If you’re an artist who likes working with his hands and wants to acquire a skill, you should basically do anything but tattoo. It’s a tough business where only the strong survive. “Many are called, few are chosen,” as the adage goes. What’s more, in today’s saturated tattoo market, you’re either great or you’re gone. Still, if none of this discourages you, you might just have what it takes. We talked to Brian Mullen of Art Freek and Michael Brousseau, owner of Hope Street Tattoos, both in Providence, RI, about their tattoo apprenticeships.
1. You don’t get paid
“Apprenticeship” means “earn while you lean,” right? Not when you’re a tattooist. “I paid Art Freek a bunch of money for the privilege to sit around and watch,” says Mullen. The first year of his apprenticeship largely consisted of watching, soldering needles (a skill few tattooists need to learn anymore) and fetching coffee. He didn’t earn a dime doing it and was, in fact, out of pocket for the whole experience. The upside of a paid apprenticeship? “I never had to clean toilets or anything like that.”
2. You don’t get to tattoo
Mullen didn’t clean toilets, but that’s a pretty typical job for an apprentice. Basically, you do everything but tattoo while you keep your mouth shut and watch other people do it. One of his current shopmates wouldn’t even let him do that, going so far as to cover tattoos anytime Mullen walked into the room.
Brousseau had a gentler apprenticeship. “There was never any of this ‘let’s put him through the paces’ thing during my internship,” he says; Brousseau was specifically selected by his mentor, as they had worked together at the near-legendary Federal Hill Tattoo in Providence. Still, he couldn’t tattoo inside Newport’s Anchor Steam until he was licensed, a year after he started his apprenticeship (which by the way, is lightning speed). “Even then, I was only allowed to tattoo on people I brought in.” You’ll get plenty of experience hacking your friends’ limbs up on your own time, but none on the clock and none for money.
3. Your art experience and training mean almost nothing
“When I started my apprenticeship, I thought of myself as an illustrator,” says Brousseau, who had to ‘completely retard my abilities to learn a tattoo machine.'” He didn’t make needles like Mullen, and he didn’t clean toilets like thousands of other poor saps, but he did spend hours learning how to draw like a tattooist should. Even after you learn the way that tattoo drawings get put together, you have to learn how to apply that art to human skin. It’s not a pen and paper or paint and canvas—it’s a whole other medium that isn’t much like any you’ve worked before.
4. You have to learn how to be a mechanic
First of all, it’s not a “gun,” it’s a “machine” or an “instrument.” It’s also not a plug-and-play device. “My mentor used to set up my machine the wrong way so that I had to figure out what was wrong with it,” says Brousseau. Mullen’s mentor took things one step further, having him go to his machine shop and make parts for his own instruments. “He’d explain to me how each part worked so that I could fix it if it broke.”
Remember what we said above: Being a good artist doesn’t make you a good tattooist. You have to learn your new medium and that includes maintaining your machine. “A lot of kids buy these amazing machines that they don’t even know how to use,” says Mullen.
5. You will (almost) certainly have a falling-out with your mentor
“The inevitability of having a falling-out with your home shop is basically etched in the laws of tattooing,” says Brousseau. “Most people aren’t even on speaking terms with the guy they apprenticed under.” Sometimes apprentices feel like their mentor doesn’t want them to advance. Other times, mentors can be dismissive of their apprentice’s work. “You get to the point where you’re confident in your skills, and your mentor is still like, ‘Well, that’s cute, nice try.'”
What’s more, a tattoo apprenticeship is sort of designed to encourage you to quit. “Some guys wouldn’t say anything to me other than ‘no’ or ‘cream, no sugar,’” says Mullen. “They basically tried to see what I could deal with for two years,” which in his case sometimes meant that 20 hours worth of his needle soldering would get thrown in the garbage without so much as a second thought.
Still, he’s at the same shop 17 years later, the exception that proves the rule. “They’re like my family,” he says, “Sometimes you just have to be hard on people.”