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So You Want to Start a Career in Tattooing: Here's How

When I first started tattooing, it almost cost me my career because I was not shown the proper way of doing things. Here's what I learned.

How to start tattooing by learning to design for the body.

How to start tattooing by learning to design for the body.

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Apprentice With a Professional Tattoo Artist. Read this article about the benefits of an apprenticeship and how to obtain one for more information about choosing an artist to work with.
  4. Obtain Pre-License Certification and Get Licensed. Requirements vary from state to state, so check your local licensing requirements.
  5. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 with making and doing transfers, too. Of course, YouTube has tons of useful videos.
  4. 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?

  1. 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.
  2. Practice making tattoos with pens and henna first.
  3. Practice on yourself, then on friends.
  4. Invest in and practice with a tattoo machine.
  5. Get an apprenticeship.
  6. 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 . . .

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Read More from Tatring

Pretend that you are a tattoo artist and enlist two female "clients," both of different heights and builds. 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.

  1. Get your camera and ruler ready.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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, it's 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 modest 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 provide:

  1. Is this person creative? Of these four, the thing I cannot teach—nor can anyone else teach—is how to be creative.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 Ed Hardy (the real one) 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

In Closing

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.

An example of something I included in my first tattoo portfolio.

An example of something I included in my first tattoo portfolio.

© 2012 Boots Iacono


Esc4nothin on December 04, 2019:

Nothing can be taught, everything can only be learned

Ashraf on June 01, 2019:

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

Not this asshole on September 09, 2018:

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.

rasel on August 31, 2018:

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?

rasel on August 31, 2018:

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?

Jorge on August 26, 2017:

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 :)

Ana on August 21, 2017:

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!

Blerina on April 19, 2017:

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

Bill Barden on December 17, 2016:

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

Star on December 10, 2016:

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?

Sujan on September 22, 2015:

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?

Texas outlaw on June 23, 2015:

Really nice


Corbin on May 28, 2015:

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 (author) from Northern New Jersey on April 05, 2015:

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!

irlanda on April 01, 2015:

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 (author) from Northern New Jersey on February 13, 2015:

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.

Irlanda on January 14, 2015:

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 (author) from Northern New Jersey on November 01, 2014:

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.

A. on August 31, 2014:

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 (author) from Northern New Jersey on June 27, 2014:

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.

michal prince on April 28, 2014:

i really very much interested in tattoos

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

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