Tattoo artistry: What it takes to become a tattoo artist

Becoming a professional tattoo artist requires a lot more than a needle and some ink. I am talking about years of hard, unpaid work, and absolute dedication to your craft. All in all, it is an investment in one’s self. 


What we do on a person’s skin is fairly permanent, therefore we need to have learned the right set of skills and mastered a level of artistry which leaves very little room for mistakes. Every tattoo artist has their own journey, so this week we decided to speak with Kyle Sampath Valentine – an amazing new talent who burst into the tattoo industry three years ago and took the community by storm. 


In your opinion, how big of a role does art play when becoming a tattoo artist? 

In its base form, tattooing is art; a visual representation of concepts and stories, making the skin your canvas. So at the bare minimum, basic fundamental knowledge of art such as composition, depth, and illustrative skills are very important. Essentially what a tattooer does is drawing on skin, right? So if one doesn’t know how to draw, I really don’t think they’d be able to do a good tattoo. Understanding the technical aspects of tattooing is of utmost importance yes, but if we were to level it to the skill of using a pen, everyone can use it, but it’s what you do with it that really allows you to stand out from the rest. 


How has art helped you in your journey? 

I started out as a self-taught traditional artist before I got into tattooing, so I wasn’t lost on what type of work I wanted to produce through this medium. The challenge was reshaping my art style to fit the technical limitations of skin, which was a lot of fun. While already being decently versed in art and creating artwork that told stories, it made things easier for me to create a unique art style that was identifiable to me as well as stick to a signature concept that was personal to me. Every artist has their own stories they’d like to tell with their art, and being in tune with your own self-expression, you’d be able to help your clients effectively express their intentions, through your art. 


Is it a must to have a basic knowledge on art to become a tattoo artist? 

Yes. It’s safe to say no one would like a flat, misshapen scribble as a tattoo. I’m a bit of an elitist on this matter, where I strongly believe that you need to know the basics if you want to build something great. You need to know your craft if you want to dismantle it. Because I know there are trends and styles in the tattooing industry, such as the art world, where it looks like it didn’t take any skill to design and execute it. But the truth is those artists learned the fundamentals first before they decided to go the direction they went to, either to build on it or to break it. 


Would you recommend becoming an art graduate in order to become a tattoo artist? 

Not specifically a graduate; it’s more about educating yourself of the fundamentals and having the mindset to want to grow and learn with every piece you do – especially on paper before moving to something as daunting as skin. Rather than any qualifiable education, it’s more about the mindset. Someone could teach themselves any skill or craft if they really put their mind to it; but I don’t advise doing that with tattooing, it’s always best to learn through an apprenticeship under a reputable studio in your area. An art graduate would definitely have the benefits of creating more refined work through the in-depth knowledge they’ve picked up, but if they don’t have the right mindset and adaptability required to be a tattoo artist, it wouldn’t work. 


What are the artistic trends? 

Currently, in the art world, digital art is taking over, but it’s on polar extremes; it’s either super minimal, or really detailed. It’s the same thing with the current tattoo trends; it’s either really small or a whole suit. Anything in between gets lost in the “generic” pile. But the main styles of tattooing such as American traditional, blackwork, realism, and neo-traditional, still stand strong to this day. 


What’s the difference between a tattoo artist and tattooer? 

A tattooer, respectfully, trains themselves to tattoo in all sorts of styles, but never really specialises in anything specific or takes the time to build on an identity for themselves, other than a guy who just does tattoos. While a tattoo artist is someone who decides to forge their own path after learning all the main variety of styles. These artists spend years refining their unique artistic expression to every design they do, showing consistency and personality respective to the artist. It’s like someone who just draws whatever they see and then you have someone who tells stories with what they draw and they have a unique art style, that at first glance is identifiable to them. That’s what sets tattoo artists as myself, apart from a tattooer. 


Do tattoos have a collectible value like any other art? 

Oh definitely! There’s a niche of people who just get tattoos because they either love an artist’s work and would like to have work done from that artist or collect pieces from reputable artists in the industry as just an enthusiast, or both. It’s no different to buying a painting from your favorite artist, or a famous one, without commissioning for it. Except you’ll be carrying that piece of art with you everywhere. 


What kind of recognition do tattoos have in the world of art? 

They are greatly respected, especially if it’s done by a really good or reputable tattoo artist. It’s a form of self-expression of the artist and of the client. At the end of the day, they’re all artists; it’s just that a few of them decided to start putting their pieces on skin more than they would on a canvas or paper. So if you have a beautiful, really well done tattoo, you’d have other artists and bystanders gawking at your tattoo like they would at a painting in an art gallery. 


The purpose of art is to make a statement. Do tattoos fit this category? 

Definitely! It’s a statement of the one with the tattoo and the artist who has done it. Tattoos are one of those few pieces of art that’s a collaborative statement of the artist and the client. It’s no different to how one decorates the walls in their house to make a statement of their interests, thoughts, stories, etc. The difference is that it’s permanent, and it’s on your skin; you carry that art with you everywhere you go. If you ask me, the mere act of getting a tattoo alone is a statement on its own. 


What is the future like for tattoo artists/tattoos? 

Bright. It’s a slow fight, but I’m starting to see new artists making a stand for themselves by expressing their individual art style and aesthetic that’s signature to them. They do this while creating unique works, without directly plagiarising from other artists. However, we still have a very long way to go in terms of appreciating unique and fundamentally good artistry. This comes with educating everyone in general and not just anyone interested in getting into tattooing. We need to notice the importance of art within our culture and our daily lives.