(877) 879-5350 Continuing Education for The Professional Tattoo Artist

Ask Guy Aitchison

AskGuy 11 The Big Question How Do I Break Into Tattooing The Right Way

Q, from Ryan: What is your take on tattoo schools? Ive been drawing forever and have been seeking an apprenticeship for about a year. Most tattoo artists I speak to say the school will ruin my chances of any decent shop wanting to hire me. I draw for about 6-8 hours on a regular day, have a lot of patience and am aware of the years of dedication it's going to take for me to begin. I am just seeking alternate routes that may be helpful in my learning process. At the same time, I don't want to pick up a machine and develop bad habits. Your advice and time would be greatly appreciated.

Q, from Nicole: I need some tips on how to get into tattooing. I'm creative, have a steady hand and some drawing talent, and have been honing my painting skills over the past year. I have enrolled in some drawing classes at Alberta College of Art & Design just to improve my skills as an artist... I have friends in the industry but certainly don't expect an apprenticeship to just be handed to me. I'm still a little confused about the best way to acquire an apprenticeship, and many of the artists I've spoken to in regards to this seem to be very discouraging in their advice. There is a shop next to my current job that I know is looking for an apprentice, but I'm nervous that my artistic skills are not quite up to par. I'm also 36, so getting into this a little late in the game, not that that should matter if my passion for it is there and I am actively improving my skills. I'd appreciate ANY positive advice on how to go about getting an apprenticeship, how I should prepare, what sorts of examples should I put in a portfolio, that sort of thing.

Q, from David: I've been tattooing for 6 years now. However, I started tattooing in a California State Prison. When I paroled I had to re-educate myself on everything I thought I knew about tattooing. I was offered an apprenticeship at a local shop, but it was owned by one of my "homeboys", and I didn't want to get caught back up in the mix. I've been off parole for over 4 years now but when I try to introduce myself at other more professional shops, it seems I am looked down upon because I learned in prison. I don't use terms like "tattoo gun" or other tell-tale signs that I learned in prison, but I have two prison style half sleeves and "S.F.V." (San Fernando Valley) across my stomach, and am quickly judged for my appearance. How do I obtain an apprenticeship without being stereotyped?

A: This is indeed one of the biggest questions in tattooing. So before I proceed much further, please ask yourselves very seriously: Is tattooing really for me? Do I have something positive to contribute, so I can be a part of the growth of this art form? This is no joke. A career in tattooing can be a real struggle, likely a dead-end one, if you don't approach it the right way or aren't ready to make the necessary sacrifices. Like any other big career move, you need to be prepared to relocate, to be hungry, to be at the bottom rung and be patient about it. You may luck out and find a good shop nearby that wants you as a part of their team, but the odds are that you'll go through several shops before finding a place that's comfortable and fits you and your personality. In other words, be ready for a long uphill push. If that doesn't sound like something you are ready for, now is the time to turn the page.

For the rest of you, I do have quite a bit of advice. One thing that you'll hear me say over and over again in most of my columns is that you simply need to draw as much as you can. This can include drawing in formal settings, like weekly figure drawing workshops, or informal ones, like finger wave contests on bar napkins. But your hand should be in the habit of drawing all the time. Almost any other advice I can give is secondary to this.

Tattoo schools have been controversial. Like I mentioned earlier, we who have made this profession our home feel pretty protective of it, and the concern is that these schools will release large numbers of underqualified tattoo students into the world. And this has in fact been the case around several of these schools, where the local shops find a flood of botched work coming in for repairs that was done in these students' kitchens. I think the concern about these schools may be bigger than the actual problem, but it has resulted in most of the established shops in America agreeing to boycott hiring students of these schools.

So that's where it stands right now: By and large, you may find that is doesn't help, or possibly hurts, your chances of being hired. But the reality is that if you walk into a shop with a kickass portfolio of drawings, they will probably be willing to overlook the tattoo school thing. I do think that it's inevitable that genuinely well-run tattoo schools will start appearing, with job placement and other concerns covered properly. For now, though, your best bet is to work on your art as much as you can and start building your presentation so that when you start actively seeking an apprenticeship you'll be ready.

As far as the age thing goes, that shouldn't be a concern. Many very fine tattooers got started later in life- Bob Tyrrell is a great example, who started right around 36 or so and is now a respected educator in our industry. At the risk of sounding redundant, I'll say it again: it's all about your drawing ability. Working in a variety of mediums is helpful, and in fact I've been encouraging tattooists to pick up paintbrushes for most of my teaching career, since working in a second medium is one of the surest ways to evolve your artistic style as a tattooist. But at the pre-apprenticeship stage, the best thing you can do is work in pen, marker and colored pencil and build up a large collection of tattoo-style drawings of various sizes. Experiment with finding your own illustrative style, and draw it the way you would like to see it on skin.

The next step is to build your portfolio. This should be short and sweet, somewhere between 12-18 pages, each with either a single substantial design or several smaller ones. Try to compose each page nicely and make the book look smooth overall. The whole presentation is important, not just the drawings, since with this portfolio you are demonstrating not only your drawing abilities but your professionalism and attention to detail- two things that are greatly valued in a tattoo studio. Make an online portfolio as well, using Flickr or any similar photo sharing service. Keep both portfolios up to date- as you complete new drawings, replace the more dated pieces with the fresh ones so your presentation, both in print and online, reflects your current level of abilities.

Then it's all about shopping around. Research the local shops before just walking into them- make sure they have something to offer to begin with. If their websites don't show work that impresses you, don't waste your time. Once you've narrowed it down, start visiting them, getting to know the artists, figuring our who is the boss at each place and finding an opportunity to show your portfolio. This part of the process will be organic and will require that you use your best people skills. Keep in mind that the other artists at these shops will likely see you as potential competition, so you don't want to come barging in like you own the place. It will require tact. You also have the option of calling each shop, asking to speak with the boss, and making an appointment to come in and show your portfolio. The advantage of doing it in person is that by phone, you'll likely get an automatic "No thanks", where in person you may be able to ease your way in.

If you are willing to relocate, you have a lot more options. You can look for want ads online and that kind of thing, but the single best approach is to start showing up at tattoo conventions and getting to know the artists. Visit all the booths, take your time and look at books. See which artists you have the best line of communication with, and eventually bring up the subject that you are seeking an apprenticeship and have your portfolio with you. In a convention setting, you are far more likely to find a job, since even if the artist you are showing your book to doesn't have an opening, they may have a friend who does. So be bold, get out there, introduce yourself. Be open to criticism, grateful for advice. That is a demonstration of your readiness to learn.

Coming from a prison background definitely does add to the challenge, but it's not insurmountable. All the advice I've given so far applies to this situation; a good attitude and a solid portfolio can overcome those prejudices. But you'll want to work on rehabilitating your image regardless of your employment situation, partly for the purpose of earning the trust of a broader range of clients more easily. The best way to do this is to cover the old stuff. I'd recommend lasering first- you have plenty of affordable options in California, and prison tattoos come out pretty easily. Then you can replace the work with something that reflects not only the current state of the tattoo art form but your own new direction as well. Use this process as an opportunity to visit the best shops in your area, collect art from your favorite artists, and show your artwork. Once they get to know you, and especially seeing how you are actively leaving your past behind and moving forward, they'll be a lot less likely to judge you or to even think of you as a prison tattooer. From there you can build your pathway toward finding the job that you're looking for.

So as you can all see, breaking into the tattoo business is not a cakewalk, and shouldn't be. Most great careers involve relocating to a college for 4-6 years and then scraping your way up the success ladder. A stellar tattoo career can happen pretty quickly for someone with the right skills, attitude and energy. But it does not reward those who come in for the wrong reasons. You all seem to be coming from the right place... now you just need to knuckle down and do the work.