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Learning How to be a Professional Tattoo Artist

Updated on July 4, 2013

The Right Way to Learn?

There are a couple of ways a person can learn how to become a tattoo artist. One of these methods has managed to get a large part of the tattoo artist community riled up recently. That would be the influx of structured tattoo schools that have opened up in the past 10 to 15 years. Many artists don't believe that a short course is adequate for learning the trade.

If you can afford the tuition, you can attend a tattoo school offering classroom settings to teach you the basics of tattooing.

TLC has been airing a couple of reality shows featuring tattoo schools. The shows follow the students as they attend the daily classes. You see how the students progress as they learn basic needle groupings, equipment handling, and tattoo techniques. They progress from very basics to working on real live volunteers.

Even though these shows get some bad press and negative, nasty feedback from seasoned tattoo artists, the shows received a good audience and positive reviews from the general public. from and In Recently, one of the schools got it’s own reality show which is what caused all the drama.

The problem is some tattoo artists feel that this is not the way to learn the craft. They believe the only way to become a tattoo artist is to earn an old fashioned apprenticeship at a tattoo shop. This is the way it was done in the old days and they believe that is still the only way to go.

Some people learn on their own. Sometimes this works out but in most cases that’s not the case. These artists are called scratchers and sometimes give tattoos out of their homes. This can pose a possible health threat if equipment isn't properly sterilized.

Some scratchers move on to an apprenticeship or they'll sometimes be hired to work as an artist in a real shop. It'll mostly depend on their skills and how much technical knowledge they picked up on their own.

Here, I wanted to explain the differences in the different methods.

The Apprenticeship

People are attracted to this profession for so many reasons. First, it’s a glamorous, popular, and, now, respected profession. It’s a cool profession! Tattoos are popular so being in the business makes you popular. It’s become a fashionable trade right now so some people are caught up in the “idea” of being a tattoo artist. Others think it’s an “easy” way to make lots of money.

One of the reasons for the apprenticeship is to weed out the individuals that really aren’t going to be dedicated to the craft. People that aren’t ready to make some sacrifices will probably quit well before the apprenticeship is done. Once they realize the work and effort they need to be successful in this career, they come to their senses.

A traditional apprenticeship usually last 1 – 2 years and in lot of cases the apprentice begins his new career right in the same shop. This is a nice reward for making it through the apprenticeship.

Getting an Apprenticeship

1. Portfolio – When applying for an apprenticeship, your artwork should be presented in a professional portfolio. Show the shop owner or manager a nice variety of your best pieces. Don’t bring in some sketches you did on lined paper.

The competition for an apprenticeship is going to be fierce. You want to present yourself as someone that is committed to his art and is going to take the apprenticeship seriously.

2. Look presentable and treat a meeting with a shop owner with the respect you would for any other job. Maybe you don't have to dress up in a suit but don't show up with holes in your clothes and unshaven. Show up on time. Dealing with customers means you need to be reliable and punctual. This is an area a lot of artists have a problem with.

Working as an Apprentice

1. Cleaning Up – Be aware. Most apprenticeships begin with tasks such as cleaning the shop. Mopping floors, cleaning bathrooms, and emptying the garbage are some of your typical responsibilities. I think of this as similar to a college initiation. It’s to humble you. It will test your willingness to put up with the menial tasks.

2. While you are in this position of an apprentice you will need to be patient, ask a lot of questions, and observe as much as possible. You will do any job that is asked of you no matter how you feel about it.

3. You will be a helper to all of the artists in the shop. You will scrub and sterilize their equipment. You’ll prepare their stations for customers. Lay out their gloves and tools. Help them as needed.

4. You may begin by creating stencils for the artists. Drawing up sketches. Each shop is different so each apprenticeship will be different.

5. Once you begin to tattoo be willing to accept criticism and take it seriously. Tattooing is a constant learning experience.

6. At one time, it was understood that an apprenticeship comes with no pay. More sacrifice for the hopeful artist. Now, from what I understand, in some shops it’s up to the artist to “tip” the apprentice. The more tattoos the artist does, the more money the apprentice could possibly earn.

7. Another form of apprenticeship has the artist paying the shop owner for the right to do an apprenticeship there. This is usually done with a legal agreement between them and typically costs thousands.

Artist at Work

The Good and Bad of Being a Tattoo Artist


The work hours are usually easy for young artists. Most parlors are open around lunch time until late at night.

Dress Code – none in most shops.

Pay is good – Yes, if you’re a good artist and you have a reputation. It takes time to build up a following. You may have few appointments in the beginning. It'll also depend on the shop and how much of their traffic is walk-ins. Once you've done some kick-ass tattoos, the word will get around. People will recommend you. Eventually your calendar will be full. Just don't expect to be raking in thousands every week from day one.

Just don’t enter the business for the money alone. You have to have a passion for the art to be any good at it. You'll only be successful if you're a good artist.

Rules and Regulations – are usually lax. Shops work out different agreements with artists but usually there is a lot of independence associated with a career as a tattoo artist. In some shops you are only renting a booth and only have to work when you want to.


Smelly people. Dirty people. Obnoxious people. Smelly, dirty, obnoxious people.


Study everything you can find on the tattoo industry. Study the work of the pioneers of tattooing. People like Sailor Jerry, Lyle Tuttle and Ed Hardy. Find out what you can about the current stars of the industry.

If you’re not a people person, this art form may not be your cup of tea. You are going to have to deal with customers. In most cases, your customers will likely be positive and very happy and pleased with their experience.

Most of the successful artists I’ve read about have this strong belief that they have to have a connection with the client. Their aim is to look for the customer’s best interest.

Look for an apprenticeship with a studio that produces good body art, has safe working practices, and treats their artists like professionals.

Don’t be misled by the reality TV shows you watch on TLC. It makes the work look easier than reality. It doesn’t convey the long days and hours spent sketching up pictures for clients that’s usually done on your own time. It doesn’t show those days when business is slow and the money is scarce.


Tattoo school is basically a trade school which I think has it’s place. It’s true that you won’t learn EVERYTHING in 2 weeks - but that’s understood. You get the minimal basics. It’s up to the student as to what he does with his knowledge from there. I have to say that I know of 2 artists (personally) that graduated from a 2 week class who went on to permanent positions in tattoo shops. One has competed at tattoo conventions and has won awards! They both do beautiful work.

Obviously, there’s still much to learn from seasoned veterans but, fortunately, some tattoo shops are willing to take in a school graduate and expand their training on the job. Some people take to tattooing very naturally and with just a 2 week class, they’re able to quickly transition into working in a professional shop. Working on clients with the support of the shop employees of course. Artists are continuously improving their style and skill level. These students just have that much more to learn.

Career as a Tattoo Artist

Do You Want to be a Tattoo Artist?

See results

List of Tattoo Schools

All of these schools vary in their length and cost. Some also offer piercing classes if you're interested in rounding out your resume. Most offer some type of financing plan to help with the cost.

World's Only Tattoo School - opened in 1968. This program stands out from the normal programs. Dr. Pogue “uses neuro-linguistics to achieve high results in power-training artistic individuals” to become successful and competent tattoo artists. His program is short and intensive. He offers a one day course, a 2 day course and a 2 week course.

Denver Body Art School

The Tattoo Learning Center - first school was located in Rotterdam, New York and operated by Lisa Fasulo. Two additional branches/schools opened in California and Florida.

Tattoo Training School - Professional Tattoo Artist Education - A Virginia Licensed Tattoo School

Tattoo Artist Technical Training School - located in Escondido, CA

Advice on Learning How to Tattoo


Some of you may not be familiar with this term. It's a person that has not had any official training or guidance when it comes to tattooing. They learn on their own and usually operate an illegal business out of their home – in a spare room. These people are usually looked down upon by the professional artists in the business. One of the problems is many of these artists don’t practice the same strict sterilization practices required by professional shops and artists. Some of them pose a real health threat to themselves and the people they work on. They may not follow good guidelines because they lack the right equipment or they just don’t know any better.

Most states will monitor the licensed shops in the area. Some states require that the artists take annual classes on blood borne diseases. Other states send a person to test the autoclaves used in the shop (an autoclave sterilizes tattoo equipment) to be sure the equipment is operating correctly.

Visiting a scratcher for your tattoo can be a risky undertaking.


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