"My nephew, 26, is determined that he will be a tattoo artist. He has been hanging out in a friend's tattoo shop in NC. His mom died recently and he is asking us for help to get him started, i.e. buy needles, etc. My question is... don't you need a license yourself to do tattoos? He says you don't. He said the health department came in, asked questions about standards, etc. I can't imagine that my nail tech needs to go to school, get a certificate to do my nails and the guy tattooing me doesn't need one.
My nephew says the owner has a certificate and he doesn't need one himself."
Depending on state laws, it is very possible that your nephew does not need a license. It's true that in most states, it is only required for the studio to have certification, not the artists that work there. The reason for this is because there is no formal training for learning how to tattoo that is regulated by the government. Because of that, they cannot require that anyone provide proof of training. However, some states do require that the artists at least be certified in blood borne pathogens, but that is not the case in all states.
So, it's up to the individual to have enough sense not to go into this business without proper training. Unfortunately, that is why my site and the work I do is necessary - because too many people do not care about that and put their customers at risk. And there are too many companies out there selling tattoo equipment to anyone with money, which only perpetuates the problem.
If your nephew really wants to make it in this business, he has to be trained. That is usually done through an apprenticeship. If he has a friend in the business, maybe his friend will (or is already) training him. I can't imagine that his friend, who owns a shop and will no doubt care about his reputation, would allow your nephew to just start tattooing clients without any experience.
If your nephew is serving an actual apprenticeship with his friend, and he simply needs starter equipment to begin practicing (apprentices usually practice on pig skin, fruit, etc.), but you should talk to him about exactly what he is needing and why. If it's because he wants to start tattooing people from home, that is very dangerous and also very disrespectful to his friend.
Does your nephew have artistic skill? Is he the kind of guy that's always sitting around drawing or painting? If that's the case, he may be a very good candidate to be a successful tattoo artist. However, if he thinks he wants to do this because he thinks it's cool, glamorous, or that he can rake in tons of money - he's setting himself up for disappointment. A few artists make big money in this business, and the rest of them are struggling day to day just like anyone else.
Since his mother just died and I'm sure he's hurting, it's probably a really good idea that he immerse himself in something expressive and artistic, as long as he does it properly. If he has artistic skill, he deserves a chance. Just make sure he's doing this the right way. I have a couple of articles you may want to share with him: What Makes a Good Tattoo Artist.
How to Become a Tattoo Artist. How to get an Apprenticeship.