The Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Successful Tattoo Artist

The line between mediocrity and success is as fine as a smooth, single-needle pass. Landing on the lucrative side of that line, however, takes some serious dedication and a realization that you’re wholly in control of the end-result.

April 22, 2022

The long list of “why” some tattoo artists’ careers just never take off is full of avoidable mistakes, most of which are rarely talked about. The key to becoming a successful tattoo artist doesn’t have to be a secret. That’s why we’ve created this comprehensive guide to get you there.

1. Learn to Draw

As with almost any career, you must first lay down a sturdy foundation on your way to becoming a successful tattoo artist.

For our purposes, that foundation is artistic ability. While being born with the ability to paint, sketch, or stipple masterpieces may make the journey less arduous, it doesn’t mean that those without the natural ability to draw are entirely out of luck.

Whether it be through self-instruction, art school, or mentorship, all that matters at this stage is that you somehow, someway acquire the expertise. It’s also important to keep in mind that the ability to draw does not automatically translate to the capacity to tattoo.

Though there’s undoubtedly some overlap, the two skill sets are largely distinct in practice.

For tattoo and art courses, click here.

2. Practice Makes Perfect

Perhaps the only thing more ancient than this adage is the art of tattooing. If learning to draw is the foundation of the craft, then practicing must produce the building blocks.

In order to become a successful tattoo artist, you must constantly exercise the artistic muscle. Luckily, the internet is flush with resources to assist in this endeavor. It’s also worth mentioning that perfect practice makes perfect.

Sloppily sketching the same thing every day isn’t going to improve your skill set – at the very least, that’ll just waste your time.

Practice drawing with intent as your objective is to eventually mark people permanently. The importance of practicing also applies to those with innate artistic ability. Remember: “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”

3. Build a Portfolio

Building a portfolio is an essential task on your way to becoming a successful tattoo artist.

As you learn to draw and/or hone your skills, it’s important to begin accumulating your best work to include in your portfolio.

Your portfolio will demonstrate to seasoned tattoo artists two things:

1) that you have potential, and

2) that you’re willing to do the work.

While your best work will likely be in the style you’re most comfortable executing, it’s important to include an array of styles in your portfolio to demonstrate range.

This will also show your potential mentor that you’re not stubbornly fixated on a single style before they’ve had a chance to properly educate you.

What’s more, while your artwork will be the main focus of your collection, it doesn’t hurt to ensure the portfolio itself is of high quality (i.e., high-resolution copies, unclouded sleeves, sturdy binders, etc.)

4. Land an Apprenticeship

Perhaps one of the most important steps in becoming a successful tattoo artist is securing an apprenticeship.

Rest assured, however, this task will be borderline impossible without first completing the previous three steps.

While the word “apprenticeship” – and even the concept – may sound pleasant, it’s an often arduous process that involves long hours, low to no pay, and completing tasks beyond drawing and tattooing – some of which may, at times, seem beneath you.

Remaining modest, patient, and open-minded in your apprenticeship is key. In terms of actually securing the apprenticeship, that requires putting yourself out there and loads of persistence.

Don’t forget: Becoming a successful tattoo artist requires tenacity.

5. Land a Position at a Respectable Shop

Landing a position at a respectable shop is paramount to becoming a successful tattoo artist. Occasionally, after your apprenticeship, you’ll have the opportunity to slide into a position at the very shop you learned the craft.

In other circumstances, it’s going to be your responsibility to find a shop at which you’ll thrive. It’s important to remember that the portfolio you built to acquire an apprenticeship is not the same portfolio you’ll be using to secure a job as a tattoo artist.

Throughout your apprenticeship, especially near the end, you’ll be tattooing quite frequently. This will afford you the opportunity to build an additional portfolio, one filled with impeccable tattoos that will help launch your career.

6. Study

Like practicing, studying is essential to becoming a successful tattoo artist. And while the two may seem like synonyms, they are very different methods of honing your craft.

Studying is multifaceted, especially when it comes to art. In order to become a successful tattoo artist, it's pertinent that in addition to studying tattoo-style art, you also research and explore fine art, sculpting, architecture, etc.

This will help you develop an understanding of light, angles, depth, and movement. Ultimately, acquiring a firm grasp on a wide array of artistic expressions will also enhance your versatility and your skill.

What’s more, studying human anatomy, the work of tattoo artists you admire, and art and tattoo history will ensure that you have a comprehensive understanding of your craft.

And while this may seem extra or unnecessary, going above and beyond is, in fact, how successful tattoo artists are born.

7. Network

Now more than ever, it’s monumentally important to use networking to your advantage.

Becoming a successful tattoo artist doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s increasingly plausible if you utilize social media and your industry connections correctly.

Connecting with fellow artists, converting your social media into a vibrant digital portfolio, and engaging with the industry at large are a few ways to both catapult your career and create valuable camaraderie.

Not only will networking allow for general growth in your career, it will enable you to land guest-spot opportunities, chances to participate in gallery shows, and allow your work’s solid reputation to spread effortlessly.

8. Follow Industry Regulations

Once you’ve become a bona fide tattoo artist (and even before that, during your apprenticeship), it’s essential that you follow all guidelines assigned to the tattoo industry – this will ensure that you become and, more importantly, remain a successful tattoo artist.

These guidelines include, but are not limited to, strictly refraining from tattooing anyone under the age of 18, receiving fully and accurately filled out consent forms, and completing bloodborne pathogens training. As business begins to boom and your schedule grows more hectic, it can become easy to overlook or ignore these requirements.

However, it is of the utmost importance that you not only comply with, but keep these regulations at the forefront of your mind as your reputation and success depend on it.

9. Invest in Your Work

The trick to becoming a successful tattoo artist is realizing there are no quick & dirty tricks to becoming a successful tattoo artist.

Becoming successful in the tattoo industry requires years of investment – it’s an investment of time, an investment of the body, an investment of the mind, and an investment of money.

What’s more, these investments are round-the-clock ventures. As a tattoo artist, you have the unique responsibility of marking people with your art for the rest of their lives.

For this reason, you have to be willing to devote yourself to the craft in such a way that doubts about your ability do not exist. This means investing in the best supplies, equipment, portfolio services, physical therapists & doctors (tattooing can be exceptionally rough on the body), etc.

If you do not invest in your craft, you can surely kiss becoming a successful tattoo artist goodbye.

10. Use Top-notch Supplies & Equipment

As mentioned earlier, becoming a successful tattoo artist requires an investment in superior tattoo supplies and equipment. While these things can be rather costly, especially at the rate at which you’re required to use them, they are undoubtedly worth the expense.

Using the highest quality ink, for instance, works in conjunction with your tattooing abilities. It’s also important to invest in machines that form to your hand the best, chairs that offer ample lumbar support, and armrests that prevent you from having to hunch.

It may not seem like it upon first glance, but tattooing is indeed an act of physical labor and takes quite a toll on the body. It’s up to you to ensure that you and your client are receiving the best possible experience, both in comfort and craft.

11. Keep the Passion

Having and maintaining your passion for tattooing is vital to becoming and remaining a successful tattoo artist. It’s no secret that tattooing is a rather lucrative career, and it can be quite easy to become distracted by the more sumptuous aspects of the industry.

This, unfortunately, possesses the power to shift your focus and overall objective.

Without substantial passion for your craft, your desire to practice and study is likely to dwindle, and your skill level will undoubtedly follow suit. To assist in maintaining your passion, Linework suggests exploring avenues of the craft or art in general that you haven’t yet tapped into.

Repetitiveness, especially in your career, can be soul-crushing. Remember to continuously stoke the fire.

12. Set Solid Rates

Setting appropriate rates for your work is crucial to becoming a successful tattoo artist. While success can be defined in a number of ways, it’s most commonly monetized.

Setting your rates can be an arduous and awkward process, but with a little self-awareness and a lot of honesty, you can set solid rates that both intrigue customers and provide you the lifestyle you desire.

What’s more, setting suitable rates communicates to clients and to the industry that you respect your work and know your worth in such a way that you’re unwilling to settle for less – a surefire sign of a successful businessperson.

13. Stay Humble

Throughout your journey of becoming a successful tattoo artist, it’s vital that you remain humble. As tattooing has grown in popularity throughout the last two decades, some artists have deservedly skyrocketed to celebrity status.

This can often breed arrogance and inflated egos.

To stay humble, we recommend recalling your modest beginnings, perhaps referencing some of your earlier drawings and tattoo attempts, and remembering that although you’ve poured years of your life into your craft, there’s always room to grow.

Additionally, reputation tends to dictate success, and conceit lands very low on the list of desirable characteristics; in fact, focusing too heavily on your image may take away from the quality of your work, which, in turn, will negatively affect your success.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that confidence and arrogance are not the same thing. At Linework, we encourage you to champion your work, take pride in your progress, and always keep the passion.

14. Know Your Limits

While we at Linework believe there is no ceiling in tattooing, knowing your limits when it comes to your work is crucial to becoming a successful tattoo artist.

This means knowing when to turn down a tattoo that may be too far out of your realm of expertise or perhaps incites uncertainty in your abilities.

Knowing your limits also means being willing to recommend other tattoo artists to complete the task.

Taking on a tattoo you are unsure you can execute to the best of your ability is unfair to the client, to yourself, and to your counterparts who may be better equipped to achieve the desired finished product.

Staying humble, having confidence, and perpetually growing are accomplished through acts of vulnerability, like knowing and admitting your limits.

15. Invest in Excellent Tattoo Studio Software

Staying organized and on top of your administrative duties is of the utmost importance on the road to becoming and remaining a successful tattoo artist.

While the quality of your art is undoubtedly the most important element of your tattoo business, it’s easy to get distracted and disorganized when the administrative aspect of the industry begins to pile up (and it will).

To remedy this, Linework suggests investing in a quality tattoo studio software.

If you’re serious about your success, the aforementioned tattoo studio software should not only assist with scheduling, it should also reduce no shows, let you handle transactions with ease, provide instant financial reports for rent and tax purposes, and allow you to get back to what matters most – your art.

Fortunately, Linework does all of this and much, much more.