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how to become a tattoo artist: tattooing a leg

How to Become a Certified Tattoo Artist: A 5-Step Guide

Last updated: September 6, 2019
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Tattoos are works of art that adorn millions of people around the world. You won’t have to look far to find someone sporting a nicely penned sleeve, ankle tattoo, or full-back mural. You might even have a few tattoos yourself.

You might love tattoos so much that you’d like to turn it into a full-time career. Being a professional tattoo artist can be a fulfilling career for those who appreciate its art form and have the creativity and skill to create stunning tattoos.

Since tattoo artists permanently change customers’ bodies, it’s important that you’re skilled enough to be trusted. You’ll need to be a natural artist, go through the required training, and get certified before you can get paid to do this work.

In this article, we’ll talk about how to become a tattoo artist. We’ll walk through the five steps to turning this passion into your dream career.

How to Become a Tattoo Artist

how to become a tattoo artist: woman tattoo artist holding tattoo gun

Becoming a tattoo artist will take an incredible amount of dedication and perseverance. The career path isn’t to be taken lightly, as it will require plenty of hard work and long hours. Being a great artist is just the start. You’ll need to learn the art of tattooing, build up a portfolio, and find an apprenticeship, and get certified before you can land a job in a tattoo shop.

At first, you likely won’t be paid since you’ll need to find on-the-job-training through an apprenticeship. This can take up to a year or longer depending on how quickly you can learn. Once you’ve gained enough experience as a tattoo shop apprentice, you can start looking for your first paid gig.

Let’s take a closer look at the five steps to becoming a tattoo artist.

1. Learn Tattoo Art

In order to become a tattoo artist, you’ll need to have a thorough understanding of this craft’s underlying principles. Tattooing is an art in itself, so knowing different tattooing styles and techniques is important to your path to being a true expert.

There are many different styles of tattoo art that you must be familiar with. Among them are traditional Japanese, abstract, black and white, realism, fine line, old school, tribal, and many more. You’ll need to understand the differences between each of these and figure out which style fits you best.

This will help you narrow down your potential specializations so you can become a better artist. By specializing in one or more areas, you can perfect your craft and develop your own unique style.

Beyond that, you’ll need to know the technical aspects of being an artist. This will include knowing how to properly shade and understanding dimensions and focal points of your drawings. Enrolling in art classes at a local community college can help you perfect your drawing skills before you dive into a new career. The more you can master these skills, the better tattoo artist you can become.

Your next step will be taking what you’ve learned, sketching top-notch drawings, and creating a portfolio.

2. Build a Tattoo Portfolio

Before you can become a tattoo artist, you’ll need to land an apprenticeship in a local shop. But before you can do that, you’ll need to show that you have the potential to be a great artist and that you’d be a fitting addition to a tattoo parlor. You can do that by creating a standout tattoo portfolio that highlights your artistic ability.

Tattoo shops don’t want to waste their time with someone who doesn’t have the potential to be a great artist. They want to bring people on board who are eager to learn and easy to teach. A comprehensive portfolio is your chance to shine.

Your portfolio should consist of at least 30 finished tattoo drawings. Great portfolios will have closer to 100 finalized drawings. You should only include final drawings and leave out unfinished sketches and doodles. The shop managers will only want to see your very best work.

You should also avoid including any real tattoos you may have already done. Since you’re a newbie, there’s a good chance that any real tattoos you’ve done on the side aren’t on par with what a tattoo shop is looking for. Stick to polished drawings instead of the tattoos you may have experimented with your friends.

The portfolio should be presented in a nice and neat manner. If it’s online, take care with your design and layout (we recommend Squarespace). If it’s a physical copy, put the finished drawings in a binder so your future manager can quickly flip through to understand your skill level and personal style. Make sure the portfolio looks presentable, as this is your ticket to landing your apprenticeship.

When your portfolio is in a good place, you can start looking around town for a tattoo shop to complete an apprenticeship.

3. Find a Tattoo Apprenticeship

You’ll need to explore all of the options in your local area to find the apprenticeship that fits you best. You’ll want to find a tattoo shop that has a history of mentoring others and is eager to teach you.

Apprenticeships are competitive among aspiring tattoo artists, so it will be important to make a great first impression. Your portfolio will help you land an apprenticeship, but it will also be important to sell yourself and show that you’re serious about the role.

Your best bet is to do your research and approach shop managers face-to-face. Go to shops during the week when they aren’t slammed with customers. Strike up a conversation, and let them know that you’re looking for an apprenticeship. Leave your portfolio there for them to look over for a few days.

It’s important to note that apprenticeships won’t pay you. You’ll pretty much be a student for one to three years and will need a second job to make ends meet. Actually, in most cases, you’ll need to pay around $5,000 to complete your apprenticeship.

Once you land your apprenticeship, you’ll start by doing all the dirty work. Think of this as your rite of passage. This will include taking out the garbage, answering phones, setting up appointments, and cleaning the shop.

When you’ve proven yourself, you can start to learn tattooing techniques, best practices for hygiene, and how to use the tattoo machine. You’ll have a long road ahead of you, so make sure you put in the work, be very attentive, and listen to every tip and trick your mentor gives you.

4. Become a Certified Tattooisttattoo on woman's back

After you’ve put in long hours as an apprentice, you can take the next step to becoming a tattoo artist. This consists of getting certified in several different areas.

Every state has different laws, requirements, and licenses you’ll need to follow. In some states, you’ll need to hold a tattooing license. In others, you’ll need to have certain vaccinations and/or CPR certifications.

Some requirements that you may need to meet in your state include the following:

  • GED or high school diploma
  • Tattoo license
  • CPR certification
  • First aid certification
  • Proof of training
  • Set number of apprentice hours
  • Certificate of completion for blood-borne pathogens
  • Hepatitis B vaccination

To see what your state’s requirements are, you can head to this link. You can also look into certification courses. Once you’ve met all of the requirements for your state, you can start tattooing customers for money.

5. Start Working in a Tattoo Shop

If you nailed your apprenticeship and developed a good relationship with the manager(s), you may have a shot at landing a position at the studio you worked in. This may be your easiest way to land your first paying job.

If not, you can start looking around town for tattoo studios who are hiring. Getting hired is somewhat similar to landing your apprenticeship. You’ll need to have a polished portfolio with plenty of killer tattoo designs to show shop managers you’re the right fit for the job. But before you talk to shop managers, prepare with this guide to nailing your job interview.

Networking with other professional tattooists and showing up at tattoo conventions will help you rub elbows with everyone in the industry. It will get your name out there and will introduce you to the right people who can end up helping you get a job.

You could also pursue starting your own tattoo shop, although this may be harder than finding a job at an established studio. You can always find a job, develop an extensive client list, and start your own shop a few years down the road. If you’re interested in this route, read up on how you can write a business plan and start your own business.

Take the First Step to Full-Time Inking

If you think this is the right career for you, you can start by perfecting your craft. Study up on artistic tattoo styles, and dust off your drawing and art skills. Practice will be key in order to build a strong portfolio. Keep at it, and then start looking around for your first apprenticeship. Before you know it, you might be sitting in the tattoo chair, inking up paying customers.

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