So You Want to Start a Career in Tattooing: Here's How
No Experience, No Problem!
There are quite a few ways to try to break into the tattoo industry, but only a few of these ways will guide you down the proper road. I will admit that when I first started tattooing, I was not shown the proper way of doing things and it almost cost me my career.
All roads on the path to becoming a successful and respected tattoo artist start with the very first step: the apprenticeship. And, like many other things in this world, taking that first step is not always easy. A tattoo artist will consider many things when choosing an apprentice and, while it's not so simple as asking a bunch of yes or no questions on a predetermined list, there are a few questions they will always ask a potential apprentice.
So without further ado, here are the things you should know even before you take that first step. These are the things everyone should know before they approach a shop to ask for an apprenticeship.
How Do You Start Off as a Tattoo Artist?
- Develop Art Skills. If you have no natural talent, you'll never learn how to draw well. But if you have some talent, then studying, learning, and practicing will help you develop your skills. Really take the time to perfect your line work, shading, composition, etc. This might involve going to art school, taking classes, and/or finding other ways to learn the basic art skills you'll need to be a tattoo artist.
- Build a Portfolio. Before you can approach a studio for an apprenticeship, you'll need a portfolio. Building a great portfolio takes a lot more time and effort than you might imagine. Below, I offer some tips on how to put a good one together.
- Apprentice With a Professional Tattoo Artist. Read Tattoo Apprenticeships: How to Get One and Why You Need It for more information about how to choose an artist to work with.
- Obtain Pre-License Certification and Get Licensed. Requirements vary from state to state, so check your local licensing requirements.
- Find a Studio That'll Take You On. This might be the place where you apprenticed, or it might be someplace else.
How to Learn How to Tattoo at Home
Drawing is one thing . . . but tattooing an actual body is another thing entirely. Here's how to start building your tattooist skills.
- Draw on contoured objects and skin-like surfaces. After you've practiced on paper, you'll want to move on to 3D objects. Some practice drawing on fruits (melons or grapefruits, for example) or other round inanimate objects, some with nontoxic ink or henna on body parts.
- Practice, practice, practice. As an artist you will be expected to work in many different styles and you can only learn by doing. Start with pencils, work your way up to pens, then eventually try your hand at the tattoo machine.
- Practice with the tools. Before picking up that tattoo machine, I recommend getting the hang of it with a weighted pen or pencil. This will help you develop hand strength and skill. In order to penetrate the skin, a machine tends to apply ink heavier than a pen would. You'll want to practice by adding three-ounce weights to your pen. Experiment making and doing transfers, too. Of course, YouTube has tons of useful videos.
- Experiment with the machinery. When you feel comfortable, you might invest in a cheap machine and practice on fruit, leather, or other objects. Get used to the added vibration and how it affects your hand (and line). You could also set your machine up with a pencil or pen or practice. I recommend practicing on fake skin, pig skin, or pig ears, which you can buy online or from a butcher.
As you're developing drawing and tool-using skills, you'll also want to focus on making tattoos that fit the body, which isn't as easy as it sounds.
How Can I Practice Tattooing?
- Practice every day on paper, then move on to practicing on skin-like materials and curved objects (like fruit). Check out How to Tattoo: Drawing Exercises for Aspiring Tattoo Artists for more ideas.
- Practice making tattoos with pens and henna first.
- Practice on yourself, then on friends.
- Invest in and practice with a tattoo machine.
- Get an apprenticeship.
- Offer free tattoos for practice.
How to Make Tattoos That Fit the Body
Before you can ever succeed in the art of tattooing, you have to realize a few things about the human body in order to draw on it.
1. The human body has no straight lines.
So how does this affect you and your drawing style? It affects you plenty, especially 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 constantly flexing and contracting its muscles and is almost 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 artists won't touch a piece that requires more than a few perfect circles. Not only are they hard, but circles get distorted when the body flexes and relaxes.
2. Each design should be appropriate for a specific body and body part.
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 commonly used, and I'm really shocked it isn't. Read on . . .
Pretend that you are a tattoo artist and enlist two female "clients," both of different height and build. Let's say that they are both in your shop to get lower back tattoos—commonly referred to (inappropriately) as "tramp stamps". Follow these steps to document a logical method to your design capabilities, and these photos and designs can be used in your portfolio.
- Get your camera and ruler ready.
- Have one woman hold up her shirt to reveal her lower back while the other holds the ruler to the other's back. Snap a photo of each woman's lower back, showing the ruler. Print these photos as half pages, leaving the other half of the page blank (your custom flash design will go here).
- Get exact measurements of the top and bottom of the tattoo-able area using a tailor's tape measure. These measurements should start at the spine and work their way out toward the hips.
- Use these 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 or downplay her shape, depending on what she wants.
- Go to the drawing board and create an inked outline of the tattoo on a sheet of paper, then photocopy it on transfer paper at 100%, cut it out, transfer the shape to her lower back, and take another photo. Include this custom design next to the photo you took in step #2.
- If you include these designs in your portfolio, include a few comments about your method, why you came up with that design, how you customized it for her body, and how it custom fits each girl's lower back. Explain how your design works for her specific, unique figure.
- Be sure to ask each woman if she liked this design you drew. If she does, include her name and a short statement from her in your portfolio as a reference. If she does not like your design or it does not fit on her body, well, its time for you to draw something else up for her because, just like in the shop, designs are not always going to be accepted as-is. It does help you to be humble. You'll need to be humble and listen to notes and criticism once you get your apprenticeship, so be humble while building your portfolio, too.
3. Design unique tattoos for individual bodies (and 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 custom and specific drawings. Pick only the best of the best examples of your work.
After you've experimented with drawing on bodies, it's time to put together a portfolio and approach a shop for an internship.
The First Question They'll Ask: "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 with will ask 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. Your portfolio should show him that the answer is 'yes' to every question listed below.
Answers your portfolio should demonstrate:
- Is this person creative? Of these four, the thing I cannot teach—nor can anyone else teach—is how to be creative.
- Does this person have artistic talent? 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, your portfolio won't impress.
- Does this person draw things that move me? 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.
- Does this person draw or paint in a style that is compatible with tattooing? The thing I can help you out with is adapting your current drawing style to a style compatible with tattooing . . . read on!
How to Create a Great Tattoo Portfolio
Your portfolio should have from 50 to 200 of your very best sketches, and it should demonstrate that you fully understand each of the following ideas.
1. Show who you are, what you're good at, and how professional you are.
On the very first page of your portfolio, you will want to include 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 probably not talking to a corporate-type of person, so relax a bit, and don't kiss too much ass.
2. Show tattoo designs that really look like tattoos.
Does your art scream "tattoo!"? In other words, does your art look like it belongs on someone's body . . . or does it look like something you would put in a frame? While there are many styles of tattooing, there is still a common expectation about what tattoo art should look like. You can include a few non-tattoolike pieces in your portfolio to demonstrate your high art skills, but make sure that most of your designs look like they'd make great tattoos.
I do not recommend that you copy anyone else's work to put into your book, but I do recommend that you look up artwork by Sailor Jerry or (the real one) or Ed Hardy and see if you can emulate their styles. Look at the lining: See where are the lines thicker and thinner? Notice how much coverage they 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. Show that you have some originality.
Copying is a really bad idea. Do not use someone else's work—especially someone famous—and try to pass it off as your own. If you copy a couple pieces you admire 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. Remember that most professional artists have seen a LOT of other people's work. They know the difference between a flat-out Sailor Jerry or Hardy copy and something that is meant to pay tribute to 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.
How to Build a Tattoo Portfolio
- Draw out 20 perfect pages of fully colored, variably sized flash. Then pick out the top 10 pages, the ones that you consider the best of the best, and add those to your book.
- Draw out another five pages' worth of 'just because' art (to show you have more than one side to your interests and talents) . . . and add those in as well. Something to show the other sides of your artistic self.
- Remember to include at least 50 of your very, very best designs. These can be included on flash pages (groups of designs) or as stand-alone pieces.
- Try to showcase your best talents, but also display a range of talents. Try to show what you do well, but also show that you can accomplish a wider range.
- If you don't have at least 50 great designs, keep working until you do. Don't rush the process by putting together a skimpy portfolio or including not-so-great designs.
How to Become a Tattoo Artist If You Can't Draw
Some people think that to make a tattoo, all you need to do is copy the lines of a transfer . . . but they're very wrong. It should be obvious: If you have no artistic skills, you will not make a good artist, and this goes for tattoo artists, as well. If you can't draw steady lines, make smooth shading, create custom designs, or if you lack understanding of how colors work together, then your tattoos will never be very good. End of story. Non-artists may be able to learn to do an acceptable tattoo, but they will be so limited in their skills and abilities that it will be difficult for them to get hired and it's hard to charge money for sub-par work.
I usually charge $100 per hour for this information . . . 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 an experienced tattooist and teacher.
© 2012 Boots Iacono