The growth in the tattoo industry over the last few decades has been startling, both in the numbers of new tattoos and the popularity of tattoo culture. What was once a small business, mostly hidden in corners and considered 'seedy' has exploded into a cultural force with television shows, magazines and documentaries.
Not only have tattoos gotten more popular, they've also gotten a bit more respectable. All of this has combined to make it seem like being a tattoo artist would be a good business to get into. However, there's a lot to do before you can start inking people up for fun and profit. Some of the various hurdles to cross are listed below.
It should go without saying, but in order to be a tattoo artist you need to have that flair for artwork thats a combination of patience and practice with a hint of natural talent thrown in for good measure. Not only do you need the spark of talent you have to really hone it into the ability to make perfect drawings every time; you don't get to erase any mistakes in making a tattoo, so you have to be consistently great every time. Practice makes perfect, and any tattoo artist worth their salt will constantly be doodling different designs or working on their line art and shading on paper.
Drafting and drawing skills are more than just a prerequisite for needle work, they're an important part of the prototyping process where a customer and artist work together to find the right image to be tattooed. Being talented and diligent is a only a start for a tattoo artist: you need to produce large samples of your written work to showcase what you're capable of. Once you start tattooing this portfolio should include samples of your work, but to start with you should have designs for tattoos by the dozens.
Unlike some fields, where most workers go through certain standards of training and education, tattoo artists don't generally have schools to go to. Most of them learn from another more experienced tattoo artist who takes them on as an apprentice. Apprentice training is an old and well respected way of learning a craft like tattooing; carpenters, masons and professional artists whose work combines lots of specific challenges but no general rules rely on the apprentice model to spread their knowledge.
Apprenticeships are sometimes paid, and can be expensive. Other apprenticeships are free or take the form of work exchange, where the skilled expert uses the new apprentice as a resource while teaching them about their chosen field. There are no rules or generally accepted methods for this- each apprentice-tutor relationship is unique.
An apprentice learns a great deal from their instructor, from basic mechanical things like how a tattoo gun works and how to keep it clean, to artistic styles or specialized techniques. Apprentices also pick up their style and sense of aesthetics from their instructors, at least to a degree. Its a special relationship between teacher and apprentice, and one that should be thought about a great deal when you enter into one. Depending on the apprenticeship, you may need to hold down another job to pay the bills or even pay for the training you're learning.
So you've got talent and you're making it through your apprenticeship. Now what?
Well, in addition to learning about the mechanics of the tattoo business, from how to sanitize your needles to how to bill customers, and scribbling your designs down as quickly as possible, you need to branch out. Use your apprenticeship as a starting point for your artistic development, and try and pick out other styles and techniques that can work to compliment your own. Learning the basics of tattooing takes months, if not years, and being ready to go out on your own will take years. Use the time you have as an apprentice to expose yourself to as many different ways of making body art as you can and your personal style will grow.
Apprenticeships don't have graduation dates or diplomas. There's not a 'right time' for them to be over and they can't take too long. What generally happens is that an apprenticeship is over when your teacher thinks you're ready. Because of the way an apprentice reflects on his or her teacher, it's in your teacher's best interest to make sure you make them look good. Apprenticeships generally take years even for the most gifted students, and they're the way that new tattoo artists pay their dues. Once you've finished your apprenticeship you're what used to be known as a journeyman tattoo artist- qualified to work in a studio or start your own business but still not ready to be a teacher in your own right.
Even after your a professional tattoo artist you're not done learning. In fact, like most artists, you'll never really be done. Your personal style will continue to evolve to suit your own sense of what's right as well as the tastes of your clients. You can learn new ways of doing tattoos and new techniques to improve your work and you should stay on the lookout for new (or rediscovered) methods of making body art. Get a nice camera to catalog your work and enjoy: you're now a tattoo artist.