Slinging Ink: Becoming a Tattoo Artist

I don’t have any tattoos personally, because I’m too impulsive and indecisive at the same time that I would be stuck in a perpetual cycle of “tattoo – cover-up – laser removal – tattoo”, and I am just not big enough nor rich enough to invest in such an endeavor. There are people though who decide to mark their skin with items that are deeply personal, well thought out, and well designed. Sure, there are also those clients who do the alternative to my cycle, which would be “tattoo – cover-up – darker cover-up” or the guys that follow the format “I was drunk. It seemed like a great idea at the time”.

In any case, the person that will be permanently embedding ink into your skin will (hopefully) be a highly trained and talented tattoo artist. Oh… you’re considering tattooing yourself? I wouldn’t recommend it… but you’re being incessant, so this is what it’s like to be a tattoo artist.

See Also: Piercings and Tattoos – Should You Have to Cover Them For Work?

First Things First

So you want to permanently put beautiful images on people… Note the word beautiful, which necessitates a certain level of talent and skill. If you can’t draw, you can’t tattoo. Okay, I’ll take that back… I guess you can draw badly and tattoo, but you just might find that all your tattoos looking like crap will be an obstacle to your success. The better an artist you are (or draftsman, take your pick), the better a tattoo artist you’ll become, and the only way to become better is to practice. And once you think you’re done practicing, make sure you practice some more after that…


Aaand practice after that, too. Okay, so you get it: you need to flex those drawing muscles and make them bulge with artistic ability. Now you need to prove that you have big, throbbing art muscles – put your pants back on! That is definitely not your art muscle!

The only way to prove your artistic abilities is by way of a portfolio, which is a collection of your best work to show tattoo shops when you apply. The job is all about presentation, so presentation is everything. Make sure you leave a great impression from the very beginning. You can have a diverse portfolio with both tattoo-related art (called “flash”) and fine art, but it would be a good idea to create your images with the industry standard mediums like colored inks or watercolors. You might want to avoid digital portfolios because the person that will be reviewing your work will be looking beyond the quality of your designs and images; they will also be looking for the quality and consistency of your line work and color usage, which can be lost in a digital format. Not that you can’t use a digital portfolio if you have one, but it’s wiser to use it as an augmentation to the physical drawings you will present.


First, you need to research and find the type of tattoo studio/shop that fits the style you create and like to create. Once you find the right one, approach them, and show them your portfolio (if it parallels the style the shop uses, then even better). Some of the tattoo styles include:

1. Traditional/Old School or American Traditional

Something you’d expect to see on an early 20th century sailor like ships, anchors, daggers, etc. The tattoos are usually heavily outlined, minimal, with a restricted color palette, and subtle shading.

2. Traditional Japanese

These are tattoos that were traditionally done with a sharpened bamboo comb, dipped in ink, and repeatedly embedded into the skin. They are also characterized by heavy outlines, bold yet restricted color palettes, and subtle shading, and usually depict traditional Japanese art such as dragons, samurais, and geishas. This form of tattooing was popularized by the Yakuza (the Japanese Mafia) and is so closely associated with the criminal organization that tattoos still carry a significant social stigma in Japan till this day.

3. Realism

Same as in art, realism drafts images of very fine fidelity. Although many realist tattoo artists work in full color, some prefer black and white due to the impactful image that can be created. This can be divided into the subcategories of Black and Grey and Portraiture or these two can be categories of their own.

4. Illustrative 

This contemporary form of tattoo art is vast and usually encompasses styles with a heavy emphasis on graphic style and dynamism. Due to its contemporary status, this style uses an ever expanding palette of colors, dependent on the design.

5. New School 

A spinoff of illustrative, this style is further exaggerated and is heavily influenced by urban art (graffiti, skateboarding, punk music imagery). New School is extremely colorful (in most cases) and usually extremely dynamic, with movement and shading indicating movement.

6. Horror

Anything and all horror, the subject matter can depict anything from slasher movies all the way up to the extremely macabre visages of serial killers. It also has no specific style and can be seen done realistically, in old school format, or new school style.

7. Lettering/Script 

This is self-explanatory, really. This a tattoo style dedicated to script from the very simple typewriter typefaces to the elaborate and stylized scrolling Old English typesets.

8. Polynesian

Patterned tattoos that emulate the traditional Maori and Samoan warriors’ tattoos; they are characterized by heavy dense blacks, geometric shapes, and symbolism derived from the locations’ tribes. These were also made with a similar technique to the Japanese tattoos, and enduring hours upon hours of pain was part of a young man’s coming of age ceremony.

20 percent discount
20 percent discount
9. Watercolor 

Absent of any outline which most tattoo styles rely on, the watercolor style attempts to emulate watercolor brushstrokes, including the subtle pastel palette.

Due to the fact that tattooing is literally a live art, it is constantly growing, expanding, and adding styles and new technique. Do your homework, check out what the latest trend is, and you’ll never be left behind tattooing shamrocks on drunken frat boys’ butts.

So you’ve found your style and you’ve been taken on as an apprentice… What do you do now? Well, you sweep, mop, prep the stations for the veteran tattoo artists, and clean their equipment when they’re done. Yes, basically until the end of your apprenticeship, you will be the office wench – for three whopping years. They do this to make sure that you are dedicated to the craft and to weed out potential slackers and half-assers.

Some apprenticeships are even unpaid… If you play your cards right, though, you’ll be allowed to actually tattoo people! But you’ll have to pay for it out of your own pocket! Which sucks, but it is part of the process.


Dude! Lose the fedora! That’s not the type of style I’m talking about… What I’m actually talking about is having a voice, a distinguishable style that people will come to you to get. A few brilliant artists come up with their own style like the Buena Vista Tattoo Club, which invented the trash polka tattoo style, a style that borrows from multiple other styles and hybridizes them into an overtly unique one. In any case, tattoo art is constantly evolving and adding new talented artists to its folds, so keep on top of trends, new styles and materials, and you should have a long creative career!

Are you a tattoo artist? Share your story with us in the comments section below – we’d love to see you leave you mark! (Get it?)




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