A tattoo artist designs and applies images to people’s skin using indelible inks.
Tattoos have existed in human culture since time immemorial. Before the introduction of the written word, the ancient Europeans painted themselves and their surroundings with ornate designs. Likewise aboriginal peoples all over the world continue to use a variety of natural materials to indelibly mark themselves. In doing so they delineate heritage, authority, achievements and a myriad of other concepts.
Modern day tattoos and indeed the word itself are inspired by the Polynesian word for inserting indelible ink onto the skin to make permanent markings, ‘tatu’. Eighteenth century sailors were the first to come into contact with this culture, popularised it and so became inextricably associated with the practice. Today, tattoos are at an apex of popularity, with many celebrities, artists and musicians sporting impressive designs. Once a subject of taboo, this alternative culture has become more mainstream and tattooing is increasingly regulated, creative and popular.
Many tattoo artists are self-employed and salaries vary widely depending on the amount of trade they receive. Summer months are traditionally the busiest.
- A trainee tattoo artist starts on around £12,000 per annum.
- An experienced tattoo artist may earn between £18,000 and £30,000 per annum.
- A tattoo artist owning his own business and employing others can earn in excess of £50,000 per annum.
A tattoo artist’s daily duties would include the following:
- Cleaning and sterilising tattoo equipment and work areas.
- Devising new designs in spare time.
- Keeping up to date with the latest fashions in the world of tattoos.
- Meeting clients to discuss their desires.
- Applying a pre-made or bespoke designs to clients’ skin.
- Keeping up to date with the latest health and safety procedures.
A tattoo artist trains by becoming an apprentice. This usually takes between 2 and 3 years. The only way to do this is by approaching a working tattoo artist and applying for the position. You will expected to buy your own equipment and sterilising kit and will not be paid for the apprenticeship. Expect to work around 6 hours a day for 6 days a week. Over time, greater responsibility will be awarded, until you can tattoo unsupervised.
Once enough work experience has been amassed, a licence to practise must be obtained from the local council. The catch is that you must be working and have experience to obtain one and you have to obtain one to work. That is why the apprenticeship is necessary. Working without a licence incurs a heavy penalty.
Once the apprenticeship period is over you work on simple designs, moving to more complex work as your experience progresses. Most professionals in the industry state that a tattoo artist is only fully qualified after around 5 years full-time working experience.
A tattoo artist is a very specialised job and requires a unique set of attributes, such as:
- A flair for design and creativity.
- A steady hand.
- A love of alternative cultures.
- Patience and dedication.
- Good interpersonal skills.
- Extremely good attention to detail.
- Empathetic nature, and the ability to turn clients’ ideas into reality.
Tattoo artists usually work from a tattoo studio. This is fitted out with books of designs, all the equipment necessary and dedicated work and preparation spaces. Ink pens have to be sterilised daily and after each use; a variety of coloured inks are used to create different effects on various skin types. Tattoo studios must be registered with their local council.
Hours of work are usually 9 – 6 or later on some days. A six-day week is common, working Saturdays and often Sundays. Each session with a client lasts between one and three hours depending on the job in hand. Due to the permanent nature of tattoos, a single session requires intense concentration so the job can be mentally tiring.
The artistic nature of the job, the variety of people that one comes into contact with and the constant challenge of creation make being a tattoo artist a rewarding job. However, hours are long and mistakes are out of the question, so it is a demanding job and by no means an easy career path.
Most tattoo artists are male but with an increasing number of women sporting tattoos and becoming interested in them, this is changing.
To gain a position as an apprentice, a potential employer will want to see evidence of creative ability. Be prepared to present a portfolio of your artwork and make it as rich and varied as you can.
Many tattoo artists have a background from other fields of art. Any experience in graphic novel, logo or other types of design would be helpful.
Tattoo studios employ tattoo artists. Sometimes these shops offer other services such as body piercing. Check on the Internet for studios in your area.
With experience a tattoo artist may build up a private client base and work in clients’ own homes.
The only way to become a tattoo artist is by working as an apprentice and shadowing a professional at work.
Many tattoo artists go on to open up their own studios and make extra money by renting out space to others.
Also known as…
- Body artist
- Body Piercer
What’s it really like?
Tomik Koziel, 29 years old is a Tattoo artist working in central London.
Hi Tomik, how long have you been working as a tattoo artist?
For about three years. I started out by getting all the equipment I needed and doing free tattoos for friends, talking to different people who have experience, talking to people on the internet and trying to improve my tattoos. Eventually I got work in a studio, not the best one, but the only place I could work without experience. There I got to meet people and afterwards I was more confident. Now I work in a very good studio where I not only work but I have the opportunity to watch very talented artists in action, so I’m always improving.
What did you do before this job?
I was studying art for about seven years. I have a degree in sculpture from Poland. That took me five years and then I taught art to kids for two years in Poland after I graduated.
What do you do in a typical day as a tattoo artist?
In a typical day we start by cleaning and sterilising the equipment in the morning. After that we usually have some appointments for tattoos or we wait for walk-in trade. There’s quite a lot of free time, which you can spend drawing designs for customers or just creating new ideas. How long a tattoo takes very much depends on how big it is and how detailed. Some simple tattoos can be done in forty minutes to an hour. Very big complex designs can involve three-hour sessions, then coming back for more work a number of times at three or four week intervals.
What do you like about being a tattoo artist?
I do art; I have constant contact with it. It’s not boring, and is something I really enjoy. I get to know a lot of people, different artists and very interesting customers and it pays well. Tattoos are no longer for crazy drunk people, sailors or someone who has been in jail. It has lost that stigma now. It is seen as an artist’s world.
Is there anything you dislike about the job?
Sometimes you have to deal with difficult people, including drunk customers, because we’re based in Camden and there are a lot of bars in the area. But really there’s nothing I don’t like about the job. If you like tattoos you will really enjoy the job.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about becoming a tattoo artist?
Well, it’s good to speak with the people who already do this job. Learn how they work, use equipment etc; you need to see how things run. There’s a lot of technical stuff that you have to deal with: how to deal with different colours of skin, different types of tattoos, etc so it’s good to find someone who works in a studio just to watch and ask questions.
What do you think you might do after this role in terms of career progression?
The next step for me would be to get into a custom studio. The studio I work in is a walk-in studio. A custom studio makes bespoke designs for individual customers rather than them choosing ready made designs ‘off the peg’.
What other inside-information can you give to help people considering becoming a tattoo artist?
You have to understand that it’s not something you learn easily. It’s going to take you years to stop making mistakes. You have to be really patient because in the beginning something can take you hours to get right. You have to really love it to have the patience to do it properly.