Apprenticeship vs self taught…
There is always someone out there who wants something for nothing. They don’t want to pay for the education they would be getting with an Apprenticeship. They think, “Hey! How hard can it be? I can copy stuff”. I believe I spoke those words 20 years ago, it was so much harder than I thought it would be. I got my equipment with the help of another tattoo artist and he gave me the basics. My first few were not so bad, but not so good either. I have many people from those early days to thank for letting me learn on them. I even got into a shop tattooing clients with in several weeks of starting because of them. But in reality I wasn’t very good and I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t good. I could draw and copy things, why weren’t my tattoos looking as good as my drawings? I really needed to get guidence. As many of my friends were trying to convince me to open my own shop, I got the oppurtunity to take an apprenticeship with Miz Jo-D Bones. It would cost me several thousand dollars and I would be driving 40 miles from home every day to do it. I looked at my work versus her work and I knew I had to do it! What I learned in the first 6 months Apprenticing was more than I had learned in the first 2 years working pretty much on my own in a shop. I knew I made the right decision. Thanks Jo-D!
Now you may think you can do it without an a apprenticeship, but first you should consider all you need to learn: how to draw up a tattoo design, how to plan for the way a tattoo will look over time, how to work with clients, the technical skill of putting needle to skin and most importantly how to work safely and cleanly. Lets deal with each of these individually:
How to draw up a tattoo design… When drawing the tattoo design you will need to know what to put in the drawing and what you don’t really need. The drawing will not only show your client what you are planning to do, but will also give you a map to follow on the skin once you make it into a stencil. The stencil is very important, as the skin will stretch and move as you are tattooing it.The stencil will stay on the spot of the body you want the ink to be in. Learning how to draw a useful map, the stencil, with the right information, and not so much information as to confuse you while tattooing, is vital.
How to plan for the way a tattoo will look over time: Tattoos are not just for today, they are for the life of the client. You want your work to look good in the future as well as the present. You need to learn how the skin changes over time so you can plan you design accordingly. Next to names, the biggest things I cover up are tattoos done too small and too detailed. Many an inexperienced artist will do a tattoo with too many tiny lines too close together. Human skin is a living surface and will change and shift over time, you need to take this into consideration when doing the tattoo.
How to work with clients.. Dealing with clients is more important than you can imagine. Tattooing used to be: go into a shop, pick design off wall, and get it tattooed as is.. Times have changed (in my opinion for the better) for both artist and client. So now you need to learn how to do a consultation, to find out what the client wants and to manage their expectations of what is possible. Learning how to say “no” nicely, and explain why, is vital. Trying to do something you know won’t work just because they want it that way can be a nightmare for both client and artist. There is also dealing with clients during the tattoo. How to sit them so they won’t move as much. How to sit them so you can get at the area to be tattooed and not kill your back (a lifesaver of a skill). How to deal with a client who is in a lot of pain during the tattoo, and what to do if some one passes out.
The technical skill of putting needle to skin… This is what everyone is dying to learn, when they start out. But even this is not as easy as it sounds. First and foremost you should be able to draw before even trying to tattoo, and just because you are good in one medium doesn’t mean you will be good immediately in another. It takes time to learn how the equipment works. The first time you picked up a pencil you didn’t do a perfect drawing. But as you drew more and more you got better. It the same with tattooing. You will need to do lots of mediocre tattoos before you do great ones. Having a teacher will be very important in helping you understand the way your machines work, how to use color and shading to get the effects in the skin you want. A teacher will help you be a better tattoo artist quicker.
How to work safely and cleanly… This is the first thing you should learn. A dirty artist is health risk for themselves, their clients and everyone who works with them. There are bloodborne pathogens classes out there, but few have the specifics for our industry. You need to learn not just how bloodborne pathogens are transmitted, but also how you can specifically protect yourself and your clients from transmitting them..( Side note: because of what I know from tattooing I am so surprised how many doctors, nurses and dentists are working dirty. I have seen more cross contamination in a dentist office than I ever have in a tattoo shop.)
These skills can’t be googled, they need to be learned from a teacher who can see if you are doing it right and correct what you are doing wrong before it becomes a bad habit..
There is much talk these days about tattoo schools. The two I know of offer 2 week courses to be certified. Lets start off with this certification means nothing, in fact many tattoo shops will NOT hire people from these schools because they will not be properly trained and don’t want to encourage these schools to continue. The fact is these schools are a money making scheme to benefit the schools owner. The poor students sign on thinking they are getting proper certification that will help them get jobs and they think they are getting proper training. The worst part is because the word “school” is used is seems more legit than paying an individual to do an apprenticeship. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Apprenticeships generally last 2 years and in that time you get one on one student / teacher time. The schools can’t possibly teach you everything you need to know in 2 weeks. Think about an apprenticeship as an education (which it is) like if you were to train in a trade school. Trade schools don’t crank people out in 2 weeks. They are usually 1-2 years of classes before you can take a test and be certified. I think the apprenticeship process works best, but if the tattoo schools were run more like a trade school, I could see it might work for some. As for a 2 week school, all that would be able to do is give an overview with little practical training, and of course emptying the students pockets.
How Do you Find an Apprenticeship?
This is a tough one and one of the reasons that the tattoo schools are getting any students at all. It is very hard to find an artist willing to take on an apprentice. I have turned down several potential students myself. The fact is, taking on an apprentice is a very difficult and time consuming job. The reason apprenticeships are not free is that it is actual work for the teacher. It costs them time and money that they could be making doing tattoos themselves instead of teaching the apprentice.
Finding your teacher will be the toughest part. I was lucky that I was getting tattooed by Miz Jo-D and we were discussing my situation, she saw potential in me that needed directing. So she asked if I wanted to apprentice. Getting tattooed by the artist you want to work with is one way of building a rapport with an artist to see how you would get along as student and teacher, but it does not guarantee it. I would start by talking to your tattoo artist, if you are not getting tattooed or don’t have any tattoos you may want to ask yourself why you want to do this? To be honest I don’t know of any tattooist that would take someone with no tattoos as an apprentice. I know I would never get tattooed by someone who doesn’t have a tattoo. They don’t need to be covered in them, but they need to have a feeling of what I, as a client, is going through.
Paying for an apprenticeship
I don’t know what the going rate is now, but don’t expect it for free. In the old days you were basically a slave to the rest of the shop to pay your way. Nowadays things are different, many of the jobs you did back then helped save time for your teacher (making needles, making ink, scrubbing and sterilizing equipment) are no longer needed due to pre-made pre-sterilized needles, pre-sterilized disposable tubes and pre-made high quality ink. But you will always be expected as the low person on the totem pole to sweep and mop the floors, clean the bathroom and do small errands as well as paying for the apprenticeship.
What to expect from the apprenticeship
This is something you will want to make sure you and your teacher are on the same page about. As a student you may not know everything you are to be taught, but you should have some idea of how it will work. I was already tattooing by the time I started my apprenticeship so I started tattooing in her shop right away. We scheduled days that I would come in and just observe my teacher. I also had to photograph each and every tattoo I did so we could do a critique. Unfortunately there are some people out there who will take your money and teach you nothing, so definitely get to know this person first. Make sure they will follow through on what they agreed to teach you and that you will both work together. Also, remember to be humble, it is hard to keep hearing what you are doing wrong, but that is what you are paying for. You need to know how to do things right and sometimes you will make mistakes, a lot of them. Your teacher is there to help you learn from the mistakes and help you to not make them again.
This is just a skimming of the surface about learning to tattoo, but I hope some of this helps answer questions out there.