The original version of this article was written in 2009, at the time I was getting asked for apprenticeships all the time, usually via email, usually by people who clearly were not in love with tattooing. One of these potential “apprentices” told me when I asked if she had any tattoos herself, “oh I dont want any tattoos myself, I just think it would be a cool job I could make a lot of money at”. So perhaps you can understand the exasperated tone of the original version of this article.
I still agree with everything I wrote, but the 6 years since I originally wrote it have changed me and tattooing and I felt it was time for a rewrite and to update the information. One of the biggest changes is the end where I answer several of the comments and complaints that folks had about the version 1.
A lot of people want to be tattooers, and I can understand why, it seems like one of those jobs where one doesn’t have to follow “the rules”, and even as tattooing has become more mainstream it still retains that cache of being by and for the outsider. Unfortunately the same kind of personality that is attracted to tattooing is often the same type that resists any sort of rules or tradition, and tattooing, despite what anyone tells you, is full of rules and traditions. These rules and traditions are not arbitrary, they are not there because tattooers are mean or are afraid of competition. They exist because tattooing is a very old fashioned artform (even the newer styles) and is best taught in an old fashioned, one on one, mentor/student way. In other words, by an apprenticeship. This has been bourne out over and over again through ancient history right up to todays photorealistic, pneumatic/rotoriffic masters, and when people eschew an apprenticeship, when they try to “figure it out” or find a “short cut” the result is the same; some poor sod (or hundreds of poor sods really) get shitty, unsafe tattoos.
Few tattooers would write an article like this, it is considered best to slam the door in the faces of people who want to become tattooers, and if that worked I would slam the door myself. I actually believe that just by saying “fuck off kid” that we professionals are causing more people to order crappy kits and tattoo out of their house! When we don’t show these prospects that there is any “right” way to go about it then it should be no surprise that they choose the only way they see availible, the wrong way. What if, instead of the same stonewall approach that clearly doesn’t work, we showed folks the right way to get an apprenticeship, not an online how-to tattoo manual, but a guide on how to seek the proper training?
This article is my point of view based on 18 years of experience, having done an apprenticeship, and on seeing the results of dozens and dozens of fellow tattooers stories. Some did apprenticeships that were good, some bad, and some folks just winged it. I took on my own (and only) apprentice in 2008 and learned a ton from that experience as well. You dont have to agree with this article, I dont care either way, but you should at least appreciate that this article is something Ive never seen given out, for free, by someone who has the experience I do, its a gift for the 1% of prospective apprentices willing and able to someday become, not just tatooers, but great tattooers who are a positive boon to the world of tattooing.
1. DO get into tattooing through an apprenticeship. Sure you could ‘figure it out” the same way you could “figure out” how to defuse a bomb. The reality is that it’s far more likely that you will blow yourself up, and in tattooing you will be fucking up on real live humans who deserve better. Everyone has a story about how so-and-so awesome tattooer just started scratching out of their crib, but even these (extremely) rare exceptions will tell a newcomer that an apprenticeship is the way to go.
2. DO start the whole process by getting tattooed yourself! I mean a LOT. Sleeves, large work, all that. No one is born knowing what makes a good tattoo, its an acquired language, you need to be exposed to it personally before you even consider tattooing others. Getting tattooed is a secret door into understanding tattooing. Even clients with no intention of being a tattooer become knowledgeable after getting hours of work in the tattoo shop environment, it’s like learning a new language by living in a foreign country instead of just reading about it in a book. Getting a lot of work also shows a prospective mentor that you love tattooing and not just the image of it. Frankly, most tattooers won’t even entertain the idea of teaching someone who can’t be bothered to get tattooed themselves.
3. DO draw a lot. Draw everything. So you have gotten that one skull down pat? great, now draw a fairy, a beaver, a motorcycle, a flower, and a face. If all you can draw is skulls then you are useless as a tattooer. For me the first big surprise in learning to tattoo was how rarely I did “cool” stuff! Especially in the beginning our artistic skills will lag behind our vision, even the best artist on paper has some adjustment time when they begin using a tattoo machine, practicing with subjects outside of your comfort zone is great preparation for being a professional tattooer when you never know what idea is coming through the door.
4. DO read every book, magazine, and website on tattooing you can. Learn the history and mystique of tattooing. Respect for tattooing is worth a lot to a prospective mentor. All that “old stuff” isn’t just for historical curiosity, there are lessons to be learned even from the crudest old work. Studying where we came from gives us a huge bank of ideas and images to draw upon. In the modern world of tumblr/Instagram tattoo pages a new artist can find a level of work to aspire to (not copy), having a goalpost to aim for helps to focus a new artist on getting up to speed quickly.
5. DO remain open minded about every kind of tattooing. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen is “declaring your major” too early. In the beginning you should be open to all sorts of tattooing, because all have something to teach you and after several years of work you may find that your passion has led you to a totally different style than what attracted you at first. Besides, to a prospective mentor an apprentice who declares that they are too good for tribal or tasmanian devils is someone already too big for their britches.
6. DO get lots and lots of work from the person you plan on asking for an apprenticeship. Someone walking in cold and asking for an apprenticeship is all take, take, take. By getting work you show the tattooer you are serious, interested, and they have a chance to spend some time with you and a chance to gauge your dedication. Getting tattooed by your prospective teacher is probably your best bet for getting an apprenticeship if you dont already know them personally. Don’t treat tattooing like the kind of thing you drop off an application for, this isn’t a summer job, its a whole new life, treat it that way.
7. DO be willing to sacrifice. You might be expected to work at the shop for free and still keep a job on the side. You might have to move to a whole different city to find someone willing to apprentice you. If you have tried every shop in town and no one is taking apprentices there is probably a reason, perhaps business is slow in your town and no one wants to create another mouth to feed at their shop. You might be also be asked to do all kinds of menial shit like cleaning, running errands, dealing with customers. Some of this is hazing to weed out those who dont “really want it”, some of it is teaching you how to clean and set up tattoo equipment safely, and some of it is “payment” for the training you are receiving. If you cant deal with some hard work, critiques, and ball busting, don’t even bother.
8. DO understand that to be a tattooer is not merely a job, you become a representative of an artform we have given our lives to. It becomes your lifestyle, your hobby, the hill you climb forever, I know a dozen tattooers who lost girl/boyfriends when they started apprenticing because it was so all-consuming! Most tattooers feel that taking on an apprentice is special, its damn near sacred. Understand and respect what a huge amount of trust and respect taking you on as an apprentice is. Look at your desire honestly, if you think it will be easy money, lazy work, or a way to be a cool kid then stop now, it is none of those things and you will be a poor representation of tattooing if you half-ass it.
1. DONT waste our time telling us how much you want it, how many years you have dreamed of it (especially if you are only 18), don’t tell us how “good at it” your friend/mom/baby momma thinks you would be. Talk is cheap, show us by doing not saying. Most prospective mentors want someone who is a hard worker who is humble not a deluded maniac who will talk a good game and then balk when they are asked to mop, practice drawing hands, or do other unglamorous parts of their apprenticeship.
2. DONT badmouth other tattooers, even if it is your prospective mentors worst enemy. Being a shit talker is simply proof to that shop that you will one day, sooner or later, be shit talking them, too. Even if your mentor is the worst gossip around, it is a bad habit that will only hurt in the long run.
3. DONT ask via phone, email, internet, letter, do it in person or don’t bother. Anything else tells the tattooer that the gift of a tattoo life isn’t worth your time and personal appearance. An apprentice is an investment of time and effort, why would we give that to someone who cant even be bothered to talk to us in the flesh? Not only will asking “hey, you taking apprentices” on Facebook rub most tattooers the wrong way, it might even make it even harder to get a foot in the door at all, word gets around the tattoo community and badgering folks online will not get you a good reference.
4. DONT show up without some artwork. Bring examples of your artistic ability. Paintings and Photoshop art are nice, but what most tattooers really need to judge are drawings. It doesn’t have to be photorealism or japanese, but it should show a confidence in line, shading, and some understanding of how colors work with each other. I can’t tell you how many folks have shown me their “drawing while high” doodles on a notebook cover or napkin and acted amazed when I wasn’t interested in teaching them. We may dress like 19 year olds, but we are professional artists, approach a prospective mentor in a professional manor with a professional body of work if you want to be taken seriously.
5. DONT be surprised if you are asked to pay for your apprenticeship, especially if you don’t personally know the artist. There’s a lot of ways to weed out those who are not serious, paying for your apprenticeship is one of them. (BUT beware those shops who turn out 20 apprentices a year for money, chances are you will end up paying 5 grand to mop floors for 4 months and then get fired for some made up infraction). This can be tricky and is why it helps to familiarize yourself with tattooing by reading and getting tattooed, know who is using apprenticeship as a trick to fleece the uninitiated.
6. DONT ask just anyone. Some tattooers cant tattoo, an apprenticeship with one of them is just the blind leading the blind. Educate yourself as to what a good tattoo looks like before you start asking around. In all seriousness, the book “The Complete Idiots Guide to getting a Tattoo” has some fantastic info on how to spot good work from bad. Learn the language a bit before you start asking. Some tattooers are so bad that learning from them is effectively a step backward and I have a few friends who did these sort of “apprenticeships” and spend years undoing the poor habits that were instilled in them.
7. DONT expect to start tattooing right away, there is a LOT of groundwork to do first. Lots of apprentices don’t even touch a machine for a while! No matter how good of an artist you are, tattooing is a skill acquired via repetition and practice, you will most likely be drawing a lot of roses and butterflies months before you tattoo even the most basic stuff. Just learning to safely and efficiently set up and break down a machine is a skill you will have to learn, in a good apprenticeship you will be making lots and lots of baby steps and gradually building on each previously learned bit one at a time. Patience in learning to tattoo (and life) means that you will have a strong foundation when you start learning new skills.
8. DONT mistake the art of tattooing for an excuse to get up late, be lazy, dirty, drunk, high, or snotty. You must be your own taskmaster. A good blue collar attitude towards your apprenticeship will help you learn fast, thoroughly, and with respect from your peers. There are guys who are jokes in this art form and don’t even know it, there are lots of tattooers who have a ton of talent and skill that can’t get hired anywhere reputable because their known attitude problem, drug habit, or poor work ethic. The best artist in the world is useless to a shop if they are perpetually late and unprepared. A hard worker trumps a rockstar every time.
9. DONT pretend to be “in” already. You don’t have to be meek and submissive, but don’t act like the hipster cool guy either. If you get an apprenticeship you will be working closely with the whole shop, be the sort of person you would like to hang out with day in and out. Your mentor will be your primary source of info, but everyone at the shop will help you, as well if you are approachable. My own apprenticeship was by 2 or 3 other people as well as my mentor, and they each helped teach me something that rounded out my skills, if I had come off like a cocky know-it-all these guys wouldn’t have told me anything. Mouth shut- eyes open was my mantra!
lastly, BE CAREFUL!
1. BE CAREFUL of tattoo “schools’. They are a huge scam and not a single one is worth 2 shits. Some states require a license from these shysters and its a damn shame. The fact is that learning to tattoo means taking in small bits of information, learning to apply that info until it becomes automatic and then learning a new bit on top of the previous one. This takes time and practice, something no 2 week (or 6 month) course could teach even if the “teachers” were any good. If not absolutely necessary save your money!
2. BE CAREFUL of scumbag tattooers who see an apprentice as a way to get free money/labor/sex. Tattooing is wonderful, but nothing is worth being exploited, if you find yourself in that situation then get out, regroup, and start looking again. Never stay in a situation you feel is unsafe.
3. BE CAREFUL in learning the basics of cross contamination and how to maintain a safe relationship to the bloodbourne pathogens you will be encountering in tattooing. It wouldn’t hurt to read up on this stuff/take a class before you begin any apprenticeship.
4. BE CAREFUL to avoid the disease of ‘rock-starness”. Humility will carry you miles further in tattooing than all the talent in the world if its wasted on an egomaniac. Stay humble, know your real ability level, and don’t tackle stuff so far above your head that you (and your customer) will regret it.
5. BE CAREFUL of someone willing to take an apprentice who has less than 4 or 5 years under their belt. I didn’t take my (only) apprentice til I had 12 years of tattooing under my belt and almost none of us know enough about how we do what we do without many years of tattooing behind us. Skill in this business is measured in decades not years.
Now good luck, don’t give up, and don’t email me anymore about this stuff.
Frequently asked questions about this article:,
“Who are you to decide how someone should get an apprenticeship”
I’m the guy writing the article, you don’t have to like it, this article isn’t about “likes”. It’s information I obtained through doing that I’m sharing. Do you think the way it works is not fair? You might be right but either way this IS the way it works in tattooing. So you can take what I am giving you (for free) and use it or ignore it, I dont care either way, but you had better understand that I am trying to help. If you can’t see that, there’s nothing I can do for you.
“Joe So-and-So didn’t do an apprenticeship, and he is better than you!”
Cool. Go ask him for a job, tell him you don’t want an apprenticeship, that you just want to start tattooing and see if he hires you. Or ask him to write you a 4000 word article on how to get a proper apprenticeship.
“Why can’t I just look at the youtube/scratcher bbs/how to website?”
You can, but you can’t ask them the questions a real trained professional can answer for you. The beauty of an apprenticeship is that ideally it is a personally tailored training regimen. Few skills these days are taught one on one, crafts person to crafts person and there is a reason tattooing still is. A cyber apprenticeship is to a real apprenticeship as cybersex is to real sex, it just isn’t the same thing.
“Why are you so mean”
If you think I’m mean then you haven’t asked many people yet for an apprenticeship. This is my nice way of saving you getting yelled at by some guy whose been asked 400 times that week for an apprenticeship by unprepared yahoos. If you walk in prepared and with some knowledge, you are already looking better to your prospective mentor than 99% of the people who ask us.
“Is there anything you aren’t telling us”
Yes, and I am sad to say that the number one way people get an apprenticeship is that they already know their prospective mentor. It sucks, it’s not “fair”, but it is true for most jobs that are above entry level. The old “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. My teacher was my brother, most folks I know who got into tattooing legitimately did so because they were some tattooers friend or other relation. This is why I encourage you to get work from the artist you want to learn from, you need to build that relationship if it does’t already exist.
“This article is bullshit because some tattooer I know said something different”
It’s entirely possible. This is my version and the best advice I can give based on my experience. It might be totally different where you are from.
“There’s too many tattooers, why help these kids become apprentices”
Because I’d rather help someone at least learn how to askthan just say “fuck off” and have them still go order a Chinese tattoo kit from the internet. Like I said above, if just slamming the door stopped people from scratching then we wouldn’t have scratchers, but we do, so the current wisdom of just trying to close it up isn’t working. If the worst that happens from this article is that a bunch of kids learn about tattoos, get lots of work from prospective teachers, and go around asking to be properly trained then I’m happy with that.