For people new to tattooing, the amount of information necessary to become a tattoo artist can be overwhelming. However, unlike most art mediums, where you can simply jump in and learn from trial and error, tattooing requires you to have some beginning knowledge. Without it, you could leave behind a trail of horrible tattoos. Or worse, you could give someone a lifelong disease if you don’t follow proper hygiene guidelines.
This article will explain the basic things you need to know before you start tattooing people. It will also give you some beginning advice you can apply right away in every aspect of tattooing from creating designs to shading techniques to finding clients.
How to Draw Tattoo Designs
If you want to be a tattoo artist the first thing you need to learn is how to draw. Your ability to draw is the “ceiling” of your potential as a tattoo artist. The better you are able to draw, the better you will be able to tattoo.
For some people, this is a natural skill. Others have to invest time into developing that skill. Luckily, it’s possible to speed up the learning process if you follow these steps:
Pick One Style: Traditional or Realism.
If you want to learn fast, traditional tattoo designs and realism are both great starting points for new tattoo artists who want to sharpen their skills. Here’s why:
A lot of the time, what slows artists down is figuring out what to draw. With realism, you do not have this problem. You just have to copy a photograph. Additionally, realism is a great style because it’s in demand. No matter where you are in the world, realism is one of tattooing’s most popular styles. If you can do realism, you can make a living anywhere in the world. As a beginner, stick with black and gray. You’ll only need to focus on the values of the image as opposed to trying to work with color on top of everything else.
Realism allows you to focus on the technical side of drawing (shading and correct tones) without having to learn other difficult drawing concepts (perspective and proportion). However, it’s a difficult style. You’ll need to nail realism on paper long before you touch skin. It requires less creativity than coming up with your own designs - but your technique has to be perfect.
Traditional tattoo designs are the easiest to draw, and it’s what most tattoo artists start off doing. The cool thing about traditional is that lots of the design elements are repeated over and over in each tattoo. After drawing 50-100 or so traditional style tattoos you’ll learn how to draw stuff like ships, flames, water, flowers, and more. Once you learn how to draw these elements, designing tattoos becomes a lot easier. You won’t need reference images because you’ll have muscle memory and experience to rely on. After that you’ll be able to knock out designs even faster, and it will get easier and easier.
Whatever style you choose, stick with smaller designs at first. You’ll be able to draw them faster and learn quicker from mistakes. This will also prepare you for when you first start tattooing, as you’ll only be doing smaller designs at the beginning of your career.
Pick 1-3 Artists and Emulate their work
Find a successful tattoo artist whose work you admire (Instagram is a great place for this). Try to replicate their tattoo designs without tracing. If you trace every design, you won’t learn a thing. However, when you replicate, you learn:
As you continue to replicate their work, you’ll pick up on these three things and start to naturally use them in your own designs later on. Picking these instincts up by studying an artist’s work will save you a ton of time. Why?
- 1You don’t have to waste time trying to figure out what designs work in tattoos...and which ones just don’t. When you use this method, you can leverage the decades of experience from other people and skip the trial and error of learning how to design tattoos on your own. You’ll quickly pick up what looks good on skin.
- 2Emulating takes the creativity out of the process so you can draw more designs per day (no staring at the wall trying to think of a design). You’ll be able to produce more art, make more mistakes, and therefore learn much faster.
Do NOT put any of these drawings in your portfolio. Someone looking at your portfolio is not only looking at your drawing skills, but also your design skills. Passing off someone else’s design as your own is stealing. You only want to do this exercise for practice. When you get good, create your own designs and use them in your portfolio.
Pick One Medium
If you are trying to learn how to use watercolors, acrylic/oil paint, charcoal, digital, graphite and copic markers at the same time, you will spread your focus - too thin. It will take you much longer to reach competency in any one of them compared to if you just focused all your energy and effort into one. If you want to progress quickly, focus on one medium. Graphite pencils or iPad is what I would recommend starting with.
Practicing on Fake Skin
You should not be learning the fundamentals of tattooing on people. That’s what fake skin is for. Learning on fake skin massively reduces the amount of bad tattoos that you do in the beginning of your career. When you can do a smooth shade, pack color, and pull a clean line in a single pass without any blowouts then you are ready for real skin.
Practicing on fake skin also offers these additional benefits:
That last point is one of the most important parts of learning to tattoo. Friends and family, if they’re willing to get a tattoo, will not be available every day for you to practice. Additionally, when you first start, you’ll be tattooing for free, since most people will be doing you a favor by letting you practice on them. Because they won’t be placing deposits, they’ll often cancel/ reschedule, giving you fewer opportunities to improve.
When this happens and you’re only tattooing once or twice a week, it’s hard to get better. Even if you can see a mistake you made, you won’t be able to apply what you learned until the next week - or whenever you have another opportunity to tattoo. By then, you’ll forget what you learned and continue to make the same mistakes.
However, if you’re tattooing on fake skin several hours a day, you’ll improve quickly and form good habits. If you’re looking for a brand recommendation, Reelskin.com has high-quality fake skins.
Cons to Fake Skin
The only cons when it comes to practicing on fake skin is that the texture is slightly different. Firstly, fake skin does not bleed like a client will. And secondly, the surface of fake skin is flat and very solid, so you don’t have to stretch the skin, which is something you’ll have to do with an actual client.
However, tattooing on fake skin is far better than leaving behind bad tattoos on others or deciding to simply watch videos. In tattooing, you learn by doing, and fake skin is the best way to get a feel for the craft before moving on to clients.
After choosing the right needle to use, it's time to figure out "Needle depth". Needle depth simply refers to how far into the skin the needle is going. Getting the right needle depth is important not only for preventing pain, blowouts, and scarring, but it’s also key to making sure the ink in the tattoo’s image is clear and will last.
To understand needle depth, you need to understand the skin’s construction. And while you won’t need to be an anatomy expert, you do need to know the three layers of the skin:
- 1The epidermis, or the top layer.
- 2The dermis, which is the middle layer.
- 3The hypodermis (sometimes called subcutaneous tissue), which is a layer of fat.
When you are tattooing, you need to put the ink in the middle layer.
- 1The top layer of the skin will push the ink out, and the tattoo will fade very quickly. One good sunburn can get rid of a tattoo that doesn’t have ink deep enough in the skin.
- 2The middle layer is the sweet spot. Unlike the top layer, ink sits well in the dermis. And unlike the fat layer, ink in the dermis does not move.
- 3The particles of the bottom fat layer are loose and liquidy. If ink is put in this layer, it will disperse. This is what causes “blowouts.”
How to Tell if You Have the Right Needle Depth
Getting the right needle depth is something you have to get a “feel” for. However, if you’re tattooing a line, you’ll feel the vibration in your stretching hand that indicates you’ve hit the right depth in the skin. (This is sort of a “you’ll know it when you feel it” situation.)
Whether you have the right needle depth depends on what part of the body you are tattooing. For example, the skin on the shins is very different to skin on the arm or eyelid. Additionally, the skin’s thickness will be different for every person. But as a rule of thumb, you can expect men’s skin to be a little thicker than women’s skin. And the older someone is, the thinner their skin will be and the more gentle you will have to be.
Should You “Float the Needle” or “Ride the Tube”?
You can use two different methods to determine your needle depth.
Ride the Tube
This means pushing the tube all the way down on the skin. You can use this method to make it impossible for you to go too deep in the skin and get blowouts. However, riding the tube makes ink splurt from the tip of your machine, which makes it hard to see your stencil. And it causes more pain to the client since you are dragging the tip of the machine across a freshly tattooed line.
Float the needle
“Floating the needle” means keeping the machine off the skin. The machine stroke will have to be long enough that you can get the right needle depth. (Sometimes this is called “hanging the needle” out of the tube.) While you do have to control the depth manually, no ink will spurt from the needle tip, and you can see your stencil, which allows you to tattoo more accurately. However, blowouts are possible if you’re not sure how to manually control the depth properly.
You must have a long enough stroke to be able to do this so that your needles fully retract into the cartridge/tip with each up and down cycle. If it does not, then you wont get good ink flow, and your lines will not come out solid. For more info on this check out our article on machine stroke.
Many new artists “ride the tube” in the beginning. However, you should aim to “float the needle” later on, as it will give you more accuracy with your linework.
A big part of making clean, consistent lines is making sure your tattoo machine is angled correctly. The machine should be pointing toward where the line is going.
Where the needle enters the skin will be just a little behind where the ink is actually going to be delivered. When you push the needle forward, the ink continues its forward motion too, leaving you with a crisp line. If you pull a line “across” or to the side, one side of the line will be sharp, and the other will be fuzzy because the ink is “blowing out” to the side of the line.
Use 3 Points of Contact
Like a tripod balances a camera, having three points of contact will keep your tattoo machine steady, which is especially important when pulling a line.
Here is how to establish 3 points of contact:
- Put the pinkie finger of your tattooing hand against the thumb of the stretching hand
- Lock elbow in against your ribs or on massage table
- Plant your wrist against table or tattoo chair
In this position, rather than move your hand to tattoo a line you want to keep your hand stiff, hinge at your elbow, and move your entire arm. This will help keep “wobbles” out of your lines.
Should you start off using thick or thin lines in your tattoos?
When picking the thickness of your liner needle (aka selecting your line weight), you’ll want to remember that the thicker the line, the easier it is to get straight. This is why many beginner tattoo artists practice tattooing the thick outlines of traditional-style tattoos first.
However, it’s harder to get the ink in the skin with a bigger needle. While this means fewer blowouts, it can also mean that it’s difficult to get your lines into the skin with a single pass.
On the other hand, thinner lines are harder to keep straight. Any wobbles of the hand or machine are much more noticeable. But because there is less surface area on the tip of the needle, it is much easier to get into the skin to do a solid line. However, this a double edged sword, because its makes it easier for you to go too deep in the skin, causing blowouts
When stretching the skin, stretch in the same direction of the line. If you stretch the skin in the opposite way, the skin will stretch unevenly and the line will come out looking wavy.
Packing ink into the skin means making a solid fill on the skin. When you are packing, move the needle in a small, oval formation. Because tattoo needles contain multiple needle barbs, you want to avoid all the barbs lining up and cutting the skin. To avoid this, tilt the needle on an angle so the needles never line up when doing oval formations (see below).
When packing color, tattoo dark colors first. 12-gauge needles work best for color because the individual needle barbs are thicker and space between the barbs is wider, which means you can pack more ink into the skin, faster. Additionally, you want your needles to be standard taper. Longer tapered needles pack less ink, slowing you down.
Note: You can go a bit deeper with packing than you can with shading.
For black and gray you’ll use whip shading and pendulum shading. Not sure how to do it? Find out how here.
Note: when you are shading with just black and gray, then you can have your needles a bit more shallow than what you would do if you were packing color. Also, curved mags and bugpin needles will help you gut much smoother shades than standard needles.
For more information read our comprehensive guide to shading and packing.
Mixing your own Gray Wash
Black and gray tattoos are easier than color tattoos because they rely only on shading (as opposed to shading and color). However, without the gray wash mixed at the right solutions, you can’t achieve those different values. If you want to make your own gray wash in individual caps, you can learn how in our Tattoo Shading Guide.
Note: Mixing your own gray wash will save you a ton of money. Just make sure that you wear gloves while mixing, your area is sterile, and that you do it over a sink.
If you want to make your own gray wash in large batches, you will need four sterile 50ml bottles, one in each of the following concentrations:
- 50mls black
- 5 mls black, 45 mls witch hazel
- 2.5 mls black, 47.5 mls of witch hazel
- 1.25mls black, 48.75 mls of witch hazel
If you want to buy premixed gray wash, all you have to do is put the ink in your ink caps, and you’re ready to go.
Note: Keep in mind gray wash heals 30% lighter. Always do black and gray tattoos just a little darker than you think they should be.
When it comes to hygiene and sanitization in tattooing, there’s one rule to always remember: Pretend that everything has AIDS. Keeping this in mind will help you avoid cross-contamination.
A few other rules to keep in mind:
- 1Never touch a client’s skin without gloves.
- 2Wrap absolutely everything including the surface you’re tattooing on. Your machine and clip cords should be covered by a machine bag and a clip cord sleeve.
- 3Make sure that you have an actual tattoo station, and that it is wrapped and ready to go.
Never reuse anything. If you do not have access to an autoclave, you should be using disposables. Boiling your tubes in hot water will not sterilize them.
When you take a picture, make sure it’s on a wrapped surface...even if the tattoo is completely healed. When you post the image online, you won’t be there to explain that you did the tattoo on a wrapped surface. Viewers will only see the unwrapped surface and assume you’re tattooing in an unsanitary environment. Also make sure that when you take a photo the background is not dirty, looks unprofessional and will hurt your reputation.
Getting the Right Equipment
No matter your skill level, if you use low-quality materials, you will make low-quality tattoos. Avoid cheap tattooing kits off eBay or Amazon.
If you’re still trying to decide whether tattooing is right for you, there are a few cheaper machines that don’t ask for a huge investment. (You can find our top picks here.) However, if tattooing is something you want to do for life, it’s worth buying a good machine. Some of our top picks include:
- Inkjector fliter nano
- Cheyenne hawk
- Spektra edge x
How to Get Clients
Most tattooers think the only way to attract more clients is to get better at tattooing. While having stellar skills certainly helps, it is impossible for new tattoo artists to compete on skill alone with people who have 10+ years of experience. If you can only rely on being the best, you’ll struggle to get any traction in the industry for a long time.
The best way to become more competitive, even as a newer tattoo artist, is to market yourself.
Great tattoo artists know that getting lots of clients relies on both their tattooing skills and their marketing skills. No one will know how great they are at tattooing if they don’t find a way to get the word out about their tattoos.
That’s why if you can sell your services better than artists who are more experienced than you, then you’ll have more clients and make more money:
How to Market Yourself as a Tattoo Artist
Here are 3 cheap, easy marketing tactics to get more tattoo business:
1. Build an Email List
Building an email list usually means giving something away for free in exchange for a person’s email address. For example, you could give away sketchbooks or digital prints for free in return for a potential client’s email address. Now that you have a long list of people you can contact whenever you want, you can simply send out an email when you have time open in your schedule for more clients.
Note: An email list is more reliable than only having social media. If your Instagram gets deleted or you get locked out, all of your contacts are lost. An email list, however, you can keep forever.
2. Build a Facebook Group
Starting a Facebook group allows you to build a brand and community of people who are constantly looking at your work and seeing your growth as an artist. There’s no competition in this space because you’re the only artist there, and you have a chance to build a relationship with the people in the group. You can continue to build trust by posting valuable content about how to care for their tattoos, beginner tips for members who are interested in tattooing, etc. The more your audience trusts you, the easier it will be to sell tattoos to them.
3. Building a Personal Website
Most tattoo artists only have an Instagram account. Building a website where potential clients can look at testimonials, Google reviews, and a gallery of your tattoos will set you apart as a professional.
Putting a video introducing yourself on the homepage will help people feel like they know you, and using blog posts to rank higher in Google search will allow more people to find you...meaning lots of customers.
Ready to Learn More?
If you’re a beginner and do these things, you’ll be setting yourself up for a great career as a tattoo artist. And while this article can get you started, it is only an overview that just scratches the surface of all the things you need to know to go pro.
If you want to go all the way and become a professional tattoo artist, travel the world, and make income doing what you love, then you need to move beyond the basics. Learning advanced design and tattooing techniques is what will set you up for success
Want help or don’t know where to start? The Artist Accelerator’s proven step-by-step program helps you go from complete beginner to professional tattoo artist in as little as 90 days. With over 500 high-definition video modules and a thriving online community where professional tattoo artists offer feedback advice, you can begin your tattooing journey TODAY from the comfort of your own home.