26: Tips for Getting a Tattoo Apprenticeship
Updated: Jan 13, 2022
Howdy! I actually used to tattoo. My anxiety is a big part of why I quit. I never felt prepared by my training to do what needed to be done. It's my belief that anxiety is manageable with adequate training. Here’s how to acquire, and make the best of, that training:
First off, make your peace with mistakes. Mistakes happen. With a dedicated mentor, they shouldn't happen much, as their presence will guide your pacing. You want the mistakes to be on paper, not skin. Redraw the piece as many times as possible until you are satisfied.
Practice will be easier and more fruitful if you have friends and family who are willing to come in for free or discounted tattoos. (This was a shortcoming of mine. My friends/family don't generally get tiny tattoos and they certainly wouldn’t get one from somebody who is practicing. You need willing test dummies in order to succeed. If this is really what you want, start making those connections now.)
Build up a portfolio of tattoo flash. If you're already skilled at drawing, in general, this will be more time consuming than actually difficult.
Don't be too precious when sketching ideas. A sketchbook is a place to experiment. Some experiments will be bad. That's fine. Try them and move on. If it's bad, it doesn't go on a flash sheet. Simple. Start off by mimicking the Sailor Jerry style. When you start tattooing, until you've established yourself in your community, most of the pieces you tattoo are going to be knock off designs that your clients found online (that you'll insist on changing at least a little because morals matter). If you're very lucky, clients will pay attention to in-shop flash sheets. In my area, walk-ins wanted words and tattoos they found on Pinterest. Eventually your flash sheets will showcase your style. In the beginning though, focus on creating pieces that can be tattooed. Thick black outlines (micron pens, staedtler pens, & thin sharpies are fine for this) with bold colors (prismacolor pencils are fine to start with but move into watercolor as you become more comfortable) and simple shading are the name of the game. You want to know the rules before you break them. Tracing paper is your friend. Usually your first draft will not be the finished drawing. Get really good at tracing. Most of your flash sheets will be compilations of several small to medium sized drawings traced onto a single sheet. I recommend having three copies of each flash sheet. One that's just the outlines, one shaded as black and grey, and one that's full color.
Once you have a portfolio you're proud of, research shops and artists in your area. Find the best one. Seek out an artist that works in a style you want to emulate and grow from. Ask the artist (and the shop's owner) if they'd be interested in taking you on as an apprentice. Do not just settle for the first artist that says yes if they aren’t very good. An apprenticeship can be paid for (usually you pay the artist or the shop a set sum. It's very rare for anyone to pay the apprentice.) or you can earn their tutelage by doing chores around the shop. Even if you pay, those chores are part of the experience. You need to know how to clean tubes unless you plan on only ever using disposables. Don't balk at the extra work. If they don't suggest a contract, that is cause for concern. A contract should list what is expected from you (Maybe money. Probably chores. A set schedule.) And what is expected from the artist (A lesson plan. Homework assignments. Probably supplies. A set schedule.). You really want a contract. I didn't have one. I jumped at the first shop. Do not do those things. Don't. Do not compromise on this.
Trust your mentor. Do what they say. If there is shop drama, stay out of it. Don't try to be everybody's best friend. You're there to work. Commit to the apprenticeship. Make it your full time job (Mine was part time and you could tell.). Don't be afraid to be at the shop even when your artist mentor isn't. Every artist in that shop will do things a little differently and you're there to learn.
Honestly, from the last point on, you're supposed to be learning from the mentor. They'll probably suggest the following as part of your training but if they don't—Read everything you can find about tattooing. Skip the reality shows (unless your mentor likes them). Use social media to promote yourself. I'd suggest recording your apprenticeship milestones as you go, on your Instagram. You'll hear about artists that lie about their experience level or how long they've been tattooing. Don't be that guy. The shop and the clients will care more about your skill level (portfolio) than how many years you've got under your belt. Eventually you're going to get the tools of the trade (tattoo machines, tubes, grips, needles, power source, pedal, ink, etc). Your mentor will probably let you practice with theirs before they help you purchase the best tools for you. Learn to build a tattoo machine. Yeah, they come pre-built nowadays but if it breaks in the middle of a session, you'll be grateful you know how to fix it. If you haven't been mechanically inclined in the past, you are now.
Tattooing is a feast and famine industry. If you don't have a side job, tattooing needs to cover all of your needs (Probably after the apprenticeship is largely over. During, you can expect to be living off of savings or a side job.). Pay attention during your first year. Keep track of the busy versus the dead months, so you know what to expect and can plan for it. For instance, around April tattoo shops in the USA are mobbed with folks wanting to blow their tax refunds on tattoos. December, on the other hand, is a dead month. Folks are spending on their loved ones. You're lucky if you've got clients coming in to buy gift cards. Put money away during those busy months so you aren't struggling to make ends meet during the dead months. Your mentor will have a lot of experience with this. Talk to them. Take good notes. Your financial independence, your ability to live solely off tattooing, depends on your ability to evenly distribute inconsistent funds throughout the year.
Side note. You're responsible for getting your taxes done. Keep track of every expense, and every payment you receive. I suggest an Excel file or two. Also, most supply sites don't sell to unlicensed artists or artists that aren't associated with an established shop. Keep track of your login info for every supply shop since it'll be a headache for you to have to remake your account (and prove your connections) every time you run out of ink.
Thanks for stopping by! I put out a new blog post every Monday. Toodles!