How to Become a Tattoo Artist: Career Guide

Learn the sequential steps to becoming a tattoo artist. Research training options, necessary experience and licensure information for starting a career in tattooing.

Should I Become a Tattoo Artist?

Tattooing is an age-old form of body modification that involves permanently embedding ink in skin to create designs or images. Tattoo artists are professionals who design and apply tattoos to all areas of customers' bodies with specialized needles. When dealing with customers, tact and patience may be required. Long periods of sitting are often a part of the job, as some designs take a considerable amount of time to create. Evening and weekend work is usually necessary as well.

Career Requirements

Education Required High school diploma or proof of GED completion is usually required
Experience Apprenticeship, commonly three years in length, might be required
Licensure Required in most states
Key Skills Creativity, manual dexterity and artistic ability
Salary (2015) $30,415 per year (National median salary for tattoo artists)

Sources: Alliance of Professional Tattooists (APT); (2015)

Step 1: Compile a Portfolio

Aspiring tattoo artists should possess great artistic ability and creativity. Before an artist can obtain an apprenticeship working in a shop, he or she needs to compile a professional portfolio exhibiting his or her best works of art. The portfolio should showcase the artist's versatility and ability to draw a variety of subjects. A portfolio can contain both original works and high-quality photographs of drawings.

Success Tip:

  • Take art classes. Taking art classes, either in high school or through a local community center, can help an aspiring tattoo artist learn various art skills, including scale, proportion and shading, all of which are necessary to work successfully as a tattoo artist.

Step 2: Complete an Apprenticeship

The APT recommends an apprenticeship of at least three years. During an apprenticeship, a prospective artist will work in a shop alongside a professional tattooist learning to design tattoos, operate a tattoo machine and sterilize equipment. Additionally, some apprenticeships include lessons on business aspects of tattooing and may prepare aspiring artists to have their own shop. The APT states that free apprenticeships are rare; an apprentice often pays the artist to teach him or her or signs a contract agreeing to work for the shop he or she apprentices at for a set number of years after the apprenticeship is complete.

Step 3: Take Tattoo Artist Education Courses

Many skills needed for a successful career as a tattoo artist can be learned from an apprenticeship with a knowledgeable artist, but some health departments and other state and local regulatory agencies also require classroom experience. Seminars in disease prevention and skin diseases/infections and training in blood-borne pathogen prevention may be required for licensing.

Step 4: Get a License

Most states require licensure for tattoo artists; however, requirements vary by state. Oregon, for example, requires licensees to complete a minimum of 360 hours of training under an approved artist as well as 50 tattoos. A written exam and a skills assessment also are typically necessary for licensing.

Step 5: Continue Education for Advancement

Some states require tattoo artists to complete a specified number of continuing education credits to renew their license. Continuing education options are available in the form of seminars and classes.

Success Tip:

  • Join a professional organization. Joining a professional organization, such as the APT or the Association of Professional Tattoo Artists (APTA), can provide a tattoo artist with a variety of continuing education options as well as networking opportunities in the industry. Some organizations, for example, provide services that link potential customers to tattoo artists' online portfolios and hold contests where artists can hone their skills.

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