Are you are looking for a tattoo apprenticeship but aren’t sure where to start?

Lately many people have approached me asking for a tattoo apprenticeship with Iron Buzz. The decision to become a tattoo artist is very serious, and I look for many things when considering taking on an apprentice. Let me share the story of my own apprenticeship.

When I was looking for a way to learn to tattoo, I approached several tattoo shops. I was fairly uneducated in tattoos at the time, and was looking for a way to actually work with people by making art, which is my passion in life.


I walked into about five different studios and waited to talk to their tattoo artists. I brought my portfolio of my paintings and drawings with me. A friend of mine had suggested that I do some tattoo flash drawings, so I made some and put them in the folder.

I was very fortunate and had a generally positive response to my artwork, and the artists/owners I spoke with were fairly free with their knowledge.

Most told me that if I was serious about tattoo apprenticeship, I would have to spend a lot of time cleaning their tattoo studio, cleaning equipment and scrubbing toilets before I would get a chance to hold a tattoo machine.
Some told me that they would try to find my weaknesses and make me cry, and if I was still there after a year, then I would begin learning the actual tattooing part.

Another told me that they weren't interested in apprenticing and already had too much drama at their shop.

Even so, all of them offered me a paid tattoo apprenticeship at the then rate of between 30k- 90k in the year 2007.

Rather than getting into the scare tactics and the price - what made these tattoo artists even offer me the option to apprentice with them at all?

There are several qualities you will need to embody if you hope to land a tattoo apprenticeship.

• Be humble.

• Do your homework.

• Be clean and presentable.

• Show your art, don’t tell people about it.

• Have a portfolio with you that showcases your best work.

• Have a thick skin.

When you show up to ask about a tattoo apprenticeship, remember that you are speaking with your potential new boss.

Treat it like an interview, and present the best of yourself. If you wouldn't show up to an office dressed in dirty pants and shirtless, don’t show up at a tattoo studio to ask for a job that way.

Believe it or not, tattoo artists respect your presentation, and will take you more seriously if you take yourself seriously, too.

Know who you are talking to at the studio you arrive at.

If it’s your first time in the tattoo studio, get to know the staff and their lay out. It pays off to be friendly to the people you meet and ask about them and how they do business before asking for a job there.

Have your portfolio ready to share with the tattoo artists and/or front desk staff.

Sometimes you have to get through the front desk before you even get to interview with the tattoo artists. So be polite, and be prepared.

So many times people approach my studio to ask about a tattoo apprenticeship and talk my ear off about how they are artists and really love tattoos. But they have nothing to show of their own, so I have to take them at their word that they can draw well, or have a great sense of color.

Don’t be one of the people that wastes your favorite tattoo artist’s time by telling him how great you are with absolutely no proof of your skill.

Put together a portfolio of your strongest pieces. If you draw well, show us that. If you have a great sense of color, show us your paintings. You don’t have to bring your originals. A photo portfolio will do, or a CD of images that you would like to share.

Ask when it is a good time to show your portfolio rather than simply throwing your work down on the front desk.

Even though you should be prepared to show your portfolio right then, it’s a good idea to ask permission to show it. The artists may be very busy preparing for a tattoo and not in a good frame of mind to assess your work. If you rush them, you will get a rushed response to your request for an apprenticeship. A rushed response is most likely “no.”

When you get the go-ahead to show your work, be open to critique.

If the person reviewing your work has questions, answer them. If they have suggestions on how to improve, accept the advice humbly and without immediately defending your work. It is OK to ask how to improve something that they point out seems off. But don’t give him twenty reasons why the piece isn’t perfect. He doesn’t care that you were tired when you drew it, you haven’t worked with pens much, or your model actually did have six fingers.

Don’t put yourself and your art down while the tattoo artist reviews your work, either.

Even if he is quiet or doesn't have a comment right away, it’s not an excuse to jump in and berate yourself. If you point out your weaknesses, it only brings them to his attention. Be patient and relax. The worst thing that will happen is he tells you you don’t have a job. At best, you could be on the way to discussing the next steps to your tattoo apprenticeship.

As a side note, the aspects of portfolios that I look for:

• Nice use of contrast in both drawings and paintings

• Clean, interesting lines in drawings

• Knowledge of anatomy

• Good understanding of color

• Ability to use symmetry (examples would be matching butterfly wings, eyes on a face, and matching sides to scrolls if you have drawn any)

If you get through the portfolio review and everything is looking good, the artist will want to know more about you and why you want to start a tattoo apprenticeship.

Tattooing is a difficult business. It involves working with lots of people very intimately, working with blood, and requires that you be confident enough to make a permanent mark on someone else’s body.

Are you prepared for the investment of your time and money?

• It takes a long time to learn how to tattoo properly and safely.

• Your tattoo apprenticeship will cost you money.

• Your tattoo equipment will cost you money.

• You will not be earning an income in the beginning as you learn, sometimes for a year or more.

Are you sympathetic to the needs of your clients? Can you keep your own ego reigned in and focus on the work that needs to get done? Are you determined to improve your art every day?

If your skill at basic art, your personality and your determination are all there, you may be on your way to starting a tattoo apprenticeship.

Of all of the people who seek tattoo apprenticeships, most are refused almost immediately. I have had about 14 requests from people for a tattoo apprenticeship over the last 2 years who had reached the point of bringing a portfolio for review. Countless others claimed they want to work in tattoos but only paid it lip service.

Most portfolios aren't strong enough to consider, or the seeker’s personality conflicts with the potential master tattooer.

Even if you get those aspects right, two thirds of tattoo apprenticeships fail.

If you want to avoid becoming a statistic once you land your tattoo apprenticeship, here are some key points to keep in mind.

Try not to call out unless you absolutely have to. Remember, this is not just a job, and not only training. If you are serious about tattooing, you are entering a career that will be with you for the rest of your life. So please, show up!

Be polite and interested in what your teacher is showing you.

Don’t interrupt your teacher to explain to them what you think you already know about tattooing.

Listen. Pay attention. Ask questions when you don’t understand.

But be humble, and honestly try your best to absorb what the tattoo artists are showing you. Someone’s life may actually depend on your knowledge at some point. So don’t miss the lesson. It just might be your own life that is at risk!

Don’t take shortcuts, ever.

If you take short cuts with cleaning, sterilizing equipment or even attempt a shortcut “cheat” technique while you are learning to tattoo skin, you are jeopardizing everyone’s health and well being that enters the tattoo studio, including your own. Follow your lessons to the letter, and don’t get ahead of yourself.

It’s OK to be slow. Everyone expects you to be slow at cleaning, setting up machines and tattooing for a long time until it starts to become second nature. Don’t rush, or you may find yourself fired very quickly.

Admit mistakes openly and immediately.

You will make mistakes. Everyone does. So tell your teacher, the boss, or your tattoo artist mentor as soon as you realize you have made a mistake. Sure, maybe you’ll have to restart the autoclave batch from scratch. Maybe you will have to throw out the roll of paper towels that fell on the contaminated floor. At the end of the day, that’s not much of a loss compared to potentially spreading disease.

If you are open and honest in all your dealings at the tattoo studio, you will be respected and trusted, which are great attributes to have.


Hopefully, by knowing what you are getting into, and being passionate about learning the craft of tattooing, you will secure an apprenticeship with an artist whom you admire and who will teach you well.

Be patient. Even if you aren't able to land an apprenticeship right away, keep looking, or hold off until your preferred mentor is ready to take on a student. Tattoo artists aren’t always ready to train an aspiring tattooist, so you may have to wait until the time is right for both of you.

Some final words of encouragement to those who still want to plunge themselves into the world of tattooing, or who have already started their apprenticeship:

Draw every day.

Look at the work of artists you admire frequently - both tattoo artists, and traditional artists.

Get tattooed. You will want to be able to sympathize with your clients in the future. Plus, nothing is as helpful as watching the technique of tattoo artists you admire. As an added bonus, you get to keep the reference forever!

Save your money and be prepared to live on a shoestring budget for a few years while you learn and build clientele.

Relax and take it day by day. You will have ups and downs. Everyone does. Take it all in stride, and resolve to improve with every setback. You can do it