So, you want to learn how to tattoo or pierce? If you're serious about it, you'll do it the right way. To be clear: the wrong way is by buying a "shop in a box" kit and trying to teach yourself, using either yourself or friends as canvas. The right way is through apprenticeship: learning from a skilled artist with hands-on experience.
Getting a Tattoo Apprenticeship
There are many tattoo artists out there—some good, some not. You should find a strong, able tattoo artist whose style you love and who has plenty of experience. Usually this means at least 5 years working as a professional artist in a shop, preferably more. You also obviously need to find one that is willing to take a budding new artist under their wing and train them, which can be a lot of work. You'll want to find someone that you believe you can get along well with too, as you're going to be working side by side with them for an extended period of time.
Although there are a few artists out there that still offer free apprenticeships, they're few and far between. At the other end of the spectrum sit the artists that are more interested in your money than providing you with an education. You want to be looking for a happy medium between these two—a price you can deal with, and one that makes it worth the artist's time to train you. If you happen upon an artist that offers apprenticeship at no cost, you've found a real gem, but don't think that it means a free ride! You'll have to work very hard and be as dedicated to your training as they are.
Finding an apprenticeship within your means that is going to provide the proper training to get you into the business of tattooing is not a "get rich quick" scheme. You're looking for an apprenticeship that will last long enough to provide you with the proper skills needed not just in tattooing, but also in sterilization, proper cleaning, and business management. You'll also need to learn things like needle making, prepping, making stencils, along with other aspects of the business. A complete apprenticeship can't be accomplished in just a few months, and a good mentor won't even let you begin tattooing until you've learned every other aspect of the job.
To show a prospective mentor your artistic abilities, you should absolutely bring along a portfolio of your best work. This can be in the form of drawings or paintings, but can also be pictures of murals, sculptures, or anything else artistic you've created. If you have had any formal training, bring along any certification you've received. A certificate isn't totally necessary, though; if you have enough raw talent, your mentor will help you to hone these skills over the time of your apprenticeship.
And as with any other financial arrangement, be sure to sign a contract detailing all terms, before all is said and done. This will protect you in the event that your apprenticeship does not turn how as you expected. This should go without saying, but also be sure you completely understand what is written in the contract before signing it.
Finding a Piercing Apprenticeship
Finding a piercing apprenticeship can be just as difficult as finding one with a tattoo artist, but the requirements are a little different. You're not going to be expected to have the same artistic talent, so you won't need a portfolio. You do, however, still need to attract the attention of your potential mentor.
If you're going to have any hope of standing out, you've got to have something the others don't. Be respectful and presentable. Responsible managers may enjoy a comfortable environment, but they're not going to be interested in someone who acts like they've decided to become a piercer on a whim.
Obviously, no one expects you to know how to pierce at this point. But you should study up on cross-contamination, blood-borne pathogens, and sterilization. You will also want to learn as much as you possibly can about human anatomy. You don't have to go to medical school first, but you should absolutely read a book or two, and dig up as much information as you can find on the internet. If your local Red Cross or health department offers a course in blood-borne pathogens, it would be worth your time to take it. Every bit of knowledge you can gain before you begin your search will help you to stand out to a potential employer.
Share your enthusiasm for piercing with your potential mentor and use this as an opportunity to tell them what you already know. Show them that you understand why it was important for you to study these things, and why it is important to you to become a piercer. If you want an artist to remember your name and face, the best thing you can do is become their favorite customer. If you're interested in being a piercer, visit the artist, talk with them and observe, ask questions, get pierced and tip well.
Visit as many reputable shops as you can, and leave your name and number at all of them. Follow up on your first visit with a phone call, then follow up your phone call with another visit. Make it plainly obvious that this is the most important thing to you. Finding a good apprenticeship is not an easy task, and you may have to visit several studios before you find someone willing to take you in at all. You might not even find anyone in your area, and in that case, you might consider relocating. If this is what you really want, it is more than worth it to do it right.
Learning how to tattoo or pierce on your own is not only unwise, it is dangerous. You must be properly trained in sterilization techniques and how to avoid harming the customer. Take your time and learn the right way.