We all want the lifestyle of a tattoo artist, so learning to tattoo seems like a good idea to many people. The freedom, the adoring clientele, the money that can come with success… But where do you get started in tattooing if you want to git gud? Regardless of where you are, the skills you learn when beginning to tattoo are crucial to your future success. Follow these steps to learn foundational skills or improve what you have already learned through a tattoo apprenticeship.
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Tattooing Is an Art, but You Don’t Have to Know How to Draw.
Some people describe tattooing as art. We at Better Tattooing do not.
Why do you ask?
We know a lot of artists out there who tattoo. They are excellent on both skin and other mediums. At the same time, we see a TON of artists who can’t draw to save their lives! Portrait artists, recreationists, or those who find low-brow skills to be all that is necessary to put something permanent on another’s skin.
Creating your designs can be a lot of fun, but it can also waste time when you are beginning to tattoo. Rather than try to come up with one-of-a-kind designs that will garner thousands of likes, focus on making money. Tracing already well-liked designs will improve your linework and decrease stress. You can save tons of time and ensure that your clients get exactly what they want.
(**Our Article on How to Spot a Good Tattoo Apprenticeship COMING SOON**)
If you aren’t tattooing skin yet, creating a book of tracings rather than originals will also increase your chances of getting an apprenticeship. This is because most tattoo shops encourage new apprentices to start simple – with traditional tattoo designs. If you bring in a book with well-executed tracings, along with a couple of originals, the shop or artist will take you seriously.
Get an Apprenticeship from a Professional.
Who needs a tattoo apprenticeship? Everyone! A tattoo apprenticeship ensures that you will learn all necessary skills to ensure a quality product, run a business, and establish a clientele to keep you fed.
Along with safe operation and sterile technique, an apprenticeship gives you a chance to get daily critiques from a knowledgeable artist. Their input can help you grow as a tattoo artist much faster than if you learn independently. We have an article that goes over tattoo apprenticeship in detail and what to expect from a suitable tattoo apprenticeship:
A few notes about looking for a tattoo apprenticeship:
- Don’t just take any apprenticeship – Look for someone you get along with well.
- Some people may charge for an apprenticeship. If you don’t have the money, try exchanging work for the training.
- Bringing in work that isn’t just tracings may fast-track your apprenticeship and get you in skin faster.
- Some shops can sponsor an apprenticeship. This means you get all the artists helping you learn rather than just one person.
- Apprenticeships can cost up to $10,000 or more. Please make sure the person training you knows their stuff before committing to their teaching.
- The more effort you put into the apprenticeship, the more you will get out of it. Work hard. Stay Humble. Be prepared to fail.
If You Need to Get Started Before Getting an Apprenticeship, Get Practice Tattoo Skin.
At Better Tattooing, we know some people don’t have the money, patience, or want to get a tattoo apprenticeship. If you are one of these people, think about using fake skin to practice your art before losing your friends.
While some products released may not feel like skin, you can still practice techniques till you get them perfect without marking someone else’s skin for life. Be prepared for investment, though, if you want a medium that feels like human skin.
We have an article and video about fake skin you can read by following this link:
Learning to Tattoo – Basic Techniques.
Foundational aspects of tattooing are essential when growing as an artist. Learning about color packing, lining, shading, reading the skin, aftercare… can be a lifetime’s worth of work.
Lining a Tattoo (Outlining)
When you place a stencil on the skin, you need to commit those lines and shapes to the skin. This process is called lining. Lining a tattoo can be done with pigments like black or colors, with water to create a bloodline, or with just the needle to make a temporary mark in a client’s skin.
Using different types of needles can create other effects on the tattoo. You can also use a single needle grouping and “sculpt lines” to make variance throughout the tattoo linework.
Learn more about needle grouping and linework by reading our article:
Outlining is the process of creating a weighted line on the outside of the design – hence, outlining. While this term is very specific, the industry has come to take either “outline” or “linework” as meaning the same thing.
Creating Values in a Tattoo (Shading and Coloring).
To bring a tattoo to life, you need to fill it in. This is where you add shading or coloring to the linework applied. While both techniques can add depth, they each take a different touch to complete correctly.
Shading a Tattoo.
Shading a tattoo involves the creation of a gradient value across a section of the design. This can be done by simple shading, where a gradient is created by dispersing the pigment in decreasing concentrations across an area of the tattoo. It can also be made by using a stipple technique, dragging the needle (skip shading), or utilizing time to decrease tone (very technical and not to be attempted by beginners).
Coloring a Tattoo.
Coloring a tattoo involves fully saturating pigment into a section of a tattoo. Using any color, the artist will saturate until the skin’s natural tone no longer shows.
Making Highlights in a Tattoo.
Highlights increase contrast and depth in a tattoo. Learning how to do them is a fundamental that is often not appropriately taught during a tattoo apprenticeship. Highlights can be any color but are most often white. As the beginner tattoo artist attempts more complex designs, the use of integumentary colors, contrasting colors, and skin breaks can also be used to highlight aspects of the tattoo.
You can read more about creating depth in a tattoo design by reading our article:
As well as our article about white pigments used in tattooing:
Safe Tattooing Basics.
Doing tattoos will bring you into contact with people and whatever disease they may be carrying. Before any actual tattooing is attempted, every tattoo artist-in-training needs to learn sterile techniques and how to read the skin.
Sterile Technique and Tattoo Safety.
OSHA has guidelines available for every tattoo artist to read on their website. The laws surrounding safe practices in tattooing are easily defined – keep the clientele safe and avoid the spread of disease. The actual practice of these regulations is complex, though, and the application of these practices requires training. A proper apprenticeship, coupled with Bloodborne Pathogen training, can help to ensure you are keeping people safe while you learn to tattoo.
Reading the Skin When Tattooing.
Safe tattooing isn’t just being sterile around the shop. As someone beginning to tattoo, you must also learn about your favorite medium – the skin. Understanding when sensitivity is occurring, making an educated guess if someone has been drinking, having the ability to adapt aftercare if someone is having a hard heal are all required to get over the beginning of learning to tattoo.
We have more information about skin and healing in our article:
What Type of Equipment Should a Tattoo Beginner Have?
This topic is something every tattoo artist out there will disagree on. Some think you need a rotary setup with high-end supplies. Others claim a kit off Amazon is good enough to get your feet wet. At Better Tattooing, we think that supplies can’t make you a superstar; skill does. Otherwise, every person who bought a pair of Jordan’s would be in the NBA!
Here are a few things you need to pick up to get started with your tattoo journey.
- Tattoo machines – coil or rotary or cartridge style.
- A power supply.
- Disposable supplies like paper towels and rinse cups.
- Nitrile or other non-latex gloves.
- Tattoo inks (pigments).
- Something to store everything in.
- A non-porous surface to set up on.
- A non-porous massage table or chair with a backboard.
- A decent light that can be covered with disposable barriers.
- Some comfortable type of chair for you to sit on.
We have an article that goes over tattoo supplies and what they cost. You can read it by following this link:
Learning the Tattoo Business.
Even if you have been in the business for many years like us, learning to market yourself is step one to making the jump to a full-time artist position. To make that jump, you also need to understand business basics, how to travel (if you want to take your act on the road), and essential self-care.
Here are a couple of tips to help you get there.
Learning to Tattoo and Marketing.
Learning how to market yourself effectively can ensure you can drag in clients even during the slowest months of the year. Having a website, social media, or just guerilla marketing through local flyer delivery can increase your exposure. Figure out what your brand is wither through having a “style of tattooing” or defining how you want to interact with your clientele. Get your work out and visible, and make sure everyone knows how to contact you.
Business Basics for a Tattoo Artist.
Accounting, scheduling, and paying sales tax are all things that most artists have no idea how to accomplish by themselves! Take time to learn how to run your business before making the jump to being a full-time tattoo artist.
YouTube is a great place to get started with organizing your business. The videos are free, and with only a few hours a day, you can learn how to run apps like QuickBooks. You can also learn to set up a scheduling book to ensure you don’t double book yourself.
If you need to become more specialized, head to the nearest community college and audit a class or two in the subject you require.
How to Become a Travelling Tattoo Artist.
Do you dream of the open road? No worries! Tattooing is one of the best jobs to take with you on the road. If your chops are up to snuff, you can land a gig at a studio in any city across the globe.
To get a slot in a tattoo shop away from home (called a guest spot), contact shops near where you want to travel well in advance of your travel plans. Reach out and chat, shoot a few emails, or set up a video call. Get to know the people you will work with and what the clientele is like in the place you want to go. See if the shop you want to get into offers any supplies, will feed you clients, or give you accommodations.
Frequently Asked Questions by People Learning to Tattoo.
How Long Does It Take to Learn to Tattoo?
It takes about 2-3 years to learn the basics of tattooing for most people. Some people with a very high T-IQ (tattoo IQ) can get a style down in as little as 6sixmonths.
Regardless of the time commitment, the time it takes to master this craft is somewhere around 30 years. That is a lot of learning!
We have an article about mastery. If you want to read it, follow this link:
How Do I Stretch the Skin Correctly?
This is something that falls into reading the skin effectively. When they start tattooing, most people either are too soft or too hard on the skin. For most, identifying how to work with skin is a trial-and-error process and is difficult to figure out. Making it even harder is that everyone’s skin is different, so getting it right on one person doesn’t guarantee that you will on the next.
Something that can help you learn proper stretching is a good apprenticeship. It is common for apprentices to help stretch the skin for other tattoo artists while in training. This way, the tattoo beginner has a chance to feel what a good stretch feels like without having to focus on doing an actual tattoo.
How Deep Does the Needle Go in The Skin?
This is a trick question! As the skin varies in thickness over the entire body, we can’t give you an exact measurement. An approximation of needle depth on the skin areas that aren’t very loose or overly thick is around 1.3mm thick. That is very, very small in comparison to some needle groupings!
How Do I Get More Clients?
If you are having difficulty getting clients when you begin to tattoo, you need to think outside the box. Instead of going to the usual haunts on social media, try looking on other websites that let you list things for sale. Offer discount tattoos in the shop to people if you are going to try new techniques or need more hours in the chair.
Another good way to get clients into the shop is going on a promo night. Take business cards for the shop you work at and go to some busy nightclubs, bars, or sports games. Hand out cards with a 10% off stamp and your name. Some people may want to talk to you. Let them simmer until they can pull you aside. If they don’t engage you, don’t worry. These potential clients have your card. They may still reach out in a day, week, or later down the road.