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What does a tattoo artist do?
A tattoo artist is sometimes also known as a tattooist or body artist. They design body art and use special ink and needles to apply permanent tattoos on people’s bodies. The ability to draw is essential in this career, and there is no room for mistakes.
Tattoo artists can use a set of template designs or create original artwork from scratch. They can specialise in different tattoo styles, such as lettering, portraits, tribal, black & grey, blackwork, Japanese, etc. They can also combine their role with body piercing. Therefore, what a tattoo artist does will depend on their specialisms.
A tattoo artist works mainly in tattoo shops or studios. They will carry out many tasks in these settings, including speaking with clients about designs, advising on suitable tattoos/aftercare, copying designs onto clients’ skin, using a tattoo machine to draw the tattoo, keeping the studio and equipment clean/disinfected, showcasing their work, ordering equipment and supplies, etc.
A tattoo artist’s main aim is to create accurate artwork and keep up to date with the latest tattoo trends. Their designs should be original, and they must also be careful not to plagiarise (imitate) other tattoo artists’ work. Overall, being a tattoo artist is about ensuring the tattoo reflects the designs that clients want and that they leave the studio happy.
Tattoo artists can be employed and work for private companies, small or large. Many are self-employed with their own premises or rent a space within a studio. They can liaise with many different people, including clients and their families and friends, other tattoo artists, body piercers, barbers (in combined shops), local councils (environmental health), manufacturers, suppliers, etc.
A tattoo artist’s responsibilities will depend on many factors, including who they work for (employed or themselves), their specialisms and whether they combine their role with other services, such as body piercing.
Some examples of common duties for tattoo artists may include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Keeping abreast of the latest tattoo fashions and trends.
- Speaking with clients about their desired tattoo style and where they want it to be on their bodies.
- Advising each client about suitable tattoos.
- Checking that clients are over 18 years old by asking for identification.
- Confirming with clients that they have no medical issues or allergies.
- Confirming with clients that the design they have chosen is exactly what they want and that they understand it is permanent.
- Copying clients’ chosen designs onto their skin by freehand drawing or using a transfer.
- Using a tattoo machine (with an electrically-operated needle) to follow the design lines to inject the ink under the skin.
- Advising clients on tattoo aftercare.
- Keeping the studio clean and sterilising all equipment to reduce the risk of infection.
- Adhering to health and safety and hygiene procedures at all times.
- Ordering supplies, e.g. needles, gloves, machine heads and inks.
A tattoo artist’s hours are variable, depending on whether they are employed or self-employed and work full-time or part-time. Most will work 30–40 hours a week, Monday–Friday, 9–5.
Being a tattoo artist can involve working unsociable hours, e.g. evenings, weekends and bank holidays, due to customer demand and particular tattoo designs and sizes.
Some tattoo artists may have to travel to different studios if renting space at other premises, which can lengthen the working day. There may also be opportunities to work away from home and overseas.
What to expect
There are many positives to being a tattoo artist, especially if an individual has a passion for body art and an artistic flair. The role allows individuals to be innovators by being creative with templates and original designs. Designing beautiful body art, seeing the designs as a permanent fixture on someone’s skin and seeing clients happy with their tattoos can be an exciting, satisfying and rewarding experience.
Tattoo artist jobs are available nationally and internationally, and individuals can choose to be employed or self-employed. Some jobs offer flexible hours so individuals can fit their work around their personal lives. As tattooist roles do not usually require formal qualifications, such as a degree, it can be a great career choice for less academic individuals.
Being a self-employed tattoo artist and having an opportunity to be your own boss can be attractive. It can give individuals the independence to take charge of their working day and overall career progression. Even employed tattoo artists have a sense of freedom, as they will work autonomously in their role and will usually be able to manage their own schedules.
Boredom will never be a problem for tattoo artists, as their work is very varied, and they will interact with many people during their working day. They will work with different tattoo designs and styles and apply them to people’s bodies in various locations. One client may want a small tattoo that takes a few hours, and another may ask for a large one that could take days.
Even though there are positives to being a tattoo artist, there are challenges and cons, e.g.:
- A lot of responsibility – tattooists have a lot of responsibility, and there is no room for mistakes in this job. They are applying permanent ink to clients. If they make errors, people have to live with it for the rest of their lives (unless they incorporate it into something else). They can also damage people’s skin and face legal action if things go wrong. Tattoo artists must be confident when putting ink and needles into their clients’ skin.
- Competition – the tattoo industry can be very competitive. Therefore, individuals must have a portfolio and showcase their work. They must thoroughly research, keep up to date with trends and build their reputation.
- Physically and mentally demanding – tattoo artists sometimes have to work long and unsociable hours. They need to focus for long periods, which can be tiring. They will use repetitive hand movements, which can cause repetitive strain injuries. Leaning over when tattooing may result in back pain. They may also face harsh criticism from challenging clients, which can be demoralising, distressing and stressful for some people. Being able to take criticism is essential.
- Health and safety risks – tattoo artists will face many hazards in their work, e.g. needle injuries, blood-borne viruses, poor posture and repetitive work (musculoskeletal disorders), vibration, noise, hazardous substances, and work-related stress and violence. They will usually need to wear PPE, such as masks and gloves.
- Self-employment costs – if a tattoo artist decides to be self-employed, they will have various costs that can quickly add up, such as equipment, supplies, licensing, premises, tax, insurance, etc. Work is not always guaranteed, so there may be times when they are not earning, and they may need to supplement this with another job.
Every career choice has pros and cons, and prospective tattoo artists must know what to expect before deciding whether it is a suitable role. Having a lot of responsibility and dealing with harsh criticism can be challenging and stressful. It is physically and mentally demanding, and the hours may be lengthy and unsociable. However, there are many positives too, and those who become tattoo artists really enjoy their work, as it allows them to express their creativity and ideas.
When considering whether to be a tattoo artist, individuals should look at the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the right personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.
Personal qualities needed to be a tattoo artist
Some of the personal qualities a tattoo artist requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):
- A passion and enthusiasm for body art.
- An eye for colour, form, texture and shape.
- Commercially aware and business-minded.
- Knowledge of different tattoo styles, designs and current trends.
- Knowledge of health and safety and hygiene procedures.
- Creativity, innovation and originality.
- Reliable, patient, honest, trustworthy, dedicated and motivated.
- Manual dexterity and a steady hand.
- Good hand-eye coordination.
- Verbal communication skills.
- Customer service skills.
- Design skills, e.g. drawing freehand and tracing.
- Creative, artistic and technical skills.
- Observational skills.
- Problem-solving skills.
- Interpersonal skills.
- Networking skills.
- Organisational and time management skills.
- Being thorough, accurate and having excellent attention to detail.
- The ability to work well with their hands.
- The ability to concentrate for long periods.
- The ability to be flexible and open to change.
- The ability to accept criticism.
- The ability to work well under pressure and remain confident and calm in stressful situations.
- The ability to work well with others in a team and alone using their own initiative.
- The ability to use IT equipment, e.g. computers and hand-held devices.
There are many different routes to becoming a tattoo artist, and individuals do not require a formal qualification. They could enrol on a college/private training course, apply for an apprenticeship or apply directly to companies as a trainee. They could also do work experience to help them enter the role.
Having qualifications in art or design can be beneficial for budding tattoo artists. There is also a BTEC in tattoo illustration offered by some colleges. The entry requirements will depend on the qualification level, and individuals should check with individual institutions.
Undertaking a private training course, e.g. with a tattoo academy, can help individuals become tattoo artists. There are usually no entry requirements, but this will depend on the course provider. Individuals will typically need basic drawing skills and a keen interest in tattooing.
Courses may be face-to-face or online (distance learning). It is important to note that undertaking a training course does not make someone fully qualified. Individuals will still need to complete work experience in a registered studio.
Individuals are not guaranteed success with courses. However, it will demonstrate to employers that they are keen on the job, show clients they have had training and may give them a competitive edge.
Some studios offer tattoo artist apprenticeships or trainee roles where they will train individuals on the job. It can be a good route for those struggling to pay for courses, as they can sometimes be expensive, i.e. approx. £1,500–£3,000. However, bear in mind that not all opportunities are paid ones.
Individuals will usually need:
- To find an experienced registered tattoo artist who will train them and be a mentor.
- A passion for body art and a keen interest in different tattoo styles.
- Good eyesight and colour vision.
- To have art skills and be able to draw.
- A portfolio to showcase their own artwork and specific tattoo designs.
Some studios may require individuals to have their own equipment.
Individuals should regularly check job websites for roles or contact their local tattoo studio to see if they have any current or future opportunities.
Relevant work experience can help individuals become tattoo artists. They could apply for roles as an assistant in a tattoo studio and help with the administrative side of the business, e.g. answering phones, booking appointments and looking after clients. If they already work in a tattoo studio, it may open up apprenticeship or trainee opportunities.
There may be volunteer opportunities, e.g. charity and community events, where individuals could gain experience in other aspects of body art, such as face painting or make-up artistry. There is information on volunteering and local opportunities on Do-IT, NCVO, Volunteering Matters and Indeed.
Any work experience relevant to art or design can be beneficial and help an individual work towards becoming a tattoo artist. Even community college art courses can help, e.g. drawing and painting.
Learning does not stop with experience or once someone becomes qualified. Attending CPD training courses and having additional certifications can help tattoo artists enter the profession, enhance their employability and give them a competitive edge.
Some examples of relevant courses that may be useful for tattoo artists include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Health and safety, e.g. hazardous substances, work-related stress, work-related violence, vibration and noise.
- COVID-19 awareness.
- First aid.
- Data protection and the GDPR.
- Customer service skills.
- Business management.
- Time management.
- Needles and sharps.
It may also be worth enrolling on low-cost online short courses to see if a career as a tattooist is of interest. That way, if it is not, it will save an individual a lot of time, money and trouble.
Professional bodies, regulators and associations, such as the British Tattoo Artists Federation (BTAF), the Tattooing and Piercing Industry Union and the Tattoo Safe Register, can also advise on reputable training courses. Some also provide events to help individuals become tattoo artists, giving them the means to continue their professional development.
The type of training required will depend on what employers are looking for and the tattoo designs/styles in which tattoo artists specialise. It is worth looking at several job advertisements to identify the training required for specific tattooist roles. Jobs are on various websites, such as GOV.UK find a job service, Indeed, LinkedIn, Glassdoor, and other job sites. Also, look at recruitment agencies, as they may offer tattoo artist jobs.
If tattoo artists have more relevant training and competence (skills, experience, talent and knowledge), it will open up more opportunities. Refresher training will also be required, as it keeps an individual’s knowledge and skills up to date.
There are additional responsibilities associated with being self-employed.
If a tattoo artist decides to work for themselves, they will need to:
- Have the correct insurance, i.e. public liability and business. If employing anyone, employer’s liability insurance will be required.
- Register with HMRC.
- File tax returns.
- Register with the ICO to hold client personal data (to comply with the Data Protection Act 2018 and the GDPR).
Further advice and guidance on being self-employed can be found on GOV.UK.
If an individual decides to be a self-employed tattoo artist, they will need to factor in certain costs, such as:
- A premises or renting a space/chair.
- Registration with environmental health.
- Good-quality equipment and sterilising units.
- Stock, e.g. inks and needles.
- Mobile phone and computer.
- Marketing and advertising.
They should also research and decide on the area, market, competition and services to offer customers.
Becoming a member of a tattooist association and showcasing on social media can also help self-employed tattooists gain more business.
Individuals must be over 18 years old to be tattoo artists and be vaccinated against hepatitis B. They will also need to apply for a tattoo, piercing and electrolysis licence for themselves and their premises from the local council.
Tattoo artists do not have to have tattoos for the job, but most have at least one or two.
Where do tattoo artists work?
Tattoo artists mainly work in tattoo studios or shops registered with the local council. They can work for studio owners or as self-employed tattooists on their own premises. They can also work for themselves and rent a space or chair in another registered premises.
Most tattoo artist jobs are in cities and large towns. There may be opportunities to work overseas for some.
How much do tattoo artists earn?
What a tattoo artist earns is variable. Their salary will depend on whether they are employed or self-employed, their working hours, experience, location, reputation and specialisms.
According to Check-a-Salary (these figures are a guide only):
- Tattoo artists, on average, earn a minimum of £17,160 per year.
- The average tattoo artist’s salary in the UK is £ 21,969.84 per year.
- Tattoo artists, on average, earn a maximum of £35,000 per year.
Many tattoo artists charge their clients per hour.
Self-employed tattoo artists should factor in various expenses when considering the salary, e.g. premises or rent, registration, tax, National Insurance, other insurances (business/liability), equipment, supplies, etc.
As an apprentice, the salary will depend on an individual’s age and how long they have been in their apprenticeship. Apprentices must earn at least the current National Minimum Wage (NMW). Some employers will pay more than this. However, it will depend on the organisation and role on offer.
Types of tattoo arts to specialise in
Tattoo artists can generalise and offer different types of tattoos. They can also specialise in freehand or transfer tattoos; some may only do original designs.
There is also scope to specialise in specific tattoo styles, for example (this list is not exhaustive):
- Blackwork – only using black ink in various tattoo designs.
- Black and grey – no colour in these tattoos, only grey gradients.
- Japanese – represents the country’s history and folklore, e.g. dragons, koi and samurai.
- New school – tattooing comic book style figures and caricatures.
- Portrait – tattooing people and animal portraits.
- Realism – this is a more expensive option for clients and requires more skill for tattoo artists as the tattoo looks exactly like a photo.
- Script/lettering – turning letters and words into art using different fonts and backgrounds.
- Traditional/old school – using bold colours and lines in traditional designs, such as skulls, roses and crosses.
- Tribal – usually uses black ink for tattoos that represent tribal cultures.
- Watercolour – tattoos look like watercolour paintings and drawings.
Some tattoo artists may focus on tattooing specific body areas, such as arm sleeves.
All different tattoo artist roles will require differing knowledge, skills, experience, talents and qualities. However, all tattoo artists must have a passion for the industry and art and design skills. They must be able to draw competently, work under pressure, focus for long periods and have excellent attention to detail. Any additional areas of expertise will depend on what a company is looking for (if employed) and a tattoo artist’s specialisms. Further training and experience may be necessary for specialised areas, e.g. realism.
If tattoo artists are not competent in their roles, they can damage clients’ skin and cause permanent mistakes and infections. If clients are not happy with their tattoos or are made ill from the process, it can seriously affect a tattooist’s and studio’s reputation. In worse cases, clients may try to claim compensation. A tattoo artist could also face criminal charges for some actions, e.g. tattooing someone underage. Therefore, tattoo artists must be competent to carry out their work professionally and safely. They should also know the limits of their competency, i.e. asking for help when something is beyond their expertise.
Tattoo trends, technologies, equipment, techniques and laws are regularly changing. Therefore, tattoo artists must keep abreast with the latest developments and changes to comply with the law and ensure they carry out their roles effectively and correctly. Continuing professional development (CPD) gives tattoo artists the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes and understand their responsibilities. It also helps them to stand out in a competitive industry and progress in their career.
Joining a professional body and association can help prospective and current tattoo artists enhance their skills and overall career. The British Tattoo Artists Federation (BTAF), the Tattooing and Piercing Industry Union, and others offer different levels of membership, CPD and access to industry contacts and networking events.
There is ample opportunity for career progression for tattoo artists. With more training, experience and recognition, they can train and mentor apprentices or trainees or manage a tattoo studio. They can also decide to specialise in more complex tattoo designs and locations or train in body piercing. Alternatively, they may become self-employed and have their own studio or rent a space/chair.
Knowledge, skills and experience from being a tattoo artist can also lead to a career in different areas. For example, they could teach tattooing or art at colleges or private course providers. They could also move into other industries, such as beauty, graphic design, cartoon drawing, other art, etc.