Today a lot of people want to be tattooers, and here at the shop we get emails all week long asking for us to essentially “hand out” an apprenticeship. This article is my attempt to answer these emails in what I hope will be a helpful and honest response. I have based this information on my own experience tattooing for the past twenty-five years, as well as the experience of my colleagues dealing with the same influx of “copy paste” email requests for tattoo apprenticeships over the recent years. The below article is not intended to change minds on either end, it is also not the “end all/be all” of the world of tattoo education, but I do greatly believe in doing things correctly, and safely. A lot of the DOs and DONTs in this article have been written in previous articles online; these sources have been credited below and I encourage you to read them all.
Tattooing is full of rules and traditions. These rules and traditions are not arbitrary; they are handed down from those before us, and though they change and adjust through the times, they are necessary in preserving the craft for the future generations to come after us. Not only are we marking another human being for life, we quite literally have their heath in our hands at the same time. To be a tattooer, from my point of view, is an important task with a strong moral obligation towards the individuals who trust and rely on me to not only be a knowledgeable artist but to know and practice the safety requirements to preserve both our futures. When people eschew an apprenticeship, when they try to “figure it out” or find a “short cut”, the result is the same: people getting poor tattoos, unsafe tattoos. Consider what perspective this gives the minds of the public – and quite possibly heath officials – that could totally shut down the same profession you’re trying to break in to.
This article is my point of view based on 25 years of experience, having done an apprenticeship, and on seeing the results of dozens and dozens of fellow tattooers and their stories. You don’t have to agree with this article, but I hope you can at least appreciate that this article is something given for free to prospective apprentices willing and able to someday become not just tattooers, but good tattooers who are successful and a positive influence on the world of tattooing.
- DO get into tattooing through an apprenticeship. Sure you could “figure it out” the same way you could “figure out” how to defuse a bomb. The reality is that it’s far more likely that you will blow yourself up, and in tattooing you will be working on real live humans beings who deserve better. Everyone has a story about how so-and-so awesome tattooer just started scratching out of their house, but even these (extremely) rare exceptions will tell a newcomer that an apprenticeship is the way to go. If you’re reading this, I am sure you have already seen the countless videos and articles out there. I encourage you to check them all out repeatedly, and in some cases, with a grain of salt. Learn all you can through whatever means you’re able to, but without a mentor who also knows what he or she is doing you will be missing so much more than you could ever find elsewhere.
- DO start the whole process by getting tattooed yourself! I mean a LOT. Sleeves, large work, all that. No one is born knowing what makes a good tattoo. Its an acquired language; you need to be exposed to it personally before you even consider tattooing others. Getting tattooed is a secret door into understanding tattooing. Even clients with no intention of becoming a tattooer become knowledgeable after getting hours of work in the tattoo shop environment…it’s like learning a new language by living in a foreign country instead of just reading about it in a book. Getting a lot of work also shows a prospective mentor that you love tattooing and not just the image of it. Frankly, most tattooers won’t even entertain the idea of teaching someone who can’t be bothered to get tattooed themselves.
- DO draw a lot. Draw everything. So you have gotten that one skull down pat? Great, now draw a fairy, a beaver, a motorcycle, a flower, and a face. If all you can draw is skulls then you are useless as a tattooer. For me, the first big surprise in learning to tattoo was how rarely I did “cool” stuff! Especially in the beginning, our artistic skills will lag behind our vision. Even the best artist on paper has some adjustment time when they begin using a tattoo machine. Practicing with subjects outside of your comfort zone is great preparation for being a professional tattooer, where you never know what the next idea is coming through the door.
- DO read every book, magazine, and website on tattooing you can. Learn the history and mystique of tattooing. Respect for tattooing is worth a lot to a prospective mentor. All that “old stuff” isn’t just for historical curiosity, there are lessons to be learned even from the crudest old work. Studying where we came from gives us a huge bank of ideas and images to draw upon. In the modern world of Facebook/Instagram tattoo pages a new artist can find a level of work to aspire to (not copy) – having a goalpost to aim for helps to focus a new artist on getting up to speed quickly.
- DO remain open minded about every kind of tattooing. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen is “declaring your major” too early. In the beginning you should be open to all sorts of tattooing: all styles have something to teach you, and after several years of work you may find that your passion has led you to a totally different style than what attracted you at first. Besides, to a prospective mentor, an apprentice who declares that they are too good for tribal or Tasmanian devils is someone already too big for their britches.
- DO get lots and lots of work from the person you plan on asking for an apprenticeship. Someone walking in cold and asking for an apprenticeship is all TAKE, TAKE, TAKE. By getting work you show the tattooer you are serious, interested, and they have a chance to spend some time with you as well as a chance to gauge your dedication. Getting tattooed by your prospective teacher is probably your best bet for getting an apprenticeship if you don’t already know them personally. Don’t treat tattooing like the kind of thing you drop off an application for. This isn’t a summer job, its a whole new world and whole new life, treat it that way.
- DO be willing to sacrifice. You might be expected to work at the shop for free and still keep a job on the side. You might have to move to a whole different city to find someone willing to apprentice you. I personally moved to another state in the hope of acquiring an apprenticeship. If you have tried every shop in town and no one is taking apprentices, there is probably a reason. Perhaps business is slow in your town and no one wants to take on another mouth to feed at their shop. You might also be asked to do all kinds of menial work like cleaning, running errands, dealing with customers. Some of it is teaching you how to clean and set up tattoo equipment safely, and some of it is payment for the training you are receiving. If you can’t deal with some hard work, critiques, and what may seem like ball busting, tattooing may not be for you.
- DO understand that to be a tattooer is not merely a job. You become a representative of an art form we have given our lives to. It becomes your lifestyle, the hill you climb forever. I know a dozen tattooers who lost girlfirends/boyfriends when they started apprenticing because it was so all-consuming! Most tattooers feel that taking on an apprentice is special, it’s damn near sacred. Understand and respect what a huge amount of trust and respect taking you on as an apprentice is. Look at your desire honestly. If you think it will be easy money, lazy work, or a way to be cool then stop now, it is none of those things and you will be a poor representation of tattooing if you half-ass it.
- DON’T waste our time telling us how much you want it, how many years you have dreamed of it, don’t tell us how “good at it” your friend/mom thinks you would be. Talk is cheap, show us by doing, not saying. Most prospective mentors want someone who is humble and a hard worker, not a deluded maniac who will talk a good game and then balk when they are asked to mop, practice drawing, or do other unglamorous parts of their apprenticeship.
- DON’T badmouth other tattooers, even if it is your prospective mentor’s worst enemy. Being a shit-talker is simply proof to that shop that you will one day, sooner or later, be shit-talking them, too. Even if your mentor is the worst shit-talker around, it is a bad habit that will only hurt in the long run.
- DON’T ask via phone, email, internet or letter; do it in person or don’t bother. Anything else tells the tattooer that the gift of a tattoo life isn’t worth your time or appearing in person. An apprentice is an investment of time and effort, why would we give that to someone who can’t even be bothered to talk to us in person? Not only will asking “hey you taking apprentices?” on Facebook or email rub most tattooers the wrong way, it might even make it even harder to get a foot in the door at all. Word gets around in the tattoo community, and someone badgering folks online will not get you a good reference.
- DON’T show up without some artwork, bring examples of your artistic ability. Paintings and Photoshop art are nice, but what most tattooers really need to judge are drawings. It doesn’t have to be photorealism or Japanese art, but it should show a confidence in line, shading, and some understanding of color theory. I can’t tell you how many folks have shown me their while doodles in a notebook or napkin and acted amazed when I wasn’t interested in teaching them. We we are professional artists, so approach a prospective mentor in a professional manner with a professional-quality body of work if you want to be taken seriously. Establish a professional looking portfolio with examples of not only your recent work but also your older work. Establishing a “time line” of your work can help a perspective mentor gauge your learning curve or see where improvements could be made. If an artist should make suggestions to improve, do not take offense, in fact be thankful – go home and work hard on those suggestions, then perhaps revisit the artist again after you’ve developed your skills. I have found most people get so offended they leave angry never to return again or even bad mouth the very artist they initially sought to give them a lifetime of knowledge! Perhaps consider it a way for the artist to see how you handle such things as well, maybe its a good way to show growth and your ability to handle some instruction or a little critique, but its also a great way to see someones true character.
- DON’T be surprised if you are asked to pay for your apprenticeship, especially if you don’t personally know the artist. You are asking a mentor to teach you a lifetime of their knowledge. Knowledge that with your hard work can create an amazing life and even some financial freedom for your self. You pay professors at college for their knowledge, why would you not expect to pay a tattoo mentor for theirs? Chances are they paid somewhere along the line for what they know. Yes, I understand we all do not have tens of thousands of dollars to pay for an apprenticeship, I personally made and saved every dime I could for my own apprenticeship, but do not go in expecting a hand out for what took most of us blood, sweat, and tears to learn (sometimes literally). Visit the shop regularly, ask to help out, take out the trash, pick up a coffee or two, paint their damn building for them if you can. You’ll be better off for it and perhaps a step closer than that “copy paste” email you’re about to send every local shop in your area. Give before you take. There’s a lot of ways to weed out those who are not serious, paying for your apprenticeship is one of them. (BUT beware those shops who turn out a dozen apprentices a year for cheap money, chances are you will end up paying a couple grand to mop floors for 4 months and then get fired for some made up infraction). I’ve see it over and over again. This can be tricky and is why it helps to familiarize yourself with tattooing by reading and getting tattooed, know who is using an apprenticeship as a trick to fleece the unknowing.
- DON’T ask just anyone. Some (and in some places most) tattooers can’t tattoo, an apprenticeship with one of them is just the blind leading the blind. Educate yourself as to what a good tattoo looks like before you start asking around. Learn the language a bit before you start asking. Some tattooers are so bad that learning from them is effectively a step backward and I’ve seen people who did these sort of “apprenticeships” and later spent years undoing the poor habits that were instilled in them. Not only can some bad habits be detrimental to your success, but you may also find it hard to move forward in your career to better shops and improve your work. Most tattooers know who is who, and you don’t need to have the stigma of learning from a bad tattoo artist getting in your way because they were an easy start to “just get your foot in the door”…I’ve seen this happen many times over.
- DON’T expect to start tattooing right away, there is a LOT of groundwork to do first. Lots of apprentices don’t even touch a machine for a while! No matter how good an artist you are, tattooing is a skill acquired via repetition and practice, you will most likely be drawing a lot of roses and butterflies months before you tattoo even the most basic stuff. Just learning to safely and efficiently set up and break down a machine is a skill you will have to learn. In a good apprenticeship you will be making lots and lots of baby steps, and gradually building on each previously learned bit one at a time. Patience in learning to tattoo (and life) means that you will have a strong foundation when you start learning new skills. Don’t leave the nest before you can fly, either. All your baby steps will come together when the time is right and usually this is at the end of your formal apprenticeship. Too many have thought they were ready or were being held back, and when off on their own they thought they knew better. I have seen this happen many times, and each and every time they ultimately failed when they could have succeeded had they just trusted the mentor and the process.
- DON’T mistake the art of tattooing for an excuse to get up late, be lazy, dirty, drunk, high, or snotty, etc. You must be your own taskmaster. A good blue collar attitude towards your apprenticeship will help you learn fast, thoroughly, and with respect from your peers. There are guys who are jokes in this art form and don’t even know it, there are lots of tattooers who have a ton of talent and skill that can’t get hired anywhere reputable because of their known attitude problem, drug habit, or poor work ethic. The best artist in the world is useless to a shop if they are perpetually late and unprepared. A hard worker trumps a rockstar every time.
- DON’T pretend to be “in” already. You don’t have to be meek and submissive, but don’t act like the cool guy either, humility goes a long way. If you get an apprenticeship you will be working closely with the whole shop, be the sort of person you would like to hang out with day in and out. Your mentor will be your primary source of info, but everyone at the shop will help you as well if you are approachable. Don’t forget if you are in a shop that no matter what your position may be, you are a representative of that shop and the owners and artists will protect it furiously as it is there source of clientele, income, and most of all their “tattoo family”.
- BE CAREFUL of tattoo “schools”. They are a huge scam and not a single one is worth a damn. Some states require a license from these people and its a shame. The fact is that learning to tattoo means taking in small bits of information, learning to apply that info until it becomes automatic and then learning a new bit on top of the previous one. This takes time and practice, something no two-week (or 6-month) course could teach even if the “teachers” were any good. Again your reputation will precede you one way or another, and I do not know of a single worthwhile studio who would hire anyone after going to one of these schools. Save your money and time and find a mentor, or work hard until you do.
- BE CAREFUL of scumbag tattooers who see an apprentice as a way to get free money/labor/or even sex. Tattooing is wonderful, but nothing is worth being exploited for. If you find yourself in that situation then GET OUT, regroup, and start looking again. Never stay in a situation you feel is unsafe. Tattooing is amazing and the right kind of tattooers can be some of the most amazing people you’ll ever meet, don’t let the bad ones discourage you if this is your passion.
- BE CAREFUL in learning the basics of cross-contamination and how to maintain a safe relationship to the bloodborne pathogens you will be encountering in tattooing. It wouldn’t hurt to read up on this stuff/take a class before you begin to even look into any apprenticeship. For me this is mandatory. On this level we are literally dealing with human beings, their heath and therefore their lives.
- BE CAREFUL to avoid the disease of “rock-starness”…humility will carry you miles further in tattooing than all the talent in the world if its wasted on an egomaniac. Stay humble, know your real ability level, and don’t tackle stuff so far above your head that you (and your customer) will regret it. The rock star attitude can sneak up on you but can destroy you in a second, keep yourself in check.
- BE CAREFUL of someone willing to take an apprentice who has less than 4 or 5 years of tattoo experience under their belt. This is not to say there aren’t some artists doing amazing work within a few years (or even less) of the start of their career (I’m friends with a good deal of them), but as a general rule, skill in this business is measured in decades, not years. Within 4-5 years one may know a lot about tattooing but to know enough to teach is another thing. I am still learning every day and you should be too .
Now good luck, don’t give up, and don’t email me anymore about this stuff.
Credits go to.
Jason Lambert for a good deal of the do’s and dont’s
NH state law governing tattooing in this state