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Tattooing and body art is increasingly regarded as an art form. They involve creating body adornments in the form of permanent designs or piercings. Before carrying out any work, body artists/tattooists will usually meet with clients to explain the procedure, help select an image or item of jewellery and verify the client's age.
Tattooists apply permanent images, words and symbols onto a client's skin, using needles and ink. They may:
- draw up bespoke designs and resize and adapt images
- transfer images onto the skin using a transfer or by drawing it freehand
- inject ink pigments into the skin and insert colour and shading.
Some experienced tattooists specialise in specific art forms. Large designs may require a couple of appointments, with colour inserted in stages. Piercing equipment and tattoo needles must all be sterile to prevent infection. Once the piercing or tattoo has been completed, the client is advised on how to care for it during the healing process and in the future.
Body artists tend to work five or six days a week, often with weekend and evening appointments. They usually work in a clean, well-lit studio. It is possible to work from home if registered, but the same environmental and health and safety standards apply.
Many trainees are unpaid apprentices. Once practising, salaries may range from around £11,000 to over £30,000 a year.
A body artist/tattooist should have:
- exceptional drawing skills
- the ability to visualise what a client describes
- a steady hand, patience and concentration
- good eyesight and colour vision
- excellent communication skills
- knowledge of health and safety and hygiene practices.
Entry to the profession is competitive. Trainee positions and jobs are not generally advertised, and it is best to contact established artists to source work. A good portfolio of paper-based designs is usually required.
There are no formal entry routes into this job. Most people learn the trade by undertaking an informal apprenticeship with an experienced artist.
NCFE offer a Level 2 Award in creative craft using body art. Otherwise, all training takes place alongside an experienced tattooist or piercer. A tattooing apprenticeship can last at least three years. Training covers all aspects of the trade, including hygiene and techniques. It can take tattooists up to five years to become fully competent.
Relevant courses are available, and it is advisable to follow an accredited course that is recognised within the industry.
There is no formal career progression. Earnings increase with hard work, experience, reputation and demand for the individual artist's work. Some body artists earn a reputation in a specific genre of tattooing and have their work featured in magazines. Learning new techniques and processes from employers, co-workers, workshops and conventions is an essential part of ongoing development. Once experienced, becoming self-employed or opening a studio may be possible.
What is the work like?
Tattooing and body art is increasingly regarded as an art form. It involves creating body adornments in the form of permanent designs or piercings. Body artists and tattooists will usually meet with clients prior to any work being carried in order to:
- advise on the permanent nature of tattoos
- explain the procedures involved in tattooing and piercing
- check the client's age, as all tattoo clients must be aged over 18, and body- piercing clients under the age of 16 require the written consent of a parent or guardian.
- gather details about the client's preferred image or jewellery design.
Tattooists apply permanent images, words and symbols onto a client's skin, using needles and ink. Their duties may include:
- helping clients to select a suitable design and resizing and adapting images
- drawing up bespoke designs freehand, either on transfers or directly onto the skin using a pen
- cleaning, shaving and disinfecting the skin
- following the lines of the tattoo design using an electronically operated needle bar to pierce the upper layer of skin and fill the tiny holes with ink pigments
- inserting colour and shading
- disposing of needles correctly, following strict health and safety guidelines
- applying a cream and dressing, usually cellophane and tape, to keep the tattoo sterile and prevent infection
- advising clients how to care for their tattoo and body piercing during the healing process and beyond
Some experienced tattooists specialise in specific art forms, for instance black and grey, portrait and photo-realism or Japanese styles. Tattooing requires absolute precision, as mistakes are not easy to correct. Large designs may require a couple of appointments, with colour inserted in stages after the outline has healed.
Body artists who carry out body piercing are likely to follow a similar routine to tattooists, advising clients on the most appropriate metal and jewellery, sterilising the jewellery before use and preparing the skin.
All body artists/tattooists are responsible for keeping their equipment scrupulously clean, and all body art is strictly regulated. Health and safety standards, including waste management, sterilisation, infection control and first aid are all essential components of the job. The premises and the artist must both be registered with the local environmental health department. Inspections take place to ensure that the necessary standards are met and maintained.
In addition to seeing clients, body artists spend time cleaning equipment, creating new designs, ordering supplies and possibly training others.
Hours and environment
Body artists tend to work five or six days a week, depending on the amount of work their studio generates. Weekends and evenings are popular times for clients to book appointments. Tattoo sessions rarely last longer than four hours, owing to the concentration required for intricate work. Tattooing can be physically tiring.
Many body artists combine tattooing with piercing, although some specialise in body piercing, sometimes working in a beauty salon.
Most tattooists work in a studio, either alone or with other body artists/tattooists. Studios vary in size and condition, but are all clean and well lit, owing to the nature of the work and environmental health and safety requirements. It is possible to work from home if registered. The same health and safety standards apply.
Wearing protective gloves and facemasks may be necessary.
Salary and other benefits
These figures are only a guide, as actual rates of pay may vary, depending on the employer and where people live.
- Many body artist trainees are unpaid apprentices, although some may earn around £11,000 a year.
- An experienced tattooist may earn around £16,000.
- Those running their own studio with regular client bookings may earn over £30,000 a year.
Earnings are dependent on a range of issues, including reputation, the artist's client base, and the location of the studio from which they work.
Skills and personal qualities
A body artist/tattooist needs:
- a natural flair for art and design
- exceptional drawing skills and the ability to visualise what a client describes
- ability to work under their own initiative
- good eyesight and normal colour vision
- a steady hand and good concentration
- good communication and interpersonal skills and the ability to put people at their ease
- patience and precision
- excellent knowledge of health and safety procedures
- constant good hygiene awareness
- confidence in their ability.
It is important for body artists/tattooists to:
- share a passion and appreciation for all kinds of body modification
- enjoy art and design.
Although tattooing and body piercing is becoming increasingly popular, entry to the profession is competitive. Many towns across the UK have one or more studio, usually employing between one and five body artists. The majority of skilled tattooists are self-employed.
Positions are not generally advertised and traineeships can be difficult to find. Very often apprentices approach a studio with a portfolio of paper-based designs, to demonstrate their artistic skills.
Tattooing conventions can be a good place to make contacts and they are held regularly across the UK. Details can be found on www.tattoo.co.uk
There are no formal entry routes into this area of work. Most people learn the trade by undertaking an informal apprenticeship with an experienced body artist. Individuals need a great deal of talent, dedication and determination to be considered as an apprentice, particularly as a tattooist.
A portfolio of artwork is essential. A knowledge of the industry, gained by reading magazines and books, as well as having tattoos carried out by talented artists, all helps to show a high degree of commitment.
Although some tattooists are trained artists or designers, formal qualifications are less important than skill and talent. It is possible to sell artwork and designs to tattooists. This can occasionally lead to an apprenticeship. Trainees usually need to buy their own equipment and sterilising units, which can cost around £3,000 to £5,000.
Trainees are unlikely to be recruited until they are over 18 years old. Many applicants are older, having gained work experience in other, possibly related areas of work.
NCFE offer a Level 2 Award in creative craft using body art. Otherwise, all training takes place alongside an experienced tattooist or piercer who is prepared to give their time to teach their trade. During this process, trainees should expect to receive little or no pay, although some will undertake paid work in the form of cleaning or administration work within the studio.
An informal apprenticeship can last at least three years. Training is likely to cover all aspects of the trade, including hygiene and design techniques. Tattooists may begin applying their first tattoos after around six months, but it can take up to five years to become fully competent. It is illegal to work as a tattooist without being registered with the local environmental health department.
Piercing generally requires a much shorter training period, and trainees are likely to begin piercing, under supervision, soon after starting. It is advisable to do an accredited course that is recognised within the industry. The British Body Piercing Association can provide further information on relevant courses.
Commercial courses are available, including some offered by the British School of Body Piercing and the Vocational Training Charitable Trust (VTCT).
There is no formal structure for career progression in the industry. Earnings increase with hard work, experience, reputation and demand for the individual artist's work. Some body artists earn a reputation in a specific genre of tattooing and have their work featured in magazines. Learning new techniques and processes from employers, co-workers, workshops and conventions is an essential part of ongoing development.
Once experienced, it is possible to become self-employed or open a studio or salon, possibly employing other tattooists and/or piercers.
Association of Professional Tattoo Artists (APTA), 157 Sidney Road, Muswell Hill, London N10 2NL. 020 8444 8779.
British Body Piercing Association (BBPA), Dalton House, 60 Windsor Road, London SW19 2RR. Website: www.bbpa.org.uk
The British School of Body Piercing, 11/12 St. Johns Square, Glastonbury, Somerset BA6 9LJ. 01458 831 666. Website: www.britishschoolofbodypiercing.org.uk
Creative & Cultural Skills, Lafone House, The Leathermarket, Weston Street, London SE1 3HN. 020 7015 1800. Website: www.creative-choices.co.uk/visualarts
Tattoo and Piercing Industry Union. Website: www.tpiu.org.uk
Tattoo Club of Great Britain and British Tattoo Artists Federation, 389 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 2BS. 01865 716877. Website: www.tattoo.co.uk
Vocational Training Charitable Trust (VTCT), Third Floor, Eastleigh House, Upper Market Street, Eastleigh, Hampshire SO50 9FD. 02380 684500. Website: www.vtct.org.uk