So, You Want to Start a Career in Tattooing: Step One

Updated on February 20, 2019

No Experience, No Problem!

There are quite a few ways to break into the Tattoo Industry. Only a few of these ways lead down the proper road. And I will admit, that when I first started tattooing, it almost cost me my career, because I was not shown the proper way of doing things. All roads, however, on the path to becoming a successful and respected member of the tattoo culture all start with the very first step . . . and that step is the apprenticeship.

And, like many other things in this world, taking the first step is not always easy. A tattoo artist will consider many questions in choosing an apprentice. And while it's not as simple as following a bunch of yes or no questions on a predetermined list, there are a few questions they will always ask, and these are the ones that I will discuss in this and various other articles.

So, without further ado . . .

"Do You Have an Art Portfolio?"

There are many sub-questions, so to speak, when you delve into this topic, but this will always be step one. The tattooist you are seeking an apprenticeship from will ask you to see your artwork so he can determine whether you have the building blocks for the trade. This will be the focus for today.

While the tattooist is looking at your portfolio, he will be asking himself quite a few questions, the most important, or rather, the questions you must convince him are to be answered with a 'yes' are:

  1. Is this person creative?
  2. Does this person have artistic talent?
  3. Does this person draw or paint in a style that is compatible with tattooing?
  4. Does this person draw things that move me?

Of these first four initial questions, the thing I cannot teach, nor can anyone else teach to you, is how to be creative. As far as artistic talent, you either have it or you don't. It doesn't really matter how much you love to draw; if you're no good at it, you will not get past the portfolio. As far as 'moving' the person you're looking to learn from, well, there are subtle psychological tricks you can use, but we'll talk about this another day.

The thing I can help you out with is adapting your current drawing style to a style compatible with tattooing.

"A Picture's Worth a Thousand Words."

When you are considering the fact that tattooing—by one layman's definition, "putting ink into skin to make some sort of picture to stay there forever"—you have to realise a few things about the human body in order to draw on it.

1) The skin of the human body has no straight lines on it.

So how does this affect you and your drawing style? It affects you plenty if you use a ruler to create most of your drawings, because the last thing you want to put into a tattoo is a lot of straight lines. The body is in constantly flexing and contracting its muscles, as the human body is always in motion. So straight lines will almost always look curved.

Another thing you will want to stay away from is perfect or concentric circles. They are way hard to tattoo, and most shops won't touch a piece that is reliant on more than a few perfect circles (which, for the same reason you shouldn't have too many straight lines, circles get distorted when the body flexes and relaxes).

2) Does your art look like a bunch of tattoos?

While there are many styles to tattooing today, there is still the old stereotype in existence about what tattoo art on paper should look like. I do not recommend that you copy anyone's work to put into your book, but I do recommend that you look up artwork by Sailor Jerry or (the REAL) Ed Hardy, and see if you can emulate their styles. Look at the lining, where are the lines thicker and thinner? how much coverage do the utilize in the color and in the shading? Look at the pieces that move you, and try to look at them from a mechanical point of view.

3) DO NOT use someone else's work, especially someone famous, and pass it as your own.

If you decide to copy these pieces to learn the basic stylization techniques, that's cool (after all, mimicry is the highest form of flattery), but don't even think about putting them into your book. Because you have to remember, the guys you are going to look for instruction from have already seen a LOT in the way of other people's work. They know the intricacies of a Jerry or Hardy copy, or something that is meant to tribute them.

Keep your work your own, as you will get tired of copying flash to stencil before you know it. Besides, stealing is stealing, and if you're willing to steal someone else's work, the shop owner will assume you'd be willing to steal from the shop as well.

4) Create work that is shape-appropriate for body parts, and label them accordingly.

This is one of the times a ruler will come in handy in creating portfolio pieces, and having friends of various shapes and sizes will help as well. This technique is not in very common use, and I'm really shocked it isn't. Read on . . .

Pretend that you are a tattoo artist already, and have two female friends, both of different height and build. Imagine that they are both in your shop to get lower back tattoos, also commonly referred to (inappropriately) as tramp stamps, and follow these steps to document a logical method to your design capabilities

  1. Get your camera and ruler ready. Have each woman hold up their shirt to reveal their lower back, while the other woman holds the ruler to the other's back as you snap a picture or each woman's lower back. Print this as a half page, leaving the other half of the page blank.
  2. Get proper measurements of the top and bottom of the tattoo-able area (I call it the boundaries) using a tailor's tape measure. Note that the measurements you'll be taking both start at the spine, and work their way out toward the hips. Since the typical lower-back tattoo is symmetrical along the spine, you will only need to draw one half of it.
  3. Use the measurements to create a bounding area on a piece of paper. BE SURE to take into account the shape of the top of each woman's behind and the angle at which the trunk transitions to the hips. Not all women have the same figure, and in designing the tattoo, you will either want to enhance her shape or play down her shape, depending on what she wants.
  4. Go to the drawing board, and create one half of the tattoo on a sheet of paper in a black and white outline. After you ink up the outline, take your trusty ruler, photocopy it at 100%, and cut it out. Paste the ruler to your drawing to show its size without covering up any of your work.
  5. Write a few comments about your design method, and why you came up with that design on the page you printed out the picture of each girl's lower back with the ruler. In this essay, you want to basically state the measurements you took, the figure she has, and why you believe you have designed something sufficient. Be sure to ask each lady if she liked this design the way you drew it out for her. If she does, allow her to write her name and a short statement saying that she would get this tattoo as you have designed it underneath your essay. If the lady does not like your work, well, its time for you to draw something else up for her, because, just like in the shop, everything you draw is not always going to be accepted as-is. It does help you to be humble once you get your apprenticeship, so be humble while building your portfolio.

5) Repeat this process with different people and different body parts as much as you can.

While you are only going to put about 10 of these types of samples into your portfolio, it helps if you were to do 100 or more of these types of specific drawings. You can pick the best of the best of your work (remember, magazine editors have thousands of pictures to choose from for one magazine, and since you ARE selling yourself, why should you not have as much to work with as an editor?). Besides, practice makes perfect). When you put these 2-page layouts in your book, be sure they're facing each other. Just sayin'.

6) Draw out 20 perfect pages of fully colored, variably sized flash.

Then pick out the 10 pages out that you consider the best of the best and add that to your book.

7) Draw out another 5 pages worth of 'just because' art (to show you have more than one side to your interests) . . .

. . . and add those in as well.

8) As for all the other sides of your artistic self?

In the very first page of your portfolio, you will want to add a small essay about who you are, your contact info, why you want to get into tattooing, and what other creative or artistic things you like to do. You know, the same way you would introduce yourself to an interviewer for a 'normal' job, but on paper. You'll have all the time in the world to polish it, but remember, you're not working, necessarily, with a corporate type of person, so relax a bit, and don't kiss too much ass.

In Closing

This is only one of many variables that will either get you in the door, or get you a boot in the ass, so look for the next installment soon, were we will go over some of the other factors of what tattoo artists are looking for in a person that they want to apprentice.

Note: I offer a service that I usually charge $100.00 per hour for . . . but I threw the world a bone here and let you in on a few of the inside secrets on how to get into the Tattoo Industry. This article is not meant to be instructional in the way of how to tattoo, as you should only learn this craft from someone who not only has been in the industry for years, but someone who knows how to teach, and who is willing to teach you the proper ways of tattooing by practicing the craft the right way himself.

Questions & Answers

    © 2012 Boots Iacono


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      • profile image


        4 months ago

        Nothing can be taught, everything can only be learned

      • profile image


        10 months ago

        Hey I am Ashraf.. I am 19 years old and my dream is to be a tattoo artist in future and I really need help to know how is that can be start... because I love art and I am very good with drawing

      • profile image

        Not this asshole 

        19 months ago

        Maybe I'm just and old fuck. But Im an old duck who you probably wont listen to. And why would you. But do not listen to this new age skratcher turned booth here. No one can Draw for shit at first. Anyone who claims talent has anything to do with becoming a tattooist I repeat TATTOOIST is a rat tricked into slinging slickers so his boss didn't have to. If you want to tattoo Draw, Draw the picture you want to Draw five million times until it looks like you want it. Then pick a new picture and suck at that one until you don't and then buy your fuckin machine and tattoo your knees and lie about it. Any artist who tells you they didnt do that is more full of shit than this asshole. Then go to any shopshop where there has been a constant artist for a decade and annoy the living balls off him until he tells you to clean his shutter because you are always there breathing his air. Do it. Then Draw something of his. Get your ass verbally beat for it. Then Draw it again. Then get physically beat. Hell kick you out. Go get tattoos from him. Tell him that this iabgonna happen you ain't going away. He won't care. Draw his picture until it's as good as his and show him. Take your ass whoppin and get ready to be fetch boy for ever. When you aren't scrubbing green soApparently onto everything draw everything. 1000 times. Then one day tattoo your calf in the shop without asking. ....if you do all of that and you don't get a serious education from that guy. Kick his ass. By the time you get your apprentiship. You Are done. If it's not worth all that then don't start. Themoney ain't great the people suck Tuesdays are boring. If you truly want it You will do it. Plain and simple. No amount of talent is a match for sheer determination. That's what makes a tattooist.

      • profile image


        19 months ago

        I am 35 years old, I would like to be a tattoo artist because I was Inspired by my friend, he is earning a lot, Do I still have a chance to be an artist even if I am already 35?

      • profile image


        2 years ago

        Hey Ana same over here I am, a young student looking to be a tattoo artist I practice and draw a lot! But thankfully for me my father is in the tattoo industry and I am his apprentice to start my tattooing life, I suggest you find somebody to help you as they have gone through the same as we will go through :)

      • profile image


        2 years ago

        Hi there! So, I'm a little reluctant to comment because of my age, and I'm unsure whether you will reply or not, but I am currently attempting to pursue a chance at growing up to become a tattoo artist. I've been trying out multiple types of artwork for as long as I can remember and always found tattooing an intriguing practice. My main inquiry is how I, a student and aspiring tattoo artist, can undertake my goals this early. Even the simplest of tips would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

      • profile image


        2 years ago

        Hi im a hairdresser and i like to learn how to do eyebrows and eyelines !! Any advice where to start ..? I have lots of clients that like those services and i don't want to do anything else just those two . Thank you

      • profile image

        Bill Barden 

        3 years ago

        I want to design I do not want to do the tattooing.

      • profile image


        3 years ago

        Hello, I just wanted your personal opinion.

        I have always wanted to get involved in tattooing. I've been drawing since I was a toddler and as I got older thought about tattooing as a profession. well now I'm 25, single mother with two kids, I work Monday through Friday, and am taking college classes. I don't have much time to dedicate to an apprenticeship. Especially during soccer season.

        Do you think it is still possible for me to find an apprenticeship and learn to tattoo? Would an artist even consider taking me on?

      • profile image


        4 years ago

        i really wanna start tattooing.

        I wanted to become artist since 15 and i got a tattoo.

        But i think i am not so good in sketch or drawing.

        Can i begin tattooing without art class or tattooing class?

        I ordered a tattoo machine kit online. Soon i will get it.

        How can i learn tattooing?

      • profile image

        Texas outlaw 

        4 years ago

        Really nice


      • profile image


        4 years ago

        Great article! I'm interested in tattooing, and I am starting to put together a portfolio, so this article was great for me! I'm glad that there are still people that support up and comers in the industry, and are willing to give helpful advice! I'm hoping to see the next one soon. I have to ask though, what's the big taboo with tattooing yourself? I have machines and a kit, and I wanted to practice on something more legitimate than practice skin (which seems to be thin and not like actual skin at all) or oranges, so I inked my arm. Just trying to figure out everyone's issue when I tell legitimate artists that. I'm not calling myself a tattoo artist, I know safe and clean practice when it comes to tattooing, and I'm only really affecting myself, I'm just wondering what the issue is? Also, what would you recommend for a grey wash shading technique?

      • Boots Iacono profile imageAUTHOR

        Boots Iacono 

        5 years ago from Northern New Jersey

        The key to the sharpies is a very light touch on oil-free skin. Use rubbing alcohol to clean the dirt and oil out of the pores. Chances are, the oil is causing the ink to run, as oil is a liquid also. Another option is surgical markers. They can be ordered direct from tattoo suppliers. Best of luck!

      • profile image


        5 years ago

        Thank you for the advice! I just turned 18, yesterday, and ill be going to a community college in august. My boyfriend lets me draw anime on his skin with sharpies, lol but its hard cause the ink goes all through the splits of the skin, ive gotten better at it and I just have to get and actual machine to practice on dead pigs or something, this guy on Facebook I know... is not good at all... but he still gets clients!? lol but ill keep trying and keep my options open! Thank you

      • Boots Iacono profile imageAUTHOR

        Boots Iacono 

        5 years ago from Northern New Jersey

        I'm very sorry for taking so long to reply... I have been on the road...

        Irlanda, at 17, no one REALLY knows what their calling is... perhaps you will be destined for being a tattooist, but maybe there is also something you have not experienced yet to push you in that final direction. Let me give you an example... One of my friends in school was brilliant... he excelled in sports, music, and especially his studies. He had his sights set on Harvard University and he wanted to be a lawyer... well, to make a long story short, his dream came true. He got accepted to Harvard, became a lawyer, but he wasn't fulfilled... after all that hard work, and all the meeting goals and exceeding expectations, God called to him... he became associated with a Born Again church and became a preacher... he hasn't been happier since.

        Now, I told you that story not because I want to dissuade you... but before you choose any single path, you do have to look down a few others just to make sure you are doing what you want. Take me, for example... I have been a 3D Animator, a cook, a mural painter and a tattoo artist (full time)... but now I'm doing the tattoo work part time (very part time, actually) and I'm driving a truck full time. What I do is, instead of only doing one client a day, I take one day off the calendar every two weeks, and let my dispatcher know I need that day off... when I am on the road, my clients and those people who have heard of me word of mouth call and leave messages and I set up appointments at my stops for that day. What this does is allow me to make the money thru the trucking, and when I have that day off for my reset, I go to the parlor to meet these people and I can come out of the there with up to $5,000 for the day. My assistant sets them up and I knock them down, so to speak. She is there to deal with the placement, and the stenciling, and the set up and the cleaning, and some of the drawing (you can't draw and drive a truck at the same time, but you'd be amazed at what can be done in a sleeper cab (you can only work up to 11 hours a day as a trucker... DOT rules).

        My point is this... don't limit yourself to just one thing. The more areas you have training in, the better your chances of survival in this world. Now, understanding that you will have to work two years as an apprentice before you can even think about doing things the way I do... and assuming you are serious here is my advice to you:

        Go to a trade school after you graduate. That's right, a trade school. Its much cheaper than college, and you'll have an easier time paying the loans off. WHILE you are doing that, look for an apprenticeship, and don't take no for an answer. A lot of these shops will say no automatically to test how serious you are. Show your best work first in your portfolio, and try to leave as much of the sexual and drug references OUT of there as you can... drugs and sex are a common topic in flash art, but you don't want to come off as a fuck up to your mentor... you want to come off like you're clinical and clean. Tattoo parlors are supposed to be cleaner than a doctor's office... you are piercing skin and injecting pigment into it... there is a lot of chance for infection and only someone who is serious about the craft will take the time to prevent risks. These guys also don't want to be shut down.

        And in the meanwhile, get friendly with the cheering squad in your high school and offer to draw their boyfriend's numbers on their cheeks for the game... its good practice to draw on skin... it helps you get accustomed to the third dimension of skin that paper just doesn't have.

        Good luck to you.

      • profile image


        5 years ago

        Id love to be a tattoo artist, I draw anime/manga and New school style, but nobody takes me seriously cause I'm 17 :(

      • Boots Iacono profile imageAUTHOR

        Boots Iacono 

        5 years ago from Northern New Jersey

        I'm sorry for waiting so long to reply... things have been busy.

        First, religion has NOTHING to do with being a tattoo artist. It may be forbidden for you to GET inked, but it has nothing to do with GIVING ink. Think about it this way, in the Jewish and Muslim faiths, the faithful are forbidden from eating or handling pork due to its being a 'filthy' animal... lets say the ONLY job you can find is at a delicatessen and someone orders a half pound of pork loin sliced thick... how are you going to please your God and do your job? Wear gloves and a smock. You are not actually handling the pork. So if it is not against someone ELSE's faith to get ink, and you ink them, are you really sinning? You may want to consult your local mosque just to make sure.

        As a Muslim woman, I don't know what your situation is... how strict your parents are, if your family follows Sharia or something similar. I would urge you to keeping as many of your traditions as possible, at the very LEAST while they are still alive or at least while you still live with them.

        Now, its not that its impossible to have both a job and an apprenticeship at the same time... it depends SOLEY on what your level of desire is. Some people work full time and go to school full time. You can arrange part time hours for the apprenticeship for the first half of it... most of the first half involves cleaning and maintaining equipment. Now, in this end, you are doing the clinical stuff... cleaning tubes, machines, clip cords, work areas, and sometimes handling the front desk clerical (checking ids, filling out disclaimers, etc.). Its almost like being in a dental office.

        Now, if your parents are SO dead set against your wish to be a tattoo artist, perhaps you can sell your artwork to a few local shops as flash art... it's a great way to get yourself in the door for when the time is right.

        Now, the laws on tattooing in Holland may be vastly different from those in America (where I am from), I really do not know, I have not looked into Dutch Tattoo Laws. USUALLY, you can find local health laws regarding tattooing on either a local, regional or federal level (whichever applies) right on the web. A google search will yield many results. But, you may just want to go to a shop in your area and ask if you can observe. Let them know you are forbidden from getting a tattoo, but you are fascinated by the process... you can actually write a research paper (even if you are not currently in school) for your own practice (wouldn't that make an amazing hub?) and you can take notes on all the processes from building needle sets to piercing to sterilization all the way down to the tattooing itself. My point is, if you are that interested in the craft, you should definitely look into every facet of it. There is no harm in learning, and if you are actively writing a paper, something that you can USE when and if you go to college (when I went to college, I had my first four papers done before I even started). You can get at LEAST 10 different topics out of any shop. Go to other shops as well, there are subtle differences in shops on their operating procedures, but you'll notice that in the back rooms and the tattoo work rooms, there are quite a few similarities.

        Usually, no two people get into this industry in quite the same way... I don't want to tell you to go against your culture... but if you feel that you have grown away from it, then I say go for it as long as you feel its right for you.

      • profile image


        5 years ago

        Thanks, this is great. I really want to be a tattoo artisr, art is my passion and I'm willing to do everything to become a (good) tattoo artist. But the thing is, despite really wanting to be one, I am really scared to become a tattoo artist. First, the money, which can be a lot, but that's not the problem, I'm totally okay with paying thousands for an apprenticeship. What scares me is that my parents will not approve, not just because they hate tattoos but also because it's forbidden in our religion (we're muslim), so if I get an apprenticeship, I'd have to live somewhere rlse, but if I want to luve somewhere else, I'll need money, to get money, I'll need a job. But it seems impossible to have a job and an apprenticeship at the same time, I wouldn't even know what job to do, because I'm only 18 and I haven't gone to college. But art is my life, my passion and I want to do this for the rest of my life, but I'm going to have to choose between my parents (includes a rent free home, free meals etc.) or a tattoo apprenticeship (which includes being poor and having basically nowhere to live lol).

        Any tips for a wannabe tattoo artist teenage girl in despair (who lives in Holland, I might add)??

      • Boots Iacono profile imageAUTHOR

        Boots Iacono 

        5 years ago from Northern New Jersey

        Its not enough to know how to draw... but it is a big portion of it. It is definitely the very first step... so draw your heart out... draw not only on paper, but also whatever objects you can... that will help you out. Draw all over toilet paper tubes, oranges, apples... any rounded surface, as the human body has not one flat surface on it. Hell, I used to draw on those Candie's Sneakers the girls in school would wear when I was young... they liked my artwork, and, well, I hung out with a lot of hot girls... it helped me get to know them... and, Mike, its not a bad thing to get to know a lot of girls... there are more women than men in this world, so more of your clients will probably be women.

      • profile image

        michal prince 

        5 years ago

        i really very much interested in tattoos

        and i know not much too draw bt m practising to draw daily.....


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