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Tattoo Artist Career Guide

What is a tattoo artist?

A tattoo artist is a professional who uses their artistic abilities and technical skills to create permanent artwork on people’s skin. They not only inject ink into the skin to form the desired designs but also ensure the safety and satisfaction of their clients throughout the process.

This role is more than merely applying ink; these professionals offer personalized services that often hold significant emotional value to clients. Their task is not only to create visually appealing designs but also to make permanent imprints that align with their clients’ personal narratives, beliefs, or values.

Duties and responsibilities

A tattoo artist is responsible for several procedures, ranging from initial client consultation to the technical process of tattooing. They begin by discussing the tattoo’s design, size, color, and placement with the client. Additionally, they must provide clear and thorough explanations about aftercare, potential risks, and precautions related to the tattooing process.

Their duties also include maintaining a safe and clean work environment, including sterilizing equipment and using protective gear. They must adhere to all health and safety regulations to prevent any risk of infections or complications. They are also responsible for managing appointments, handling payments, and sometimes even marketing their skills and services.

Work environment

Tattoo artists generally work in studios or parlors designed specifically for tattooing. These spaces should maintain stringent cleanliness standards. The atmosphere may vary from a relaxed, casual setting to more of a bustling business hub, depending on the artist’s approach and clientele.

Being a tattoo artist is a physical job, requiring them to stand or sit for long hours. It also involves close interaction with clients, often requiring excellent interpersonal skills. These professionals, especially those who are self-employed, may also need to handle various administrative and business-related tasks.

Typical work hours

Work hours for tattoo artists can greatly differ based on the artist’s preferences, the appointments scheduled, or the operating hours of the tattoo studio. Some may work regular full-time hours, while others may have flexible schedules involving working late into the night or during weekends.

Additionally, the amount of work can vary daily. They may spend one day on a large, complex piece, and the next day may perform smaller, less time-consuming tattoos. Therefore, the ability to adapt to a changing schedule and varying workloads is key in this profession.

How to become a tattoo artist

This career guide section outlines how to become a tattoo artist. We’ll discuss the necessary steps, including educational requirements, apprenticeships, and various licensing mandates that might be applicable depending on your locality.

Step 1: Gather the essentials

The first step is to collect foundational art supplies. Acquire drawing materials, such as sketchbooks, pencils, and different types of ink. At this stage, hone your creative skills by drawing daily and regularly critiquing your work for improvement.

Step 2: Graduate from high school

Graduating high school or obtaining a GED certificate is necessary. Although a college degree in fine arts can improve artistic skills, it is not mandatory to become a tattoo artist.

Step 3: Complete bloodborne pathogens and infection control training

Since these artists handle blood and are involved in breaking the skin, it’s imperative to complete a bloodborne pathogens and infection control training course. This certification also showcases a commitment to hygiene and safety to potential employers.

Step 4: Undergo an apprenticeship

After completing the necessary training, embark on an apprenticeship with a professional tattoo artist. This stage typically spans 1-2 years and provides hands-on experience, augmenting your drawing abilities with a practical understanding of how to operate tattoo machinery.

Step 5: Put together a portfolio

Showcase your artistic abilities with a comprehensive portfolio, including diverse sketches, paintings, and rendered tattoos completed during your apprenticeship. This collection provides a rich reflection of your talent, versatility, and growth as an artist.

Step 6: Obtain licensing

Licensing requirements vary by state and locale, but many require a valid license before practicing. Check with your local health department for specific prerequisites, which typically involve completing an application, paying a fee, and passing an examination.

Step 7: Continue education and development

Once you’re licensed, staying updated with industry trends and techniques is vital. Engagement in continuous education through workshops or seminars shows commitment to your craft and can make you a sought-after tattoo artist. Networking and collaborating with other artists can also help to enhance your skills while expanding your style.

How much do tattoo artists make?

Tattoo artist salaries will vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Their compensation also heavily depends on their artistic skills, client base, reputation, and the specific rates they set for their services.

Highest paying industries

  • Entertainment and Recreation – $67,690
  • Personal Care Services – $65,450
  • Other Health Practitioner Offices – $65,320
  • Specialty Design Services – $64,820
  • Retail Trade – $61,780

Highest paying states

  • Hawaii – $69,820
  • California – $68,420
  • New York – $66,390
  • Florida – $65,200
  • Nevada – $64,560

Browse tattoo artist salary data by market

Types of tattoo artists

This career guide section highlights the various career types and areas of specialization for tattoo artists. We outline the unique attributes and responsibilities attached to each role within this dynamic profession.

Custom tattoo artist

As the name implies, custom tattoo artists focus on designing and applying original and bespoke tattoos based on client’s ideas. They work hand in hand with clients, developing a design from their preferences and visions. From small symbols to large body art, these professionals have the skill to deliver both in magnitude and detail.

Traditional tattoo artist

Traditional tattoo artistry dates back to the profession’s roots, based on standard symbols and images. Bold lines, vibrant colors, and iconic designs such as anchors, roses, and ships usually characterize the work of these specialists. They are often masters of classic tattoo techniques and styles that have stood the test of time.

Portrait tattoo artist

Mastering the art of portraiture in tattooing is a skill that requires significant experience and precision. Portrait tattoo artists specialize in creating lifelike representations of faces and figures, often working from photography. This type of tattooing requires an advanced understanding of shading and detail to achieve realistic effects.

Piercing specialist

While this job falls slightly outside the traditional tattoo artist’s scope, many in this field also offer piercing services. Piercing specialists are skilled in safe and clean piercing techniques, providing services that range from ears and noses to more intricate dermal and body modifications. They must thoroughly understand anatomy and sterilization procedures to ensure a safe experience for their clients.

Tribal tattoo artist

Tribal tattoo specialists are well-versed in the patterns, symbolism, and methods of various tribal tattoo traditions from around the world. Using primarily black ink, they create striking designs inspired by cultures believed to be the originators of tattoos. These artists often conduct thorough research to respect and accurately depict the cultural significance of these designs.

Top skills for tattoo artists

This section outlines the primary skills and traits needed for career success as a tattoo artist. These include artistic ability, customer service skills, patience, physical stamina, and meticulous attention to detail.

Artistic ability

A good sense of design, color, and form, as well as the ability to draw complex patterns, is paramount. Drawing competency allows one to create unique designs that not only impress clients but also represent their desires accurately. Thus, honing one’s artistry is essential in this profession.

Customer service skills

Engaging with clients effectively is vital in the tattooing business. This interaction involves active listening, understanding client specifications, and building rapport. Successful communication can also lead to client retention and referrals, creating a larger customer base.


Patience is key in tattooing. Dealing with clients can be challenging as they may vary in terms of compliance, pain tolerance, and clarity in expressing their preferred designs. Effective artists maintain a steady hand and a calm demeanor throughout the process, focusing on delivering the best possible artwork regardless of how long it might take.

Physical stamina

Physical endurance contributes significantly to their success. They often stand or sit in odd positions for extended periods while focusing intensely on a single area. This stamina allows one to work efficiently and comfortably without compromising on the quality of work.

Attention to detail

Painstaking attention to detail separates a great tattoo artist from an average one. Mistakes in tattooing are permanent and costly to correct. This trait involves carefully following design outlines, properly executing color gradients, and maintaining cleanliness in the work environment to avoid any infections.

Tattoo artist career path options

As a tattoo artist, your future career path can be as unique and versatile as the art you create. The journey often begins in a tattoo studio, where artists typically start as apprentices under the guidance of a seasoned professional. This hands-on experience empowers them to become independent artists over time.

Many professionals look to establish a reputation for a specific style or type of tattoo. Offering a distinct competence, whether in geometric designs, surrealism, traditional American tattoos, or portrait realism, can elevate their prominence. Exhibiting at tattoo conventions and in art shows can also help artists get their work in front of more people. Such exposure might attract interested individuals worldwide and can lead to international guest spots in renowned studios.

As the years go by and an artist gains renown, they may decide to open their own tattoo studio. This step allows greater control over the working environment, style of work, and business model. Being a studio owner also introduces responsibilities such as managing finances, promoting the business, and hiring other artists.

For some, extending their skills to related fields may be of interest. For example, becoming a tattoo removal specialist or a paramedical tattoo artist requires further education and certification but can be rewarding, both personally and financially. Teaching aspiring artists is another avenue to consider. Sharing expertise through seminars, workshops, or even opening a tattoo school can help shape the next generation.

The tattoo industry has seen considerable growth and transformation over the last few years. Today, these artists are recognized for their creativity and skill, with their work being appreciated as a form of modern art. The industry continues to evolve, particularly with the advent of digital technology. This technological influence has not only enabled artists to make more precise and detailed tattoos but also empowered those interested in the craft to gain comprehensive knowledge and skills through online learning platforms.

Demand for tattoos has also been on a steady rise. Propelled by changing societal attitudes, the once-taboo body modification has now become a mainstream self-expression channel. High-quality body art is increasingly sought after, with more individuals willing to pay premium prices for well-executed designs. Consequently, exceptional tattoo artists can now earn a substantial income. However, the rising demand has also intensified competition as more talented and well-trained artists enter the field.

Employment projections

While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not provide specific employment projections for tattoo artists, they do provide data for craft and fine artists, a category which tattoo artists fall under. The occupation of craft and fine artists is projected to grow by 4 percent through 2032. Given the rising popularity of tattoos, well-skilled artists are likely to find work, especially in thriving urban areas where the demand for tattoos tends to be high.

Tattoo artist career tips

Master the fundamentals of drawing

A strong foundation in drawing is essential. You should consistently hone and refine your drawing skills, paying special attention to elements such as shading, perspective, line work, and color theory. Many successful artists keep a sketchbook to practice and experiment with different design concepts regularly. This also allows for continuous improvement and gradual mastery of various artistic techniques.

Understand health and safety procedures

Tattooing involves working closely with individuals, often involving blood contact. Understanding and implementing correct health and safety procedures is critical. This could include learning sterilization methods, cross-contamination prevention, proper equipment handling, and ensuring cleanliness in your workspace. Knowledge of these areas shows a professional level of care for your client’s well-being, adding to your credibility.

Build a professional portfolio

You should continually update your portfolio with a range of styles and techniques to demonstrate your versatility and skill set. The portfolio should be professionally presented and regularly updated. The portfolio may include pictures of your work on human skin, sketches, and designs. It serves as a record of your work and an essential tool for attracting potential clients.

Build a professional network

Just like in any other profession, networking is essential in the tattoo industry. Building connections can lead to referrals, collaborations, and learning opportunities. Here are a few recommended organizations that can help you build professional relationships:

  • Alliance of Professional Tattooists (APT)
  • National Tattoo Association (NTA)
  • Professional Tattoo Artists Guild (PTAG)

Keep learning

As a field with constant innovation, tattoo artists should always strive to stay up-to-date with the latest techniques, trends, and technology. Here are a few ways you can stay current and continue to push your growth as an artist:

  • Participate regularly in workshops and seminars
  • Actively seek out and utilize online resources such as tutorials and artist showcases
  • Keep up with innovating technologies in the tattoo industry
  • Learn about new health and safety information related to tattooing

Consider earning a tattooing certification

Though not required, a certification can affirm your dedication and commitment toward the art form. Many certification programs also provide additional training in health and safety procedures or specific techniques, adding to your professional value.

Where the tattoo artist jobs are

Top employers

  • High Voltage Tattoo
  • Miami Ink Tattoo Shop
  • Last Sparrow Tattoo
  • Black Ink Tattoo Studio
  • Hart & Huntington Tattoo Co.

Top states

  • California
  • Florida
  • New York
  • Nevada
  • Oregon

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • Tattoo-Job.com
  • The Tattoo Forum


What skills do I need to become a successful tattoo artist?

As a tattoo artist, you’ll need a strong eye for detail, drawing skills, and an understanding of color theory. Additionally, these professionals must have physical stamina for long-standing hours and interpersonal skills to interact with and understand clients and their needs.

Do I need a formal education to become a tattoo artist?

No, formal education like a degree isn’t necessary for becoming a tattoo artist. However, art schools can provide worthwhile skills and techniques. Most learn through apprenticeships under experienced artists. You can learn about sanitation, designing, and using tattooing equipment during an apprenticeship.

How can I build a professional portfolio as a tattoo artist?

Most professional portfolios for tattoo artists start with artwork, sketches, and completed tattoo images, usually compiled during their apprenticeship. Maintaining a digital portfolio on a professional website or social media platform can also help reach a wider audience. Continually updating the portfolio as you create new designs or apply tattoos keeps it relevant and showcases your evolving talent and expertise.

Are licenses required to become a tattoo artist?

In most states, a license is required to become a professional tattoo artist. Licensing requirements vary by state but typically involve completing a specified number of hours of training, passing a written test, and demonstrating tattooing skills. Some states may also require CPR certification or completed courses on bloodborne pathogens and infection control.

What should I consider when looking for an apprenticeship as a tattoo artist?

When seeking a tattoo artist apprenticeship, research potential mentors and studios. Consider their reputation, the quality of their work, and their safety standards. It’s essential to find a mentor who is willing to share knowledge and provide valuable training. Remember, you’re entering a long-term, intensive learning experience, so the right personal fit is important too.

What type of equipment does a tattoo artist typically use?

Tattoo artists use a variety of equipment, including tattoo machines (also known as tattoo guns), different types and sizes of needles, ink in various colors, gloves, and other protective gear. They also use medical supplies for cleaning and sterilizing their equipment, and to clean, prep, and care for the skin before, during, and after tattooing.

How important are sanitation and safety as a tattoo artist?

Sanitation and safety are absolutely crucial in the tattoo industry to avoid infection and disease transmission. This involves using new, sterile needles for each client, thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting your work area, and properly disposing of contaminated materials. Some states require tattoo artists to take health and safety courses before becoming licensed.

Do tattoo artists usually specialize in a certain style of tattooing?

Many tattoo artists choose to specialize in a particular style, such as traditional, realism, watercolor, or tribal. An artist can become highly skilled in a certain style and build a unique portfolio by specializing. However, versatility can also be advantageous in attracting a wider client base and meeting various design requests.

What’s the work environment like for a tattoo artist?

Tattoo artists typically work in tattoo studios. They spend much of their time standing or leaning over clients. They also deal with the noise of tattoo machines and the occasional discomfort of their clients. Work hours can be irregular, often including nights and weekends when clients are available. The environment requires strong interpersonal skills and patience to interact with different types of clients throughout the day.