Dan Henk: Why Tattoo School is Such a Bad Idea

By Dan Henk
Looking from the outside in, tattooing doesn’t look that difficult. If it’s not that difficult, you learn the basics and you are good to go, right? Hell, if half the people on TV can do it, an actual school should be able to teach the essentials in two weeks! College courses take a good four years. If you want to go into a more advanced profession, you are in for an even longer ride. I don’t think anyone would trust a doctor that went to a two-week school…

Tattooing is life altering. You could get hardcore diseases and die. More likely, you will get some scarred up shit-nugget that a kindergartener could have drawn better.

I went to art school, was doing art for bands and a few magazines, when Chad Divel, a tattoo artist at Visual Addiction in Carlisle, PA first brought me into this world. I thought it would be an easy transition. I was so wrong. I am genuinely embarrassed by some of the stuff I did in my first couple years of tattooing.

Dan Henk

It is true that some great artists learn without an apprenticeship, but they all seem to agree that they would have gotten much further and much faster if they had a real apprenticeship. Most are embarrassed by it, and all of them learned humility through the pitfalls and mistakes they made. I know I did.

None of this is evident in the highly edited world of network television. If kids are stupid enough to imitate programs like Jackass, they will watch one episode of some highly scripted TV show, pull up e-Bay on their computer and buy a kit full of cheap junk.

Then they will start butchering their friends in the basement. If we’re lucky, it will only give tattooing a bad name. If we are unlucky, uptight conservatives will use it as an excuse to ban tattooing.

(Dan Henk is a tattooer and blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine. Dan Henk can be found at: http://danhenk.com/.)

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21 thoughts on “Dan Henk: Why Tattoo School is Such a Bad Idea

  1. Damn rigth! i went into a 1week tattoo course in Spain, and it’s one of the biggest mistakes of my life… I strongly recommend a real nice apprenticeship…i would have killed for one… anyway, i still learning, it’s much to do and to know before consider oneself a real tattoo artist, and two weeks are a joke, if anyone want to dedicate his/her life to this craft

  2. The problem is apprenticeships are very hard to get and they can be very hard and abusive on the apprentice. Im sorry, I just want to learn safety practices and how to tattoo. I dont want to be someones do-boy or shop bitch. Many people apprentice for years and go nowhere – there has to be a better way than only apprenticeships. They can be great but theyre not for everybody. Why should there not be a place where you just sit and learn and study and practice. Thats what schools are for.

    1. Mike,

      The reason that apprenticeships are hard to get is so that when you finally get one, you will be appreciative and will most likely work harder at it. If it’s easily handed to you, you won’t take it as seriously, which is a waste of your time as well as your teacher’s.

      Also, concerning your claim that apprenticeships are “hard” and “abusive”, if that is your mentality, you have absolutely no business trying to get into MY profession. If you want to learn how to tattoo (the right way) bad enough, you will do whatever it takes, and if that means being a “do-boy” or “shop bitch”, then you just need to suck it up and do it. What makes you better than the rest of us who have learned this way? It’s not up to you to make that decision.

      Tattooing is not only a special, time-honored craft with a rich history and tradition, it is a brotherhood. If you truly feel that there is a “better way than only apprenticeships” then go ahead and order some shitty equipment from the internet, teach yourself (or go get ripped off at a tattoo school), and join the rest of the scum-bags. Hopefully, you won’t fuck someone up really bad.

      You are right about one thing, tattoo apprenticeships are not for everybody… they are for those who truly appreciate and RESPECT the art and profession of tattooing, all others need to stay the hell out of our profession. Go work at McDonald’s or something.

    2. maybe if we put it into a story-telling framework, some might ‘get it’.

      Let’s consider Star Wars- (but feel free to choose a story- Matrix, King Arthur, Avatar, Karate Kid, etc)

      Luke didn’t want to ‘finish his training’, his ‘apprenticeship’!
      He didn’t want to have to wait to learn properly. To serve, to work, to practice.
      So he flew off half-cocked, completely unprepared for his struggles, etc…
      and it cost him his hand.

      What might it cost YOU (not to mention your ‘customers’) if YOU are unprepared for the REALITIES of such a complex profession??

      In the old days, it could very well cost you the same thing it did him! haha.

      Of course, in this day and age, it’ll cost you lawyer fees (because you can be and SHOULD BE sued by the people you fuck up), your lifelong reputation, and any hope of professional respect.

    3. Nothing good ever comes easy. Most of the cleaning jobs you are given during an apprenticeship are to teach you cross contamination, or sterility techniques. Getting verbally abused is to get you to not flip out down the road when a customer tells you your drawing looks like shit. All the things you stated as hard are put in place for a purpose. Please take the advice of people that have gone down that path, and apprentice the right way. Yes, it’s hard, yes, you don’t get paid. But guess what, you will have EARNED the right to tattoo.

    4. the reason people stay as apprentices for so long is because they are not ready to tattoo.more than likely live with a bad attitude and learned no disipline from their mentors.you wind up being a shop bitch cleaning and doing the bullshit work for one reason….to set you on the path of being a clean responsible tattooer.your statement made it obvious that you dont have patience.you will never learn just the basics in 2 weeks.if you cant sweat it out in a year and a half apprenticeship how yould you be able to deal with the worst customers that grace the door?

    5. what gives you the right to just walk into the industry because you feel like it..have you brought your art portfolio into shops looking for an aprenticship?..nobody treated me like a bitch and the few i tought where treated fairly…yes aprenticships are hard…what are you going to do when 10 1% walk into the shop and give you shit…call your mommy

    6. Mike – remember, there are different quality schools as well. I got my auto technology degree from a GM-run program that candidates had to test into (100+ applicants for 20 positions in my class). After you got in, there was a mandatory two year shop apprenticeship at a dealer during your education. Fully half the students couldn’t take the workload and dropped out. It wasn’t expensive as degree programs go but it was very challenging, and the result was a comprehensive and proper education. I’ve been an ASE Master tech for 15 years now and have owned or run three successful shops because of that education and that apprenticeship. Lots of other students spent ten times as much for an inferior education – they’re the ones with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans changing oil for 9 bucks an hour at franchise lube joints…

      Would you trust your brakes to a guy fresh out of a two week auto repair school who had never fixed a car before? I doubt it. Tattooing improperly can bring you much more than a permanent piece of bad work on your client’s skin, it can bring you or them Hep C, HIV, you name it.

    7. You are lazy and half the problem why tattooing apprenticeships are difficult to obtain. In apprenticeships you have the ability to be taught by a person that has dedicated years and years of their life to refining and perfecting their craft and you think you should be able to just learn all of that in a couple months and not have to pay a price for it? The whole “shop bitch” or “errand boy” is part of your payment, just like if you went to college to be a Doctor you would have to pay a tuition, well in tattooing you pay your tuition with hard work, sweat and loyalty (and of course hundreds of hours of labor). All the things that a mentor will do during your apprenticeship is done to shape you into a knowledgeable professional. They teach you how to act, how to see things like a talented artist should, then once they see you are committed to the profession and not just doing it to be a “cool guy” or say you know how to tattoo, then they will begin to teach you the ins and outs of becoming a real tattoo artist. Not to mention tattooing is a highly technical field whether you want to accept it or not, there a million and one different things to be learned, not just health safety.

      I hope you don’t ever receive your training because a lazy tattoo artist is a shitty tattoo artist! Then again I am sure many of your friends are already wearing your home made scars.

    8. There is a term that any well-established tattoo professional is familiar with, and it’s called “paying your dues.” Reverence is a big part of tattooing. If you are 100% committed and dedicated to making this craft your life, then doing bitchwork should be no problem in exchange for the plethora of valuable advice and knowledge that you will ultimately gain in a shop setting.

      You’re right, they’re great but not for everybody. If you can’t endure the trials of an apprenticeship, you probably shouldn’t be tattooing. Anyway, that’s my two cents.

    9. schools are to grant humans the right of a basic education, not an education on tattooing, if ur not willing to be humbled and humiliated in return for an intimet and life altering skill..u dont deserve it

  3. Thanks for the post, Dan.
    Love the photo!
    (Dan, you should attend the tattoo school ‘undercover’ and report back to us!)

    By the way, banning tattooing isn’t the real danger….over-regulation is.

  4. @ Mike….a Better way then an apprenticeship?
    What would that be?Some form of tattoo magic that does not exist at the wave of a wand?

    You have to earn your way through tattooing.
    Taking baby steps..
    Not acting like a crack dealer to take it any which way possible…The “easy route” to fucking people up..
    I cant wait till you read my blog…
    This is the attitude that is fucking up the craft we have worked so hard at and went through hell to learn thats makes us passionate about it.
    Like..hey…dont fuck with our shit…We actually worked for it!
    And did it properly…
    You have to earn respect before you get any.
    Then you understand why..
    This is not some easy fucking job that any assclown can jump on and do…
    But so many seem to think they can…fuck that noise.
    Revolution is at hand…

  5. over regulation is a danger, sure… but go take a look at the CDC’s website and see some of the jackass laws in this country. you dont even have to apprentice in kentucky. just pass the health inspection and get a business license. oh and how about the states that have no laws whatsoever except for livestock. i personally in no way endorse tattoo schools. i think theyre garbage, and yes an apprenticeship is the only way to go. but you’re only ever going to be as good as your teacher so do your research. so far as being a shop bitch…well, a little humanity never hurt. no need to be a complete asshole to anyone. if you cant treat your apprentice right, then get the fuck out of the business because whats to say you treat anyone else any different? i’ve walked out of so many shops filled with cocky asswipes that had great portfolios. i’m not sitting in a chair for hours with some pile of shit talking trash no matter how good he or she is.

  6. i apprenticed for a year,all day everyday,i ended up not being employed by the shop i apprenticed at but i m happy i did it anyways.i enjoyed everyday of it,opening up in the morning ,cleaning,answering the phone,taking appointments and tattooing,point is if you actually love it you will enjoy being around it.actually just enjoy it.this tv show and school stuff is just cheap shortcuts.

  7. Agreed. Although I honestly can’t believe that no-one saw this coming; people are always gonna try to make money off the back of someone else’s hard work. Plus tattooing is kinda popular right now making it more tempting for those individuals… The only way forward is tight regulation of the industry; I realize in the past this would have made it very difficult for some now excellent tattooers to get into the industry but you can’t have it both ways.. Plus tattooing has gone way past being ‘a brotherhood’ now; it’s mainly just people competing and trying to make money.. As far as I’m concerned I couldn’t give a crap about people buying cheap stuff from ebay and scratching up themselves and their moronic friends; whatever, it’s just more cover-up work for me in the future! Plus I’m starting to notice that the novelty soon wears off when they realize it’s a lot harder than it looks!! If people wanna do that shit it’s up to them; it’s their body and no-one has the right to tell them what to do with it. Same with the customers that will eventually be getting horrible tattoos from these tattoo school idiots; people who are after a cheap tattoo will get what they deserve: a cheap tattoo! What I don’t get is that with so many ‘students’ coming out of this place on a bi-weekly basis what are they gonna do; open their own shop??? No decent shop will take on a tattooer who’s been doing it for 2 weeks and has no portfolio to speak of, and the way it’s currently regulated anyone can get a license as long as they have the money to pay for it.. So basically every town and city worldwide is gonna be over-run with tattoo shops within the next 3 years?? Can’t see that happening!! First rule of business: Supply and Demand!! Guess they don’t cover that there… So these people will be working from home, giving people diseases because they have no idea about hygiene and cross-contamination and doing crap tattoos to boot!! It’s all about the money i guess… Personally I don’t think they’re gonna be at it for long; easy come, easy go and all that. If you don’t have to work hard for something you generally don’t appreciate it so I think these fools will move on to the next fashionable vocation as soon as tattooing falls out of favour… Bye fuckers, we won’t miss you!!

  8. Well even by getting an “apprenticeship” doesnt promise that you will learn how to tattoo properly. Tattooing is an artform, and a business, plain and simple. It is not some elite trade that should be practiced by any one group soley. It is, and should be, available to anyone who has the initial desire to learn. Art is universal and so are its practices. Some people are good at it, and some people arent… just like being a human.

    With that said, the main issue with apprenticeships is that most of them are not taught or mentored by “masters”. Just as tattooing is a trade like any other trade, most other apprenticeship programs, outside of tattooing, require a “master” to mentor and apprentice you. With that being said, how many have actually been apprenticed by a tattooing master?

    On the other hand, tattooing is a business. I dont know anyone that tattoos for free. And it the great ol US of A, we have the right of free enterprise. Meaning that anyone who wants to get into a field or trade, has that right, as long as they follow state and federal regulations. There is no “right way” or “path” to tattooing. If you have actually studied tattooing and the people in the industry, a good majority of the pros you see in magazines now, learned at home and only been tattooing for 5-10 years. On the other hand, there are some people that followed an apprenticeship, been tattooing for 20 years, and the quality of thier tattoos are still somewhat poor. So tell me who is doing it right? It’s really up to the individual and what goals they set for themselves.

    So to get to the point, who cares what shows and what schools are being put out and marketed. Focus on yourself and your own goals. Tattooing is an art, and art has always been commercialized and saturated. Once you start tattooing, if you werent an artist before, you entered into the world of art. An ancient practice that predates any known written or recorded history. If you think any of these concepts are new, then you havent truely become an artist. Just as in the past, to become a painter, you needed to be apprenticed… now you go to school for it and get a piece of paper, ie “art school”… so join the club!

  9. It is extremely funny to see all of you pompous assholes who think you are above God. ANY true education will be structured and have key learning objectives. What you call apprentice in reality is what you say you hate so much. You hate people wanting freebies and hate people who want to learn quickly. Look in the mirror at what you are doing!!!! You are getting free labor for 1-2 years and all the shit work is done for you. Just because you had no other options but to be a bitch for 2 years does not mean it is the best way to learn. In fact it shows how poor your way is due to any artist thinking they can be a teacher. Not everyone has the capacity to be a teacher and help others learn. Maybe that is why it takes 1-2 years because you have no clue to teach!!!!! Get ready for corporate America to shit right on your way and make your learning style obsolete. The funniest part of this so-called article, 4 or 5 paragraphs, is you honestly think you are like a doctor. You did not specifically say it but based on the additional posts it is obvious. I would also gather you are against schools because there are books and half you can’t read. Understand you are only a tattoo artist!!!!!!! You do not decide how education should work, but then again you are all called Dr. God!

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