[Edited: July 07, 2023]
Figuring out how to become a tattoo artist is no easy task. Truth be told, when it comes to making your mark (yeah, that’s a pun) in the tattoo industry, the ability to draw or sketch well accounts for about 1% of what it takes to become an artist who is respected among their peers.
The rest of it involves an incredible amount of hard work, a thick skin (yip, another pun), and the die-hard and determined’ attitude that makes the tattoo industry what it is. Still keen on that career filled with latex gloves, ink stains, long hours and needles? Glad to hear it. Welcome to our guide on becoming a badass tattoo artist.
The tattoo industry has seen many young hopefuls come and go. Many came for the allure of being seen as, well, a ‘badass’, and many went simply because they weren’t prepared to put in the work required of them to join the ranks of the best tattoo artists around.
So, in the interest of separating the ‘willing and able’ from the fiercely determined, we've decided to share some inside info and a little tough love insight on what it takes to become part of the closely guarded underworld of tattoo artistry.
Who knows? Maybe after reading this, you’ll turn out to be someone worthy of getting hired by one of those iconic tattoo shops.
What makes the best tattoo artists so badass?
There are two kinds of professionals in the world. There’s the wannabe corporate exec with dreams of an overpriced house, an underwhelming car that looks cool but drives like a wheelbarrow and a soul-crushing commitment to a job they hate.
Enter the professional artist
Then there’s the professional artist. The professional artist is an artisan. A creative soul focused on giving the world something beautiful that will live on long after they’re gone, inspiring others and existing as the stuff that dreams are made of. From masters of oil paint and canvas to digital graphic geniuses, once-in-a-generation designers, moviemakers, writers, poets and – of course – the professional tattoo artist, these crafters, creatives and dreamers represent the beauty in this world.
Putting the ‘ass(piring)’ into ‘badass’
Of all the artists out there, the ones dedicated to marking our flesh have earned a reputation feared among some corners of society and revered in others. Powered by Hollywood imagery of leather, piercings and a fierce ‘don’t ever mess with me’ attitude, the professional tattoo artist, in reality, is a true professional.
These passionate specialists have dedicated – in many cases – their lives to tattooing. They’ve mastered an age-old profession, adapting and evolving with ever-shifting trends, technologies and challenges. Dependent on maintaining the highest degrees of safety in their work, tattoo artists rely on their reputations and word-of-mouth marketing that most other careers rarely see.
Forget about reputations
In spite of the mainstream impression that tattoo artists are gang-affiliated crazies simply looking for a creative outlet for their dark ambitions of wanton destruction, the professional tattoo artist is, almost 100% of the time, your typical average Joe. Many of them have families, enjoy picnics and long walks in the park (when they’re not tattooing), and, like you, have dreams and hopes of their own.
Steps for how to become a tattoo artist
So why is becoming a professional tattoo artist so tough? And why aren’t there more of them? Well, because it ain’t easy. Longtime veterans of the tattoo game are willing to defend their profession to the very end, and as the industry continues to grow, regulatory bodies and even governments are recognising the important role played by these masters of a timeless craft.
Here's a quickfire overview of what you’ll need to do to get started on how to become a tattoo artist.
- Discover your passion
The quickest way to fail at learning how to become a tattoo artist is to dive in without any passion. Make sure that becoming a professional tattoo artist is what you want to do, and try to figure out if you’re good enough to do it first.
Be honest with your artistic skills and capabilities, and ask people to give you a genuine appraisal of your talents. Tattooing and body piercing are very different, but even the latter requires patience, determination, and commitment to get right.
- Investigate opportunities
Next, consider if there are any opportunities available to pursue this adventure. While you may have read somewhere that there exists a huge demand for tattoo artists, COVID changed things – a lot. Tattoo shops, like restaurants, are prone to economic shifts and can often close down before they’ve had a chance to build a customer base.
Look at professional tattoo shops and studios in your area and spruce up your CV. Consider putting together a portfolio of your creations and any work you’ve done to date. Think about what you can do to upskill your knowledge and experience before approaching them, and don’t be afraid to call in a favour or two to get a foot in the door.
- Take up an apprenticeship
One of the reasons that the tattoo industry has survived and thrived as it has is because of how much the profession has been guarded and regulated – not by local authorities or associations, but by the artists themselves.
Tattoo apprenticeships allow you to learn from the best, perfect your talent and gain valuable experience before becoming an independent professional tattoo artist. Don’t be scared to put in the time working under a pro artist. Yes, it’s tough, and you won’t be cashing in on a big paycheck, but you’ll learn a lot and earn a reputation that will hold you in good stead going forward.
- Master your craft
Keep developing your skill, experimenting with different techniques and growing. Don’t be afraid to take risks and focus on being authentic rather than replicating someone else's style or work. Becoming a master of the tattooing craft is crucial to anyone looking to build a professional career.
Nothing burns a tattoo artist’s prospects faster than average, or worse, poor tattooing. Practice as often as possible and ask people to critique your work honestly and bluntly. The harder you work at it, the better you’ll be at it.
- Build your personal brand
Greenhorn tattoo artists are like aspiring musicians. While your partner, best friend and mom may absolutely love your music, convincing everybody else of your talent will take a little work.
Like budding musos, promote yourself during your journey in how to become a tattoo artist. Use tools like social media, the internet and events to spread the word about your art. Engage with people, share with them and build a community. Slowly but surely, people will remember who you are and as your reputation grows, so too will your success as an artist.
- Grow your customer base
Word of mouth is essential in the tattoo world. So is commitment and loyalty to your customers. People are more likely to return to the same tattoo artist over and over if they trust them enough to understand what they’re looking for.
Start thinking about your clients as loyal patrons who deserve your input and effort. They’re more than just a commission; they’re walking, talking advertising boards for you and likely to send even more people your way – if you engage with them and build that relationship.
- And tattoo with meaning
Only do it if you’re proud of it. Tattoo artists should be very careful about where they choose to ply their trade. Join a shop with a reputation for shoddy workmanship, and you’ll be associated with poor art.
Get a gig at a studio that thinks they can charge the price of a small car for a piece just because Justin Bieber liked an Instagram post, and you’ll have a hard time locking down a loyal customer base. Tattooing with meaning means doing what you love in a place that reflects your passion and shares in your values.
What it takes to be all the tattoo apprentice you can be
Now that you know what the road to professional tattooing looks like, here are a few tips and a little advice on how to be the best at it during your time training to become a pro.
- You have to earn your stripes– Prepare to work hard as a tattoo apprentice
Make no mistake, professional tattoo artists work their asses off to get to a point in their careers where they’re tattooing regularly. These artists spend years – sometimes decades – suffering in the pursuit of perfecting their craft and honing their skills before they’re finally entrusted with a needle.
Chances are they were trained by a badass old-school tattoo artist who demanded a hefty price (think: the souls of ten virgins or the like) before a single shred of wisdom was to be imparted.
Remember this the next time you walk into a tattoo shop expecting to receive a job offer right off the bat. That just isn’t going to happen – not at any tattoo place worth its salt, at least. Put in the effort, earn the respect of your peers, and you’ll reap the rewards.
- Wax on, wax off– Solid tattoo apprenticeships aren’t easy
If you’re lucky enough to land a tattoo apprentice gig at a professional tattoo studio, know that you will probably remain in the role for around two years, at least. During this time as you learn how to become a tattoo artist, however, you will learn what the words ‘clean’, ‘commitment’, ‘perfection’ and ‘dedication’ really mean.
Rest assured, you’ll no doubt receive absurd degrees of punishment for not cleaning well enough. This is not only because it’s fun (tattoo artists who’ve been through the appie wringer themselves do find joy in toughening up others) but because there is no such thing as ‘clean enough’ in a tattoo studio.
- Hello doctor– Where tattoo art meets top-shelf hygiene
Tattooing involves sharp needles, dealing with blood and the semi-permanent risk of infectious diseases. Tattooing professionals deal with bloodborne pathogens - contagious microorganisms in human blood – that can cause disease in humans and spread easily if not sanitised properly. These pathogens include hepatitis B (HBV), hepatitis C (HCV) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
It's up to the artist to practice sanitisation levels akin to most medical facilities. Failure on this front can sink an entire studio, incurring the wrath of your colleagues. So, if you do get screamed at for foolishly touching a sterile service with grubby hands, remember that it’s for the client’s, the studio’s and your own good. This is bound to happen, and when it does, suck it up, nod your head and never do it again.
- Practice makes perfect– The pursuit of tattooing excellence is a long road
After a tough day of cleaning every conceivable surface in the tattoo shop while taking countless hits from your superiors, just when you thought you were free to head home to ‘Netflix and Chill', it’s time to settle down with your drawing pad and get sketching. Because that’s what the best tattoo artists do.
In many top tattoo shops, the tattoo apprentice is expected to complete a tattoo drawing or sketch each day. These are often based on tattoo style and placement, which are then analysed, reviewed and discussed with more experienced artists at the end of a shift. While critiques are often harsh, those offering them provide invaluable expert advice on how and where to improve. Consider this a privilege and respect their time for looking over your creations.
- Chin up– Becoming a tattoo artist won’t always be so hard
Breaking into the tattooing industry is challenging; not everyone can cut it. Experienced artists can be tough on newbies for the first few years of their careers, not because they’re mean but because they’re entrusting the age-old profession to a new generation. That said, as time goes on, seasoned artists generally become friendlier and even quite encouraging – you just have to earn the love first.
For the time being, however, keep your head down and carry on cleaning until your time to shine comes along.
Conclusion – Find the badass tattoo artist within you
Learning how to become a tattoo artist takes a lot of work. While many people choose the corporate route, confined to a cubicle, waiting for that inevitable paycheck, month-in and month-out, their creativity and passion are stifled. They usually end up regretting the dead-straight road they’ve taken.
The best tattoo artists always have stories to tell. From impossible mentors to failures, victory through art, long hours, blood, sweat and little tears inked just below the eye to hide the real ones, tattooing is tough. Through hard work and dedication, you’ll eventually learn the ins and outs of the tattoo industry. If you can grow a thick enough skin, buckle down and keep pushing yourself to work harder than you’ve ever worked before, pretty soon, the doors of opportunity will open up for you as a professional tattoo artist who cherishes what they do.
So keep at it, find your path and never give up. Because there’s a badass tattoo artist in everyone – you just have to figure out how to get there.