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Job: Tattoo artist

Role: The responsibilities of a tattoo artist begin long before they pick up a needle, and end long after they dispose of it at the end of the day. While the actual application of tattoos is a vital component of the job, so is consulting with clients, sterilizing equipment, setup, cleanup and homework.

"Most artists will draw at home. I'm drawing anywhere from an hour to five hours a night," said Mark Prata, a tattoo artist and the owner of Toronto Ink Tattoo and Laser. "Right now, I'm doing a Mayan Aztec half-sleeve on a guy, which is not in my realm. I know nothing about Aztec culture, so I'm actually going home and researching it."

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Salary: The salary of tattoo artists used to be heavily dependent on their location, but Mr. Prata says that the Internet has levelled the playing field for artists working outside of densely populated regions. Artists today often display their work online, which can be an effective way to encourage people living in other regions to come to them.

"I just had a client two days ago who flew in from Vancouver because he saw me on Instagram and said 'I need this guy to tattoo me," said Mr. Prata, adding that if he found out he had fans in Calgary, for example, he could spend a week working from a tattoo shop in that city as well.

With the Internet providing a marketing platform for local artists, salaries are now dependent on skill, reputation and social media popularity. Mr. Prata says that tattoo artists typically operate as independent contractors as opposed to salaried employees, with shop owners paying them between 40 and 60 per cent commission on their overall sales. He says that most tattoo artists earn between $30,000 and $50,000 a year, while renowned artists can easily earn well above $100,000 annually.

Education: There is no formal licensing or educational standard for tattoo artists in Canada. Since the industry is built on reputation and liability, however, reputable shop owners won't allow amateurs to operate in their establishment. While there are crash courses and training programs available across the country, many in the industry consider them expensive and often invaluable.

"There are tattoo schools that exist, but they charge something like $8,000 for a couple of weeks and really don't teach you anything. They're a bit of a cash grab," said Michael Longo, a tattoo artists at Artworxx Tattoo & Piercing in Etobicoke. "If someone says they trained at a tattoo school, people in the industry really look down on it, because they think that person got scammed and probably learned nothing."

Mr. Prata agrees, calling such institutions "a big waste of money." Instead, both he and Mr. Longo launched their careers by working as informal apprentices, which has become the unofficial standard in the industry.

Mr. Prata explains that apprenticeships are often unpaid, and many apprentices leave before the end of their training. Depending on their skill level, most spend a minimum of six months helping with bookings and consultations, setup and cleanup before they're given an opportunity to practise with a needle, but only on themselves, close friends and pigskins at first.

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"It's about eight months before they touch a client, and when they start working on clients, it's very simple tattoos," he said. "They'll do that for another six months, so it's a year and a half before they really do anything half-decent."

Job prospects: Career opportunities for tattoo artists will depend on their skills and level of experience. While those who have spent less than five years in the industry may struggle to find work, those who have built a reputation can take their talents anywhere in the world.

"People have really gone into niches and developed styles, so if you're bringing something to the table, you can find a job anywhere, no problem," Mr. Prata says. "If you're a good artist, or you offer something unique, it's very easy. You can go and work all over the world."

Challenges: Since tattoo artists work as independent contractors, they rarely have the luxury of employee benefits and a consistent salary. While experienced tattoo artists are able to earn a decent living, beginners often work for years to establish a client base.

Why they do it: Given that it is a difficult field to break into, those who put in the time to become tattoo artists are often very passionate about their career. Furthermore, while pay is far from steady, it is still among the most financially secure professions for visual artists.

"I can get paid to draw, and I can do something that's rewarding for me," Mr. Longo said. "You get people who come in who want a memorial tattoo for a family member that passed away and they want to get something elaborate that symbolizes their family member. That, to me, is some of the most meaningful art you can do."

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Misconceptions: Both Mr. Longo and Mr. Prata say many people wrongly believe that most of their customers fall into two categories: bikers and punks.

"The clients that we get, they're just the same people you'd meet at a mall; they're regular people, the nurse or the construction worker or the university student. You don't get a client base that's particularly weird or scary," Mr. Longo said.

"That old-school mentality is still around, but tattoos are so popular now," Mr. Prata added. "It still has that stigma, and I think tattoos will have that for a long time."

Give us the scoop: Are you a tattoo artist? Write a note in the comments area of this story or e-mail your comment to careerquestion@globeandmail.com and let us know what you would tell others who are interested in the profession.

Want to read more stories from our Salaries Series? Find more here.

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