Updated: Jan 6
Welcome to the new era, Speakeasy Tattoo, Los Angeles freaks fans and fam. How is everyone? Are we normal? Are things normal? What is normal? Who knows? Not me.
So with all the focus I have spent on history or influences or various aspects of general tattoo world, I realize I have spoken very little to my progress as an apprentice.
In all honesty, things are kind of a whirlwind. Compounded with the weirdness of Covid, time kinda has no meaning. Somehow simultaneously it feels like it is blowing by at warp 9.9 while also it seems like I have been doing it since 1988. The shop is feeling more and more like home. Almost too comfortable considering a chair tried to kill me a few nights ago. Who makes chair legs out of brittle plastic??
So as my comfort level at the shop increases, as does my anxiety about the future. It has come to the point now that I need to make some serious decisions about my future career path as a tattoo artist and one major factor in that path is the tools with which I operate.
A lot has changed since the early days of the modified electric pencil of the late 19th century. Tattoo machines have evolved from heavy, buzzing chainsaw sounding things to almost silent devices that look more like a...personal massager, than a tattoo machine.
So what path does one choose? Will one choose wisely? Should one invade Russia in the winter?
Now there are seemingly countless variations to the tattoo machine, the primary variations used in modern electric tattooing are the classic "coil" machine and the "rotary" machine.
Lets break it down like the 2 minute mark in an Earth Crisis song.
So what is a "coil" machine? Picture, if you will, a spool of thread. However, instead of thread, a long copper is spooled (or "coiled," if you will) around a conductive material like steel with a washer on either end. When a charge is introduced into these coils,typically via a clip-cord attached to points on the frame itself or an AC jack plugs directly into a correctly adapted coil machine, an electro-magnetic field is created. While there are single-coil machines, typically a coil tattoo machine has two coils. The energy flow between these coils is maintained by a capacitor. Capacitors maintain consistency of the machine.
Okay, but why are we talking about electromagnetic fields. This is some sci-fi nonsense! Well it is this electromagnetic field that magnetically pulls the armature bar down. It is this action that pulls the spring away from the contact screw, which in turn breaks the circuit, killing the magnetic field, so the back-spring in junction with resistance of the needle striking the relatively rubbery, bouncy surface that is human skin, bounces the needle along with the armature bar back up, bringing the front spring back in contact with the contact screw. This cycle is repeated and thus you get the oh-so-soothing buzz buzz of the classic, traditional tattoo parlor.
Coil machines are basically what anyone imagines when picturing a tattoo machine, even if they know nothing about tattooing. And this is with good reason. As I have mentioned in the past, tattooing is a subculture that holds tradition close to the chest. For traditional artists like myself, the tradition of the mechanics of tattooing are just as important as the artistry itself.
But is this even totally true?
Rotary machines date back to the first days of electric tattooing. In fact, Edison's design for his electric pencil actually was both a coil and a rotary machine in one.
We've talked about loud coil machines, but what about prisoners? Some of the work coming out of the most horrific Soviet Gulags, or the most notorious American prisons have yielded some of the most amazing works of tattoo art to date, often inspiring entire genres of tattooing that is sought out by millions on the outside world. Mr. Cartoon tattoos people like Justin Timberlake with styles developed by jailed Latino gang members, charging thousands. Surely they dont have access to complex coil machines, right? After all, tattooing is strictly against the rules within the prison system, so how could they get away with the bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz of a chainsaw-loud coil machine in the echo-y hallways of a cement-walled prison? Remember the 90s? Remember skateboarding to school listening to the same Megadeth tape for the millionth time only to have your ride interrupted by the terrifying warbling sound of your walkman eating the tape? Suddenly youre on the side of a cold Colorado road trying to untangle a tape from the rotating gears and motor of your favorite (and most hated) machine. Why am I taking this pointless trip down memory lane? Well it is that same machine that makes tattooing beautiful art while being imprisoned for owning a tiny amount of a plant while the government bombs yet another country and robs the working class blind. Stay on topic, Sweeve, my god! Sorry. What am I yapping about. Well it's the motor of the walkman that can be taken apart and bastardized into a nearly-professional, functional tattoo machine. Rig up that rotating tape motor to a ballpoint pen shaft, attach a guitar string, or if you can get your hands one one, a safety pin, and you have whats known as a rotary machine! Bam, prison hero! So what is a rotary machine? Put simply, a rotary machine functions the same as a coil; a needle is driven up and down over and over, puncturing the epidermis of the skin, implanting the demon juice into the dermis, leaving a panty-dropping piece of art depicting a panther with a dagger through its head. Instead of an armature bar, the needle itself is connected to what's known as a cam wheel. This is connected to a
motor that, when connected to a power supply, rotates. The rest of the machine is essentially identical to a coilmachine; tube, tip, grip, needle and so on and so on. Many tattoo artists today are starting to lean more and more toward using a rotary machine in lieu of the classic coil. One main reason? Noise! Here you are, trying to have a nice afternoon of zapping cool ass roses but you have this chainsaw bussing in your face. How can you enjoy the nuance of your favorite Fields of the Nephilim album, or whatever that Chocolate Chip Cookie Dance song that Scott loves, with a chainsaw in your face? Well, you are in luck my unholy child! Despite the motor constantly running, rotary machines run exceptionally quiet, nearly silent at times. Great of enjoying music, or avoiding brutal Soviet guards looking for an excuse to cut your woodchip soup rations for another week. On top of the noise, rotary machines are significantly lighter than coil machines, making it easier to zapp all day without hand fatigue gettin you down and ruining your work day and your relationship with your wife.
So what does all this mean? Where are we? Have any conclusions been made?
These are the questions that literally keep me up at night.
On the one hand, it is crucial all apprentices honor and respect the traditions handed down over generations. Nobody should be fast tracked. You can't jump the line. For this reason I feel it is critical that the foundation in coil machines cannot be overlooked.
But, at the same time, is this even reasonable? Is this making life unnecessarily difficult on myself? What good is it to adhere to archaic and rigid orthodoxy if the client suffers. After all, it is the client who is ultimately most important, and while some may appreciate the connection to the traditions of the craft, some just want the best tattoo possible and to not have their airpods drown out with a chainsaw in their ear.
Ultimately, I think the key is in versatility. Knowing how to operate, and operate expertly, a wide variety of tools has literally no downside (well, maybe on my wallet). Making use of both and being able to tailor the right tool for the right job is of benefit to all. And lets be real. A part of me takes a bit of pleasure in being the guy in the shop buzzing away while everyone is trying to listen to Tool.
SO! On that note, I am looking forward to taking your consultations! Bring on the commissions of bold-lined wolves and skulls!