Tattoo Apprenticeship Issues

Arcata, Humboldt Co. CA


Tattooers have ALWAYS been inundated by people asking for apprenticeships.

Here's what most people asking for an apprenticeship do NOT consider-

- EVERYthing an apprentice does affects the tattooer, his or her reputation, and his or her ability to earn a living. An apprentice needs to be someone the tattooer can trust, whose behavior in and out of the shop is compatible with the tattooer's life, and who can be counted on to be as committed as the tattooer is- MANY wannabe apprentices think that after three or four months, they've "already learned enough".

- That the apprentice must be someone that the tattooer LIKES as a person, since he or she will be there EVERY DAY FOR SEVERAL YEARS.

- That most people asking for an apprenticeship "want to be a tattooer" but don't do anything about "being an artist". The comment about "don't stop drawing" is a good one. A good apprentice will already be an accomplished artist, and will spend part of EVERY DAY drawing. A good tattooer will use other media as well- pen & ink, watercolor, paints, sculpture, pencil, color pencils, etc. An "artist" is not going to need to be told to "draw every day". An "artist" lives to create art, and that will be apparent. Someone who "wants to be a tattooer", but who has never considered the commitment an Artist makes to Art, is not going to likely impress a tattooer who is also an artist.

- Tattooing is a BUSINESS, and interpersonal skills, retail skills, and customer service skills, AS WELL AS the first three points are ESSENTIAL if someone whose income is affected by the way the shop is working is going to take on another person.

- Any tattooer teaching an apprentice is taking time from his/her own life, and should be compensated. It's true that most people don't charge $$ for an apprenticeship, but most people only apprentice people they're friends with, who, and here's where the tattoo shop owner makes his/her money on it- is WILLING TO STAY FOR SEVERAL YEARS AFTER THE APPRENTICESHIP IS OVER. In other words, be committed to the studio, the tattooer, and remaining there after the apprenticeship is over, so the owner's "investment" of time, knowledge and reputation" will be returned by the new tattooer earning money for the studio for several years into the future.

I have yet to hear any wannabe apprentice except one, suggest that he/she fit all these criteria, and that one will be starting an apprenticeship with me in a YEAR OR TWO, once she's finished her Bachelor's Degree in Studio Art. Tattooing for a living is a lifetime thing, and teaching someone is giving them the ability to earn a GOOD living doing gratifying work. That's gonna be something that the teacher will consider valuable, and the student MUST treat as something worth committing MANY YEARS to, particularly years working for the tattooer who teacher him/her.

That apprentice may merely be learning the skills of tattooing and machine maintenance, but typically a good tattooer will be teaching the apprentice ALL aspects of tattooing as a business and as an art form. If there is a separate "shop guy(gal)" to handle counter work, customer service and handle the phones, that's great, but most often, these duties are the job of the main apprentice(s).

Also, an apprentice is not just "someone who is learning to tattoo", but also someone who is part of the business, someone the tattooers can count on to take up the slack, and someone who becomes the "public face" of the tattoo studio, since the tattooers are busy in their rooms typically, working where the public doesn't see them. You walk in the door and introduce yourself asking for an apprenticeship (from what you've said)- have you ever considered hanging around a studio, spending thousands of dollars on ink (as a customer), and getting to know the tattooers and shop owners well? I suspect you haven't, or you'd have some idea of the things I'm writing here. I could be wrong, of course, but the "I keep getting told NO when I ask for an apprenticeship" responses I hear often, make NO mention of "getting tattooed", "getting to know the tattooers", or "liking a tattooer enough to know that's who you want too teach you to tattoo". If I'm incorrect about this, I'd be surprised, but I'm always open for learning something new.

As for duties and hours???

He or she is usually the person who opens the studio, sweeps, vacuums and mops, collects the trash, picks up the mail, washes the windows, sets up the tattooers' work-stations before each tattoo, breaks down and disinfects the tattooers' work-stations after each tattoo, builds needles, learns Infection Control and Sterile Tattooing Procedures, does all the scrub-biohazard work, scrubbing out tubes, and autoclaving them (and often the piercer's stuff, too), answers the phones, takes messages, greets customers, discusses ideas with customers, SELLS tattoos (as opposed to just sorta standing there in case the customer wants something), makes stencils for each tattoo if it's a production shop, handles money between the customer and tattooer, takes receipts to the bank, totals the credit card machines, keeps the shop clean during busy times, "stacks" customers in the event that there's more than one to speak with at the same time, cleans up at the end of the night, turns off the lights, locks the doors, and generally does all the things that a manager, a wife, a secretary, a pet, a slave, a roadie, and a guitar tech might do- fetch coffee, fetch food, put quarters in parking meters for tattooers and customers, runs errands for the shop owner, etc. ...... AND the apprentice must find time every day to draw, draw, draw, preferably with a nib pen for linework and watercolors and a brush for the color/shading. All this BEFORE picking up a tattoo machine for the first time. Once the apprentice is tattooing, many of these duties are passed back to the other tattooers, or to a new "shop guy(gal)"

My point is that the apprentice, if he or she is truly committed and the studio is a busy place, will often work longer hours, doing harder work, than most of the people in most studios, for as long as they are an apprentice. These duties allow the tattooers to focus on the business of tattooing and making money, and allow the apprentice to learn how important customer service, a clean shop, and properly made tattoo needles are. It also allows the shop owner to learn who is only "wanting to be a tattooer" but expects to have it handed to him/her. WAY too often new apprentices, as soon as they've done a dozen or so small tattoos, convince themselves that they "know what they need to know, and don't need all this chicken-shit", quit after six months, and open their own "studio". You can usually tell which of the shops in town are run by these people- they're not busy, they're not professional, the artwork is marginal at best, and the tattooing skills are sub-standard.

With these things in mind, you'll understand why most tattooers only want someone they KNOW WELL, the LIKE, the TRUST, and know to be RELIABLE as an apprentice, since that tattooer will be relying on their apprentice for many of all of these things during the entire day at work, if the shop isn't a graveyard most of the time. That apprentice becomes part of the business before ever doing a tattoo- becomes part of the studio itself before ever doing a tattoo, and if he/she does his/her job properly, becomes indispensable to the tattooers, and they'll tell future apprentices about how "Jimi was THE BEST apprentice and shop dude I've ever had- the shop was off the hook when he was working, we were slammed with customers, and everyone knew where to get tattooed in this town." Or, conversely, one might hear about "I had this idiot as an apprentice for about three weeks last year. What a mistake- he thought it was 'unfair' that I had him take out the trash and do the autoclaving! What the fuck did he expect, just to come in here and make a million dollars? ALL dollars that I could be making myself???"

If an apprentice is taught thoroughly, that apprentice will become a very successful tattooer and businessperson. That tattooer will also be able to afford to be an Artist, something that leaves most "artists" broke, hence the phrase "starving artist". A properly trained apprentice will become a representative of the tattooing community to the rest of the world. An improperly trained apprentice becomes exactly what all the negative stereotypes of what a tattoo studio is or can be.


the tattooing medium is NOT easy, but instead VERY complex and difficult to learn to do properly. What IS easy is learning how to tattoo at a marginal level, learning how to do mediocre tattoos IS easy and can be learned in several months. "Figuring it out from there" is NOT something that most people will ever be able to do, which is why there's so damned many shitty tattooers out there. Learning to tattoo "properly" takes YEARS- it took me TEN YEARS before I began to think of myself as a competent tattooer.


Most tattooers do not take seriously ANYone who has not taken the time to be involved in GETTING TATTOOED. If you don't have lots of professional tattoowork on your body, many tattooers will see you as an intruder, an interloper, hoping to "cash in" on what amounts to our Lifestyle. If you're "one of us", it's a LOT easier to a) get to know tattooers, b) learn all the answers to these questions you have, just by sitting in the chair getting worked on, and c) find where the opportunities lie, what's involved, and who is most qualified to teach a tattooer.


Tattooers teach those they LIKE, not "strangers who are committed", because there's a LOT of strangers out there who'd LOVE to be a tattooer, but who we just DON'T LIKE as PEOPLE.

The idea of hanging around and helping out at a studio, is about finding people who LIKE YOU, and who YOU LIKE, not about "investing in something that might or might not happen".

How do you get to be a roadie for a small band? You KNOW the guys in the band. How do you get to be a crew member on a lucrative fishing boat? You KNOW someone on the crew. The same is true for tattooing.

Tattooing in ANY studio is a "Family Affair" where people have things in common- and any shop where the tattooers are essentially strangers, is a studio that's filled with drama, bullshit, and not a fun place to work. If you look at San Francisco, MANY of the tattooers there have ONE thing in common above all others- they worked for Ed Hardy at Tattoo City at some point in the last 25 years (oh yeah, and they LOVE tattooing, they're artists as well, and they're covered from head to toe with ink). You'll find that those tattooers move on to open their own studios, work together, share their lives with one another, but they all either started or got into the "SF scene" through Tattoo City. In Oakland, it's Temple Tattoo, but you'd be surprised at how many people working there have their roots in Tattoo City as well.

So what? VERY FEW people I know actually PLANNED to become tattooers, unless they were already part of a tattooing family, whose parent or family friend was a professional tattooer.

I certainly never planned to become a tattooer, and I WAS a tattooer for over ten years before I ever planned on owning my own studio. Hell, I was a guy sitting around biker parties at 4AM in the SF Bay Area in the early-mid 80s, drawing portraits of people and their Harley Davidsons (back when owning a HD meant you built it yourself, so the bike reflected who you were as much as anything else in life). I'd sit there all night (when I wasn't alone with some cutie, discussing the finer points of, well, not tattooing, that's for sure), drawing and drawing and chatting with friends. EVERY time someone saw that I was a competent illustrator, every time someone saw that the motorcycles and people I was drawing looked like the motorcycles and people I was drawing, I'd hear over and over again "Brother, you should be tattooing, you're fucking awesome" which really meant "Hey, I'd get free tattoo work if you were a tattooer, because you're my friend, right?" I'd come back with "yeah, yeah, you're gonna let me practice on YOUR body, right?" Well, one day, someone looked at me and said "Yeah, I will. I've been tattooing for about twenty-five years. If you wanna learn, I'll teach you."

Well, that never turned into a real apprenticeship, but it WAS a start, and it's how I finally got my "inside track" to becoming a tattooer. I already had both arms sleeved, and was 23 years old, and I LOOKED like the average tattooer, although about 20 years to young. I'm 44 now, and I've thought of myself as a "professional tattooer" for about 15 years now, even though I've been tattooing for over 20.

My artwork is what got me my first tattooing instruction. That and where I was- in a heavy-duty biker scene, in a time when there were only two basic kinds of tattoo studios- those who catered to sailors/Marines/etc. and those who catered to bikers.

I think the response you get is about "expectations", or at least "perceived expectations". It's primarily because there's SOOO MANY idjuts walking into the studio EXPECTING someone to GIVE them a "break", that we end up saying "fuck you!" and showing them the door. Most often, it's people who ARE hanging around for several years, who DO get lots of pricey tattoo work, who ARE investing their time and effort into promoting and helping out at a specific shop who DO get the apprenticeships.


TATTOOING IS A FAMILY AFFAIR, and even if one becomes Family, one STILL has to invest the time and energy- do all the trash-taking, tube cleaning, autoclaving, customer-service stuff to get their apprenticeship. Besides, who the hell wants to spend years around people you don't love or at least like very much???


How do people support themselves financially during their apprenticeship? Most often, they usually have a near-full-time job on TOP of their apprenticeship duties, but by no means is this "ALWAYS" (Many people, especially those who never learned the value of a long apprenticeship, throw their apprentices into tattooing paying customers quickly).

Our current apprentices both work close to 40 hours in the shop AND 25-30 hours at paying jobs outside the shop. Both young men are working 70+ hour weeks, all so they can look forward to more 70+ hour weeks. Shows they really want it badly, doncha know.... Actually, after working for two YEARS at both jobs, one of the apprentices is now tattooing "small stuff" regularly enough that he quits his job next week, expecting to survive solely on "little stuff" tattooing income (which won't be hard, since he was making less than ten bucks an hour at his job). Keep in mind, he did over a hundred tattoos withOUT pay, on friends willing to let "a new apprentice" tattoo them BEFORE getting paid a dime in the shop. The ONLY shop income he had for six months or so was when us tattooers tipped him out at the end of the day (sometimes $20, sometimes less, sometimes more, depending on how much he helped during the day).

But every shop is different. Every city, every apprentice. Besides, SOME states actually regulate apprenticeships (like Oregon).

I hope this is informative.