I Want Your Job: Tattoo artist

'Everyone wants their own look'
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The Independent Online

Louis Molloy, 44, is a tattoo artist from Manchester. He created almost all of David and Victoria Beckham's tattoos.

What do you actually do?

Basically, I'm like any other artist. People commission me to produce an artwork for them, but instead of doing it on paper, canvas or computer screen, I do it on human skin.

People who get tattooed aren't all sailors, soldiers and criminals. They come from all walks of life. You get high-ranking white-collar professionals, eccentrics – it's a diverse crowd, and everyone wants an individual look.

What's a typical day like?

I arrive at the studio at 8am, make myself a coffee, and answer emails and print off paperwork and invoices. I might do two tattoos a day, or up to five or six – it depends on their size and complexity.

For every tattoo I do, there's an hour of preparation. You have to practise rigid hygiene. To prepare a design, I start with a line drawing. I'll make a stencil, or draw it on to the skin with a pen. I have an extensive research library, and I find computer programs like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator invaluable. I try to create individual designs for each person, so they have to think about what they want. That way, they are less likely to regret it.

What do you love most about your job?

Tattoos have always held a fascination for me. My favourite designs are contemporary interpretations of traditional Japanese woodblock prints, with a Western twist. The designs are rather like Impressionist paintings – the individual components don't jump out at you, but when you stand back, they look incredible. There's a great sense of achievement when you've finished a design.

What's not so great about it?

My biggest bugbear is people who don't have a clue what design they want. They turn up at the studio and come out with lines like: "Well, when I see it – I'll know it." It's soul-destroying. You know that they will never be satisfied with it, whatever you do. I have to turn these people away. A tattoo is not a throwaway consumable.

What skills do you need to be a top tattoo artist?

It's a visual and creative medium, so it helps to be very good artistically. You also need a lot of patience, because tattoos take a long time to do, and also because you're working with the general public. From the point of starting out, until you get good, it takes at least five years. It's a constantly evolving process – you need to practise, practise, practise. Even after 26 years, I'm still learning.

You have to be inquisitive and eager to master new skills. You need determination and tenacity, too, because it can be hard to get started. You've got to be like a dog that won't let go of a bone.

What advice would you give someone who wants to be a tattoo artist?

The first thing I'd say is to get a portfolio of your work together. Don't just copy designs out of tattoo magazines. That won't impress anyone. A lot of people want to get into the industry because somehow they think it's a glamorous rock'*'roll lifestyle. It's not. It's bloody hard work.

The second thing I'd say is: think about what you can offer the tattoo industry. You can only do tattoos if people want to get them from you, so you have to offer them something different. Apprenticeships with tattoo artists are feasible, but there are a lot of people chasing a few places, so you have to impress. I think a degree in illustration or graphic design would help – I would have loved the chance to do one.

What's the salary and career path like?

If you start as an apprentice, for the first 12 months, you'd probably just be cleaning, seeing how a tattoo studio works, and asking questions. You might get paid £100 a week. Then, you might get clients with old tattoos who would let you rework them, or practise filling in the outline of a tattoo. After another 12 months, you could start doing your own designs. You work on commission in a studio, getting perhaps 40 to 50 per cent of the takings, or renting a chair. An experienced tattooist could earn £30,000 to £60,000 a year.

For more information on becoming a tattoo artist, visit www.tattoo.co.uk.

Louis Molloy stars in London Ink which airs on Discovery Real Time at 10pm from 23rd September. For more details log onto realtimetv.co.uk/londonink