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Tattoo and Body Artist

What They Do

Insider Info

A tattoo artist applies permanent color to human skin in customized, organized patterns.

It might sound like a fun and easy way to make a living, but there's much more to it than meets the eye.

"A lot of times young people get the idea that this is a really glamorous life and you just draw on people all day," says Pat Sinatra. She is the president of the Alliance of Professional Tattooists.

"But that's such a small portion," she says. "You've got to learn how to use an autoclave (a sterilization device) and you need to learn about infection control. There's a lot more to it."

Tattooing isn't for the squeamish. You must be comfortable working with needles and using those needles to permanently apply designs to people's skin.

The skin is sprayed with an antiseptic and shaved. The tattooist then makes a stencil transfer of the tattoo outline on the skin, or draws the outline on the skin with a pen. A thin layer of ointment such as petroleum jelly is spread over the area to be tattooed.

Permanent tattoos are applied using a small electric machine with a needle bar that holds from one to 14 needles, each in its own tube. The tattooing machine operates like a mini sewing machine. The needle bar moves up and down as it penetrates the top (epidermis) and middle layer (dermis) of the skin. The tattooist holds the machine steady while guiding it along the skin.

The needles protrude only a fraction of an inch from the tubes, so they don't penetrate too deeply into the skin. Each needle has its own tube, which enables the needle bar shaft to operate smoothly without damaging the needles.

A single needle is used to make fine, delicate lines. A row of needles is used for shading and denser lines.

The end of the needle tube is dipped in a small amount of ink. As the tattooist guides the machine over the skin, the needle moves up and down, puncturing the skin and depositing ink along the way. Excess ink and the small amount of blood that oozes from the skin are continuously removed with absorbent tissues.

Small tattoos can be completed within an hour. Larger ones may take several hours or more, and may be done in more than one sitting. Once the tattoo is completed, the area is washed with mild soap and water and covered with an antiseptic ointment.

Customers are instructed to keep the area clean, leave it exposed to the air, and apply a mild hand cream to keep it moist until healed (usually seven to 10 days).

Tattoo artists often practice other forms of body adornment. In fact, some simply call themselves body artists. One form of body art that is closely linked to tattooing is piercing. Tattoo artists use their people skills to drum up business. They normally pay a share of their earnings to the shop where they work, and keep the rest.

"Most tattoo artists are independent contractors, kind of like a beauty salon," says Kevin L., a tattoo artist in Florida (like many tattooists, he identifies himself with only his first name).

This means that tattoo artists have an incentive to market themselves, even if the shop where they work does its own advertising. Kevin L. says he relies a lot on word of mouth.

"You tattoo one person and they go tell their friends," he says. He also has flyers and business cards that feature his name and the name of the shop where he works.

You might not expect it, but tattooing is a very physically demanding job.

"Tattooing is very hard work," says Sinatra. "Ever tried to hold somebody still for about two hours?" she says with a chuckle. "It can be very taxing on the tattooer's system. It takes a good amount of energy to stay focused. And it requires a really good eye."

Eric Gaudet, the manager of a tattoo and piercing studio, says a wide range of people become tattoo artists. "The people who are attracted to it are just people who love tattoos," he says. "They're nerds for it, they felt compelled to do it, and they made it happen for themselves."

At a Glance

Apply ink designs to human skin with an electric needle

  • There is no formal training -- most tattooists learn through an apprenticeship
  • The best artists are both mechanically and artistically trained
  • Knowledge of antiseptic procedures is crucial