Things to Know About How to Become a Tattoo Artist

If you are an artist of some kind and have a few tattoos of your own that you love, you might be thinking, hey, I should go pro as a tattoo artist! It could be the move for you, but just know that you need more than a super-steady hand. We’re talking incredible mental concentration (bc some tattoos can take literally hours or days to finish), years of hard work (some without pay) and absolute dedication to your craft. Mistakes are par for the course—and yep, they’re permanent—and while, sure, you don’t need a degree to give a client some tattoo inks, learning from skilled tattoo artists, often with an apprenticeship, is a vital part of the process.

Since every artist has a different journey (and many, but not all of them, have studied fine arts), we chatted with a few people to find out how exactly they became tattoo artists. Between retired tattoer Melanie Nead, who was a custom tattoo artist for 12 years, during which time she owned Portland’s Icon Tattoo, Laura Martinez, a tattoo artist who specializes in florals and fine lines and the co-owner of Brooklyn’s Fleur Noire Tattoo Parlour, and Ashley Paige, who goes by the name Love, owner of the tattoo studio Artizmylov in Hyattsville, MD (an expert in realism, portraiture, Polynesian tribal, and colorful floral tattoos), we learned *a lot*. For one thing: It’s best to go into every tattoo with a set design plan, and make sure the artist and the client are always on the exact same page.

Many tattoo artists were formerly art students.

It’s common to get your start in other mediums before moving to a human canvas. “I always knew that I would be an artist. I didn’t know that I would be tattooing, specifically, but I’ve always wanted to make my living by making art,” Love says. It’s def a hustle though. She received a bachelor’s degree in painting and needed a way to make a steady living through art, so she took a leap and moved to San Diego, California, with her painting portfolio. “I went I went door to door until I found a Polynesian tribal tattoo shop that gave me an apprenticeship,” says Love. And the rest was history.

But being good at drawing doesn’t mean you’ll be good at tattooing.

You can think about it like the difference between drawing something on paper and carving a pumpkin, explains Nead. It definitely helps to have a natural aptitude for drawing, but it takes a long time to understand the difference between what you can draw and what you can tattoo. Like anything, your tattoo drawings will improve over time—it’s critical to start out with simple designs.

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Going to school is not a must.

“You do not need any specific education to be a tattoo artist, which is part of what I love about the tattoo world: We all come from very different backgrounds,” explains Martinez. You definitely do need to be trained, though, in sanitation, sterilization, blood-borne pathogens, and how to avoid damaging the skin while you work.

Save money before you start, because you might have to work for free for a period of time.

Nobody’s great at tattooing until they practice, but the thing is—you can’t get practice without tattooing flesh. Some people practice on grapefruits, but a grapefruit can’t really compare to a nervous, sweating, breathing, vulnerable human being. Most artists start out as apprentices, which is basically like unpaid training. At Nead’s shop, they tattooed for free for the first year, just doing very simple designs. (She says you’d be surprised by how many clients you can get when you’re offering services for free.) Even a year or two after Nead started, she was still tattooing at a heavily discounted rate, simply because she wasn’t as fast or as skilled as other artists.

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