
Although the best apprenticeships in the most reputable shops sometimes don't cost anything, they're also the hardest ones to get. Apprenticeships will probably cost you about $5,000. Some apprenticeships cost more ($10,000 was the highest I've heard about), so you will want to choose wisely and work hard to make it worth your while.
Do I really have to pay to be an apprentice?
Probably. If your skills are so amazing that you have mentors fighting to work with you, then maybe not (this doesn't actually happen in real life, but it's a nice fantasy). Maybe you won't have to pay if your mentor is also your friend or if you can work out some kind of trade. But most people will pay at least something for the apprenticeship.
How should I approach a shop to ask for an apprenticeship?
- Just like with any other job, you need to know who you're dealing with, so do your homework first. Study the shop's website, look at the artists' bios, and look at their work and reviews.
- Don't go on a weekend, and go at a time when the shop isn't too busy.
- Show up in person. Face-to-face is the smartest and most direct approach.
- Talk to the person at the front desk and ask what the best approach is. Treat everyone you meet with equal respect. Remember that the person you're talking to is probably either a potential mentor or an apprentice like you want to be, so they all have something to teach you.
- Bring your portfolio. If necessary, you might leave it there for a couple of days to give them a chance to really look at it.
Does it matter where I get my apprenticeship?
Of course, some shops and mentors are better than others. Ideally, you'll want to surround yourself with great artists and healthy scenes, but I've heard plenty of apprenticeship horror stories. There are definitely some bad eggs out there. Getting a lousy mentor probably won't kill you, but it will certainly slow you down, so choose carefully.
What if I can't find an apprenticeship?
If you can't find anyone to take you on, you have these options:
- When someone takes a look at your portfolio, listen carefully to what they say. Ask them what they think about it, and use their feedback to revise and improve your portfolio.
- Consider relocating. If you expand your location focus, you'll have more options.
- Focus on your art. Take classes, learn new styles, expand your skill set, and perfect your techniques.
How long does an apprenticeship take?
Usually a couple years, but some last 3 years or more. It's smart to check your particular state’s requirements on the state's Department of Health website.
Do I need to sign a tattoo apprentice contract?
The contract is important so everyone knows exactly what they're agreeing to. Especially if you're paying, you'll want to sign a contract up front so both you and your mentor know exactly what is expected. It should spell out how long the apprenticeship will last, what it will cost, what your responsibilities entail, and exactly what skills you'll be learning. If you'll be expected to work there after earning your license, this should be described in the contract, as well.
4. Learn the Trade
When you get an apprenticeship, prepare to be what they call the "shop bitch." You don't get paid and you do all the dirty work: answer the phones, schedule appointments, take out the trash, sweep up, run errands, and stock, set up, and break down stations. Chances are that's all you'll be doing for awhile. They have you do this to make sure you're actually interested in doing the job, to weed out the unworthy, so take these tasks as an honor. You're lucky to be there! Act that way. And don't wait to be asked to do these things, just do them.
What will you do during your apprenticeship?
First, in addition to those menial tasks, you will work with your mentor to learn professional business skills, hygienic work practices, and tattoo design. But first, you will do a lot of watching and listening. This is the first step to learning, so stay attentive. You will learn how to make needles, use the autoclave, and take health precautions (which you will need for blood-borne pathogen certification).
After that, you will start learning to use the tattoo machine (never call it a "gun"!). At first, you will tattoo on fake skin, fruit, and maybe even yourself, depending on your teacher. You will learn about all the different set-ups for the machines and the difference between liners and shaders. Meanwhile, you will also be drawing and learning how to draw quickly and well. It's a LOT of hard work.
How long does a tattoo apprenticeship last?
Apprenticeships can take anywhere from one to three years, so plan accordingly.
Will I be tattooing during my apprenticeship?
You will do around 100 free tattoos during your apprenticeship. But in fact, "free tattoos" means that you pay the cost, so make sure to have a lot of money saved up for supplies. You can tattoo friends, family, whomever you wish. You get to keep your tips. After your'e certified, you can start charging clients.
5. Get Certified
Every state and country have different requirements, but you'll probably need to do a certain number of apprenticeship hours, take some health and safety courses, and pass an exam on hygienic tattooing practices. Find out what requirements you need to fulfill in order to work where you want to. Then, when the time comes, fill out all the forms, take the tests, and provide all the documents required to be certified. You must be certified to tattoo, or you will risk your reputation and possibly get into trouble with the law.
Once you've gotten your certification, you may start tattooing and charging for it! So congratulations! You've made it.
Do you need a license for tattooing?
In some states, only the shop needs a license, but in others, both the shop and each individual tattoo artist needs one. To see what specific states require of individual tattoo artists, see this list of the tattoo licensing laws, by state. This site also links to applications for each state and offers information on how long each state's license lasts before it expires and needs to be renewed.
What do I need to do to get certified to tattoo in my state?
You should be able to find the tattoo licensing application along with information about fees and the submission process on your local government's business department website. The requirements vary from state to state, city to city, but it might be helpful to look at the list of tattoo licensing laws and applications by state (see link above).
6. Find a Job as a Certified Tattoo Artist
Sometimes, the shop where you learned to tattoo will put you on contract for at least a year after you've completed your apprenticeship. Keep working hard, taking pictures of every tattoo you do, and adding them to a new portfolio. After your contract is up, you may choose to stay at your home shop or you may find a different shop.
A huge part of your success depends on your networking and self-promotion skills. A large portion of the work you get will be through word of mouth, so get to know other artists and collectors. Go to conventions! Put yourself out there, don't become complacent. You are responsible for your success at this point, no more coddling or hand-holding. Go for it! Your future is yours to shape.
Tips for Creating a Great Tattoo Apprentice Portfolio
- Include a cover letter and a résumé. List all the classes you've taken and relevant experience you have.
- Start and end the portfolio with your strongest pieces.
- Think about how each piece plays off of (or possibly fights with) the pieces nearby. You want the pieces to compliment each other, not compete or detract from one another. Think of the relationship of the pages and building an overall impression.
- Include any artwork you've done that highlights your talent. If they show off your skills, include a photo of that sculpture you did or that graffiti you painted or that design you embroidered, even though they're not tattoos. If you do digital work, add that in. But remember that this is a tattoo portfolio and your drawing skills should definitely come through. If you have them, include flash sheets. In other words, you can include things that won't work as tattoos as long as the majority of the works included showcase your designing, drawing, line, shading, composition, and coloring skills.
- Choose pieces that show off the wide range of your skills. If you can work in a variety of styles, then show that range in your portfolio. Choose some pieces that show what you can do with line work, color work, dot work, black and grey, but also choose some pieces to show how you handle color. Anatomy is hard. Portraits are hard and realism is hard. If you can do it, show it. Most tattoo artists would prefer to work with an apprentice who has diverse abilities, someone who can do it all. The pieces you include should show that you're willing to try lots of things. If you seem like you can't or won't do much, they might choose someone else to work with.
- On the other hand, you don't need to know or be an expert in every style. If you specialize in a certain style, that's something you'll want to show off, too.
- Again, don't include any half-done sketches. This is your best, most professional, polished stuff. An apprentice may end up helping with designing tattoos, so show how you follow through on unique and creative endeavors. If you only have sketches, then you've got lots of work to do before you whip out that portfolio!
- Before you go in to the shop, think about what you want to say about each piece. Practice in front of a mirror if you need to.
- Don't include work that isn't completely yours or isn't from your own imagination. We all copy others' ideas sometimes, but try not to include clichéd, borrowed, or overdone ideas in your portfolio.
- When you go in to show them your portfolio, make sure to bring a card that includes a representative piece of artwork, your name, email, phone number, and links to sites where your work can be seen. If they don't have time to see you now, leave the card and come back again later.
We need to see finished art. Full color stuff, smooth black and gray, perfect line work, nice composition, attention to detail, and anything else that would set you apart from the next guy. Remember, we ALL feel like there’s already too many tattooers in the world. The supply vs. demand is way out of balance, so the deck is stacked against you right from the start.— Chad Chase, tattoo artist