Tattooing seems to be one of those elusive careers where there is really no clear path into it. I remember being interested at a young age and asking questions while collecting tattoos. There seemed no clear path into the business. It wasn’t until I had a friend-of-a-friend in the industry that I felt confident in asking to be let in to the tattoo sphere. The idea of approaching anxiety-inducing, tattooed strangers with confidence, seemed far beyond my grasp. There were no shortage of tales of budding artists getting their dreams laughed at or brushed off when entering a shop with the intention of learning to tattoo.
In hindsight, the only thing really holding me back was me, and my lack of belief in myself. I was closing the door before even knocking and letting social anxiety get the best of me. Big tattooed guys are intimidating, and I certainly did not have the self-esteem to cross that barrier then. If it weren’t for the friend-of-a-friend, I may never have gathered the courage.
So what does it really take to get to that door, and how do you get invited in without knowing someone already there? Here are a few tips for those of you curious about what I look for in a tattoo apprentice.
1. Portfolio, portfolio, portfolio. And no, I do not mean a collection of your pencil drawings from your sketchbook. That is not a professional artist portfolio. Sketches are the kindergarten level of skill. Even a famous, professional graphite artist will have spent hours making art in various mediums and levels of detail before boiling down to their seemingly effortless style. The appearance of little effort is a deception. Just like the hours an actor spends rehearsing is not visible when they deliver a perfect line, there is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes.
When I look for an apprentice, I am looking for a student that already has a grasp on the technical aspects of design, composition, and technique. I look for portfolios demonstrating various styles, subjects, and media. Your sketchbook tells me you have not put in the hours to make a completed piece of art. You may have been the best artist in highschool, but that does not grant you the skills and knowledge needed to create a viable piece of art. The sketch is stage one. If you haven’t experiemented beyond that, you have not put in enough time. I suggest using YouTube to research and practice professional drawing and painting techniques. You want at least 15-25 solid pieces of various subjects and mediums that are not under-developed. Your art should show attention to detail, without any part of the design being overlooked or underdone. It is common for artists to have parts of their drawings and paintings incomplete because it is a subject they are unfamiliar with and do not feel like learning, and they will play it off as part of their artistic vision. This will not pass for a tattoo. Each part of the art must be completely developed. The better your portfolio looks (and you should be comparing it to professional tattoo artist work, not fine artists) the easier it will be for a tattooer to see your potential and your tangible, demonstrated dedication.
2. Get tattoos. I know, they get expensive and you’re still paying off your college classes. But, if you want to really be taken seriously as a prospective student, you have to show a passion for the craft. Not only that, but there is a lot to know that just the process of being tattooed can show you. If you are not willing to make getting a tattoo a priority for your spending, you should question your dedication to that career path. Getting tattooed will also give you the undivided attention of a professional artist. And, well, isn’t that what you are wanting out of an apprenticeship?
3. Do not tattoo on yourself or friends. While many artists started by doing just that, it is still very frowned upon in the industry and is by far the most difficult way of learning anything. Imagine if your dentist learned that way. Tattoing without instruction communicates to the artist that you do not think you have anything to learn or any work to do before attempting a tattoo. It is disrespectful to the hours an artist has put in practicing to get where they are. If someone walked into your job and said they would cover your shift, but needed no instruction or training because they claimed it wasn’t needed, would you not scoff and say “good luck with that?” Nothing is as easy as it seems to the outside observer. Even the simplest of jobs require adequate training. Just like learning any technical skill, you have a lot of preparation work to do before you pick up the machine. I have seen first hand what home-made tattoos look like from your friend’s basement who was “a really amazing artist” in high school. It’s not good. I’m tired of cover-ups, people. Stop it.
4. Once you have a well-developed art portfolio, ask an artist you respect and trust (by now you hopefully know at least one from getting tattooed) to critique your work. And expect to use their suggestions to improve. The critiuqe is an invaluable learning tool you will use throughout your whole career, if you are lucky enough to find an artist to give it to you. And believe me, artist's love to tell you what you can do better with your art.
That’s it. If you are dedicated and keep the end goal in mind, I can promise you it will happen. There is no degree you can signup for or class you can buy your way into, but with a little intention and work, you will find a way.