black and white piucture of a tattoo on a forearm

The Philosophy of Apprenticeship in Tattooing.

Table of Contents

What is a (Tattoo) Apprenticeship?

In this article we take a more scholarly look at the history and application of trade/craft apprenticeship. Some of the topics here are over-generalized rhetoric, some of it is not. The biggest take away from these ramblings of mine – our current system of passing along trade experience is broken, at least in tattooing, in the west (see, I am already generalizing before getting through the preface).

In picking apart whatever research I could find for this examination of apprenticeship in tattooing, which I can attest there is little to no information out there, I was forced to fall back upon the western “big thinkers” to explain the ideas that fell out of my head onto this digital page. I came up with a few issues which I should cover before moving on:

  1. These ideas are mine. Apart from a few sources or quotes in the article, this writing is to be considered a primary source without any real reference. While I may take bits and pieces of ideas posited by others throughout time in the west, the application of tattooing specific training makes this a more targeted treatise without comparison at the time of completion.
  2. These ideas leave out societal differences that are largely at the forefront of modern minds. You can assume this writing is “X”-centric and mildly biased, even if that is not the intention of such efforts.
  3. I have left out many practices or cultural traditions that may influence the training of a student. Once again, take this application of educational influence on western studenture as a single person’s attempt to flatten the highly volatile educational system in the west, at this time.

Let us Talk About Tattoo Apprenticeships.

Are you are interested in the tradecraft of tattooing and are looking for a tattoo apprenticeship? Are you a skilled tattooer who is looking to take on a new apprentice?

We have information about what to expect when going after the coveted apprenticeship and how best for new instructors to approach the training. This article will be broken into 2 differing viewpoints. Each viewpoint will give the reader a chance to mull over the processes of each party involved in the apprentice/master relationship. While the chances of capturing the complexities of such a relationship in print are more than likely impossible (if given the length of a book returning a completion in a person’s lifetime), I am attempting to take a pragmatic approach to the educational undertakings and passing of knowledge of a master in trade/craft.

The efforts to obtain an apprenticeship or give one to a willing apprentice is complex, time consuming, and frustrating. Knowing how best to approach the task from both sides will ensure a quality experience for both instructor and apprentice, as well as break down the barrier that is naturally established between the master of a craft and the initiate that seeks to learn.

The goal should be the focus of this relationship and that goal should be devoid of ego or assumptions as is possible. The entire process should force the educator and educated to confront their assumptions, question their findings, and develop their own ontology through requisite experience with the guiding hand of mastery that has been achieved in tandem.

To further clarify some aspects of this writing – Master and instructor are interchangeable terms, while student and apprentice are as well.

What am I doing in this whole shebang? I am attempting to qualify, for each party, each side of the experience of the educational arrangement– the Instructor and the Student – to make it easy for the reader to grasp the give and take of a trade education. At no time am I considering this essay to clarify exact measures that a master should undertake while educating a willing apprentice. These words are here for the individual to hopefully grasp and then dismiss shortly afterwards.

The Choice of a Tattoo Apprenticeship.

The Student’s Side-

For many people out in the wilds of the Western world the idea of an apprenticeship is a fast-track way to becoming their own boss. An apprenticeship screams out to the inner obsessive as a gateway to hyper-focus their energies into a specific understanding, bypassing the rigors and costs of academia in a way that allows more freedom at the onset of a lifestyle change – be that escaping youth or changing a professional career path. In more basic terms, apprenticeships skip the degree and get straight to earning.

Most apprenticeships mix the passion of an artist or craftsperson and the stick-to-itiveness of a business major while giving the individual more time outside enjoying what “mother nature” has to offer. The training is more often paid-to-play and most inside these institutions are more likely to earn a living wage before completion of their training when compared to those who choose a less formal pathway through education.

Once they have completed what is often considered basic training, the now “master” gets the freedom to work when they want, where they want, and how they want. (While this idea seems to be a total collapse of logical process to those at the upper echelons the industry or craft in question, the naiveté of the hopeful student is something to be admired.)

The track they choose to engage in has a clear-cut path, a time allotted for their training and a clear requisite for understanding that sets an immediate goalpost for the individual. When compared to formal educational institutions, which charge massive amounts of money for a less-than-defined future pathway for the goal-oriented individual, the choice is made clear.

Those who do chose this pathway to education contain a spirit of youthfulness that requires adaptation and inspires change.

That effort to mold and change is more commonly attuned to the hyper-individualism that some may assume accompanies a lack of knowledge, or the dreamer like state of mind most children slowly lose while gaining life experience. The student wishes to make an indelible mark into the passion they are subjecting their efforts. In the early part of their careers, which in this case is the inception of an idea that should grow into something more, there is little to deter the student if they have passion for a subject.

Think of music or film when to an adolescent. How massive could a song feel, while at the same time to their minds and bodies which are just opening to the idea of a lifetime of economic conscription, when angst overrides their post-communal individualism in a way that creates a unique isolation known only to those most emo.

The mind of youth is constantly at war with itself and neatly generates the plural belief that something greater must be apparent in the most blasé of circumstances. In fact, I would go so far as to claim modern pluralism stems wholly from the mindset of the disenfranchised youth culture – too far gone as to not notice their individualism is a by-product of mass consumerism’s intellectual hype-man (advertising) dragging at their sensibilities that everything is just fine as long as they are online.

Perhaps this is why the individual is so focused on the end roll of education or apprenticeship before gauging what their own person really wants?

While initially there is little chance of such dreams becoming reality, these notions are attainable in time. Regardless of what society dreams into reality, the idea of quick mastery is a bias that has been inputted through our evolution as a growing society. Something all newly minted apprentices in the industry come to learn is the idea of “true freedom” is a rarity when studying a craft. All students are subject to the rigors of shop life and the requirements given by their instructors. They have little time to enjoy life outside of work. Most personal time is spent alone, grasping the fundamental aspects of the trade they chose to undertake until enough time has elapsed that they have answers to the simplest of questions.

The Instructors Side-

Once a lifetime of experience has been accumulated a master of craft is forced to decide: Should the experience be an expression of one’s person goals and achievements, or should the cumulative knowledge be passed down. While the choice is personal, the efforts of the master must be focused on how best to understand their own motivations before confronted with these ponderances.

pass down that knowledge to the future generations. Efforts should be made to discern the style and affect an instructor chooses to relay the information before looking for a willing student. This pre-education task is essential for the instructor role as well as the student. The literal process of how the student will be able to obtain an education in the least, to passing along an entire set of knowledge and experience at the best, must be mentally (or physically) prepared by the instructor.

An obsessive mindset is necessary, with the focus shifting from the natural, learned understanding of the craft, towards the student- wherein the instructor forces an evolution of an individual(s) and their interpretation of the craft-world around them. True acceptance of mastery must never be in question before the acceptance of this first step into training another as the process of qualifying another requires absolute certainty before training begins.

If the instructor is capable and willing to accept their place inside the industry or craft in which they work, they are ready to take on an apprentice.

What is Mastery? (AKA acquiring a Masters degree/certificate/experience)

This question has confounded early inceptants in any crafts-based industry throughout time. As it stands, without knowing the entirety of a trade or craft the individual offering advice about requirements is left without a fully fleshed idea about what is necessary for mastery. One could eve go so far as to claim that the generalization of being fully trained is often miscategorized, as most inquiries constantly evolve into something more than they are at any current moment.

With every completion, whether successful or not, the growth of knowledge within a trade or craft is expanded, if and only if that knowledge is again disseminated effectively to those making the inquiry into advancement.

This spreading of knowledge has a caveat of losing relevancy as time extends past its origin point, or if any knowledge is accepted as “truth” and escapes inquiry in future endeavors. Think of the most advanced mathematical theorems, and how few can properly understand their complexity, let alone complete the labor to prove such a theorem is correct. Due to this kind of crap analogy, I often wonder if there is a general break in discovery, when breakthroughs are commonplace, and if any person(s) is capable of looking back and fact checking the work that is being produced, if that process of fact checking is even possible once discoveries have been made and the time necessary for fact-checking is possible.

If it is, how long can each complex assumption (which I call an assumption because I have no proof any proof is proven) would take to prove! While mathematically the proof may require things such as computers or calculators, in an intuitive trade such as tattooing the emotive aspects of understanding are much harder, if not impossible, to quantify. How would a person be able to properly express what a touch sensation should feel like when we know that sensation is a wholly subjective experience? What about the tonal quality of a pigment, or the sharpness of a needle, how can one effectively explain that feeling to an individual who may lack critical experience needed to interpret such musings?

We are constantly at war with the idea of what is required to create a functional mastery of any craft or trade. In a way, each mastery is going to be completely unique to the individual, yet the foundational aspects of mastery should unify the trade, craft, or art under a common foundational goal. This begs the question; what is required of the apprentice, journeyperson, or the master should they elevate their own understanding to heights necessary to train another or expand upon the industry as a whole? Should every aspect of the industry, from making of every tool to the creation of all thought, be filtered through the field of mastery before the right to train another is grated, or is the mastery of a single subject enough to spread that information?

Common Sense

In making that long winded statement above I feel need for clarification: Whatever philosophical comparisons I may choose to put down in this section are purely hypothetical. What was stated above does not mean that I distrust the process of mathematicians globally, or that I distrust the process in which any proof is or has been developed without the necessary rigor required for academic inquiry. What it does mean is that I am skeptical until assured the rigors of the fact-checking process have occurred by those willing and capable of doing such testing, and that it has been applied to any argument put forth in a way that segregates possible bias or deception.

Denial of carbon dioxide levels resulting from human influence, beliefs in lizard-people feigning as democratically elected officials, and conspiracies surrounding pizza parlors evade critical inquiry and require what one would assume is common sense to dispel. Yet when presented with “common sense” some believers may actively rebel against the rationalizations as something less-than honest. These attempts to hold onto what can only be describes as lunatic beliefs must be lauded as genuine scientific criticism. This skepticism accompanies most inquiry that is presented, which should be apparent in any form of education, not only by the student, but also by the instructor.

We can validate this argument by looking back in our own personal histories and see what assumptions or ideas that were taken as fact but were later found to be completely irrelevant, broken, violent, or just simply wrong. In the US, ideas of the Founding Fathers being nearly superhuman in their efforts, never telling lies or being the most vivacious of womanizers while looking like a bespectacled kneecap, were taught to capable and impressionable youths or those seeking amalgamation into the US system of “freedom, honor, and dignity”.

For a person to be presented with alternative narratives (not alternative facts, which is just an opinion) creates a cloud of confusion, not only over a student in the trades, but also over the entirety of those choosing to work inside the trade exampled.

Understanding Differences in Application

This brings us back to the question of mastery and what is necessary for the individual who undertakes such a journey. If cumulative knowledge is lacking or if access to fundamental knowledge is unavailable, how can the “master” in such a situation be capable of advancing the industry parallel to its understanding outside their reach? If one looks at history, we are left with an anthropological assumptive foundation that shows cultures, and in this argument specifically focusing on trades or crafts, will and can evolve parallel with each other, at different rates within each evolution, which possibly never encounter one another while developing.

Look towards the Japanese, who are most often more than other cultures in many respects, and their cultural evolution within body modification, personal mastery, and cultural acceptance of each as contrasted to the US. Each may have occurred at different times throughout history, and each may have resulted in differing legislation and cultural acceptance, while both resulted in similar outcomes regarding completed “artwork” – yet vastly different results when looking at the process for the clientele, apprentice, and master.

The Good and the Bad of Apprenticeship.

For the Student.

Freedom in any industry is obtained through toil and sacrifice. Attempts to learn the tools and tricks necessary to be a competent craftsperson are hard to come by. In fact, most apprentices choose to leave the industry after a few years of practice due to burnout, lack of progression, ineffective apprenticeship, or the subtle destruction of their ego due to lack of successes. There is much to consider before committing to a lifetime’s work.

From financial security to the aspects of the individual’s personality that must adjust to the stressors of shop life, everyone is forced to take stock of what the future should look like (in their own image of what perfection and mastery can be described as) and make efforts towards that goal consistently – or else fail in their journey to mastery.

The Mindset of the Student and Master Are not Equivalent.

The mindset of the student must always be hungry but also aware that the way they interpret the craft, through fresh eyes that are more prone to failure than success, will not align with the interpretations of the instructor. The efforts of expressing an understanding take time to manufacture and the efforts of the instructor will take time to fit the student as each learns the other’s personality.

Financial Security Takes Time.

For the apprentice’s first 3-5 years in the industry, earnings will be little when compared to their fellow artists. The hours necessary to accomplish the most basic aspects of the job will be greater in comparison as well. Through all this expended effort the rewards will be slow coming. For most of those who make the choice to jump both feet in, working a second (or primary) job will be necessary to live (if living alone or with a family that requires support).

In the Western world there is an ever-present pressure to fit within the social construct of the industry. Questions may be ignored while pressures are applied to those wishing to make the “gig” a fulltime employment option.

What is meant by this?

The lifestyle of self-expression one is required to project while working in the tattoo industry can be smothering. Each shop or society that a person chooses to operate within, which can be considered a constant at times, extends further than the basic apprenticeship experience. This stressor dictates the mannerisms and experience the clientele is expecting to receive. This is not to say that the experience a client or shop receives from another’s labor cannot exceed their expectations but in most cases the effort of the individual charged with the labor is required to have an extensive knowledge base to achieve that exceeded experience.

This stressor, lifestyle over experience, which is not unique to the experience of an apprentice or instructor within the industry, forces the individual to adapt to the situation, or be ostracized by their peers, clientele, or even the industry at large.

The Cost of a Tattoo Apprenticeship.

Throughout the history of apprenticeship in the Western world, most apprentices are given a choice as to how they will work off the cost of being educated in a trade. Most often this trade of labor and education is worked off; through care and labor for the Master (Instructor) and the business associated a person has been deemed to prove their worth by offering fealty to the master.

More recently the world of tattooing offers apprenticeships for a fee, which is vastly different when compared to most federally recognized apprenticeships where a paid-to-learn option is available.

In most cities in the Western World the costs of the education are well into the (tens of) thousands of dollars per year. This is not aligned with the federally mandated rules of apprenticeship in the US, or other countries which makes the process seem

Differences in Quality Standards for The Industry as a Whole.

Regardless the fee required to start training, the education may be considered incomplete.

How This Affects the Apprentice from Inception.

Without industry-wide governance, the students of tattooing are subject to a less than rigorous training schedule. There is not industry wide agreement of what it takes to be an apprentice, let alone what it takes to be a professional tattoo artist. There is no guidebook of what is required by the student to make them proficient in

Moving from shop to shop, culture to culture, the requirement of apprenticeship change. One thing I have noticed throughout my own travels is that the requirements of each apprentice or newly hired artist are based on the operation of the shop, and at times, the ego of the shop owner.

One benefit is that this training gives the person wishing to learn an entryway into the industry. It also eliminates the oftentimes degrading aspects of the scrubbing floors with small utensils or long hours spent in the shop waiting for instruction from busy instructors.

Do I Really Need to Be an Apprentice?

Being forced to choose which pathway to entry, due to the incongruous efforts of the industry to self-regulate, gives the wanting student the power to manifest their own route to mastery. Students are given the choice to either get an apprenticeship or learn on their own.

While most who have spent time in the industry will attest to the requirement of an apprenticeship, most tattooers interviewed stated the “formal apprenticeship” requirement is not necessary. For most senior tattooers education came outside the established tattoo shops throughout the United States. In fact, I would go so far to assume that the education came from “the basement”, or from charging ill-educated clients who are willing to pay for a less than complete experience.

There is no need for a formal apprenticeship in most states, but licensing can be required to practice the craft.

What this means for most people is that there are two paths to joining the industry:

  1. Attempt to teach yourself, practicing sometimes illegally, until acceptance in the industry is achieved.
  2. Obtain an apprenticeship.

Each pathway of entry has their own hurdles, some of which are more evident when the apprentice decides to move off into their own.

Pathway to Being a Tattoo Artist #1 – The Self-Taught Tattooer or INDEPENDENT APPRENTICESHIP.

The self-taught tattooer has a more difficult time making entry into the industry. Derogatory terms such as “scratcher” are applied to those who choose to tattoo out of unlicensed tattoo shops. Until the skills of the self-taught tattooer have reached a level deemed worthy by industry insiders these people are more often unable to work within a tattoo shop setting.

In states and countries where licensing requirements do not stipulate training requirements, are ineffective, or absent, the self-taught tattooer is able to become a licensed “professional”. Most times these licenses are obtained by paying a fee for certificate with some other stipulations attached (blood borne pathogens training, CPR training, etc.).

Summarizing the tattoo artists working out of licensed shops who were interviewed: more bad habits surround the scratcher, and it makes it difficult to retrain those bad habits when they first start working in a shop. There is a near constant effort to un-learn their previous habits; an attempt to homogenize the artist to fit within an existing structure the “shop” exhibits socially.

This gatekeeping aspect of entry into the tattooing industry makes it difficult for most self-taught tattooers to make the leap from working at home to a licensed shop. That is, unless, they have sufficient skills necessary to pass as a person who has obtained a working apprenticeship or fool the shop denizens into feeling a sense of subservience to their skill.

Pathway to Being a Tattoo Artist #2 – The Tattoo Apprenticeship or COOPEATIVE APPRENTICESHIP.

Most tattoo apprenticeships start with the apprentice seeking out a qualified instructor to teach them the tradecraft. The initial effort of seeking out a qualified person is fraught with difficulties:

  • There is no one qualified or willing to offer a tattoo apprenticeship.
  • The cost of tattoo apprenticeship is too high.
  • The time commitment is too great.
  • The personalities of the instructor and apprentice clash.
  • There is too much of an age difference for a proper instructor/apprentice relationship.
  • The quality of a tattoo apprenticeship is below what is required to learn the trade.
  • Previous commitments delay or eliminate the ability to complete such a course of training.

Due to these limitations and hurdles some who wish to tattoo will skip the effort of attempting to get a tattoo apprenticeship and start teaching themselves. Others become frustrated with the process and remove themselves to practice/learn on their own.

For those that do obtain an apprenticeship through a licensed shop their ability to start inside the industry is secured. While these new apprentices can state their “rightful place” among those they work alongside, never adopting the label of “scratcher”, their training may be fraught with disappointment:

  • The training offered may not align itself with what the apprentice wishes to focus on or take out of the industry.
  • The lessons learned may not instill proper knowledge as to why, or how, a technique or aspect of the craft is applied/understood.
  • Critical thinking is ignored in most cases and not considered an aspect of the training.
  • Once basic safety protocols are understood the apprentice may be trust into a working position without any real training (called: training in skin).
  • Questions may go unanswered or deemed irrelevant due to missing knowledge of the instructor.
  • Ownership of the apprentice’s clientele will most likely be controlled by the tattoo shop or instructor.

When comparing the apprenticeship to the self-taught route it is of little wonder why most people will attempt tattooing on themselves, or on friends, before ever approaching a licensed shop for training.

For more background and a critique on tattoo apprenticeships read our article

Tattoo Apprenticeships and What is Missing in The Industry

What to do Before Committing to a Tattoo Apprenticeship.

Bring Artwork That Mirrors Future Efforts to a Potential Instructor.

When meeting potential tattooing instructors, it is important to show them what pathway to training will be required. If the apprentice’s idea of “style” does not match the instructor’s, the instructor may force an adaptation on the apprentice if accepted. This forced adaptation may cause burnout, repeated failure, or a dismissal from the craft that is unnecessary. Bringing in artwork that shows the potential tattoo apprentice’s form and focus enables the instructor to give critiques and converse before committing.

In giving free critiques to hopefuls the instructor can glean aspects pertaining to personality, drive, and commitment. It is the instructor’s obligation to ensure quality training and the absolute guarantee of success when accepting an apprentice. If the instructor is unable to fulfil the wants of the apprentice, or their own idea of how to pass on their lineage is not congruent with where the apprentice sees themselves in the future, the effort to train should be avoided.

The point of interviewing a potential apprentice through critiquing their artwork is to get to know the individual. Effort should be taken to ensure the person approaching the instructor is made to feel welcome but never is able to assume they have been chosen to learn. Dignity is to be given to the hopeful while space between them and the instructor must be always kept.

Accepting A Critique from the Instructor – A Key to Successful Training.

Training is about molding efforts to meet specific criteria. If the apprentice needs a correction, the instructor must be willing and able to explain why the correction is necessary and how to improve such efforts. Corrections are often given in the form of critiques and the willing tattoo apprentice must seek out an instructor whose critiques they find constructive.

If the instructor gives a critique the apprentice must accept it as being sincere and knowledgeable. If the initial meeting or subsequent critiques offered cannot bring about change, offend the hopeful tattoo apprentice, or bought surrounding the critique are raised, accepting of training should be avoided.

Make Certain Each Can Fulfil Their Duties.

Ensuring availability, timeliness, and the maximum effort to be devoted to the education being provided are crucial to a successful tattoo apprenticeship. If instructions are given the apprentice must focus on completion of each task to the best of their ability. This is apart from their daily duties outside of trade education.

While attached to an instructor who is willing and able to disseminate the knowledge necessary for proper education, the apprentice is forced to accept even the most mundane aspects of training.

The instructor must have a well-grounded strategy for training the apprentice, a road map to success, and a timeline for completion in all things included in the education. Characteristics of the instructor should include:

  • The ability to fulfil all obligations sought by the apprentice.
  • Answer all questions when information is available.
  • Discover answers when not known.
  • Submit to their own limitations when confronted with them.
  • Listen and learn alongside the apprentice.
  • Lead with critical inquiry before presenting any assumptions.
  • Know their own failures and ensure they are not repeated.

If any of these aspects of training are unable to be approached or completed effectively, the efforts of both the apprentice and instructor should focus elsewhere.

Once two or more parties have agreed to the terms and conditions of the apprenticeship training will begin.

Prepare for the Time Required for Completion.

It seems nearly universal in Western society that 7 is a magic number. Many consider it lucky. In training, 7 seems to the be magic number for years necessary to commit to an endeavor before acceptance of understanding occur. 7 years is often required for a master’s degree and historically 7 years was the commitment required by an apprentice before their debt was considered “paid”.

Most commonly our trade educations require far less time than what was required historically. I assume that this is because the first few years of an apprentice’s life were spent in fealty to the master, wherein the young apprentice was shaped emotionally to fit the training style and humors of the master they were attached to. Apprentices were taken in young, between the ages of  n tattoo apprenticeships.

What to Expect from a Tattoo Apprenticeship?

For both parties, the instructor, and the student, entering an apprenticeship is a long-term contract. Both parties are expected to grow and become more reliant on each other. This process will continue throughout the time together and may even roll over into their lifetimes.

Both parties must be focused on the future for the education to be successful which can be missing in some Western-world tattoo apprenticeships. I feel this is due to the disappearance of apprenticeship in our society since the mid 1900’s.

Analyzing Apprenticeships Historically

Previous attempts to train an individual in any tradecraft meant eliminating the “individual” and molding their person into a cog-in-the-machine of the tradecraft they were training into. This was necessary due to the normalized population density of most “developing” nations. People would choose what they were best fitted to do through a lineage of tradition, taking on family names if they were not born into the craft, and working towards improving technique until they could claim the top-spot amongst their societal peer(age).

As populations increase within a society, the quality within the trade or craft naturally decreases. This decrease in quality occurs as demand (which naturally rises during times of growth) outpaces the ability of the trades-person’s ability to produce. Quality is sacrificed to meet the demand of the society around the developing trade. Another byproduct of growth in a society is, as stresses increase, those with entrepreneurial spirit (or a willingness to falsely claim knowledge through the efforts of “management”) take advantage of the impatience expressed by the incoming populace.

To enjoy the fruits of expansion and increase their value (which is most commonly maximized in a capitalistic society) the instructors, well-educated or not, train students to meet increasing demand. I some variations o this training, the incoming students are considered masters themselves with only enough knowledge to ensure safe completion of singular tasks. The degradation of knowledge decreases as this happens and the craft becomes fragmented.

As populations decrease in society the ability to retain knowledge is further decreased. This happens as younger, less experienced individuals are pushed to metropolises (metropoli?) to fill the gap in available labor. Because the population in more remote areas decreases, where tradecraft may be considered a more efficient way to create income for an individual (along with the decreased competition which fosters a specific grade of apprenticeship on the average), the total knowledge base of some “families” in a craft is slowly lost as chances of education through apprenticeship dry up.

What to Look Forward to In A Traditional Western Tradecraft Apprenticeship

Step 1: Initiation to the Craft.

Most apprenticeships begin with simple introductions: Learning about the day-to-day efforts, learning the language used in the industry, and becoming aware of what is yet to come. In modern tattooing apprenticeships the initial efforts are learning sterile techniques and basic shop care, while becoming indoctrinated to the language used in the shop setting.

This step of the apprenticeship is necessary for the apprentice. It strips away their idea of who or what the industry is and allows them to functionalize the reality of the craft.

Daily chores include:

  • Care and maintenance of the tattoo shop.
  • Cleaning surfaces and understanding products used for disinfection.
  • Client communication – answering phones.
  • Scheduling appointments.
  • Cleaning and sterilizing instruments.
  • Safe application of basic techniques before tattooing begins and after it ends (setup and breakdown).
  • Basic training in art preparation and creation.

Simple processes are practiced until they become a part of the foundational knowledge of the apprentice. The recall of such actions should become fluid and require little effort to repeat correctly before moving into the next stage of training.

Throughout this initiation, efforts to keep the apprentice on track – meet deadlines and stay focused on the initiation aspects of the training – should be maintained. The instructor must answer all questions pertaining to this aspect of training yet be open to discussing more complex processes or ideas when presented with an appropriate question. As the apprentice gains more comfort and begins to move themselves out of initiation the instructor must be willing to let them lead their education and advance their knowledge when deemed competent.

Within a year’s time the apprentice must be capable of accomplishing all basic aspects listed above and be willing to explain the reasoning behind each. If this timeline is unable to be met in earnest both parties must answer this question: Should the training continue or should the training be revoked?

Step 2: Learning the Basics

By the first year of collaboration the instructor should focus on more complex aspects of the trade being introduced to the apprentice. For a time deemed worthy by the instructor, the next stage of apprenticeship should focus on:

  • Understanding and being able to describe tools used in the trade.
  • Artwork creation.
  • Basic maintenance of shop equipment.
  • Creation of tools and supplies to be used by the instructor only.
  • Body dynamics and how it applies to the craft.
  • Critical evaluation of initiation-based knowledge.
  • Expanding knowledge of previously learned foundational.

While these lessons are being instilled the previous year’s efforts must be maintained. The apprentice is to be made aware that, regardless of their position within a shop, the upkeep and maintenance of the business is of top priority. Failure to grow and express understanding of previous knowledge will show the instructor how quickly to progress the education. If the tattoo apprentice falls behind – is more prone to failures than before, becomes easily agitated, or loses interest in the education – the instructor must adapt to encourage growth.

What should the focus be for this part of training?

The goal of the apprentice is to listen and learn, pressing the instructor for more information. They must stay hungry for knowledge and expect it every day they work towards mastery.

For the instructor, the goal of this period is to hone basics, encourage growth, and feed the thirst for knowledge that is expressed by the tattoo apprentice. At no time, until it is deemed necessary by the instructor, should the apprentice be given freedom to practice the craft. If the step to practicing is taken too early in the training the apprentice is more likely to compare themselves to the instructor, destroy the bridge between aster and student, by creating claims of equality in knowledge.

At the same time, tools should be supplied to the student in hopes they will eventually make attempts to mark a body. These attempts must be made away from the instructor, hopefully in the privacy of an unopened shop rather than at home, on the apprentice themselves.

While initial marks may not be easily distinguishable, paying attention to supply lots, levels of pigment, missing needles or packages that arrive with mysteries trapped inside should be noticed but not confronted. A level of freedom must accompany the apprentice as the break into the next aspect of training.

What can be done to ensure the apprentice takes this step?

To ensure this step is taken the instructor must make available the space and resources necessary for the apprentice. Arriving late, giving freedom for the apprentice to come and go as they please, or giving homework where the apprentice is alone in the shop will help them make that leap.

If this aspect of training is not achieved in the first 4 years, a push to mark themselves must be made or else the training should be stopped. Instructors can utilize partners, husband/wives, other artists, or strangers to plant the seed of mischief. At no time should the instructor have a part in the self-initiation of the apprentice.

Once the apprentice has been practicing on their own person the instructor will know to progress to the next stage of training as they have already become confident to mark skin.

Step 3: Building Understanding.

Once an apprentice has moved to marking their own body, they are now ready to begin understanding the application of body art and basic techniques needed for success. This is where the apprentice starts the evolution from a visual-study-student to practitioner.

Usually occurring in the first 5 years of apprenticeship, training changes from the basic routines and business operation to more complex analysis of the trade and operation. Along with the expansion of knowledge the focus of the instructor pivots towards fostering  a sense of critical inquiry. Each motion or action must be followed with an explanation as to the philosophy, potential, and interpretation of what the future may hold. While all previous aspects of training are still being undertaken (steps 1 and 2), the apprentice should experience a greater level of freedom in their daily tasks.

Things to expect in this phase of training are:

  • Principles of technique.
  • Expanded understandings of tool function and operation.
  • Pigment mixing and definition of chemistry(s)
  • Skin, biology, and identification of the person.
  • Psychology of the artist and client.
  • Philosophy of the craft.
  • Expansion of footprint and understanding of the apprentice evolution.
  • Introduction to the apprentice’s place in the industry.
  • Further education on critical analysis.

(this list is incomplete I may add more to it later-à)

This part of the training is the finalization of foundational knowledge necessary for the apprentice to survive once moved away from the instructor’s guidance. It is where the proverbial training wheels are removed, and the instructor can see how well their training has become a part of the apprentice.

What confronts the instructor and apprentice as education evolves.

Starting slowly, a methodical application of practical knowledge is unveiled as the apprentice shows competency. At no time should perfection be expected before moving to the next lesson. Instead, the efforts of the instructor shift from direction to suggestion, letting the apprentice suffer failure with a “competent and available” safety net. At no time should the apprentice be allowed to dictate their own growth. The individual may seek to pressure the instructor as to what they are capable of (especially if there has been an advanced progression through the education provided thus far).

If the instructor chooses to entertain these pressures, they must be prepared to confront any shortcomings the student exhibits, as the student will surely overreach. These overreaching efforts must be kept to a minimum as each setback is deleterious to the efforts of understanding and application – and each setback will suffer a crisis of ego. John Locke put it best,

“The business of education is not, as I think, to make them perfect in any one of the sciences, but so to open and dispose their minds as may best make them capable of any, when they shall apply themselves to it.”

Training should continue at a rapid pace, testing the vigor of the student and pressing their competency with every available chance. If failures by the tattoo apprentice begin to outnumber successes the training should slow down to allow the apprentice to evolve and increase understanding.

With every failure, critical inquiry must be made by the apprentice an attempt to glean a reasonable assumption or answer to the failure. The instructor must gently remove full explanations of techniques, philosophies, or other “deep-thinking” aspects of the training. This encourages the student to mature as an individual and keeps the instructor from pressing their own beliefs too strongly on the student.

One other situation of note: This time in training will test the instructor as well, leaving more questions for them to answer if they wish to grow along with the apprentice. As questions become more focused on a specific aspect of training the instructor will make allowances for the apprentice, giving them time necessary to focus and alleviate some chores or tasks that can be deemed as unnecessary.


Those who can, do.

Those who cannot, teach.

Those who cannot teach have passed along enough to have the fire of discovery lit for another generation.