How to Become a Tattoo Artist

10 minutes • 21 May 2021

Tattooing is an art form that dates back more than 2,000 years. Archaeologists have unearthed mummies whose well-preserved skin is adorned with elaborate tattoos.

The opportunities for tattooists to express themselves through this art are virtually endless. This is a tremendously creative career path that can also come with great financial rewards.

Tattoo artist tattooing a client's arm

But before you can begin using a client’s skin as the canvas for your next masterpiece, there are specific rules of the road to learn and follow. Tattooing requires a license to practice legally, and getting a license involves extensive training and often, completing an apprenticeship. There are also significant safety protocols that must be observed. You will be coming in contact with human blood by virtue of working with needles and ink. For your own health and safety, as well as your clients, training to become a tattoo artist involves mastering the vitally important skills of hygiene and sanitation.

With experience, you’ll enjoy the satisfaction of helping clients tell the story of their lives through the artistry you bring to bear with permanence, using needle and ink on their skin. And if clients should someday regret ink that no longer holds meaning, you can still make good money offering tattoo removal services as part of your repertoire.

Ready to begin the journey? Read on to learn how you can become a tattoo artist.

In this article you’ll learn:

  • How much money you can make as a tattoo artist
  • The required training and certifications
  • Professional groups to join
  • Employment opportunities for tattoo artists
  • Finding clients
  • Plus helpful tips

How much money can you make?

Tattoo artists make an average of $48,760 per year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. That works out to $23.44 per hour. Tattooists at the top of their game can make six figures or more. With some famed body artists charging up to $500 per hour for their services.

Employment of tattoo artists is projected to show little or no change through 2028. Employment growth for tattoo artists depends largely on the overall state of the economy and whether people are willing to spend money on body art. People usually seek body art when they can afford to do so.

If you work for a tattoo parlor, be aware that the owner gets a piece of what you make, and it can be anywhere from 40 to 50 percent and possibly higher. This means if you pay the shop owner a 50 percent commission on a $300 tattoo, you’ll put $150 in your pocket from the job.

Training and Certification

You’ll need specific training, certification and a license to practice tattooing. In most cases, an aspiring tattoo artist must also complete an apprenticeship under the guidance and supervision of an established, licensed artist, who teaches the hygiene requirements and the appropriate techniques of tattooing.  The apprentice learns how to work with needles and mix ink. Practice involves using the tattoo machine and needles on fake skin or fruits.

Tattoo artist tattooing a client's leg

Before you enroll in a training program, it’s a good idea to check the licensing requirements in the state where you plan to work. This state-by-state directory of licensing requirements will get you started.

Once you know what’s involved you’ll be in a much better position to choose a training program that will fit your needs. Here is an extensive listing of training programs for tattoo artists.

There’s one more step. The Alliance of Professional Tattooists provides a training course in blood borne pathogen certification, which is a requirement for licensure as a tattoo artist. The purpose of the course is to provide instruction in proper safety and sanitation procedures when working in a field that can potentially expose you to another person’s blood. Classes are held both in-person at various locations around the country and online. The course teaches:

  • Basic understanding of blood borne pathogens
  • Common modes of transmission
  • Methods of prevention such as cross-contamination
  • Other critical information for body art practitioners and shop owners

Professional Groups to Join

Joining a professional organization shows dedication to your artistry and craft – the sign of a true professional. You can hang membership certificates in your studio with pride, showing customers that you are a serious artist. But professional memberships also enable you to network with other tattoo artists, keep up-to-date with best practices and industry changes, and even learn about job opportunities. Here are some of the best-known professional groups for tattoo artists:

Coalition of Tattoo Ink Safety
The mission of the Coalition for Tattoo Safety is to establish, support and promote the tattoo industry in creating minimum manufacturing standards for tattoo and cosmetic ink manufacturers, to educate the tattoo art industry and regulatory agencies, and implement realistic goals to protect the health and safety of the public at large. An individual professional membership is $80 per year.

Close up of a tattoo artist tattooing a client's arm

National Tattoo Association
For an artist membership ($60 per year) you must be recommended by a member to join the association. The association offers support and networking opportunities for tattoo artists throughout the United States, with an emphasis on safety and artistry to elevate the profession. Visit their website for current details.

Alliance of Professional Tattooists Inc.
The alliance has been called upon by many states to help develop laws governing the industry. APT represents tattoo professionals coming together to promote the industry and provide continuing education. A professional membership costs $150 per year.

Employment

Before you walk into any tattoo parlor looking for a job, make copies of your resume, certifications, professional tattoo license and reference letters from people with direct knowledge of your tattoo skills. You’re going to need copies of these documents for every shop owner you meet, so you may as well have them ready.

Tattoo artist holding tattoo equipment

Besides going directly to tattoo parlors in your area, check online employment sites such as Indeed and ZipRecruiter, which will turn up openings all over the country. Also put the word out to members of your professional organizations that you’re on the hunt for a job.

Once you ace an interview and get a job offer, make sure you understand the compensation package on the table. Many tattoo shops pay artists based on a set pricing menu, then keep a portion of the tattoo price for the shop. Referring back to our earlier example, if you work in a shop that takes a 50 percent commission from artists, you would earn $150 on a $300 inking job.

It’s always better to understand how your paycheck works before you say “yes” to any job offer.

Finding Clients
If you’re going into business for yourself, there are several consistently effective strategies for finding clients. The first thing to do is focus on the fundamentals:

Establish an Online Presence
Being a visual medium, it makes sense that promoting your tattoo services should involve photo displays of your work. Invest in a decent digital camera (unless you have an exceptionally good camera on your phone) and take pictures of your best designs.

Create dedicated social media pages on Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook for your business, including hours of operation, location and contact information. Then upload your pictures with brief but vivid descriptions to each of these pages. While it’s great if the whole world can see your genius on the Internet, you must have your business location listed on these pages so customers in your area can actually find you and stop by.

Female model sitting and displaying a full arm sleeve of tattoos

Focus on Your Branding
You will have competition. Decide what sets you apart, then promote that distinction. A logo and consistent color scheme on your website and social media pages will help tie all your marketing efforts together so potential clients come to recognize your work on sight.

Sell Promotional Items

If you can sell t-shirt and ball caps with your logo and business name, you’ll accomplish two things:

  • Create an additional revenue stream
  • Turn customers into walking billboards for your business

You can sell merchandise in your shop as well as through your website.

Offer Special Deals
These can be anything you can imagine. A discount on a first tattoo. A discount for referring new customers to the shop. Customer loyalty programs where people can receive a freebie after spending a certain amount of money.

Woman looking up with a shoulder tattoo on display

Ask Your Best Customers for Reviews
Happy customers should have no problem posting a short online review about their beautiful tattoo and excellent experience. A recent study shows 90 percent of respondents base their buying decisions on reviews they’ve encountered online while researching a business.

Good to know

Success tips for beginner tattooists as learned by experienced tattooists:

Keep Your Portfolio Up to Date
Pictures of your artistry should show a range of styles, as well as simple and complex designs. You want to show the full extent of your abilities.

Get Advice from Established Pros
This is yet another reason to join and stay active in professional associations – networking with other, more experienced members to get tips and advice.

Be Aware of Trends
New designs are always appearing and catching fire in popularity. If a customer comes in with a request, it’s good business to be ready to deliver on that request – even if you’ve already created that same tattoo 50 times this week.

Tattoo artist applying a tattoo to a client's arm

Take a Class in Small Business
Tattoo artists often begin their careers working in a shop for someone else, but eventually start their own business. You’ll be ahead of your competition if you know something about filing taxes as an independent contractor or limited liability corporation (LLC) as well as basic business skills to help you maintain positive cash flow and a smooth-running operation.

Enjoy Your Work
Seems obvious, but worth stating. In every tattooist beats the heart of an artist. Each day you get to create works of beauty and meaning. Some of your creations may hold tremendous significance for your customers for the rest of their lives. That should give you great professional satisfaction. You cannot fully enjoy your life without also enjoying your work. Remind yourself whenever necessary: This is a cool way to make a living.

If you enjoyed this article, check out some more great PocketSuite.io content that can help you grow your career as a tattoo artist. Here’s a great place to start.

PocketSuite has thousands of business owners who all started where you are right now. Our community is always happy to help you ramp up, grow your client base, and achieve your income goals, both within the PocketSuite app and as part of our exclusive Facebook Community Group. PocketSuite’s vision is for any professional to be able to work for themselves and make a great living. It starts here. It starts with you. It starts today. Let’s get started, download PocketSuite now! Feel free to reach out with any questions (we’d love to hear from you)! Text us @ (415) 841-2300.

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