So you want to land a tattoo apprenticeship?
Why wouldn’t you?
Tattooing can provide a great income, plenty of free time (If you schedule it)
and opportunity to travel.
And at the end of the day, you only drew pictures. How bad can that be?
Unfortunately, partially due to the perks I mentioned above, tattooing has become a very competitive trade.
Most states require a formal “apprenticeship” under a licensed artist. This means that you need to convince a seasoned tattooer that you are worth the time and effort that it will take to prepare you to make permanent marks on people.
Now this might not sound like a daunting task, but remember that there are thousands of other like minded artists that are vying for the same goal.
And some of them can really draw!
Don’t sweat it though, in the paragraphs below, I have answered what I feel are the most important questions to consider when starting this journey to land a tattoo apprenticeship. Hopefully it will help you avoid a few mistakes along the way.
Not all apprenticeships are created equal
While a bad apprenticeship is not necessarily a death sentence to a driven, hard working artist, it will most certainly slow you down. Being surrounded with great artists and a clean healthy work environment lends itself to faster learning, higher quality long term clients and a jumpstart on the road to success. So how do you land in your dream shop? Below I have answered a few common questions that might help you along the way
Am I willing to relocate?
The best apprenticeship option might not be in your hometown. Are you willing or able to relocate? If so, this could really open up your options. I am amazed at the number of high quality shops that list artist/apprentice openings on their social media outlets. Keep in mind that, unless you’re independently wealthy, you’ll likely need a source of income, so don’t go leaving a paying job without a plan.
Should I expect to pay for an apprenticeship?
Each shop is different but, in my experience, I have not seen reputable shops charge for apprenticeships
That’s not to say that there are not some out there but I would be hesitant to fork over thousands of dollars without a very clear, written agreement that describes what is expected from both parties. I would also be sure to have that agreement reviewed by an attorney. It might sound like overkill but I have heard some pretty ugly stories about paid apprenticeships gone wrong.
Normally you will work for an apprenticeship. This means answering phones, scheduling appointments, setting up and breaking down stations, cleaning at the end of the night, etc. Don’t think of this time spent as grunt work. It is actually quite beneficial as you get an idea of how the shop runs, what kind of questions customers ask, how to properly set up and break down equipment, etc. Treat this as a challenge to prove to you new mentor just how much you appreciate the opportunity.
I’ve been tattooing at home. Can I bring some of my work to show?
Nope. In fact, if you are tattooing at home with no formal training, I have 2 critical pieces of advice
1. Stop tattooing today
2.Don’t tell anyone that you have been tattooing. (until many years later when you are an established artist and are explaining to a new tattooer why they should not try to learn on their own)
There are several reasons for this but I will focus on the 2 most important.
First, tattooing is dangerous and diseases can easily be spread if proper protocols are not followed.
Second, while it is difficult enough to teach someone with no experience to tattoo. It is even harder to break the bad habits of someone who has been tattooing with no formal direction. Potential mentors will always choose the apprentice with no tattoo experience.
I found the perfect shop! How do I approach them? Phone Call? Walk In? Email?
This has probably changed since I was seeking out apprenticeships and I don’t know that there is one right answer. You might save some legwork by calling or emailing several shops to ask if they are looking for an apprentice although I would be surprised if you have a lot of luck with this approach. Tattoo shops are generally very tight knit groups and they will most likely want to meet you in person before divulging too much information. Personally, I like the old fashioned method of showing up in person.
Ok, so when is the best time to come in?
Not on the weekend! Typically earlier in the day and early to mid week is best. If you do walk in and the shop is super busy, simply come back another time.
Who should I speak to? Front desk person? Manager? Another artist?
The front desk person is usually able to point you in the right direction. Sometimes there is a shop manager or owner that handles portfolio reviews. Other times it is one of the more seasoned tattooers that will review your work.
Be prepared to leave your portfolio with the shop for a couple of days if necessary. This will also give you a chance to make a good second impression when you show up to pick the portfolio up.
What Should I include in my portfolio?
You will get different answers to this question depending on who you ask. I believe you need 10-12 examples of your strongest work. If possible, include multiple mediums but don’t sacrifice quality in an effort to show a wide range. If all of your best work is in graphite, then just include those examples. Your potential mentor will be prepared to teach you the technical side of tattooing but nobody wants to have to teach you to draw. You will want to be sure that the examples of your work are strong, dynamic compositions that will translate well to tattooing. Clear shapes and a full value range are critical in this medium and you will have a much better chance of landing the apprenticeship if you work shows these qualities from the start.
How many hours/week will I need to work?
Most shops understand that you will likely need another job to support yourself during your apprenticeship. However, it is important that you make a continued effort to be at the shop as much as possible and, if a strict schedule is required, make sure you are there at all costs. There is a ton of competition for apprenticeships today and appearing unreliable is the fastest way out of the door.
How long is an apprenticeship?
This varies from state to state. In my state (Tennessee) the official apprenticeship is 1 year although it takes much longer than this to become proficient. I would plan for a minimum of 3 years under a single mentor before you make plans to move on. You can find more info about your state’s requirements by visiting your state Department of Health website.
Should I buy equipment and supplies beforehand?
No. When the time comes, (which may be several months) you mentor will help you determine the supplies you need. Just be ready to draw…a lot.
Any other tips?
Yes, humility goes a long way in this business. While it does require a certain amount of confidence (and even ego) to make permanent marks on bodies, it is important that you keep your ego in check. Ask questions. Listen to the answers. Talk about yourself as little as possible. Let your hard work and dedication to learning speak for you and you’ll be just fine.
Also, focus constantly on your drawing. Draw from life every chance you get. Draftsmanship is what really separates the great tattooers from the rest.
Not quite sure if your drawing portfolio is up to par? I would love for you to check out our intensive, tattoo focused drawing course, Fireside Foundations. If you want to leave nothing to chance and ensure that your portfolio is filled with dynamic, tattooable imagery, this is the course for you. Learn more about Foundations by watching my short video here.
Good luck on this journey should you choose to pursue it. It can be a rewarding and fulfilling way to earn a living with the right approach