Becoming A Tattoo Artist Is A Challenging – But Rewarding – Career Path

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Do you like to draw? Are you a “people person”? Would you mind piercing someone’s skin on a daily basis?

For some, these qualities are what they think are needed to become a tattoo artist.

After chatting with freelance tattoo artist Michael John Longo, I found out that theres’s a lot more to it than that.
 

“Most people view being a tattoo artist as a cool job, but few realize the ongoing stuggle for us to be fully established, which in most cases can take up to five years.” —Michael John Longo, freelance tattoo artist

What is required to become a tattoo artist in Canada?

Michael: There are three different approaches to becoming a tattoo artist. In order of worst to best, they are: self-taught, tattoo school and apprenticeship.

Being self-taught means you need to buy your own starter kit, read up on tattooing, watch instructional videos and tattoo your own clients from home. The problem with this method is that there is no one to correct your mistakes and most home studios do not follow the correct safety mandates set out through the provincial government.

Tattoo school will put you $8,000 in the hole for a three-to-six week course and after the course you are on your own. The problem with this method is it’s expensive and most tattoo shop owners prefer someone they’ve had a chance to train themselves.

Apprenticeships are the best way to become a tattoo artist, but they are also the hardest to get. You have to first convince a tattoo shop owner to apprentice you and then, during this time, you need to bring in your clients to act as guinea pigs for three levels of tests: outline, shading and colour.

The outline test takes the longest and is the most difficult to learn, as you will need to pass calligraphy, Chinese characters and tribal. You are encouraged to practice at home on pig skin and, once you’ve passed your tests, you are a fully qualified tattoo artist.

After you’ve completed your training, the goal is to get hired by a shop that allows you to take walk-in clients. Most shop owners will only take junior artists as freelancers, which means that you will need to bring in your own clients until you’ve built enough of a portfolio to get hired full-time. Here it becomes a catch-22: the only way to improve your portfolio is to tattoo and the only way to tattoo is to show that your portfolio has improved.
 

What type of person would like this job? Do you have to have an artistic background?

Michael: In my opinion, to become a tattoo artist you need two things: stubbornness and drawing skills.

I have a bachelor’s degree in visual arts from York University, however universities tend to teach “modern art” and I found that throwing a bucket of paint at a wall does not develop your drawing skills.

I currently attend the Toronto Academy of Realist Art. These academies base their institutions on the 19th century French academies. At the academy, you learn the value of drawing and fundamental art principles that have been lost throughout the history of the modern art movement. To find an academy near you, go to www.artrenewal.org.

Quick tip: To improve your drawings, practice them at home in pen from books like Dynamic Figure Drawing or How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way.
 

What other types of jobs were you considering getting involved in with your artistic talent?

Michael: First off, I believe that there’s no such thing as talent, but that there is such a thing as skill. Other careers I would consider are: Children’s Book Illustrator or Video Game Animator.
 

What is the coolest part of your job?

Michael: I love it. I love the practical application of using the drawing skills I learned at the Toronto Academy of Realist Art and through various books of self-study. Most people view being a tattoo artist as a cool job, but few realize the ongoing stuggle for us to be fully established, which in most cases can take up to five years.
 

Michael Longo's first tattoo: a tribal snake eating its tail
Michael's first tattoo: a tribal snake eating its tail
What did it feel like working on your first client? How did it turn out?

Michael: I was eager. My first tattoo was a tribal snake eating its tail. I think that the end result was good, however certain points could have been slightly sharper.
 

What is your favourite tattoo you’ve designed so far?

Michael:My favourite tattoo is the wolf howling in front of the moon (pictured at top). I really enjoy drawing animals and angels. I have another tattoo lined up of St. Michael the Archangel fighting the Devil. This will most likely be my new favourite.
 

Is there anyone in your profession that you look up to?

Michael: Tom Renshaw, a wildlife and portrait tattoo artist based out of Chicago. James Gurney, an illustrator and the author of the children’s book series Dinotopia. Pietro Annigoni, an Italian classical realist fresco and portrait artist best known for his 1954 Commission of Queen Elizabeth II.
 

Do you have any tips for current students who are looking to get into this business?

Michael: Watch your back: some already-established tattoo artists will be territorial and might try to ruin your chances at becoming one if they think you’re infringing on their business.

Start slow: buy a starter tattoo kit off eBay. Practice on pig skin for seven to eight hours a day (after you’ve been properly shown how) and learn your tattoo machines. Then you can slowly replace your starter kit with parts from Eikon or other leading brands.

Read up: don’t go out and buy a so-called professional kit for thousands. Take your time to learn about the product before you make any big purchases.

Be crafty: for example, when investing in a tattoo gun, you can buy the frame from eBay and then the parts from Eikon, and basically make your own $400 machine for less than $40. Complete your machine with an Eikon foot pedal and a simple power supply with an LED display.
 
For more information on Michael’s designs and his contact information, check out his personal website. Be sure to check out his drawing, sketch book and paintings section there to see his drawing background.

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About the author

Kate Morawetz is a recent Media, Information and Technoculture graduate from the University of Western Ontario. She interned at various media gigs in Toronto and LA, before landing her current job at MTV Canada in the Series & Developments department and continues to write about life experiences, the ever present media and generally about things that interest her via her blog One Curly Fry in a Box Full of Regulars. A self proclaimed connoisseur of man-ponies slash creativity junkie, Kate has an eclectic musical taste and enjoys reading, long walks in wooded areas, photography, writing, dry white wines and a good spinach & strawberry salad.