A career as a tattoo artist is anything but a "typical" job. One day is never quite like the next, and there are all sorts of clients that an artist may cross paths with.
Not to mention, the hours can range from early morning or late into the evening, and the pay can vary too. This is especially true in the first few years when artists are making a name for themselves and establishing a solid client list.
The work eventually becomes more steady in terms of pay, but everything else is still subject to change. An artist may draw a tattoo on an ankle one day, then start someone's sleeve the next.
If you keep thinking of becoming a tattoo artist, there's probably a good reason for that. It's worth pursuing your passion and seeing where this career can take you.
Before getting started, consider these seven things.
1. You Have to Build Your Credibility
There's no crash course in how to become a tattoo artist. You have to go old-school and get an apprenticeship with an established artist.
Apprenticeships are hard to come by.
It may take you years to develop a relationship with an artist before they finally take you on as an apprentice. Each shop has its own rules on how apprenticeships work. You can't expect your experience to be like your buddy's who just became a tattoo artist or like the person who you end up studying under, either.
What you can expect is for it to teach you a whole lot about the tattoo world, and for your mentor to help you nurture your skills. You'll be working really hard - and you have to be patient as you do so. It's not uncommon for apprenticeships to last a few years before a person is considered ready to be a tattoo artist.
2. You'll Be Doing a Lot of Drawing
Your apprenticeship is heavily focused on drawing. You have to get the artwork down before you learn how to use a tattoo needle and master the best practices of tattooing.
Even after your career takes off, it will always come back to drawing.
Crafting this skill helps you create amazing tattoo designs for clients. It's part of booking sessions, and it's the foundation of the tattoo you end up inking onto someone's body.
3. Some of Your First Tattoos May Be on Yourself
Tattoo artists usually have a lot of tattoos themselves, and some of those are ones they've done on their own body. So, be ready to roll up your sleeves from time to time and get to work. It may sound a little weird, but it's actually a great way to learn how to tattoo when you're just starting out.
Tattooing yourself builds your confidence and gives you a real feel for how the needle works. Apprentices sometimes practice on orange peels or faux skin, but nothing quite compares to the real thing.
4. It's Smart to Pick a Niche
Another thing that will come up as you're starting your tattoo career is the direction that you want to take. The best way to ensure long-term success is to pick a niche.
Do you want to focus on American Traditional tattoos or would you rather explore the art of watercolor tattoos? Are you fond of Polynesian tattoo styles or do you love Japanese designs?
These are questions you have to answer during your time as an apprentice. Actually, you should figure out your niche before you choose who you want to study under.
It makes more sense to study under an artist who works in your preferred niche than to learn about tattoos from a person who doesn't.
5. You Should Say "No" Sometimes
There's an ethics behind being a tattoo artist that not everyone understands.
It's kind of like an unspoken code that reputable artists follow. This is in addition to the basic safety standards that every single tattoo artist needs to abide by.
Tattoo ethics include things like not tattooing a neck piece or knuckle tattoos on a young person. Even if they're of legal age, they're too young to understand the possible repercussions.
A young person with a neck tattoo will have a lot harder time finding a job than someone of the same age without it. A 30- or 40-year-old, on the other hand, doesn't have as much to worry about in terms of their career track.
Still, it's up to you to say "no" when you get requests that clients may not understand the extremity of. This also applies to things like name tattoos or pieces that you aren't confident will turn out good on someone's body.
6. You'll Find Yourself Educating Clients a Lot
Be prepared to give an explanation every time you turn a client away. You want to make sure they understand why some tattoos aren't a good idea. Otherwise, they may just go get it somewhere else once they find an artist willing to do the job.
It's also good to educate clients that you're working with. Tell first-timers what they need to do to take the best care of their tattoo and how to ease into getting more. Also, discuss things like color preservation and coverups with clients who have a lot of work on them already.
7. You Have to Take Care of Yourself
This is kind of a given with any career, but it's good to wrap your mind around before you dive into the life of a tattoo artist.
You're going to work late hours some days - and be hunched over for many hours at a time too. Your work will be ridiculed even after you've been an artist for years. You'll be tired and have tough clients sometimes.
But, if this is what you're really passionate about, it will all be worth it. This is even especially true if you remember to take care of your body and your overall wellbeing. Stretch whenever you can, stand behind your work, and just be a good artist.
Everything else will work itself out.
Becoming a Tattoo Artist While Balancing Careers
Whether you're thinking about becoming a tattoo artist right out of college or you're interested in making a career change, have a backup plan.
This isn't to say your first career choice won't work out. But, you need to be able to generate some sort of income while you're an apprentice.
For help finding a side hustle to support your main career goal, check out these options.