January 21, 2021 12 min read

Tattoo apprenticeship is a critical component of any aspiring tattooer’s career. Just as internships are essential in the corporate world, one of the first steps you should take to become a tattooer involves finding a formal apprenticeship. Tattoo apprenticeship brings you the skills, knowledge, and experience you need to succeed in your career. It’s not just a step towards certification, but it’s also a great way to make connections and build your professional profile. 

Finding the right apprenticeship isn’t a walk in the park. While it won’t be easy to land a great apprenticeship, it will help you get where you want to go professionally if you start in the right place. Let’s explore the advantages of getting a tattoo apprenticeship and what to expect when you start. We’ll also dig into how to find the right training for your future. 

What is a Tattoo Apprenticeship? 

A tattoo apprenticeship is a way for students to learn everything they need to become an established tattooer. You won’t start tattooing right off the jump. Much of your apprenticeship will be a hands-off experience where you spend your time watching and listening. That doesn’t mean you’re not getting lots of important information you need to go out and be a successful tattooer. You’ll be learning the most critical components of the job. This includes:

  • Safety 
  • Proper Sanitation
  • How to Setup and Breakdown a Tattoo Machine
  • How Your Tattoo Machine Works
  • Shading Techniques
  • Tattooing Different Skin Types
  • How to Identify Proper Needle Size

The direct experience you get from a hands-on tattoo apprenticeship will be more than anything you could learn from a classroom. Now that you know what a tattoo apprenticeship is, let’s take a look at the most critical steps you will take to become a full-time tattooer. 

6 Steps to Becoming a Tattoo Artist

Before we talk about what you can expect from your tattoo apprenticeship, let’s go over the necessary steps to becoming a tattooer. 

1. You Need to Be an Artist

It might sound obvious, but it needs to be said. The first and most crucial step in becoming a successful tattooer is to be an artist, specifically an artist with drawing skills. Some people look at the job of tattooing as the epitome of cool. They think they can learn as they go, but it’s impossible to be a tattooer without being an artist first. With the fierce competition in the tattoo industry today, your artistic skills need to be pretty impressive. 

As with anything in life, practice makes perfect. So, if you have artistic skills, take time to feed those skills. Take classes. Focus on finding your style. Draw constantly. Master new skills and try new things. Do your research on what types of art clients tend to choose for their tattoos and practice drawing those. 

2. Find a Mentor to Start an Apprenticeship

It can be challenging to find a certified tattooer who is willing to take you on as an apprentice, but they are out there. If you’re having trouble finding one, you might just need to remain consistent in your search. Do some research to find a tattoo shop with an excellent reputation. Explore the type of work those artists specialize in and make sure it fits with your unique style. 

Don’t try to land an apprenticeship over the phone or email. Show up in person and bring some of your work. Listen to what the tattooers tell you, and don’t get discouraged if they say no. As with any other job you’ve applied for, be professional, friendly, and courteous. Do not waste your time with expensive tattoo schools. They tend to rush you through the learning process.

3. Learn the Trade

If we’re honest, getting through your apprenticeship will have its ups and downs. You are pretty much at everyone’s beck and call. You don’t get paid, and you’re forced to do the shop’s dirty work. You’ll be doing lots of menial tasks, like answering phones, scheduling appointments, cleaning, and running errands. Don’t let this get you discouraged. 

For starters, any reputable shop is going to put you through the wringer to make sure you are cut out for the job. Remember, you’re lucky to land a suitable tattoo apprenticeship. Through the process, you’ll learn the professional skills you need to be a real success. 

As you gain knowledge and experience through your apprenticeship, you’ll understand the most critical aspects of tattooing, like best hygiene practices and different parts of tattoo design. You’ll have lots of time to watch and listen. Make sure to pay attention so you can start your career on top.

4. Build Your Portfolio

While your professional portfolio will be different, your apprentice portfolio is what will bring you paying clients. Your apprentice portfolio should be filled with drawings and artwork. Pick the best pieces to show your true talents and offer various options to showcase the diversity of your skills. A good apprentice portfolio should contain anywhere from 25 to 100 finished drawings. Include things that people might consider getting tattooed on their bodies. 

Once you’ve been in the shop for a while, you’ll start learning how to use a tattoo machine. You will begin by tattooing on anything from fake skin to fruit. Once your mentor feels that you’re ready, you’ll start doing free tattoos to build your professional portfolio. Although we say “free,” you’ll need to pay for supplies out of your pocket. Free tattoos will be performed at no cost to your clients. Most apprentices start with family and friends, but you might get free clients from the shop, as well.

5. Get Certified

Certification is different depending on where you work, but all tattooers need to get certified somehow. To get your certificate, you’ll need to do a certain number of apprenticeship hours. You’ll also have to take health and safety courses and pass an exam on hygienic tattooing practices. Check what requirements you need to fulfill to get certified to work where you live. Make sure you fill out all the necessary forms and take the tests. If you fail to get adequately certified, you risk your reputation and face hefty fines and trouble with the law. 

Most tattoo licensing applications can be found on your local government’s business department website. You will also find information about the information process and fees. If you have any doubts, talk to someone from your apprenticeship that you trust. 

6. Find a Job

If you’re lucky, the shop where you learn to tattoo will give you a job. If a shop is unwilling to provide you with a job after you are finished, consider this a red flag. In this case, the shop is most likely looking for extra money or free labor. This is not proper shop etiquette, and you won’t get the most out of your learning experience. Some shops will put you on contract for a year after you complete your apprenticeship. Make sure to put your nose to the grind. If you get that opportunity, it’s a chance to prove yourself. Work hard. Take lots of pictures of your work. Keep your portfolio updated. At the end of your contract, you might find yourself being offered a permanent position at the shop. 

FAQs About Tattoo Apprenticeships

So, you know that a tattoo apprenticeship is necessary if you want to have the greatest chance of success in your tattooing career. Before we get into some great tips to help you find the right apprenticeship for your future goals, let’s cover some of the most commonly asked questions about your apprenticeship.

How Long Should an Apprenticeship Last? 

Most apprenticeships last anywhere from 1-3 years, and some can last even longer. On average, you can expect to be a tattoo apprentice for 2 years, but some states require a specific set of hours. Check your state’s Department of Health website to see if you need to meet specific requirements to be licensed in your state. In addition to licensing requirements, some mentors will have you sign a contract where you agree to work under them for a set time. Finally, you might want to extend your apprenticeship until you feel totally comfortable moving on to working independently. 

Do I Really Need an Apprenticeship? 

You absolutely need an apprenticeship if you want to become a respected, highly talented tattooer. Not only is it required to obtain your license in many states, but your apprenticeship is where you learn to become a tattooer. As the tattoo industry continually changes, state-licensed tattoo schools have opened as an alternative to tattoo apprenticeship. While this is great news for eager tattooers, there is nothing quite like starting from the bottom and learning from your experience working under a veteran tattooer. 

Will I Get Paid to Be an Apprentice?

Most tattoo apprenticeships are unpaid. Just as you don’t get paid to attend school as a student, your compensation from your apprenticeship is the experience and knowledge you gain working under a veteran tattooer. If you’re fortunate, you might land one of the rare opportunities for a paid apprenticeship. Some shops also offer working apprenticeship when you’ve put in a certain amount of hours and have proved your skills. 

Does a Tattoo Apprenticeship Cost Money? 

The best apprenticeships in the most reputable shops often won’t cost you anything to land the position, but most apprenticeships will cost you money. Just like going to school, many tattoo shops charge new artists for their apprenticeship. You can expect to pay anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000. Before you agree to pay, make sure you find a shop that genuinely fits your artistic style and that you’re ready to put in the hard work to get your money’s worth. In some cases, mentors find artists whose skills are off the charts. If you are exceptionally talented or find a tattooer who is a friend or family member, you might get out of paying for your apprenticeship. But you will have to pay for your supplies and offer your work free of charge to clients as you build your portfolio. 

How Many Hours a Week Will I Need to Work? 

Since you won’t be getting paid to be a tattoo apprentice, you’ll likely be working another job to support yourself. While most stops understand the need for work/apprenticeship balance, you’ll need to make a continued effort to show up as much as possible. Remember, there’s a ton of competition fighting for apprenticeships. If you appear unreliable or don’t seem hungry, you will easily be replaced. Since some licensing restrictions require that you complete a certain number of hours in an apprenticeship, check with your state Department of Health to see if how many hours you should work a week to meet your goals. 

Should I Buy Equipment and Supplies Before I Start My Apprenticeship? 

No! Don’t want your time or money buying equipment and supplies. Your mentor will give you great advice on what you need and what will work best for your skills and technique. For now, invest in your drawing so you can build a portfolio of art that highlights your future potential. 

Best Tattoo Machine

Tips to Finding the Right Apprenticeship for Your Future Goals

Now that you know everything there is to know about tattoo apprenticeships, how can you find one that fits you? You need to be careful to pick an apprenticeship that works for your unique style and personality. Too often, we see new tattooers jump right into whatever apprenticeship they can find. The competition and the lack of available apprenticeships make it easy to jump the gun when signing that contract. Just remember, all apprenticeships are not created equal. It’s ok to shop around. 

As you’re doing your research, here are some things to consider when looking for an apprenticeship that fits with your future goals:

1. Find a Tattooer with Multiple Completed Apprenticeships Under Their Belt

You don’t want to be a tattooer’s first apprentice. While they also need to start somewhere, don’t sign up to be their first if you can avoid it. Just because someone is a great tattooer doesn’t mean they know how to teach or even want to teach. Unfortunately, some tattooers are looking for a free assistant. If you’re going to make the most out of your training, you need to watch for these potential problems. 

Ideally, you want to learn from someone passionate to teach you. The more challenged you are, the more you will get out of your tattoo apprenticeship. You will be committing at least two years of your life to this apprenticeship, so it’s ok to do your research. Talk to a few of the apprentices who have worked under the tattooer before. Get tattooed by them if possible. Hang out in the shop for a while before you make a commitment. The more confident you are of your mentor, the more you will get out of your experience. 

2. Know How to Approach the Shop to Ask for an Apprenticeship

Like any other job, you need to know what you’re dealing with before asking for a position. Check out the shop’s website. Look through the artists’ bios. Browse through their work and reviews. Show up in person at a time when the shop isn’t too busy. Face-to-face is the smartest and most respected approach. Most tattoo shops are a tight-knit group, so showing off your personality strengths can get you points. Avoid weekends and come back another time if the shop seems really busy. 

Talk to the person at the front desk to see what the best approach is. Treat everyone with respect and kindness. Bring your portfolio, so you are prepared if they’re willing to talk to you on the spot. Have your contact information already printed out to leave with the front desk. Most importantly, don’t get discouraged if they tell you no! You should still leave your contact information and ask them to get in touch if anything changes. 

3. Ask Questions

Just as they are interviewing you, there should be some questions you ask your potential mentor before you sign on. Talk about the likelihood of getting a job at the shop after your apprenticeship. If they’re not looking to add anyone on in the future, ask if they’ll be willing to recommend you to another shop if you prove yourself during your apprenticeship. Talk about the potential of working on human skin. If you don’t have any opportunity to work on actual clients, you won’t get much out of the tattoo apprenticeship. You need hands-on experience to grow your own portfolio. 

Ask about their expectations. Talk about any fees they charge. Find out how long they expect you to work as an apprentice. Some mentors are focused on quick training, and others want you to take the time to earn the right to be a tattooer. Make sure that their commitment expectations fit with both your schedule and your goals. When you find the right mentor, you can develop a fantastic relationship that helps you grow through the years. Equally, if you get a bad vibe, finish the process and walk away. You need to get the most out of this experience and should never sign on with someone who won’t bring out the best in you. 

4. Know Where to Look

Start by asking around or doing an online search of the best shops in your area. Make a list and stop in with your portfolio. You want to make a good impression and develop yourself as a respected and talented artist. Once you’ve met with a few different shops, follow up every week to try to land an interview. 

Finding an apprenticeship is a lot like being a salesperson. You need to cold call and put in the work to land the right gig. If you’re still having trouble finding a place, invest in getting a few tattoos from someone who really made an impression on you. This will help you create a connection and open the door to the possibility of working with the tattooer. 

Remember, some shops are better than others. You ultimately want to surround yourself with great tattooers and a clean, healthy shop. If you still can’t find something, focus on your art. Take classes. Learn new styles, Expand your own skills and revisit some of the shops when you perfect your techniques and improve your portfolio. 

5. Get the Most Out of Your Experience

When you find the right fit for you, make sure you get the most out of your experience. Show up ready to learn. Be aware of what’s going on around you and pay close attention to what your mentor is doing. The more you grow and learn from this experience, the better you will be when it’s time to go off on your own. 

Focus on building an excellent apprenticeship portfolio. Like the portfolio that landed you the apprenticeship, the portfolio you bring from this experience will get you paying clients as you develop your business. Before you go, here are some tips for a great portfolio:

  • Include a list of all the classes you’ve taken and your experience working in the field.
  • Start and end your portfolio with your strongest pieces. 
  • Find some flow. Make sure the pieces complement each other as a potential client browses through your book. 
  • Showcase your best pieces. Focus on your work that highlights designing, drawing, clean lines, shading, and composition. You should also include additional artwork that highlights your talent in other ways. Even if it’s sculptures or graffiti, you want to show potential clients everything about you as an artist. 
  • Choose pieces that show a variety of styles and skills. Linework, colorwork, dot work, black, and grey-if you can do it, show it. Diversity is critical in the tattoo industry. 
  • If you’re not proud of it, don’t include it. While it’s great to show variety, you can’t expect to be an expert at everything. If you’re not great at portraits, don’t include a portrait just to show you can make one. Not every client will be a good fit for you. 
  • Don’t include anything that isn’t complete. Your portfolio should be a collection of your best, most professional work. It needs to be polished, not half-done. 
  • Never include work that isn’t yours. 

Now that you know everything there is to know about your tattoo apprenticeship, it’s time to get out there and start looking. Remember, take your time and make sure you find the right fit. Don’t get discouraged if someone tells you no. The value you get from having a great apprenticeship is something that money can’t buy. Once you find your perfect match, you’ll be on your way to becoming a successful, independent tattooer before you know it. 

As always, all content has been written by CA Tattoo Supply, based on our 30-year experience in tattooing. If you have read this and feel we have left out any pertinent information, please add your personal experiences to the comment section below.