I get asked this question a lot. Up until a little over a year ago, I was the one doing the asking. The truth is, if you ask ten different artists how they came into tattooing, you’ll get ten different answers. If I was to give you my entire story, it would fill a novel, simply because I consider the start of my career as a tattooer to be the first time I picked up a pencil and drew. I won’t bore you with the details, but it does serve to illustrate (pun intended) my first point: you need to be passionate about art. Draw every single day. Push yourself to be the best artist you can be on paper. Painting also helps, as does any other artistic outlet you can find. Look at other artist’s work and learn from what they do.
Which brings me to my second piece of advice: go to art school. Even if you don’t get the degree (though it does help), take classes and take them seriously. This is the bit nobody wants to hear. “But Amo!” I hear you saying, “there are a lot of extremely talented, intelligent, and successful self-taught tattooers in the business right now!” You’re right. However, the vast majority of new tattoo artists (read: your competition) have college and even graduate degrees. Learning how to draw is much like in learning a language. You can read a book and teach yourself how to speak Spanish, or you can move to Spain for four years and immerse yourself in the language. You’ll learn both ways, but the latter gets you there faster.
While this can be tricky with school, try to save every penny you can. Many apprenticeships cost money, and even if you find someone who is willing to teach you for free, chances are good that you won’t be getting paid in that time. Art and tattoo supplies are costly! Talking of such, once you have a nice crop of artwork you’re proud of, invest in a portfolio. Don’t cut corners here. I can’t count the number of times having a solid portfolio and a nicely typed resume has helped me get work as an artist. Photocopy your art (leave your originals safely at home) and assemble your portfolio in a way that best reflects what you’re about. Don’t think you need to draw “tattoo flash”; showcase the best of whatever you do!
Next comes the exciting part: approaching the shop. Do your research and find someplace you would really want to work at, under an artist you admire because you will be spending a LOT of time there. Keep in mind when you walk in that you are essentially asking for the artist in question to train their newest competition, so be respectful. Calling in advance to set up a time to talk is a good idea. Come dressed as though you were headed to any job interview, with your portfolio put together. Each shop will have it’s own set of criteria for apprentices. Some last longer than others, some cost money, and some require you to work off a debt. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and be honest with your answers. They know you’re new to the business, that’s why you’re there! So relax, be yourself, and keep your chin up if it doesn’t all fall into place right away. Nothing worth doing happens overnight!
Best of luck and happy hunting! -Amo