Is Tattooing Worthy Of My Art Degree?

Jacob’s a tortured artist — and he hasn’t really even started being an artist yet! I imagine his situation and mindset are not uncommon, though, for art students about to jump into the professional world.

Hi Judge Josh,

I am at a crucial moment in my educational life. I will graduate next semester with a BFA in Fine Arts with a concentration of Illustration from UConn.


Frankly, I am terrified. Sometimes when I think about my future, I mentally shut down.

Well, if it makes you feel any better, so do I and so does everyone else from time to time, so you’re not alone!

In the summer between junior and senior year, I received the option to pursue an apprenticeship in tattooing. He wanted $1000 up front in cash. After considering my options, I backed out, not only knowing that I probably wouldn’t succeed in keeping my grade up amidst the constant commute between school and the tattoo studio, but it just seemed really shady to me.

tattoo art degree
Is there a more beautiful canvas? Oh, Jacob, I think not.

Well, I couldn’t say for sure whether the dude himself was shady or not, but apprenticeships are fairly common in the tattoo world.

Since then I have been trying to make up my mind as to what direction I want to pursue outside of college. A large part of me is still opting toward a tattoo apprenticeship.

Well, the trend of tattooing the living shit of ourselves here in America does not seem to be stopping anytime soon, so I don’t think that’s a bad decision if it’s something you think you’ll enjoy.

I’ll be out of school, and will be able to devote myself to the task.

True, and outstanding. Sounds like a great start.

However, I feel as if that trade won’t exemplify the skills I have picked up in school.

Maybe it will, maybe it won’t (it probably will, but let’s just leave it open for now). You have to ask yourself what your objective is in your career — to do something you enjoy and get paid well for it, or to display all the skills you’ve learned.

If that sounds biased — well, it is. Most people don’t end up with a job that shows their full array of skills that they learned in college. It just doesn’t end up that way most of the time.

The good news is…that’s fine. No big deal. I don’t mean to oversimplify, but hey, if you like what you’re doing and it pays the bills, then that’s a fine situation to be in. Most people don’t have it that good.

I can tell you this from experience, because I’ve done the same thing you’re considering. I have a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri — a program LOTS of prospective journalists wish they could get into. And since the day I graduated, I’ve used the skills they’ve taught me — well, almost never. I jumped to online stuff, then software, then advertising, and now it’s college-advice blogging for God’s sake.

Doesn’t matter. As long as you’re happy doing it, then hell, who cares what you went to school for? Sometimes the value of school isn’t the exact stuff you learn, but the fact that it puts you in the right place at the right time.

Secondly, it feels somehow unprofessional. Given the popularity of Kat Von D in today’s media, I may be wrong about that assertion.

Well, Kat Von D is just the latest example of the world’s changed mindset about tattoos; the real story is the mindset itself. And that is, they’re extremely normal now — they aren’t the symbols of rebellion that they used to be. Tats stopped being rebellious about the time that sorority girls started getting their letters tattooed on their ankles.

The other idea which seems less financially secure but more palatable is to push my illustration talents into the publishing field, painting book jackets or illustrating for picture books.

Tattooing is probably less competitive than that, but that’s really the only comparison I can make. Artistically, they both have merit and which has more is up to you, completely.[ad#cj-fastweb]

However, I feel that this doesn’t quite fit what I really want to do, which I have yet to discover. The only thing I know is that it has to do with art. I guess my problem is not having a concrete plan for the next several years.

Hey man — neither do most people. Really — they don’t. Your plan should probably be something like this: get a job, see if I like it, start dabbling in other stuff on the side, see if I like that stuff, and then in a few years, choose what I like best and go forward a happier dude.

And that’s not just for art people, by the way. That’s everyone’s story, pretty much.

It’s shocking to know that in a year, I won’t be in school, and wonder what I will be doing and where I will be. Hopefully living in my parents attic, I certainly don’t want that fate.

I think you meant hopefully not living in the attic, but yeah, hopefully not. But if you do — eh, you’re not alone. Just keep plugging away until you get out. It won’t be the end of the world. Plus, the attic probably has really low rent.

And I don’t want to get caught working at the job i’ve had since high school; that won’t do neither. I’ve thought about the Peace Corps, to give me some more time, but I just feel like I don’t know why I’m on this earth yet. My purpose has no aim, my wings no wind to power them. The more I write the more confused I get. . .I’d appreciate any help you can offer. I think about this every night now; my palms sweat because I’m facing my future like a knight staring down a dragon, except instead of a sword I have a feather duster. I just can’t figure myself out, and its alarming.
Honestly, any help in hashing this question will earn you my gratitude and an internet high five.

Well, I am all about a good Internet high-five. 🙂

You’re overthinking it, my friend. Sure, it’d feel nice to have a road map at your feet to follow, but you know — that’s not really an artist’s life, generally speaking. And even if it were, you’d be extremely lucky to have that kinda thing mapped out at this point, at your age.

This is an old metaphor, but it’s true: if you’re taking a trip across the country, you don’t wait to leave until all the stoplights are green at the same time. You just go. And when you get stopped, you stop, and you figure something out, and then you keep going. I wouldn’t generally steer a guy away from the Peace Corps, but really — if you’re just looking to buy time, you might as well take an entry-level job and make some money while you wait.

If you have talent and desire (and to a lesser extent, a degree), you’re not holding a feather duster. You’ve got the sword. You just have to figure out where you’re gonna use it, and that can take time.

But you’ve got plenty. Be patient, and you’ll find some answers.

Thank you,

Sure thing.

— What about you guys? Any advice for a struggling artist? Let us know in the comments below.

32 thoughts on “Is Tattooing Worthy Of My Art Degree?”

  1. Jacob, please don’t be knocking tattooing as an art form. I have many wonderful peices of art that were put on me by some amazing artists. Tattooing isn’t just anchors and hearts anymore. The art itself has become incredibly detailed. Anyway, most tattoo artists aren’t JUST tattoo artists. They make paint and draw on other canvases as well, AND make a reasonable living selling that work also. There’s no reason you can’t do both.

  2. Hey man, take the freakin tattoo gig! Pay your dues, you’ll have something (a skill) that’s never going to go out of style. Start designing your own tattoos, don’t just use flash art. After you’re done the 12 hour work days at the shop, come home and freelance! The pay will start meanial, but quickly get better. You’ll make money (and learn a skill) using art and you’ll be gaining clients, if you have to live eating ramen in moms attic for a while, do it!!

    I am an art grad living with my parents, I’ve been home a lil over a year, but I’m starting to get enough clients to possibly get my own place within a year or so.

  3. Hey, another face in the I-don’t-know-where-I’m-going boat! There’s a lot of us; you’re in good company.

    Like you, I’m a recent graduate aspiring to a life as an artist (of the novelist variety). And I’m floating around trying to find some kind of decent job to pay the bills while I’m trying to “make it” as a writer. Meanwhile, I’m living in my old bedroom in my mother’s house because I haven’t been able to find enough work to pay the bills. So, you’re certainly not alone.

    Not knowing where I’m going is certainly frightening, but it’s also freeing. Think about it. You have the whole world open to you. You can try anything you want. And you can simply relax and go with the flow and experience life because you have nothing to worry about. Okay, I know there is plenty to worry about, but I just mean that if you don’t know where you’re going to be in a month, two months, six months, a year, then you have no specific future thing to be afraid of. Just try to make things happen and see what happens to you and, yeah, just go with the flow. And be confident that, somehow or other, things’ll work out. They may not work out like you planned, but somehow they’ll work out. You’ve got a great life ahead of you, man. Artists generally do, because we’re thinkers and because we have this uncanny ability to see the true beauty of the world–even in its darkest corners.

    And take the tattooing gig. Why not? Best case scenario: you find that you love it. Worst case scenario: you find that you hate it but, in the process, you’ve learned something about yourself and gained something decent to put on a resume.

  4. Jacob, Tattooing is a great outlet for those that want to experience art as more than just a painting on a wall… Don’t knock yourself for not knowing what exactly you want to do, because half of the world doesn’t know. If doing something that you like to do is sustaining and pays the bills, go for it! Who cares what someone else thinks so long as you are happy? I know a few tattoo artists that use the parlor as a way to pay their bills, but they also sell their own art on the side as paintings, drawings, or even sketches.

    Is there something wrong with using tattooing as a way to experience the art-world until you can get into the illustration industry? I don’t know a lot about that industry, but I can’t imagine it would be steady 9-5 job work, so why not try both? Do the tattooing during the day as a steady everyday job that you enjoy, and try the illustrating as a weekend/on call need? Wouldn’t that work to solve your dilemma?

  5. Tattoo! It is not undignified. The tattoo world NEEDS more talented, trained artists. Shoot, you might be the next well sought after HIGHLY PAID world class tattoo artist. By bringing your skills to this art, you can elevate the art to a higher level.

  6. If tatooing is something you enjoy I say go for it. However, while you are doing your tatoo gig, I strongly recommend you look into other options for your creative abilities as well. Just because you work in a tatoo parlor doesn’t mean you can’t start up a home-based graphic art business or something else that you can do for extra money, and continue to grow overall as an artist. You never know where it might take you. I started out with a journalism degree and working at a local golf course, but could not find sufficient employment once I graduated, so I had one of life’s happy accidents when I discovered that I had some talent in graphic art and web design. So just because you are doing one thing for your day job doesn’t mean you can’t do something else on your own time.

  7. I have one name for you…Ed Hardy.

    He took 20 years of being a tattoo artist and turned it into a multi-million dollar empire. Kat Von D isn’t exactly hurting either. If you think you’ll enjoy it, it is an artform that lasts a lifetime. It is seen everyday by the owner and loved for their life. There is nothing unseemly or degrading to your skills or your work. Until you decide what you want to do, this is as good as any ‘art’ based job to try. Good luck.

  8. Upon first look, I was afraid I’d have a horribly angry, upset comment. Glad I took the time to read the article, as well as the responses-tattooing as ‘undignified’? I think of most people graduating at a bachelor’s level today, you’re going to apply more of the skills you’ve learned than most other people. Tattooing is an art form and a means of expression that has developed and evolved extensively, especially coming into popularity in the past few decades. Make something new and run with it.

    I’m personally covered, and I love them. I have a BA in psychology, and am entering an MBA program in the fall. That being said-you shouldnt do anything your heart is not in.

  9. I am a tattoo artist, and have been for the bulk of my life – well, 29 years worth anyway, and I can tell you that tattooing with an art degree is not necessary, but it will definitely help in your ability to go further in this career choice. As a tattoo artist that was not an established artist before tattooing, (I was just 8 years old when I did my first one…) having had to spend 20 years or so catching up, I think that having that artistic background could be nothing but helpful. In addition to being a tattoo artist I am a wife, mother, stroke survivor, and college graduate, though my degree is a BS in Business Management, I think that the college experience helped me to be a more well-rounded and forward thinker, better able to approach the community in a respectable manner. Even though you can see the public faces of those now so readily associated with this profession, remember that public persona is merely an outward reflection of THAT person and where they take their job. We do not all act the same as each other, so yes, there are those seedy scary scandalous tattoo artists out there, but there are respectable ones too. Ultimately, the job will not change who you are as a person, if you are dignified and respectful, no rockstar mentality of anyone near you will dictate how you react to others and are treated by them. We make our own paths through life, but certainly a life pursuing an art form that we love is a happier life than plugging away endlessly at something that we do not. Best of luck to you!

  10. Jacob,
    Try looking around for technical and medical illustration jobs as well as straight up graphic design.
    Tattoos are wearable art, at their best. No reason why you can’t be a contributor to that ‘best.’
    Art can lead you in a lot of unforseen directions. None of us knows where we’ll be in the future, no matter how stable we think we are. We think we know. But we don’t.
    Nothing wrong with the Peace Corps as an option, either. That actually helps with obtaining government service jobs, I believe. AND – now that I mention it – government service is a good place to start looking as well.

  11. Hey Jacob
    The only thing you need to think about is if you really love art and tattooing. Being in the veterinary major myself I am surrounded and constantly reminded that if I didn?t love what I do then I wouldn?t have gotten as far as I have. Loving what you do gives you a special power that helps you overcome a lot of life?s obstacles.
    Besides, good artists are hard to find. When I went in search of getting my own artwork completed with my friends we visited 4 different parlors and ended up with a different parlor per friend. Each artist has their own style and sometimes finding the right style for the image in mind is harder than you think.
    If you love it, I strongly and deeply encourage you to develop this new skill!

  12. I’m apprenticing myself to be a tattoo artist. The people who think that tattoos are not art don’t know art. I am not an art major, I am a history major. While in apprenticeship, you will not make any money but learn the trade. It usually lasts about 12 months but it also depends on the artist your apprenticing. Tattoo artists may not be respected like a doctor to everyone but the people that get tattoos and like tattoos you can be just as important. Like in another comment I read, don’t just use flash. Come up with your own unique design of tattoo art. You don’t have to think of things like hearts, roses, skulls, and anchors. There are a lot of people who actually like different things.

  13. If you like the work then take the apprenticeship — the best thing about it is that it’ll pay the bills and let you hone your skills at the same time, the after work you work on figuring out what you love. It’s better than delivering pizza or bar tending while you figure out what you want to do!

  14. The first thing that I think you should do to help you make your decision is to really spend some time getting to know some people who work in the industry as well as the people who patronize their establishments. While it used to be that tattoos were only for the hardened, streetwise biker-type, it has truly progressed far beyond those confines in the last twenty years or so. Here are a few people I know who have tattoos: a junior high school science teacher (who has 4 very large ones she covers at work), a public defender (who has 2 scuba related armbands and a Celtic cross that covers nearly his entire back), the owner of a maid service that caters to a high-end clientele, and my CPA (I saw him in the shop when he was getting it or I would never have known it).
    People do it for different reasons, and if it’s well thought out and done by a true artist, a tattoo can be a beautiful work of art. One of my son’s friends, who he’s known since they were 3, committed suicide last year. His 18 year old cousin, who was also his best friend and is a model, is currently looking for a small design as a memorial to him. Once you start to get deeper into the reasons people get tattoos instead of just frowning at the choices they make, you see how freeing, healing, and even inspiring tattoos can be.
    My advice to you is to reach deep inside and decide if you can find creative inspiration in the reasons people choose to get tattoos, and spend a lot of time looking online at the designs that come to other artists from these types of inspiration. If you can’t catch that inspiration, fire, and passion, than the job is not for you.

  15. Jacob – calm down, buddy. life is not a meaning. its an opportunity to have meaningful experiences. if you sit around obsessing over what it means and what you are supposed to be doing with it then, quite frankly, you are going to miss out on it if you spend so much time worrying about all the details.

    absolutely NO ONE knows where they will be in five years. a simple decision like going to a different grocery store could change the whole path of your life one day. im not saying to not try to plan or just live balls to the wall. i’m just trying to say that no matter what you decide, it will take you to the next part of your life regardless.

  16. Jacob doesn’t deserve to be a tattoo artist. And he’s probably scared of failing at it. That’s normal. If your heart’s no into tattooing, you shouldn’t even consider it.

  17. As a fellow art student I say go for what you want. I’m going for illustrations too, but for comics. (yeah I’m one of those people :p ) anyway, you took a huge leap just going into the art program in the first place. Time to take the next one and have fun with it. As artists, well we’re always going to be having second doubts, we do it constantly to our own art work don’t we? It shouldn’t surprise you that you’re wondering what to do now, but that’s okay. A lot of the other art students from my school feel the same way at first, but eventually start doing something. A lot of them live off their art work now one way or another and I’m sure you will too, you just need to relax, take a breath and slowly figure out how you want to live off your art work. Don’t worry, you’ll be okay in the end.

  18. I think you are talking about two different art worlds – not that tattooing is less professional as you put it – it’s a different art world and art form. You should talk to other tattoo artists and learn more about apprenticeships or learn about how they got started, maybe adopt them as mentors. Do all apprenticeships cost $1000? Based on your research, it might be worthwhile to be a tattoo artist, and you can still do your illustration work. I got a BA ’93 and MFA ’10 in Fine Art, I have been through this mill for years and I have seen people come and go or become successful in those years, and everyone has a day job. No one I know is full-time making their art, everyone’s got two gigs – successful painters with galleries teach at universities. There’s nothing wrong with engaging in one art form to make money and another because that’s your passion.

  19. Have you ever considered putting your artistic skills to use in creating advertising campaigns in the corporate world? Companies are always looking for people who can best represent their vision. If that possibility does not pique your interest, you may consider taking a menial job and doing art on the side until you can become established as an artist. Some historical figures who have gone on to do great things had to work menial jobs. For example, Thomas Edison worked in a patent office before going on to produce many inventions that are still used in our everyday lives. Oftentimes, those who desire to be writers, musicians, or artists for a living have to work those kinds of jobs before they live off of their craft. If you do go into tattooing as a career, you should consider that you literally may have someone’s life in your hands. Deadly blood-borne illnesses can be transmitted through the needles, so make sure to thoroughly sanitize them before using on another client.

  20. Hey Jake,

    I’m an art student who works at Dinky Town Tattooing in Minneapolis. I work as an IT but the four artiest there couldn’t be cooler guys. If your going to work as a tattooing artiest apprenticeship with someone who is in your area. Despite what people tattooing is an art form and yes people can get dumb tattoos, but it takes a lot of skill and appreciation for the form to be good at it. If its what you want to do i would say go for it. A profession is a profession weather your wearing starched shirts or blue jeans.

  21. Dear Jacob,
    I know your worried about this problem. But I could say “JUST FOLLOW YOUR HEART”. I know maybe its so controversial between your heart and the academic but if you follow your heart, you will happy and enjoy doing your job. No matter another person says you are so ridiculous. Just believe in your heart. I DO MY JOB BECAUSE I WANT IT AND I HAPPY TO DO IT. If you succeed to do your job, share your experience that you happen now. Just follow your heart because it will never lies to you.

    Shawn Barber. Kick-ass painter who also does tattooing.
    I have an illustration certificate and one of my classmates from college is a tattoo artist and is enjoying it. He started with an apprenticeship at a tattoo parlour. I say if tattooing is what you want to try, go for it. If you don’t like it, try something else. Like what other people are saying, you can also try to get some freelance gigs on the side if you want to try doing more “traditional” illustration work.

  23. I know EXACTLY how you feel. I graduate at the end of May with a BFA in Interior Design. I’m not sure if interior design is what I want to be doing for the rest of my life. I have gone to school for three years and now I’m debating going to school for another four-six to get a bachelor’s in architecture. I guess what I’m trying to say is, don’t get discouraged, everyone goes through something of the sort of what your deling with at the end of their program. When you get out of school the first job you get that relates to your deree probably won’t be your last, and you can always keep trying out different things. Like my advisor said just last week when I went into his office crying, “You may just end up being a bank teller, or somethign else unrelated that you enjoy doing and it pays the bills, but don’t drop Jenn. At the end of it at least you can say that you have a bachelors degree!”

  24. Hey Jacob,

    For what it’s worth, here’s my two cents for your situation.

    I think being a tattoo artist, even if it is just for a few years, is a great experience. Think about this: yeah, you sketch out the tattoo first, but once you’ve drawn the tattoo on a person, you cannot just take your eraser and re-do a section. And you have walking canvases! All of your drawings will be proudly shown to friends, relatives, and even strangers of your clients. If you want to become some kind of independent artist in the future, then you can start working on this during your spare time or on the side as well.
    Overall, it’s whatever brings you peace. Though you may not know what you want to do after three years, do not worry. If tattooing gives you peace for the next year or two, then I think you should go for it!


  25. Jacob,

    I think everyone has this panic when they get close to being done with college and going into the work world. I know Business majors, Art majors, Law majors–you name it that are freaking out right now because soon they’ll be done.

    NOW WHAT?!?

    So don’t feel bad about feeling like this. Take a breath and try and think of what you would like to do. Maybe not for the rest of your life, but what you think you have some skills to do now. Then think of the things you enjoy doing, both art and non-art. See if there is any overlap in these two categories. It might help pin down a short list to work from while you find your path.

    I used to be a Business major and switched to History. I am glad I switched but now find myself trying to decide where to go once I’m done (next year 2012). I could go into teaching, law, pursue a master degree… Even go into business. Granted I’m not at the panic level yet, but I am trying to sort out where I most want to be and how I’m going to get there from where I am.

    You like art since you pursued that for your bachelor. The degree probaly trained you for more then just doing art. You could look into working at a museum, too. Do an apprentinship or internship and try the job on for a while. Remeber your first out of college job probably won’t be your life’s work job.

    First jobs are for finding out what you really want to do while paying the bills. They usually aren’t you lifetime careers, so don’t worry about it. Try it on for size and if it is not a good fit move on to something else. Besides graphic art work there is advertising, various media jobs, interior design, tatooing, t-shirt creator, etc… So don’t limit yourself. Start with the broadest list possible and then eliminate things based on what fits your skill set and passion. Once you narrow it down to a few choices go and check those jobs out, talk to folks doing it.

    I currently work as a homecare nurse and know it is not what I want to do for the rest of my life. But it pays the bills, and helps a disabled family member stay at home instead of a nursing home. But after 19 yrs. I know I need a career change, hence having gone back to college. I started out thinking that a Business degree would be practical, but ignored the fact that I don’t love the idea of being in the corporate world. Not my disposition at all even though I did ok in my coursework, my heart just wasn’t in it. So I changed major. So I have to rethink where I’m going when I graduate. Sure I could go into corporate world, but that is not all a History degree will train me to do so the feild is open now. This is both exciting and scary since it is a degree that is not career specific like a BA in Business Admin would be.

    Best of luck to you on your journey:)

  26. Give tattooing a shot. A really good friend of mine is a body piercer, so I have spent a lot of time in shops, and spent time with tattoo artists and body piercers who take what they do very seriously. There is a network of help in the tattoo world whereas the same time there are people who like to keep their techniques secret. Either way there are plenty or workshops and conventions to go to so you can see what is up in the tattooing world. Also, if you’re good at what you do the news will spread by word of mouth along with your own advertising. As you can see from Kat Von D’s show many different people from many different walks of life are getting tattoos with details and meanings that will blow your mind.

  27. Dude. I’ve wanted to write a novel since I was in second grade, and though I have many meager starts I’ve never finished. That book jacket art would be cool. So would tattooing and I could imagine unless you live in a really big city you’d have plenty of time to do both, to devote yourself completely to art. “Short is thepain, long is the decoration” – some tattoo proverb I read once.

  28. I am in art school online in Florida the school is in San Francisco and I just got a tattoo apprenticeship a week ago. I think you should rethink your opinions just sayin.

  29. Take the apprenticeship! You can always decide later whether or not it’s undignified. It could be fun. It definitely won’t be your last job. Why not try it and see if it fits. If it isn’t right for you, you’ll be the first to know!

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