How to Become a Tattoo Artist: Job Description, School & Salary


We have a fun one for you today! We love tattoos and would have full sleeves if our bank account and pain threshold would accommodate them. Since that’s not really an option for us and we don’t have the artistic ability to do them ourselves, we will channel all of that into something else. We spent a few hours whipping up a little something for our fellow tattoo lovers and hope you like it. If you’ve ever wondered how to become a tattoo artists, look no further because we are going to tell you everything that you need to know.

How to Become a Tattoo Artist

The art of tattooing has been around for a really long time and as time has progressed, so has the job of a tattoo artist. Many people use tattoos as a way to express themselves, grieve, grow and heal from an event in their lives that greatly impacted them. Your job as a professional tattoo artist will be to translate those events or ideas onto the canvas of your client. It takes a lot of talent, skill and patience to make it in this industry. Let’s take a look at the steps to become a tattoo artist:

Step 1: Build Your Portfolio

Every aspiring tattoo artists will really need to have some sort of artistic ability, creativity and a desire to use it on a daily basis. The very first step to becoming a tattoo artist is to grow a portfolio that shows your artistic abilities in any mediums available. Your portfolio can show your sketches, paintings, designs, carvings and even sculptures.

If you feel like you need to work on your artistic abilities, don’t be afraid to take some art classes to sharpen those skills. When you are just starting out in the tattoo world your portfolio is going to be the only thing you have to represent your talent until you are able to develop a name for yourself. Your portfolio is also going to be key in landing you an apprenticeship.

Step 2: Tattoo Apprenticeship

Working as a tattoo apprentice is an integral part of becoming a successful tattoo artist. An apprenticeship is the very first step to standing on your own as a tattoo artist. During this phase of your new career, you will learn an insane amount from the senior artists that you are surrounded by on a daily basis. Many tattoo shops won’t even hire new tattoo artists unless they have served as an apprentice for a decent amount of time.

We found a very helpful video from veteran tattoo artist and form Ink Master contestant, James Vaughn on YouTube. In this video, he lays out the importance of spending time as an apprentice in a tattoo shop and some helpful tips on how to even land one of these coveted positions. Let’s see what James has to say now!

Step 3: Enroll in Some Tattoo Artist Courses

There is a lot to learn about being a tattoo artist in terms of the actual art work and executing the intended design that your client wants. You will learn a whole lot during your apprenticeship, but there is always more to learn. If you’d like to increase your skill level and even learn more about the sanitation practices that are essential, why not take a few classes at a tattoo school? It’s a good way to work towards being the best and most informed tattoo artist that you can be.

Step 4: Get Your License

From what we could see from our research, nearly every state requires that tattoo artists get licensed. Each state will have specific requirements that will have to be met and those requirements usually come in the form of training hours, a written exam and skills assessment. The licenses are usually valid for 5 to 10 years and will require an artist to repeat the process before expiration.

Step 5: Keep Learning

Keep yourself up to date on all of the safety requirements that are mandated by your state and take any other extra courses that you can during your time tattooing. To be a good tattoo artist, you have to be a responsible tattoo artist.

What Does a Tattoo Artist Do?

As a tattoo artist, you will first need to maintain a sterile, safe and clean work environment not only for your client, but also for yourself. You will prepare your tattoo work station with gloves, single-use sterilized tattoo needles, a sterilized tattoo machine that has been just removed from an autoclave and single use ink caps. It’s so important that you keep everything clean and sterile to avoid and spreading of blood-borne viruses. When dealing with blood you are at risk of contracting hepatitis, HIV and many other communicable infectious diseases, so use proper precaution at all time.

Once your work station is set up, you will ensure that your client is satisfied with the image drawn, placement of the tattoo and has decided on the colors that are to be used. Once you’ve covered those bases with your client you are ready to begin. As you’re aware, you will be using needles and permanent ink under the layer of skin to ultimately create a beautiful piece of artwork.

Tattoo Artist Salary

We think it’s time now to see if you are going to be stuck eating off the dollar menu at Mickey D’s or if you are going to go full gorilla and order a Big Mac with “Super Sized” fries! First we have to go eat a snack though because we are hungry!

Ok, we’re back now and while we were stuffing our faces we took a look at what kind of salary you can expect to bring in as a tattoo artist. According to PayScale (don’t tell the BLS that we’ve found a new BFF), the median annual salary that is earned by tattoo artists in the United States is $32,110. Something to remember when thinking about the salary expectations in this career is that there will likely be some variations. You may have times that you make significantly more than the projected amount and there may be times when you make less. That friends, is the name of the tattoo game.

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Celebrated Tattoo Artists

Now that we know all the important details of how to become a tattoo artist, let’s have some fun! Here are some of the raddest tattoo artists around today. Feel free to day dream about getting some fresh ink from them while we tell you about them!

Paul Booth

Paul Booth is the tattoo artist that all of the heavy metal, progressive and goth rock and roll bands flock to when they want to get new tattoos. In fact, you can see his work proudly displayed on the skins of members in Sepultura, Pantera and Slipknot…it doesn’t get much more metal than that! Booth is a big fan of tattooing realistic horror and gothic grayscale tattoos. Don’t hold your breath to get a seat with him though because he is currently booked solid for the next two years.

Ami James

The insurgence of realty TV shows about tattoo shops owe it all to Ami James and his hit shows “Miami Ink” and “NY Ink”. James is much more than a reality star with a pretty face though. He has been on the tattoo scene since he was an apprentice in a shop called Tattoos by Lou. He now owns the Love Hate Social Club in London and Love Hate Tattoos in Miami. When he isn’t hoping from shop to shop and charging $500 an hour to tattoo, he is managing his DeVille clothing line.

Kim Saigh

Some of you may remember Kim Saigh from her days on Kat Von D’s TLC reality show, LA Ink. She’s more than just a pretty face and reality TV star as well though. She is amazingly talented and is loved for her work tattooing animals. She spends a lot of time ensuring that each and every detail stands out to please the eye and her client. She is currently showcasing her talents at the Los Angeles based tattoo house, Memoir Tattoo.

Julie Becker

If you are looking for clean, diverse and impeccable work, then look no further than tattoo artist Julie Becker. She has no boundaries as a tattoo artist and is able to execute a wide variety of styles from tribal to traditional whether the piece is large or small. Her tattoo portfolio is really something to behold.

Dan Smith

Dan Smith is a well loved tattoo artist from New Zealand that has gained success in the United States after he was featured on LA Ink in 2009. At his California based tattoo shop, Captured Tattoo, Dan mixes elements of traditional tattoo styling with a bit of new skool for the perfect twist. He also moonlights as a musician with the band alternative/new wave band The Dear & Departed.

Schools to Become a Tattoo Artist

Despite the fact that tattoo artists do not have to earn degrees to work in the industry there are tattoo schools popping up here and there across the country. We can see how it would be beneficial to attend some courses that are taught by artists that have been on a tattoo machine for some time. We were able to find some information about a few of these new school tattoo institutes and we’d like to tell you a bit about them.

Master Tattoo Institute

The Master Tattoo Institute is located in Miami Beach, Florida and is dedicated to providing new tattoo artists with the best experience and education possible. MTI aims to provide an innovative approach to learning all that is needed to know to become a skilled tattoo artist.

MTI is run by highly trained and very experienced tattoo artists and has a curriculum that was designed by instructors with over 40 years of teaching experience. Tattoo artists that attend MTI are able to earn certificates in a few different programs that range from 160 hours of classroom time to 80 hours of on the job training. A few options available are:

  • Tattoo Program: 160 hours of classroom time and tattoo training
  • Advanced Tattoo Program: 160 hours of classroom and training time plus 80 hours of job training in a tattoo shop
  • Body Piercing Program: 80 hours of classroom time and hands on piercing training
  • Advanced Body Piercing Program: 80 hours of classroom and training time with 40 hours of training time in a shop

Tattoo Learning Center

The Tattoo Leaning Center originally opened in upstate New York in 2003, but moved down to Fort Myers, Florida soon after. This tattoo school aims to offer a comprehensive learning ground for tattoo artists of all levels. They strive to offer something for everyone and have a solid course list to do so.

There are heavy duty training courses offered at beginning, intermediate and advanced levels to ensure that your craft is in prime shape. An interesting and smart move that the Tattoo Learning Center made was to offer week long, intense courses in specific styles of tattooing. Artists that are interested in expanding their portfolios and client base can take classes in bio-mechanical, new skool (sic), realism, cover ups and animal portraits.

World’s Only Tattoo School

Well they really aren’t the “world’s only tattoo school” now, but they may have been when they opened in late 1968. The instructors at the World’s Only Tattoo School may have an ace up their sleeves that other tattoo schools don’t seem to have though. They have a team of instructors that are not only super skilled tattoo artists, but trained in “Neuro-Linguistic Programming”. Dr. L.W. Pogue (he’s a chiropractor and naturopathic physician) says that this training style is the reason that they are able to turn out skilled tattoo artists in such short amounts of time.

There are a few programs available at the World’s Only Tattoo School and they are all pretty condensed and jam packed. Potential tattoo students have the choice of enrolling in the following courses:

  • Artistic Tattoo Course: 2 week class with at least 84 hours of instruction
  • Body Piercing Course: 3 day class with 24 hours of instruction
  • Permanent Make-Up Course: 3 or 4 day class that is designed for advanced tattoo artists

Things to Know Before Becoming a Tattoo Artist

Being a tattoo artist can be an awesome and creatively fulfilling career. It is not always the easiest industry to work in though. We found a few helpful pointers during our research and we figured that we’d go ahead and share them with you.

  • If you’re looking to get rich quick – look for a different job: Sure we know from reality TV that there are some tattoo artists that charge $300 to $600 an hour, but once we remove the rose colored glasses, we see that it’s not usually the case. There is good money to be made in this industry, but the average tattoo artists doesn’t live in the Hollywood Hills and drive a Bentley.
  • Tattooing is 50% skill and 50% customer service: As a tattoo artist you are providing a service and in order to be successful you will have to have a solid client list. The way to get that client base is by being an excellent artist and providing even more exceptional customer service. These days you can throw a rock and hit a tattoo shop, which means that new clients have a lot of options to choose from. If a client selects you and your shop as the place to permanently ink their bodies, it is up to you to make sure that they have a great experience. Treat them with respect, make them feel comfortable and most importantly talk to them. When your client has a nice experience they are more inclined to come back and refer you to others in need of ink. You’re self-employed as a tattoo artist: When you are a tattoo artist you don’t earn an hourly rate, you don’t have health insurance, a 401K or any paid time off. You will make all of your money as commission and that will be based upon what you charge either per piece or per hour. If you work for another tattoo shop it’s important to remember that you will only keep about 50% of the rate you charge. Another thing to remember is that as a self employed person you have to pay taxes on all of your earnings, but you will be able to deduct your materials cost to catch a bit of a break.
  • You’re the only one in charge of your success: This is a career that you can definitely be successful in, but in order to do so you have to work for it. You will absolutely get what you give as a tattoo artist. If you don’t do the work it takes to have a solid talent and do your best to build up a client base, then you won’t get very far at all. Sure, you won’t always get to do the kind of tattoos you want and you may tattoo a thousand butterflies on college co-eds during spring break. There will be times that you are able to create something amazing for someone that needed to translate a feeling to an indelible mark to see every day. The success as a tattoo artist is a lot like the field of dreams…if you want it bad enough, it will happen.

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Final Grade

We know that you’re probably wondering what on earth a final grade has to do with a career that doesn’t have any sort of degree to complete. Well, we don’t really have an answer for that other than to hush and read our final thoughts on some important career aspects.

Degree vs. Debt: A

Well this is a no brainer since there isn’t a degree to complete! You can take courses at tattoo schools like the ones that we mentioned earlier, but for the most part they are pretty affordable (at least compared to college) and you can always think of them as an investment into your future. Hopefully you’ll earn enough to land a sweet job and will have those clams made back in no time!

Difficulty of Degree: A

Again, this is an easy one since there isn’t a required degree. We can’t imagine that the programs that are offered through tattoo schools are all that difficult either. Sure, you will have to develop and fine tune a skill, but it’s not like you have to solve quadratic equations or write a thesis statement.

Happiness Quotient: A

This is a job that you do if you love art and have a passion for the history and integrity of the tattoo world. You won’t have to work a regular 9-5 schedule and you won’t have to wear a stuffy old suit and tie to work every day. There is also the added bonus of being able to tell a story for your client permanently on their skin.

Job Outlook: F

We have NEVER given any career an F. This is a monumental occasion and we would like to request a moment of silence for the poor little job outlook for tattoo artists. The grade is sadly well deserved and the Bureau of Labor Statistics totally backs us up on this too. According to the BLS, there is only a teeny tiny 1% of growth to be eeked out for tattoo artists. This is obviously significantly lower than any other professions.

Sources and Recommended Reading

We have to admit that we have been chomping at the bit to write about becoming a tattoo artist for quite some time, so thanks for stopping by and reading today! If you’d like some more information about the industry feel free to click on the links below.

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