If you’ve ever gotten a tattoo, you already know that it takes a lot of trust and faith in your artist. Letting someone jam needles into your skin hundreds of times can be a little daunting, but they’re professionals, right? I mean, they know what they’re doing…They went to school for this, didn’t they?
There is no such thing as a degree in tattooing. You don’t enroll at your local community college to learn the ins and outs of this sub-cultural practice. But, just because someone didn’t attend an Ivy League school to learn the industry, doesn’t mean that they don’t know what they’re doing.
So how does one learn the art of tattooing, then?
The practice seems to have kept its original methods of passing down the artistry. Tattooing is one of the very few remaining industries still utilizing the age-old practice of apprenticeships. What was once the only way to learn any trade, way back in the day, is still being used as the best method of breaking into this industry. Tattooing itself still utilizes many tricks and tools from its early days, and it is a practice that has been around for thousands of years, so it is no surprise that the industry is still focusing on older, more hands-on methods of teaching the trade. And, let’s be real here, would you really want a tattoo artist who had only ever had his nose in a book and had never actually put needle to skin?
In order to secure an apprenticeship in the tattooing industry, there are a few must-have prerequisites. Although there is no grade point average or high test scores required, a tattoo artist is not going to take the time of day to attempt to teach a person who can’t even draw a stick figure. The prospective tattooer will need to have skill…serious artistic skill, as the job requires so much on-the-go design. This isn’t a job for someone with no concept of art whatsoever. A general knowledge of the industry, the styles, and the equipment (no, do not go buy a home kit and start working on yourself!) are a plus—but mostly, dedication to the industry, the art, and the shop are required.
Many artists will have their apprentice do certain exercises, such as line drawings, replicating flash, and creating their own takes of each tattoo style available. They need to demonstrate clean line work and a mastery of each style before they’re ever allowed to pick up a tattoo machine (if you call it a tattoo gun, be prepared for your apprenticeship to be over!).
Once the artist feels the apprentice has conquered the general skills of the art, they’ll begin to let them work with the equipment. Generally, they’ll start by setting up and breaking down the artist’s station. First with supervision, then slowly on their own, until they can look at the tattoo stencil and immediately know what needles, machines, and inks to set up on their own.
After the apprentice shows their equipment knowledge is on par, they’ll be allowed to start their first test runs. Often, artists will have the apprentices start on the skins of fruits, such as oranges. Some will utilize the fake skins that are sold by tattoo equipment manufacturers, but this can often get expensive. Eventually, the apprentice will move on to human skin, whether this is their own, their artist’s, or willing friends and/or family.