Monday, May 27, 2013

How to Get a Tattoo Apprenticeship

 When I first started-out looking for an apprenticeship, I was already well into my life.  I had been in the Army for four years, and spent another four years in college (Fine and Graphic Arts).  I had two divorces and two children under my belt.  Honestly, it was not the best time to become career-minded, especially moving into a career that most people considered (at the time) suspect at best.  Prior to looking to become a tattoo apprentice, I had managed a gas station and a video store.  I had worked maintenance for a big-box retailer.  I was a security guard.  I had worked in a metal foundry.  I was a logistics support technician for Hewlett Packard.  I did customer support for AT&T.  I was even an Executive Account Manager for a national data-management firm.

 Career-wise I had been all-over the map; blue-collar, white-collar, no-collar.  I wanted to be a tattoo artist because I knew that being a tattoo artist would make me happy.  No matter what I did at other gigs or how much money I made, I was never happy.  In fact, more often than not, I was miserable.  I was an artist, and though I was good at most everything I did (earning promotions and raises as quickly as possible), it was never what I wanted to do.

 I have an art-degree, essentially a piece of paper that says that I had four years of classes and created artwork close enough to my professors' expectations to pass a sufficient number of those classes and earn a certain number of credit hours.  That experience, while wonderful in-and-of itself, translates to very little in the real-world.  Not exactly a lot of demand for classical painters and the like.  I know my way around photoshop, but I don't have the certifications that many graphics and commercial firms like to see.  It seemed like I had all this training, along with talent and skill, and no marketable way to use it.

 I had always loved and been inspired by tattoo-art, but had always been told that it was not a career to invest in.  It wasn't until I did my own digging that I found out just how legit a career tattooing could be.  A tattoo artist can make between $30,000 to $50,000 a year on average, really just starting out if they are good and at a fair shop with regular walk-in traffic.  More importantly, the relative number of hours a tattoo artist actually works, compared to someone earning the same income at another job, is significantly smaller.  A tattoo artist's day is generally spent waiting at the shop for a customer (there are other things that a good tattoo artist will do while he or she waits, but that is for another blog).  They can do $100 worth of work in about 1 hour, earning roughly the same as a guy working a regular job at $13.00 and hour after taxes for 8 hours.  That means that the tattoo artist has 7 more hours for themselves every day that the regular guy does not.

  The problem is that while the regular job is consistent; 5 days a week, 8 hours a day, $X an hour, a tattoo artist might not get a tattoo done for days... and then have to hustle to make their money in the weekend.  The regular guy knows the work (and the paycheck) will be there.  The tattoo artist generally has to hope for the best.

 One of the very first pieces of advice I got was that tattooing is a young-person's game.  The guy telling me that had recently opened a shop.  He had been doing tattoos for a while, but had gotten into it late in life and was getting ready to retire from a factory.  The shop was a way to supplement his retirement and give him something to do.  He had hired a much younger artist to do the bulk of the work.  He wasn't being an asshole... he was speaking from experience.

 Tattooing is a young-person's game.  What he meant by that was that the younger you get into tattooing, the better-off you will be.  You could say the same about any career, really, but this especially applies to tattooing.  What he meant has a lot to do with what I said earlier about the income you earn as a tattoo artist.  Your income is inconsistent.  Some weeks you might not make any money, while other weeks you will be flush with funds.  Your bills, however, will be consistent, and if you don't pay them on time then whatever those bills are related to goes away.  Don't pay the rent, you get kicked out of your home.  Don't make a car payment, then you lose your wheels.  Don't pay for groceries, and you risk starving. 

 If you're young when you get into tattooing, then you have less of these obligations to be concerned about, and you have (generally) fewer people relying on you if and when you cannot meet those obligations.  If you get into tattooing when you are 18, you can probably fall back on mom and dad for support, so most if not all of your earnings you can use for yourself.  If you are an adult with a wife, a litter of kids, and all the bills associated with that, then getting into tattooing is a little more difficult.

 The first, and probably the largest hurdle, is the apprenticeship.  Technically, you can learn to tattoo without an apprenticeship, but I would not recommend it.  You will make more mistakes, possibly learn some bad-habits, and take years to learn what an apprentice learns in months under the tutelage of an experienced artist.  However, during most typical apprenticeships, you make no money.  You are expected to be at the shop whenever your mentor is at the shop (often 12 hours a day and 5 days a week), which means you really have no time for a job... or a life for that matter.  This is where the support of your family really makes a difference.  An apprenticeship might last 2 years, and while you might be able to get a part-time job (if it is convenient for your mentor to have you out of the shop), you could be facing those two years without an income.

 If you can convince your family members that this is essentially like going to college and getting a degree, then their support will come much easier.  A tattoo apprenticeship is career training; it is a 2 year certification during which time you will be learning not only how to tattoo, but all about safety and sterilization procedures, business management (specific to the tattoo industry), machine operation and maintenance, and a variety of other skills.  The environment is different and the career-field is not exactly mainstream, but the experience is no less complex and if you stick with it you end up with a trade that will serve you for the rest of your life.

 Ideally, if this is the route you are going no matter what your age, you have some talent as a draftsmen.  You can draw.  Understand that being a great artist is not a prerequisite to being a tattooist.  Being a great artist can even be a hindrance.  There is a difference between "art" and "tattoo art", and when you are well-versed in "art" it can make aspects of "tattoo art" difficult to accepts.  The expectations you develop applying ink to paper are woefully inadequate for ink applied in skin.  Still, being able to draw is a plus. 

 Before you even pick-up a tattoo machine, you should study "tattoo art".  Most tattoo art relies heavily on the black line to define form.  Tattoo ink is not opaque (even the inks labeled "opaque"), so darker colors will show through lighter colors.  This can be used to your advantage.  Blends and transitions are achieved not so much by laying one color on-top of the other, but instead by feathering or shading one color through another (shading is a tattoo process that uses the needle to sporadically dot the skin with pigment leaving open-spaces to create the illusion of a transitional tone as opposed to filling the space with pigment).  Skin, over time, changes, distorting and blurring a tattoo.  A good tattoo not only accounts for this in its design, but is placed on the body to take advantage of the skin's movement.  You can read an article about tattoo design here.

 Studying tattoo art involves looking at the work of other artists.  There are a number of tattoo publications that are good for this (and not much else).  There are also several on-line artists communities; both focusing on tattoos or not, where tattoo artists display there work and interact with the public.  It is helpful not only to study the art itself, but the different styles of artists... even those artists who's typical work you might not be drawn to.  I am interested in erotic, occult-oriented, horror, and generally "masculine" tattoo work, and this is where I focused my attention when designing tattoo-art (flash).  However, the bulk of the tattoo work I do is cursive lettering, hearts, butterflies, cherries, and tribal designs.  I have had to gain an appreciation for those kinds of tattoos by studying the work of artists who specialize in those designs.

 This leads me to another aspect of being a tattoo artist.  Usually, especially early in your career, you will not be doing the tattoos you want to do.  You will be doing what the customer requests of you... and their requests will be redundant as well as less-than-spectacular.  Until you are able to take a mediocre flash-design and make it spectacular, no one will be coming to you about your designs.  This is just a part of the development process.  You have to love tattooing above the particular kind of art you would prefer to tattoo.

 Read about tattoos and tattooing.  As I stated above; there are several publications that are good for seeing tattoo art.  These publications cater to the tattoo-collector, not the tattoo artist.  Most publications that cater to the tattoo artist you will not find on any news-stands, and often you have to be in the industry (ie, working at a shop) to have access to them.  Books abound about tattooing that are available to the public.  Many books focus on the history of tattooing, its cultural impact, and how to go about selecting a tattoo-design and a tattoo artist.  This information is a MUST for any tattoo artist, as these books are setting the expectations in the minds of your better customers... the ones who aren't coming in asking for a design off the wall. They are invested in their tattoo, they are willing to pay large sums of money for good work, they will be coming to you as a repeat customer if you meet those expectations, and they will recommend their friends and family to you.  They are good customers because they understand the investment they are placing in their tattoo work and have chosen YOU to invest in.  Many of those books provide information to the customers about not only design but what safety guidelines are a must to follow. 

 Several books specifically about tattooing exist.  I recommend "Tattooing A-Z" by Huck Spaulding as an excellent first resource, along with the companion DVD.  While the information cannot replace an apprenticeship (and much of what is presented will not truly make sense until you are in a position to have a mentor explain it to you), it does provide a good foundation for all aspects of tattooing.  Other books should also be explored.  A good tattoo artist is always learning and studying his craft.

 If you can get access to a tattoo artist in a shop, they are your best resource.  They will not answer all of your questions... some things are shared only with apprentices, but they can talk to you about the industry itself, tattoo design, and might even provide their opinions about tattoo publications, resources, and equipment.  Having a relationship with an artist in a shop can also blossom into an apprenticeship over time.  Another possible resource are tattoo conventions.  In most large cities there are several tattoo conventions each year, spanning a weekend to a week in length.  This is a good way to meet tattoo artists who are generally more chatty because, unless they are busy, they have little else to do but sit at their booth and talk.  Tattoos are generally done right out in the open, so you can also observe many artists and the techniques being used... comparing and contrasting one artist from another and from what you have read or seen elsewhere.

 A big step in learning about tattooing is getting a tattoo yourself.  Other than being an apprentice, there is no way which places you closer to the tattoo process without being a tattoo artist.  You will be able to observe the tattoo process, feel how the tattoo is applied, and more freely ask questions about tattooing.  Being in the seat also gives you a perspective on what your customers might experience from you in the future.

 Drawing tattoo flash and having it evaluated at local tattoo shops helps teach you about tattoo design and gives you another route of access to tattoo artists without an apprenticeship.  It does require that you have a bit of a thick skin; that you are able to take criticism.  Tattoo artists are not often known for their tact and tend to be very blunt about their opinions, and some artists (and shops) actively discourage budding artists to help decrease potential competition or to put those artists "through their paces" (tattooing requires dedication to your craft, and the theory is that it should not be easy to become a tattoo artist... that this dedication should be proven through often harsh treatment).  When presenting your flash designs to a tattoo artist, you want them to be as professional as possible.  The standard flash-sheet format is 11X14", and includes 3 or more designs per sheet.  Two versions of each sheet should be made, one "colored" (or shaded, if it is gray-work), and one of just "line-work" (just the outlines of the design with nothing filled in).  The preferred method for coloring tattoo flash sheets is water-color paints or colored pencils (as they best replicate the actual tattoo).  The next-best method of presentation is a sketchbook.  Under no circumstances should you present a lined note-book with your designs.  This is considered very unprofessional and suggests that you have no real understanding of the industry or desire to be considered a professional.  Everything about the tattoo process is intentional and planned in advance.  A lined notebook says that you did whatever came easiest and took no time to really prepare. 

 After much study and personal introspection (are you sure you want to be a tattoo artist?), you should consider purchasing tattoo equipment.  Understand that, unless you are in the industry (ie, working in a shop), you will not have access to what is considered "professional" equipment, at least not through most tattoo publications.  The difference between professional equipment and non-professional equipment often is simply the quality of materials used to make the equipment.  A professional tattoo machine will function more consistently as expected than a non-professional machine, but the function itself does not vary greatly.  Needles, tubes, and ink are where there is the greatest variance in quality that can effect the tattoo.  While direct sales channels are closed to most people, indirect channels, such as conventions or on-line auction sites like eBay will give the public access to professional equipment.

 If the buyer can tell the difference.

 Unless you know what you are buying and are confident that this is indeed what you want to do, it is not worth investing hundreds of dollars in tattoo equipment at this time.  You will be using your equipment for study only, so your equipment should be what you can easily afford, especially your non-reusable equipment like inks and needles.  You should get two or three machines, one of which will be for taking apart to study the individual components (having a spare means that if you cannot get the first machine together again you still can study the operation of the other).  An inexpensive power-supply, clip-cord, and foot-pedal, along with inks, needles, and tubes, are all you really need to study.

 What you will be studying with the purchase of equipment is the differences and nuances in equipment, technical terminology, and the operation.  You can look all day at a technical schematic of a tattoo machine on-line, but until you have held one in your hand, hooked it up to a power-supply and watched it operate, and taken one apart, the information on a schematic will not mean much to you.  This is also why you do not want to spend a great deal of money on materials.  It should all be considered throw-away goods.  Your inks will not be used on people, and only serve to allow you to see the consistency of the ink, to paint with the ink, and to use on practice materials in the study of your machine operation.

 When studying practical machine operation, many people practice on material like grapefruits, oranges, of even chicken skin.  A plastic practice-skin is available on the market, but I would not recommend it.  Instead, I recommend going to your local butcher or meat department and asking for pig-skin, which is sold less per pound than the other options and is the closest to human skin.  Unfortunately, it does not keep well, and should be used the same day it is purchased.  The intention of the exercise is so you can see and gain a basic understanding of the machine's operation.  Understand that seeing a machine run a line through pig-skin teaches you nothing about depth, consistency, or safety.  It only shows you that the machine is operating and how the needle performs in the skin.

 Keep in mind that most shops and tattoo artists frown on people practicing tattooing without proper supervision, so studying equipment should not be considered "practice".  Studying, however, gives you a head-start on developing a feel for the heft and operation of the machine, how the needles applies ink into the skin, the frequency with which the needles needs to be "charged", the kind of lines each needle creates, and beginning to develop an ear for the sound of a properly running machine ("tuning" a machine is the least efficient way to determine proper operation, but it is the most common manner).  It also provides you an opportunity to practice machine maintenance.

 You should photograph your efforts on pig-skin to document your progress.  When you approach a tattoo-studio about an apprenticeship, your pig-skin portfolio along with tattoo designs may help make your case, especially if you demonstrate skill and an understanding of the proper safety procedures.  If you have made the mistake of tattooing someone or yourself, do not include photos of tattoos you have done on other people.  Nothing can kill an potential apprenticeship faster than someone willing to ignore the safety of themselves and their customers by tattooing outside of a shop without professional training.  This is another reason why shops tend to disapprove of the sale of tattoo equipment to those outside the industry... the temptation to tattoo friends and family (and to potentially earn money doing so) is too great. 

 However, let us have a moment of total honesty here.  There modern safety protocols and practices were developed by old-school electric tattoo artists (as opposed to the ancient tattoo practices) who themselves often did not have an apprenticeship.  They purchased or built their own equipment and learned to tattoo in their garage or basement.  It was a risky business and the quality of tattoo work was not always the greatest.  Much of the prohibition against learning to tattoo without an apprenticeship was developed purely to protect their livelihood... the concerns about public safety were secondary.  Having worked in the industry, I have seen a number of artists who never apprenticed, who learned to tattoo on their own (or worse, in prison), built a fair portfolio, passed themselves off as professional artists, and were hired.  They may have tattooed for years out of a back-room in their apartment.  At the end of the day, a professional tattoo artist is defined by three qualities; his knowledge of tattooing, his knowledge (and not necessarily his adherence) to proper safety procedures, and most importantly the strength of his portfolio.  An apprenticeship is the short-road to becoming a professional tattoo artist, but not the only road.  In spite of all that, those self-taught tattooers almost universally agree that if they had the opportunity to do it over again they would opt for an apprenticeship.

 Ideally, these first steps should be taken while you are in high school or earlier.  As a teen-ager, you have the advantage of time and family-support.  What is often lacking is the ambition, drive, and dedication that comes with experiencing the real world as an adult.  Also, as an adult, you don't have to be concerned about a family refusing to support your efforts, you can buy your own resources and materials.  If, as a teen-ager, you have the drive to do all the above, by the time you are 18 or 19 you could be working as a professional artist.  Usually, though, it is the adult who has the drive, but is hampered by life's obligations.

 So, what do you do if your in your 20's or 30's, you have a job, bills, even kids?  Well, you have to understand that all the above is going to take you longer, and you are going to have to make some sacrifices.  You will need to immerse yourself into the tattoo industry as much as possible.  Get tattoos, draw and try to sell your flash to shops, go to conventions and shows, learn all you can, and practice.  Stay dedicated to whatever goals you set for yourself.  If you are set on getting an apprenticeship, then keep talking to local shops while preparing for the potential financial hardship of being able to only work part-time (or not having a job at all) presents.

 Be prepared to be told "no".  Some shops have it as a policy to say "no" the first time to anyone who asks about an apprenticeship.  If you don't have the drive to try to overcome your initial "no", then you don't have what it takes to be a tattooer.  Find a shop and artist you like, who you feel will give you the education you are looking for, and who seem open to interacting with you.  Then, make yourself available.  See about helping out with shop chores; running fliers, taking out the trash, being a go-fer.  Keep asking for advice about your tattoo designs.  Get tattooed.  If you can demonstrate both desire, tenacity, and talent, you have a greater likelihood of becoming an apprentice.  

 Check out this article on how to find a shop, and how to pick an artist.

 If, however, an apprenticeship is out of reach or if you have been studying and practicing for several years, you will have to make a decision.  As a professional artist, I cannot stress enough the value of an apprenticeship.  However, as a realist, I recognize that not only is an apprenticeship not always going to be available but also that many of the best known names from the earliest times of the modern industry did not go through an apprenticeship, nor did many of the professional artists working today.  At some point, someone is going to look at your pig-skin portfolio and be blown-away.  They are going to suggest that you should be tattooing, and possibly even offer to pay you to tattoo them.  When that day comes, you will have to make that decision, as an adult.  If you and your client believe that you have the skills, and you are confident that your familiarity and adherence to the safety procedures you learned will keep you and your client safe...  Just know that you are risking not only their safety and yours, but also your reputation and integrity as a tattooer.  Make the wrong choice, and getting an apprenticeship will be next to impossible.

Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him a message at

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