1. Being good at drawing doesn’t make you good at tattooing. You can think about it like the difference between drawing something on paper and then carving it onto a pumpkin. It helps to have a natural aptitude for drawing, but it takes a long time to understand the difference between what you can draw and what you can tattoo. Like anything, your tattoo drawings will get better over time, but it’s critical to start out with simple designs.
2. Plan to work for free for at least a year. Nobody’s great at tattooing until they have practice, and you can’t get practice without tattooing flesh. Some people practice on grapefruits, but a grapefruit isn’t even remotely like a nervous, sweating, breathing, vulnerable human being. So instead, you have to start as an apprentice, which is basically like unpaid training. At my shop, we tattooed for free for the first year, just doing very simple designs — you’d be surprised by how many clients you can get when you’re offering your services for free. Even a year or two after I started, I was still tattooing at a heavily discounted rate, because I wasn’t as fast or as good as other artists. Unless you’re independently wealthy, you do have to work a second job for the first couple years. I was a nanny and then a waitress; other tattoo artists I know worked as an EMT, a high school art teacher, and a barista during their apprenticeships.
3. There’s a huge upfront investment in equipment. You need at least two tattoo machines, a starter ink set and tubes (which hold the needles in the tattoo machines) and disposable supplies, including needles, gloves, rubber bands, thermafax paper, skin pens, and so on. All in, it can cost upward of $4,000 in equipment to get started. In states where tattoo schools are regulated — like Oregon, — apprenticeships cost somewhere around $10,000, and on top of state licensure fees. Even after you start making money from your tattoos, the salary isn’t all that flush — the median salary for a tattoo artist is around $30,000 — and you still have to pay for all those supplies on your own. So if you want to be a tattoo artist, don’t do it for the money.
4. Your artistic medium is a living, breathing thing that changes. Skin wrinkles and stretches and gets sunburned and scars and heals. When you paint on a canvas, you can preserve the way that painting looks for hundreds of years. But tattoos look drastically different even two weeks after the ink has settled in and your skin has healed. Sometimes, people don’t take care of their tattoos and they get ruined, which feels a bit like someone buying your painting and then leaving it out in the rain. We try to be really clear with clients about aftercare — no sun exposure for three weeks, only use hypoallergenic products, etc. — but sometimes things go wrong, and that’s just part of working with human skin.
5. Sometimes you’ll feel like a therapist. People will bring you their most painful moments and ask you to turn them into artwork. During the Iraq War, I tattooed an active member of the military who was home on leave. He was so raw and wounded, and he wanted a tattoo of his company insignia to mark how he was never going to be the same person. Sometimes people talk through those kinds of memories during their appointments, but there’s also something inherently therapeutic about the process — it can feel good to have care and attention for a few hours. So as a tattoo artist, you can’t really bring your own emotional shit to the tattoo parlor. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had a stressful morning; you need to learn to leave that stuff outside the door and be completely there for that person in the moment.
6. There’s a much bigger emotional exchange when you work with custom clients. There are two traditional models for tattoo parlors, with various combinations between the two: First, there are walk-in shops, where clients are primarily asking to get a tattoo on the spot. They choose from pre-drawn designs in the studio and after the appointment, you might never see them again. Then there are all-custom shops, where artists work with clients ahead of time to design something original. It can take months of drawing and talking through the tattoo before someone eventually gets it done. The shop I work at now does mostly custom tattoos and the process can be incredibly rewarding, because of the profound relationships you form with your clients. At the same time, it can be a relief to meet a walk-in where all I have to do is put the ink on someone without having to invest in creating the tattoo over an extended period of time.
7. You’re going to mess up sometimes. When you’re first starting out, it can feel like almost all your lines are crooked or inconsistent. Even once you get good, you’re not immune to mistakes. Spelling errors can happen with text tattoos if the artist and client don’t triple-check. I know someone who tattooed the Superman logo on someone and when he finished, he realized he’d put it on backward. When something like that happens, you can’t reverse it. You just have to apologize and offer to cover it up for free.
8. If someone comes in with a bad idea, you have to tell them. There’s no way for a client to know what makes a good tattoo — that’s something you can only learn from years of tattooing — so it’s your job to provide guidance and feedback about the tattoo they want to get. Of course, some people are stubborn about what they want, and if you can’t visualize a way to make their idea look good as a tattoo, you should turn them away. I don’t do tattoos that I find offensive or in poor taste. I don’t do tattoos that I simply think are a bad idea. I’ve also turned down tattoos for other reasons: For example, I won’t give an 18-year-old a giant, visible tattoo, like a full sleeve, because people change so much — physically and emotionally — in their 20s and I don’t feel like someone so young is ready to make that commitment yet.
9. You’ll watch women’s relationships with their bodies change. If they get a tattoo on their hip or their belly—or any part of their body they’re not super proud of—they’re sometimes like, “I guess I need to lose weight now that I’ll have this tattoo.” But once they get the tattoo, they suddenly become very proud of that part of their body. You don’t really get to choose the body that you’re born into, but you can [help someone] choose to change it in this permanent way and in a way that they feel makes it more beautiful, and that’s the coolest gift to give.
10. You have to cultivate a zen-like ability to only focus on the thing right in front of you, and nothing else. There are moments when you’re working on a big tattoo that you’ve been tattooing for hours, and you look at the amount of black you have left to fill in and it looks absolutely infinite. You can start to panic, so you have to develop a laser-like focus on the millimeter of skin that you’re working on. There are many ways in which tattooing has made me a better person. I get a lot less stressed about what’s coming before or after; I just focus on the present moment.
11. You can only tattoo for so long before your body gives out. You’re basically sitting hunched over and holding a static position for upward of 10 hours a day. It’s really common for tattoo artists to have back problems; I eventually developed tendonitis in my arms, which got so bad that I can’t tattoo full-time anymore. It’s a repetitive motion injury, so you can’t really prevent flare-ups unless you stop doing that motion.
12. Tattooing is still a heavily male-dominated field. If you want to be taken seriously as a female tattooer, you really have to carve out space for yourself. I didn’t expect the industry to feel so much like a boy’s club, but it does. Historically, men have always set the tone of what constitutes a “good” tattoo, and more “feminine” tattoos are sometimes looked down upon. That’s starting to change, though, as more young women are getting into tattooing and there are more online spaces (like Instagram) for female tattoers to connect. In my shop, we’re all female artists, and I feel so lucky to be surrounded by so many supportive women.
13. Even after giving thousands of tattoos, you’ll still find flaws in your work. If you’re self-critical like most of the tattooers I know, then this can be a challenging line of work. There are little things I would’ve done differently in even my favorite tattoos. But there’s something incredibly satisfying about watching someone go to the mirror and look at their tattoo for the first time. They’re not criticizing all the tiny details; they’re marveling at how you turned their idea into art that they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives.