Making the leap from drawing on paper to permanently tattooing on human skin requires time, hard work, patience, and sacrifice.
While the requirements for becoming a tattoo artist vary by state, most states require you to obtain a license after going through a training program with an experienced tattoo artist called an apprenticeship.
Tattoo apprenticeships have been around far longer than governments regulated the tattoo industry. Every tattoo artist worth his or her salt learned from a mentor that taught them everything they knew.
These days, finding a tattoo apprenticeship isn’t easy. You’ll have to be prepared, knock on a lot of doors, and form connections first. It also requires you to plan for a couple years and save up money not just to pay for the apprenticeship, but to pay for your own expenses while you’re in training.
If you’re an aspiring tattoo artist looking for a way to begin your apprenticeship, you’ve come to the right place. Below is all the information you need to know to find a worthwhile and successful tattoo apprenticeship.
How do you become a tattoo apprentice?
The easiest way to find a tattoo apprenticeship is through connections. This is best done by getting tattooed yourself.
Do your research about tattoo artists around you and find some that do good work. Go in for a tattoo from one and strike up conversation.
Don’t start the conversation by asking about becoming a tattoo artist. This isn’t a job interview – it’s a tattoo. Work on building a relationship with this person through conversation that shows you’re interested in who they are.
If you don’t click with the first tattoo artist you see, try another one. Build up a rapport with a tattoo artist over time and then you can bring up the idea of a tattoo apprenticeship.
You can also become a tattoo apprentice by knocking on doors and simply going into the shop with your portfolio and asking about an apprenticeship.
Without any former connection, though, you may have a hard time getting any artist to seriously consider taking you on.
Becoming a tattoo apprentice isn’t as easy as a job application and interview. Many tattoo artists think that there are already too many tattoo artists in the world and they don’t want to add more by taking on an apprentice.
Many artists also don’t want to waste their time teaching a new apprentice. It takes a lot of time and effort on their part.
It goes a long way to make an in-person appearance, though. One cardinal rule of finding a tattoo apprenticeship is to inquire in person.
Never send a tattoo shop or artist an email or text to ask if they’re open to an apprentice. Even a phone call isn’t enough.
To show you’re really serious about your career and your art, you have to show up in person, portfolio in hand, prepared to speak face-to-face with your potential tattoo mentor.
Is it hard to get a tattoo apprenticeship?
Yes! It’s very hard to get a tattoo apprenticeship.
Not only is it difficult to find tattoo mentors willing to work with you, but it’s difficult to find good ones who aren’t trying to take advantage of you.
Since you’ll be paying them and essentially working for free, there are many tattoo “mentors” who take your money, work you like a dog, then fire you after a few months.
It’s normal to be expected to clean around the shop and do menial tasks like running errands or dealing with customers, but you should also be able to get experience tattooing on both fake skin and human skin.
If you do manage to find a tattoo mentor willing to take you on as an apprentice, be sure to ask questions about the training. You should have a clear idea of how long it will be before you tattoo fake skin, how long until you tattoo real skin, etc.
Some states require you to do a certain number of free tattoos on real people before you can earn your license. Ensure that your tattoo mentor will help you achieve that goal and won’t just milk you for free labor.
Don’t let this discourage you, though. There are plenty of amazing tattoo mentors out there who have a wealth of knowledge to teach you.
Stay determined until you find the right apprenticeship. Even if you get told “No,” by all the shops in your local area, expand your search. Don’t give up until you find a respected and experienced artist willing to train you.
How many hours a week is a tattoo apprenticeship?
A tattoo apprenticeship is a full-time job, even if you pay to be there and don’t get paid for your work.
Think of your tattoo apprenticeship like a college or technical school. You pay to be there, no one is paying you for your time learning, and it’s all for the sake of a love and passion of your chosen career path.
When you work as a tattoo apprentice, you can expect to be working at least 40 hours a week. Since this doesn’t leave much time to work another job while you’re apprenticing, it’s a good idea to save up prior to beginning your apprenticeship.
How long are you a tattoo apprentice?
The exact amount of time you’re a tattoo apprentice will depend on a variety of factors. Generally, you can expect to be a tattoo apprentice for 1-5 years, with an average time of around 2-3 years.
One variable is your state requirements. Some states require you do 3 years of training, some only require 1 year, and some don’t require anything at all.
Another variable is the way your tattoo mentor has their apprenticeship structured. They may have their apprenticeship set up to last a few years, or only last 1 year.
It also depends on you as an artist. How quickly do you pick things up? How dedicated are you to your craft? How many hours will you commit to being in the tattoo shop and learning, then studying and practicing on your own at home?
You may finish your apprenticeship faster if you devote all of your time to it while you’re in training. Your apprenticeship is not a time to slack off just because you’re stuck mopping floors for a while.
Take advantage of the ability to be in the shop environment and learn all you can.
Do tattoo apprentices get paid?
No, tattoo apprentices don’t get paid. You won’t even start inking people’s skin for at least a year with most apprenticeships, and in the time before that happens you’re going to receive valuable training from your mentor.
Rather than getting paid, tattoo apprentices usually have to pay their mentors for their training.
The fee for an apprenticeship will vary by artist and by shop. Some tattoo mentors will charge $5,000, while some charge as much as $10,000.
Your fee is in exchange for all the knowledge and training you’ll receive from your mentor, and your work that you do during the apprenticeship is all considered on the job training.
Even if all you do for the first 6 months is clean the floors, you’re learning the importance of a sterile environment and how to keep things perfectly clean in a tattoo shop, which is a vital part of tattooing.
What do you learn as a tattoo apprentice?
As a tattoo apprentice, you can expect to learn so much more than just tattooing.
You’ll learn how to keep a sterile environment, how to put together and take apart your tattoo machines safely, and how to properly apply ink to skin without causing scarring or infection.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of what you can learn from an experienced tattoo mentor. They can teach you how to run clean lines, saturate your color, and create smooth blending in your tattoos.
The exact knowledge and skills you learn will vary depending on who your mentor is, what they know, and what they specialize in.
But you can be sure if you find a well-respected and experienced tattoo artist who’s already had successful apprentices underneath them, you’re going to learn everything you need to know to be an incredible tattoo artist.
Can you be a self-taught tattoo artist?
No, becoming a self-taught tattoo artist isn’t really possible.
Anyone can order a tattoo kit from the Internet and start practicing on their own skin, but without proper training, you miss out on learning the fundamentals.
No amount of online research, YouTube videos, or articles can teach you how to properly tattoo. No amount of hours spent studying at home can replace the knowledge you can by spending hours in a tattoo shop.
While you can try to become a self-taught tattoo artist, you will likely make amateur mistakes that are glaring to any experienced tattoo artist. This will run you out of a job and make it impossible to find work in the industry.
Tips to get an apprenticeship
Before you start actively searching and asking about tattoo apprenticeships, ensure that you’re properly prepared.
Follow our tips below before knocking on tattoo shop doors. The more prepared you are when you ask for an apprenticeship, the more likely you are to be taken seriously.
Practice drawing (lots!)
You should already have superb drawing skills before you set foot in a tattoo shop for an apprenticeship.
Your tattoo mentor will teach you a lot of things, but they will not teach you the fundamentals of drawing.
You should already be a skilled artist with plenty of work to show your talent.
A good idea is to practice drawing in the common tattoo styles that you’ll encounter as a tattoo artist. Check our list below of some styles you’ll be expected to know and see if there are any you’re unfamiliar with, then start practicing:
- American Traditional
- Black and grey
- Fine line
- New School
Create a portfolio
As you practice your drawing skills, save your best finished pieces and put them together in a portfolio.
Your portfolio should include 50-100 finished drawings, not half-done sketches or drunken doodles, all housed in a beautiful, professional portfolio book or binder.
Your drawings should all be in plastic sleeve protectors to show off your artwork with class and pride.
Organize your portfolio in a way that makes sense. Have drawings that make sense to be on display with each other on each page. Don’t put a black and grey eagle on the same page as a watercolor butterfly.
It’s also a good idea to add a page in your portfolio that includes your name, contact information, what you think you could bring to the shop, and what hours you plan to be available for your apprenticeship.
Get some tattoos on your own body
While getting tattooed is a great way to find a mentor, it’s also a way to show you’re serious about tattooing.
Many tattoo mentors won’t take you seriously unless you have ink on your body yourself.
Having your own tattoos shows a dedication to tattooing overall. It indicates that you don’t just think the art is pretty or cool, but that you have a true passion for the tattoo industry and want to be a part of it.
Do your homework & make connections
Research all your local tattoo shops, and then hone in on each individual artist. You want to be familiar not only with the shop overall, but with each artist’s strengths, specialties, biographies, and any other information they have online.
Once you’ve familiarized yourself with some of your local artists, start making visits to form those connections.
As we’ve mentioned, the best way to find an apprenticeship is to have an established relationship with an experienced tattoo artist.
Do your homework on your local tattoo artists then put in the effort to form those connections. When it comes to finding a tattoo apprenticeship, connections are everything.
Prepare & build a resume
Your resume is just as important as your portfolio. Although the tattoo industry is often looked down upon by parts of society, it’s a serious profession run by people who take their career seriously.
If you were going to apply for a job at a corporation, you would prepare a resume ahead of time. Do the same thing for your tattoo apprenticeship.
Include your education history, any relevant special skills, and all your contact information. Build your resume as you would for any other job you would want and show that you are a professional looking to start a legitimate career in tattooing.