Despite once being considered as a social taboo, tattoo culture has gradually filtered into the mainstream in the last 10 years, with a dramatic increase in the number of people getting inked. Inevitably, as the demand has risen, so too has the supply, with high-street tattoo parlours and independent practitioners setting up business at a rapid rate.
As a result, interest in tattooing as a career path has also piqued, especially with the success of TV shows such as Miami Ink, LA Ink and Tattoo Fixers. Indeed, with the popularity of tattoos showing no sign of abating, now is as good a time as ever to take your first steps.
So, if you’ve got a creative flair, a heap of artistic ability and a natural affinity towards people, read on – this is how to become a tattoo artist.
1. Research the Profession
As with any potential career decision, your first port of call should be to research the profession thoroughly. There are a lot of misconceptions about being a professional tattooist, so you need to have a clear and realistic idea of what you’re getting into.
In a nutshell, tattoo artists work closely with clients to offer or develop visual designs that are then permanently transferred on to the client’s skin. As a result, you need to be comfortable building trust and rapport with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, as well as be able to demonstrate a very high standard of artistic ability.
Additionally, due to the increasing numbers of people now getting tattooed, you might be asked to cover up existing pieces, too – a practice that requires a whole new level of imagination and creative flair.
Roles and responsibilities generally include:
- initiating and building relationships with new and existing customers
- consulting with clients to choose a design that they like, whether it be from an existing template or an original bespoke design
- creating and researching new designs and templates
- providing welfare guidance to clients (ie: ensuring they understand the consequences of a permanent tattoo)
- translating the concept design onto the client’s skin, including the use of colours, shading and outlines
- safe and competent use of a tattoo gun (an electrically-operated needle that injects ink under the skin) or a relevant alternative transfer method
- adhering to extremely strict hygiene standards and ensuring that all equipment is sterilised and fit for purpose
Essential Skills and Qualities
In order to be successful and forge a sustainable career within the industry, tattoo artists need to possess several key skills:
- a natural flair for design and an exceptionally high standard of artistic ability
- the capacity to improvise and devise creative visual solutions
- strong communication, conversation and customer service skills
- high levels of patience and concentration in order to manage long sittings with clients
- excellent hand-eye coordination and a steady hand
- knowledge and awareness of stringent hygiene practices and their implementation
- the ability to network effectively with other artists and business owners.
Working Hours and Conditions
Typically, most tattoo parlours operate standard working hours throughout the week, as well as open on Saturdays where businesses can receive a lot of bookings and 'walk-in' jobs. It’s worth noting, though, that you may be required to work beyond these hours in order to complete designs and/or templates for next-day bookings, particularly during the early stages of your career.
Additionally, you may be required to get several vaccinations (such as hepatitis) in order to adhere to health and safety regulations and policies.
It’s difficult to put a definitive figure on a tattoo artist’s salary as it depends entirely upon a number of factors. For instance, reputation is absolutely key within the industry, with credible, well-respected artists like Paul Booth, Dai Fleet and Kat Von D able to charge upwards of $500 (£375) per hour for their services.
Within ‘regular’ studios, though, expectations are a little lower. Pay structures tend to vary; some business owners pay their employees a base salary, while others operate on a commission basis. As a rough guide, PayScale puts the average salary for a mid-level tattooist at around $30,650 (£23,025) per year, although this can fluctuate depending on the size of a studio’s clientele, as well as its aforementioned reputation.
2. Get the Qualifications
There are no set formal qualifications to be a tattoo artist; much of the intricacies of the trade are often learned through on-the-job training or via an apprenticeship. In order to be accepted, though, you will have to demonstrate an exceptional drawing and sketching ability through a dedicated portfolio, as well as display a positive attitude, dedication to the profession and a willingness to learn.
The quality of apprenticeships can be an issue, too. Many beginner artists are unpaid, with some claiming they are taken advantage of; therefore, it may be necessary to hold down a second job while you gain much-needed needle experience.
Alternatively, many artists start out by tattooing themselves or willing friends, although this isn’t necessarily a recommended strategy. It does, however, provide invaluable experience that is hard to replicate, even on a tailormade fake skin design kit.
No matter where you start your career, though, one thing is definitive: you will need to be licensed. In the UK, this comes in the form of the official tattoo, piercing and electrolysis licence and is subject to an inspection of your premises, while in the US licensure is granted by the respective state.
3. Land Your First Job
If you impress during your apprenticeship, then you may be offered a permanent position; as a junior member of the team, this will likely involve working heavily on producing designs and templates and performing smaller tattoo sessions, usually for a period of around five years or so.
Much of this time should be spent learning and specialising in a particular style, which in many cases involves being mentored by and/or spending time with prominent artists in that area. Some examples of tattoo styles include:
- traditional / old school
- traditional Japanese
- new school
- lettering / script
Ideally, you should also try to develop your own signature aesthetic – a style, method or imagery that you will be associated with and which will set you apart from other artists. A good example of this is Norman Keith Collins, aka Sailor Jerry, a pioneering old school tattooist who created the distinct and now iconic pin-up and maritime style that continues to adorn the skin of thousands of sailors.
In the age of social media, the resultant exposure many artists receive for their work can also lead to job opportunities. Many tattooists display their portfolios on Instagram and Pinterest, building up credibility and expanding their network in the process.
4. Develop Your Career
Once you have experience, a significant portfolio and a signature style, you can approach other studios that perhaps have a better reputation (they may even approach you if your work is creating enough buzz). Some artists prefer to go and work for prominent tattooists in their chosen style, which might mean relocating to a new city or moving overseas – it depends entirely on your own ambitions.
Alternatively, if your work is very popular and you find you are increasingly receiving solicitation for your services, then you could consider freelancing and charging higher rates. Many tattooists in this position travel regularly to meet demand and base themselves in another artist’s studio (with the host taking a cut, of course).
If you want to really make the big bucks, though, the logical career objective is to set up your own business. Of course, this requires you to possess a whole new skillset away from tattooing, but it also allows you the chance to establish your own brand and manage your career on your own terms. If you have an entrepreneurial streak to go alongside your reputation as a credible artist, then the possibilities – including expansion into other body mod disciplines such as piercing, as well as sponsorships and merchandising – could be endless.
Becoming a tattoo artist isn’t easy, and it requires a huge level of commitment and patience to establish yourself, but if you are driven and are able to back up your dedication, then it is entirely possible to forge a tenable career in tattooing. It’s also a great opportunity to work with different people every day and hear the backstories to their chosen designs, so if you’re at a loss on what to do with your artistic talents, then it’s definitely worth your consideration.
What advice would you give a wannabe tattooist? Let us know in the comments below!