Tattoo Artists, Beware: Unpaid Tattoo Apprenticeships

Finally, it’s happened. After hustling and daydreaming of having a tattoo apprenticeship, you’ve finally landed one. From all your research, you know that the apprenticeship might jump-start your ink career or morph into a tattoo apprenticeship horror story.

You decide the risk is worth it.Tattoo Artists, Beware: Unpaid Tattoo Apprenticeships

When your tattoo mentor requires a couple thousand dollars upfront along with your unpaid, full time apprenticeship, you do it. You answer the phone, make appointments, sterilize equipment, take the trash out. It’s called paying your dues, right?

Unfortunately, under the law, this is illegal. Furthermore, in some cases, the abuse doesn’t stop there.

While some pranks are laughable, past apprentices talk about mentors who forced them to clean every car in the parking lot or demanded that the apprentice be at the mentor’s every command, whether a trip around town or some other favor. Even worse, tales circulate of tattoo mentors pulling a knife or using a stun gun on apprentices.

Although you may think that an unpaid tattoo apprenticeship is still worth it, you should know that the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) protects your rights as an unpaid intern. And if your unpaid apprenticeship doesn’t meet the requirements of this act, your mentor is required by law to be paying you. If you are an unpaid apprentice, even scheduling a client appointment is against the law.

Rite of Passage: Paying For Tattoo Apprenticeships

The federal government does little to regulate the licensing and certification of tattoo artists, allowing states and counties to create standards. As it is, most states offer few guidelines.

Over time, tattoo artists have inked a jagged design on society’s underside with abusive and unpaid tattoo apprenticeships. Basically, tattoo artists created a rite of passage. While some apprentices have respectful learning environments, others endure sexual harassment, physical abuse, and slave-like labor situations.

However, upstanding tattoo artists, who run clean and lawful tattoo shops, argue that a tough apprenticeship prepares the new tattoo artist for the dog-eat-dog tattoo industry. Tough means that the apprentice learns tasks appropriate to the trade, such as sanitizing equipment as well as learning about tattooing technique. Furthermore, paying for education is not new to our society. Good training requires hands-on activity.

Should a rite of passage be subject to the law?

Tattoo Artists, Beware: 6 Legal Guidelines For Unpaid Internships

The federal government protects workers throughout the United States with clear standards on wages, hours, and more. If you perform any task that contributes to the profit of a company, your valuable time and work should be compensated. This includes taking out the trash, cleaning the office, answering the phone.

The Fair Labor Standards Act outlines six rules that guide legal, unpaid internships. If the below criteria are not met by the unpaid internship, it is illegal.

FLSA Guidelines For Unpaid Apprenticeships

  1. The internship should be similar to what would be offered in an educational institution.
  2. The internship benefits the intern. The company hosting the internship should focus on training and educating the intern to the best of their ability.
  3. An unpaid intern should be supervised closely by regular employees. Although the intern is there to learn operations, the intern may not take over a task performed regularly by a paid employee.
  4. No immediate financial benefit or advantage should be had by the company training the intern. In fact, company operations may be interrupted by the intern training.
  5. A job is not required to be offered to the unpaid intern at the conclusion of the internship.
  6. Both the employer and the intern understand that the intern shall not receive wages during the internship period.

Easy rule of thumb: an unpaid internship is legal when the intern learns through job observation only.

Although a paid apprenticeship is generally unheard of in the tattoo industry, it is illegal to have an unpaid apprentice who is taking out the trash, sanitizing equipment, or answering the phone. Any contribution to a business should be paid. If you are an unpaid intern and your supervisor instructs you to take out the trash, this is in violation of the Fair Standards Labor Act. An unpaid intern lawyer can help you.


If you think your unpaid tattoo apprenticeship is violating FLSA, contact us.

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