Tattoo apprenticeships are not easy to come by, there is strong competition and the industry is over-saturated already. Most artists will immediately say no even if it has nothing to do with your skills. Being a tattoo apprentice can be both a tough and rewarding path if you can get on it but even for those who do many drop out or give up because it's too tough. Even for those who do many don't become successful artists because of the quality of work that they produce and will spend their careers barely making ends meet. The term starving artists gets thrown around a lot when it comes to tattooing, but those who are successful rarely need it and those who aren't any good really should consider alternative careers. Getting to be an artist means both finding and completing a successful tattoo apprenticeship. Getting a tattoo apprenticeship can be difficult, but with perseverance and raw talent you do stand a chance.
Tattoo apprenticeships differ from shop to shop and mentor to mentor with some being more demanding than others. The traditional tattoo apprenticeships are not paid, and those who generally ask for payment know you will probably quit and are simply taking advantage that you are paying them for nothing in the end. The average tattoo apprenticeships last around a year to two years, some have state mandated minimums for hours. Mostly the laws differ by area and though the area may have no legally binding requirements mentors tend to set their own rules for the apprentice.
Generally tattoo apprenticeships start out watching, listening and cleaning. The rules are that if you can't make sure it's clean and sterile without endangering customers then you won't ever get near enough to a customer to endanger them first hand. Most mentors expect you to spend time watching them work and explaining the different things going on. Asking questions is very important at this stage as often there are many things going on at one time. Some mentors and states will ask you to complete a written journal to document your learning as you go; this can be a good thing anyway as it gives you reference to look back on and study down the line or for any state exams.
At the end of your apprenticeship you can expect a rewarding and enjoyable career. Completing a successful traditional artist gives you respect that cannot be earned elsewhere from your peers as most artists rightfully look down on home taught and “tattoo school” graduates. Completed tattoo apprenticeships show that not only are you a competent artist but that you can produce a solid, clean, and lasting piece of artwork in both skin and paper for your clients. There is no set length for an apprenticeship and as such many artists will tell you that you will never stop learning or improving. Many tattoo artists consider themselves forever apprentices and it helps them to continue to grow and improve in the quality of artwork they provide.