So you want to learn to tattoo?

Here is where I will lay it out for anyone who is considering tattoo apprenticeship, and give you the time and information that most tattoo artists will not offer you.

A tattoo apprenticeship is a very difficult and time-consuming undertaking for both the teacher, and the student. Applicants for apprenticeship should be aware that submitting to a formal tattoo apprenticeship is akin to enrolling in any other trade school. I would venture to say that any person claiming to be interested in a tattoo apprenticeship who is not willing to read every word of this page to learn as much as possible about the realities of a tattoo apprenticeship, is not qualified to apply for a tattoo apprenticeship.

The old days of acquiring an apprenticeship simply by sweeping floors and answering phones are more or less gone forever due to the increase in the perception that tattooing is a desirable career, and the subsequent overwhelming increase in those with little or no knowledge or respect for the art of tattooing seeking apprenticeship. The industry professionals have seen a devastating number of would-be tattoo apprentices quit their apprenticeship early, due to problems with their egos, feeling they have learned enough or simply no longer finding themselves willing to submit to the requirements imposed by their teacher. These quitters then simply go out and seek employment in less reputable tattoo establishments or tattoo from home and do a terrible disservice to the community by tattooing the public with incomplete and insufficient training. This renders the time spent on the apprenticeship as an absolute waste, of both the teachers time, and the public trust. This is why most tattooers will refuse you.

Tattoo “schools” and disreputable tattoo shops do offer tattoo “apprenticeships” to under-qualified and immature would-be tattooers, at differing costs or for differing exchanges of services, however I would STRONGLY caution any would-be tattooer from enrolling in any “apprenticeship” that involves a “tattoo school” or in any studio that is not a highly acclaimed and successful business staffed by leading industry professionals. Successful tattooers UNIVERSALLY do not respect or acknowledge any tattooer who “graduates” from a “tattoo school”. These institutions are a “bang-em-out” money grab that will NOT give you the skills or knowledge to have a successful career in tattooing.

The competition in current times is SO STIFF that if you become a tattooer with anything less that a TOP-NOTCH education, you will find it impossible to get a position in a good studio, and will certainly find your dream of being a tattooer dashed by the realities of poverty.

It may be helpful to think of it this way: You want an apprenticeship, which basically means that you want a tattooer to teach you EVERYTHING they know, impart upon you all skills, knowledge, and understanding required to give you a successful career and essentially transform you into their most fierce competitor… so what are you going to do for them? What do you have to offer that is equal in value to the thousands of hours they will spend training you IN ADDITION to the skills they are imparting which are intended to finance your life and allow you to make a good living for as long as you practice them? You had better have something in mind that is more significant than “I will clean the shop and answer the phone” if you want to be taken seriously.


Why do you want to become a tattooer? Do you have tattoos? Do you know anything about what it means to be a tattooer that you didn’t learn from “reality” television?

Most of the applicants I’ve had seek apprenticeship from me couldn’t even name a single industry professional, or even tell me the name of their favorite tattooer.

*Before you go looking for an apprenticeship you had better do your homework. Learn who is tattooing in your area, know their names, and the styles of tattooing they practice, and try to identify who is good, and who is not.

*GET TATTOOED by the artists you respect. The time you spend in the chair paying for tattoos is the best opportunity you have to learn what it means to be a tattooer, and to talk with an artist you respect about tattooing, and why it interests you. Any joker who stumbles into a shop and asks “are you looking for an apprentice?” is going to get shut down, and for good reason.

*Offer to help out around the shop where you get tattooed. Not in trade for the tattoo apprenticeship, but FOR FREE. This demonstrates a interest in and loyalty to the studio, as well as a level of humility which are each important qualities in a potential apprentice. If they allow you to help out around the shop, they MAY be giving you the opportunity to become known to them, and eventually consider you for apprenticeship. Different tattooers will respond differently in this situation. Some will just take advantage of your offer for as long as possible, and use you up for all the free “bitch-work” they can get out of you without ever even considering you as an apprentice. Regardless, you should NEVER expect that your helping out around the shop is going to guarantee you a tattoo apprenticeship, it merely serves as a way to create a reason for your being there, and allows the shop employees to get to know you, which improves your chance of being taken as an apprentice, if you have any to begin with. NEVER just hang around a tattoo shop and not DO anything, unless you already have a very good personal relationship with the tattooers who work there and have been invited to make social calls.

*Take art classes on your own. I know most would-be apprentices tend to think their art is already radical and awesome and that their shit doesn’t stink and all they need to learn are the tattoo tools and techniques… but they are wrong. The reality is that your drawings and paintings are probably piss-poor. And the sooner you check your ego and admit it, the sooner you will learn something and get better. Naturally there are always exceptions, and some very highly skilled artists do come into tattoo apprenticeship positions, however, even these know little if anything about good tattoo design, and need to learn all of their design techniques all over again in order to make tattoos that stand the test of time. If you can’t manage art classes, then you had better be drawing OBSESSIVELY… don’t stroll into a tattoo shop and show them a handful of sketches and call it your “portfolio”. You had better have STACKS of sketchbooks FILLED and overflowing with drawings that demonstrate your PASSION for drawing if you want any good tattooer to take you seriously.

*Be prepared to make the tattoo apprenticeship your TOP priority. This means that any other jobs, relationships, or obligations come SECOND, and that if your teacher tells you to be somewhere at a certain time, the answer is “yes sir, I’ll be there”…not “oh i can’t, I have this other thing I have to do”. All successful tattoo artists know that the only way to get through a tattoo apprenticeship and into a career as a tattooer, is to be ready and willing to sacrifice EVERYTHING. We have paid our dues, and for nearly all of us that included a period of POVERY, working 80 hour apprentice weeks with little or no pay for a year or more, no time for serious romantic relationships which results in loss of partners, friends, and missing out on “good-times” and activities we might like to have partaken in. There’s no comfortable way to become a highly successful tattooer, and anyone who thinks it will be easy, is fooling themselves.

Still interested in an apprenticeship at Headless Hands Custom Tattoos?

Please contact Sean Gilbert at the studio, via phone, email or Facebook to inquire more information or set up a time to talk in person.