After a hard days work, me and my apprentice we’re sitting contemplating about being a tattoo artist and one of the most interesting questions came from my apprentice. She asked me what I wish I knew before becoming a tattoo artist.
A very interesting question, which to be honest I never actually asked myself.
I’m very content with most things about being a tattoo artist, but there are a few that I probably wished I knew about before starting my life long journey into this weird and wonderful art form.
So here is my list of 26 things I wish I knew before becoming a tattoo artist:
1. Apprenticeships Are Very Important
Alhtough I’m a self-taught tattoo artist (by circumstances and not by choice), I wish I had the opportunity to do a proper tattoo apprenticeship under a good professional tattoo artist, and this way my learning curve would have been a lot steeper and my progress would have been a lot faster than I would have started my career on solid foundations, rather than guessing and trying to make sense of things than I went along.
Having a professional tattoo artist guiding you through the skills required to become a tattoo artist is a very important thing, as you are building your skills up from the ground up and everything makes sense as you go along.
Its like building a house. If the foundations are solid, than everything else is easy and comes together beautifully, but if you start building a wall first and than realize it’s a bit wobbly and try to keep adding bits and bods, you will end up with a building, but not a good and solid one that can withstand the test of time.
The same can be said about tattooing. Sure you can learn to tattoo by watching a lot of videos and reading lots and lots of books, but eventually you will understands that everybody is different and these videos or books do not work for everybody, but when you have a tattoo artist taking you “under his wing” and guides you through the process, it is a lot easier and learning becomes a breeze.
Don’t get me wrong, there will still be frustrations and failures along the line, but they will be overcame a lot easier with the support of a tattoo artist that has already been there, and has already overcome the same obstacles that you are facing.
Trying to tattoo without an apprenticeship ends in disaster almost every time.
I know getting an apprenticeship can sometimes be impossible, but it is worth trying to get one and not giving up.
Now, I’m not saying you will not become a tattoo artist without an apprenticeship, but it will be a lot harder and a lot more frustrating that being guided by somebody that already went through the struggle you are facing.
2. 24/7 On Call
Although I love all my customers and I love what I do, sometimes it can be a bit overwhelming answering everybody’s messages, emails, dm’s, pm’s and smoke signals.
I love putting my tattoos or artwork on social media and interacting with other artists and tattoo collectors, but having your phone pinging every few minutes can sometimes be a bit much.
I came to realize that as a tattoo artist I signed away my right to a nice quiet evening with my better half or having a day out with the kids.
Sure, you might say, why don’t just put your phone on silent and reply customers when you have time.
Well, that’s a bit more complicated in reality. Sure you can do that with emails, text messages or Instagram, and nobody gets upset, but Facebook has decided to “help” business pages by displaying how fast (or slow)we get back to our customers, and are also ranking us on factors like how much we engage with customers.
So what does that mean? Simple, if it takes me on average 1 hour to reply to messages Facebook will put a little message on my business page “Usually replies within 1 hour” which is fine, but obviously when I’m tattooing I can’t reply to messages, or when sleeping, so than if I get a message that gets replied in 5 hours, and this happens quite often, than Facebook will average that with my previous time and say “Usually replies within 3 hours”.
You see where I’m going with this? So whenever possible, I need to reply to my customers as soon as possible and my phone has become an extension of my arm whenever I’m not tattooing.
Also one of my most annoying time of the week is Saturday night between 1am and 3am when everybody that had a few drinks start messaging about wanting a tattoo and booking in for a tattoo as soon as possible, which 9 times out of 10 they will not come to fruition, but if I don’t reply Facebook will keep adding hours to the time it takes for us to reply to customers, and that can put some people of that want small tattoos as they will usually want them there and than.
3. How Much For This?
The most common question that I heard for the last few years is “How much for this?”.
Part of the job is quoting people, or giving estimates based on an idea and size, and than trying to guess everything else.
A lot of customers don’t know the same tattoo done on the forearm can take longer to make on somebody s neck because the skin is different to work with and the pain threshold is a lot lower on the neck area, thus getting the customer to move more or wanting more breaks.
Also when a customer asks to price up an idea, they won’t use sizes like inches or centimeters, the will usually say “medium size” or “small”. Now a “medium size” portrait on the forearm could mean 4-5 inches tall, a “medium size” portrait on the thigh could mean 6-7 inches as the area is larger.
I get also asked quite a lot “How much for a rose on the hand?” as people expect tattoo artists to have a crystal ball in which we can see the exact size of the persons hand and also the exact style they want (realism, traditional, neo trad, etc).
I have stopped giving price quotes over the phone or social media, as there are too many details to talk about and than you don’t even know if the person is serious or just wasting your time because they are bored.
4. Financial Planning
The moment you get a normal job, you can plan ahead your finances for the following months or even a year, as you know when and how much you will be paid.
Being a tattoo artist, especially in the begging will make it impossible to know how much money you will have and when you will get it. As you work on a percentage, it will be impossible to plan anything financially as you will have busy periods and dead periods.
Even when you are a professional tattoo artist with many years of experience and you are booked months in advance, you will find that people like to book in and than not show up, or move appointments until you get bored with them and this all makes it very difficult to be able to have an organized financial life.
Every morning coming into the tattoo studio is a loterry day, and sometimes you can feel it in your gut that this will be a wasted day, and as the appointment time comes and goes and your customer doesn’t show up or answers his/her phone, you just realize that this is part of the game you chose to play.
5. Tattoo – the most expensive word
Anything to do with supplies or equipment is a lot more expensive if it has the word tattoo on the packaging.
You might think it is just for certain health and safety consumables, but you will find that this is the case for everything that has the word Tattoo printed on the label.
RCA cable (used to transfer electricity from power source to tattoo machine) normal price $5, if it is a “tattoo RCA cable” $50 dollars. This is just an example, but it is usually across the range of whatever you can think of in a tattoo studio.
So after being duped a lot of times, I ended up searching for similar applications for the same part or consumable I require, and found that a lot of times there are saving to be made for the same high quality product if it is also used in another industry apart from tattooing.
Also I could never understand why a professional rotary tattoo machine I usually in the price range of $400-$700. At the end of the day it is just an electric motor, a cam and a bracket.
Now don’t get me wrong, obviously I understands that we need to pay for the experience and Research and Development of said machines, but come on, no electric motor can cost $300-$400 to make.
No wonder a lot of “scrathers” use ebay bought Chinese replicas that cost $5 and try to scam people in horrendous tattoos.
Rant over, but coming back to the previous statement, anything that has the word tattoo printed on it will cost a fortune.
6. Online Feedback
The truth about feedback online is that probably 5 percent of the customers that are happy with your work will leave you a great review, but 100 percent of the customers that don’t follow aftercare or are unhappy about loosing their deposit after not showing up or answering their phones will leave you bad reviews.
I even had people that applied for a job in my tattoo studio and did not get the job they applied for and left us bad review. That’s the type of pettiness to expect when creating your business (fan) page.
There will always be somebody that doesn’t look after their tattoo and if they ever get an infection, guess who is to blame?! Yeah, you guessed it, it the tattoo artist. Not the customer that couldn’t be bothered to read or follow the aftercare procedure.
And you will get to the point where you will understands that online review is the most frustrating thing in relations to your online and social media presence.
7. Rock And Roll Life Style
Although everybody seems to think that being a tattoo artist means parties and being the local “superstar” this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The truth is that the most demanding part of this career is that most of the work is done mentally and the tattoo gets created in your mind and than on skin. In other words, imagine having to solve maths problems for 5-6 hours every day.
Its is a very tiring job that, although it’s done sitting down, will make you more tired than having a normal 9-5 job and at the end of a 5-6 hour session, you will be exhausted.
This will make going out and partying almost impossible as you will be shattered.
So yeah, it’s not as rock and roll as you might first think.
8. TV Shows
Nowadays with so many TV shows in which everybody is waiting on their customers to come through the door or come up with amazing stories for their bad and unwanted tattoos, the truth is very far from this.
You will come to realize that if you have to wait on “walk-ins” you are not really doing that great as a tattoo artist.
In fact every tattoo artist wants to be booked in for as many months in advance as possible, and we hate having to wait on walk-ins, as they are unreliable sources of income.
The other thing that one of the shows I’ve seen that gives customers an unreal view on the industry is that there will be 2 or 3 artists waiting on a sofa for a customer to walk in and than said artists will each draw a design and than the customer will choose one. That is not true and absolutely NO studio on this planet (that I’m aware) operates like that.
The last of my pet hates regarding tattoo TV shows is that they use a lot of filters and change the saturation of the colors, which also give customers a false reality. Skin that has just been tattooed will always be red, truth that you don’t see in these shows.
So imagine when a “tattoo virgin” comes in and gets a tattoo, and than starts panicking because their skin is really red and on TV this never happened. Its very difficult to reassure this type of customers and explain that this is normal and they have nothing to worry about. No matter how much they love their new tattoo, they won’t be able to fully love it as they think there is something wrong with their skin.
9. Tattoo Artists Are Drama Queens
I actually thought that once becoming a professional tattoo artist, I will join the “Tattoo Brotherhood”, just to find out that there is no such thing.
I was expecting a close-knit community that helps and respects each other, and that will be a very good environment where I can grow as an artist and keep evolving from strength to strength.
Little did I know that the truth is quite the opposite. Almost every professional tattoo artist I have ever met has always had either drug issues, or thought that the world owes them a favor and they were quite self entitled.
Obviously not all tattoo artists are like that, but most of them will have one of the aforementioned issues.
I actually asked a tattoo artist that had more experience than me for advice in regards with a style of tattooing, and when I came to tattoo said style, I realized that all the advice they gave me was wrong. At first, I have put it down to having a different style or me not understanding exactly what he was explaining to me.
Later it was revealed that he quite commonly done this with artist with less experience just to make fun of them.
But after working with quite a large number of tattoo artists I came to realize that there is a common line that most tattoo artists follow, and feeling self entitled also means that they were treating the tattoo apprentices with no respect and disregard, which I find really repulsive.
10. Health and Safety
Although I agree with this one and it came as a pleasant surprise, the Health and Safety aspect of tattooing is quite thorough and well-established.
Although I could never understand the local regulating bodies that send out young representatives that inquire and check up on tattoo studios, and yet they have no clue.
For example, the laws in the UK are that every tattoo working station needs to have a hands free washing sink (which I find normal) and at each of these stations there should be a sticker with a drawing that illustrates how you should wash and dry your hands. I found this odd as this, in my opinion, is general knowledge, and if you don’t know how to wash your hands properly you should even be there.
Also, by law, the staff toilets should have stickers saying “wash hands”. In my opinion, if you don’t wash you hands when you have been to the toilet, you should not work in a tattoo studio.
11. Permits and License
I could have never imagined the legal hoops you will have in order to get a tattoo artist license in the UK.
The process is very time-consuming, costly and it usually takes councils between 3-6 months to sign the license.
Here you have to have everything in place and get checked by Police, Health and Safety, Fire Brigade and everybody else before you can even apply for a license, and once you have been vetted OK to apply for the license and you have paid the fees, than you need to wait forever for some paper pushing bureaucrat to actually approve your license.
This means that for the next 3-6 months, you will have to pay for insurance, sharps pickups and other monthly bills before you even make a penny just because some old fart takes their time to sign a piece of paper.
I would agree if this would be the case and where somebody that had any idea about tattooing or the industry would question you about cross contamination, or would check if you are actually capable of making tattoos in a health and safety conscious manner, but nope, this is just because they can.
As one of the “lovely” ladies in the Licensing Department told me: “Having a license is a privilege, not a given right!”.
You can imagine how well I felt about that, knowing everything is up to scratch (if not better) and being in a free country, I’m being told that I need to be thankful for the privilege I was given of being able to apply for a license to be able to do my job in a legal and safe manner.
We all know somebody that is great at photoshoping their profile pictures or using filters to make them look like a completely different person.
The same applies in the tattooing industry. At this moment in time, you see a lot of pictures of fresh tattoos where the white is glowing and where the colors look unrealistic, quite like neon colors, or the skin has no pores or any redness, although they are advertised as fresh tattoos, just to see a picture of the healed tattoo posted by the customer a few months later where the tattoo looks absolutely nothing like the image posted by the artist.
A quick google search with the terms “photoshoped tattoo” will show you some really nice examples of this type of practice.
I actually know a tattoo studio that has a person employed that only photoshops artists images to attract business, and they actually have a lot of bad reviews because of it from their own customers, as they thought they are getting a glowing tattoo, but reality disappoints.
Don’t get me wrong, they have some great artists that put out great tattoos, and they don’t require any touch ups in photoshop, but they still choose to advertise altered images of their work, just to later disappoint the people that trusted them with their skin.
13. Getting Fat
I was never the model on any magazines in regard to fitness, but since I started tattooing I have seen a slow increase in my weight, although I actually eat less.
I was always a very active person and was actually quite skinny as a young boy, but in the last few years I am noticing that no matter how much or less I eat, the weight just keeps piling up.
Go to the gym! might be the first response to that, but tattooing for 6 days a week and 99% of my sessions are 5-6 hours plus, by the end of a long session and preparing for the next day, realistically my fitness became an aspect that will always happen tomorrow, not today. So after a few gym memberships that I have paid for and never got around to use, I have decided to be honest with myself and just accept the fact that I should be better watching what I’m eating (eating healthier) and just come to terms with myself. I’m not fat, I’m just well-rounded! 🙂
The fact that we sit for hours on end on a chair and the only things actually getting a workout are my wrists and my foot pedal, is something that I wasn’t even thinking about before I started tattooing.
14. Constant Backpain
Having a sedentary career like tattooing means that because of the posture we have when tattooing, the lower back and shoulders are under constant strain.
I sometimes find myself with my shoulders lifted near my ears and wonder why I’m so uncomfortable, this is quite normal in tattoo artists.
I have found a few exercises developed especially for us tattoo artists that help us with our posture and pain, and with doing them regularly, I can say that the back and shoulder pains have eased off.
15. Head Aches
Especially when dealing with tattoo projects that are very detailed or even portraits, we have to concentrate really hard as to ensure the dark tones, mid tones and lighter tones are all exactly where they should be and the transitions are perfect.
After all, a loved one’s portrait needs to be perfect and there is no room for error, as a darker shade in the wrong place can make the tattoo look nothing like the image and the customer will notice straight away.
So in order to always create the best artwork, especially in realism and portrait tattoo projects, you will need to concentrate constantly for the whole duration of the session.
This comes with it’s own problems like head aches or sometimes you might feel like your eyes get really tired.
In a lot of cases after a few good years of tattooing, most tattoo artists recur to getting seeing eye gasses as the eyesight is getting affected by the job.
16. More “Friends” Than Ever
As tattoos are the “cool” thing just now, everybody will want to be your friend. Now I’m not saying that all your friends are fake, but you will come to realize that there will be a lot of people showing up from nowhere pretending to be your friends hoping to get a free tattoo or even a discount.
As a tattoo artist with limited social time available, you will come to see through the BS quite early in people’s approaching you and criticizing other artists and studios to try to make you feel better about your artwork, and even if you are better than everybody else, keep being humble as most of these people come and go quite fast.
When you will get time to socialize or go at a party, everybody that knows you are a tattoo artist will want to ask about prices and instead of relaxing and socializing like a normal person, you will find yourself basically having a consultation in your spare time.
17. Stay Humble
The moment you find yourself better than another artist and with the multitude of people acknowledging your skill, we sometimes tend to forget how to be humble.
Some of the best tattoo artists I have ever met have amazed me with how humble and down to earth they actually are.
The best tattoo artists in the world will always be humble and would never forget the struggle they had to become some of the best in this amazing industry and will respect everybody regardless of the experience in tattooing.
So remember, when your better half is telling you are amazing, to thank her for encouraging you and to try to amaze her/him with your next tattoo.
18. Being good at drawing
I always thought that being good at drawing will automatically make me a good tattoo artist, but guess what?! Drawing and tattooing are completely different and there is very little that transpires from drawing into tattooing.
The media (skin) is totally different from paper or cardboard and your “canvas” is a breathing, constantly moving organism that bleeds and the hardest thing for me was to understands that I’m not putting pigment on the skin, but I’m actually creating a piece of artwork underneath a semitransparent surface (epidermis) and to understand how to create it in order to heal exactly as I want it to.
Sure, it does help to be good at as many art forms as possible and it will help you fine tune your tattoos into real pieces of art, but if you are good at, lets say sculpting or drawing, that doesn’t automatically mean that you will be a good tattoo artist from the beginning.
Becoming a good tattoo artist is all about experimenting and always evolving in understanding how everything works in order to fine tune your skills to create a fantastic tattoo.
19. The Money I Will Be Spending
Before starting out in my new career and making the commitment to myself regarding this long and wonderful path, I have always thought that required for a tattoo is just a few bits and bobs and a few hundred dollars will suffice.
How wrong was I?!
After trying to start myself with cheap replicas I found online, I started looking online at what the best artists are using and at that time most of them were using the Cheyenne tattoo machines. After looking at Cheyenne’s web page I realized it was way over what I could afford, so I did the next best thing.
I went online and looked at websites where real tattoo artists were selling their used machines and started buying second hand equipment from sellers that seemed genuine and nice folks.
For a Cheyenne Spirit, power source, pedal and clipcord I think I paid only $500 and about $40 for shipping.
Not bad, considering a new machine alone would have costed me more than that.
In my first year alone buying tattoo machine, power source, clip cord, foot pedal, fake skin, needles, inks, stencil solutions, tapes and ink cups plus other consumables, I think I spent at least $1500.
So no, it’s not cheap. But it’s worth it.
Imagine starting a long journey with a car that you don’t know if you will make it to the destination and not being sure what it will do. Sure It might look new, but I would rather have a used Mercedes than a new car that I never heard of and it’s a copy of some existing car from a Chinese manufacturer.
By trying to improve and evolve as an artist I have tried over the years many machines, both new and used, but for some unknown reason I keep getting back to my trusty old Cheyenne Spirit.
Believe it or not, I still have the first machine I bought and It runs just as sweet as it did on the day I bought it.
The reason I really loved this machine is that no matter what style of tattooing I had to do, this machine has been great and it didn’t have an area that it was useless. It was great at everything. Needed to tattoo writing, boom solid lines on first go.
Needed to do a traditional tattoo, boom, solid color packed in with ease. After a few years I started trying to do black and grey realism, no problem, the shading comes smooth as velvet.
That the reason why I loved my machine. I’m not saying go out and buy a Cheyenne, but whatever machine or equipment you will want to buy, make sure you do your research and look for a good solid machine that you can use throughout you apprenticeship or as you evolve. This way you will cut out many days of frustration trying to start a new style of tattooing with a new machine.
So what I want you to take from this is: Buy good equipment (even used) and don’t scrimp and you will have an easier learning curve.
20. You Will Make Mistakes
Every tattoo artist, even the best in the world make mistakes and have bad days.
Becoming a good tattoo artist will teach you that it is impossible not to make mistakes, considering your canvas is moving and bleeding, or you just had a day that you weren’t 100%, but the secret is how you deal with those mistakes.
Mistakes that are made due to customer moving around are easier to deal with as you obviously will see and feel when the want to move, so you can lift your machine from the skin.
Mistakes made by your own fault or due to lack of experience are a bit harder to deal with as sometimes we might think we are ready for bigger and better things and once we have started we can see the lack of experience in our tattoo.
No matter what the cause of the fault, as you progress, you will learn how to deal with those faults on the skin but also inside yourself.
If you do make a mistake, don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world. You just need to try to hide it to a level that is acceptable by your customer, or to ask the help of a more experienced artists or your mentor.
21. Same Idea Over And Over Again
Especially in the beginning of your career you will find that most customers will come with the “trendy” tattoo ideas that are “in” at that moment in time and you will tattoo them over and over again until you could probably do them in your sleep.
You can either get frustrated about this and give up, or you can use this to your advantage.
What do I mean about advantage? I mean try to advise on small changes to the design. Maybe a splash of color, maybe some filigrees, whatever you can think of try to keep modifying the same design until you get the customers that can be persuaded to change the design completely.
22. Bad Tattoo Ideas
I had a lot of weird requests in my early career as a tattoo artists, from plain nasty ideas to the weird and wonderful.
Ideas like racist and political tattoos are the first one’s that you need to refuse.
I know you will be “hungry” to tattoo and get more experience under your belt, or maybe you need the money, as tattoo equipment isn’t cheap, but please don’t ever accept to compromise and do racist or political tattoos, as this can ruin your career before it even starts or it can come back and haunt you later on when you establish yourself.
I had to refuse all sorts of designs, from swastikas to homophobic and totally racist tattoos.
23. How Many Minors Want To Get Tattooed
In the UK it is illegal to tattoo anybody under 18 years of age with or without parental consent.
But it still amazes me how many messages I get on a weekly basis from minors offering more money than the tattoo value just to no ask them for ID.
Often you will find that some of them will try to come into the studio and price up a tattoo and want to go ahead with it and lie about their age, and when asked about ID they will simply say they don’t have it with them or get some friend to try to lie for them.
Considering tattooing a minor is classed as body mutilation and it caries a jail sentence you will always have to be on your toes with skin and keeping copies of ID’s if the person you are wanting to tattoo looks young.
Sure there are “scratchers” that risk it for a few bucks, but than also the customer is risking infections and poor quality tattoos. And when those “scratchers” get caught, they end up in massive trouble because of it.
Also If you are a licensed artist and are tattooing minors, you will lose your license and will not get another one, plus as the tattoo world is small, everybody will know it very soon.
24. Not All Your Tattoos Will Be Masterpieces
You will have good days and bad days and these will reflect in your tattoos.
Sometimes the customer you are tattooing is moving constantly and makes tattooing almost impossible.
Sometimes the customer might be bleeding heavily, in which case I suggest you stop and send them home to come another time to get it finished.
Sometimes your customer might not follow the aftercare and your amazing tattoo will heal very poorly.
Be ready to accept the good with the bad and just look to improve on a daily basis.
25. You Will Have Dead Days
When you first start out tattooing and building up a good reputation, you will have a few days when you will not be tattooing. Don’t let this discourage you and use that time to create more tattoo designs, and don’t be afraid to use bad days to practice on fake skin or painting.
There are artists that have been tattooing for many years and still have empty days.
You might sometimes get frustrated by this and question if this is really the path you should follow.
Take your time and think of new ways on how to attract customers so this doesn’t happen in the future.
Do research on what other tattoo artists around you are doing and see if you can replicate their success by applying your own twist to what everybody else is doing.
You will get into conflicts with other artists especially when tattooing walk ins.
As each and every artist takes great pride in their artwork, some of them put images online of their drawings or tattoos and than you will get customers that either trace their ideas or draw them themselves by copying those designs.
When these customers come and ask you to tattoo them the design they have drawn, always ask if it’s another artists work, and ask them to message the original artist to ask for permission.
Otherwise you will end up doing the tattoo and than get into a massive drama with the original artist accusing you of copying his/her work and endless messages back and forward.
As I explained earlier tattoo artists are drama queens and get very easily offended and will always try to blow things out of proportions. It happens quite often and always try to keep yourself safe from it.
I don’t believe for a second that any artist has never copied somebody else s work throughout their career, but hey, this is the industry.
So… Would I change anything? Most definetly not!
If you have any questions or think I have overlooked something, let me know below. Thanks.