Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Downside of New Machine Systems

 Originally, I was just going to make a short statement about this on my Facebook Page: Tattoo Nerd Facebook, but it turned into a full-blown post.

Seth Ceferri Workhorse Iron Machine
 I use coil tattoo machines, a tattoo system that has been in existence for decades.  The system is simple; two coils form and electromagnet that actuates an armature bar assembly.  The downward pull on the bar disrupts the electrical circuit, releasing the bar until is makes contact and re-established the circuit.  This system has been in use for so long that we now have standardization in components and a broad base of supplier for parts and accessories (tubes, needles, grommets, etc.).

 Rotary machines have recently made a resurgence.  Most people are surprised to learn that rotary systems where one of the first electric-tattoo systems, pre-dating coil machine systems.  Rotary machines where initially developed by Thomas Edison as a means to create documents that could be copied by perforating the original and then using ink-rollers to transfer the original to new paper. Sam O'Reilly took Edison's "Electric Pen", redesigned the tube-assembly and added an ink reservoir, then patented the electric tattoo machine in 1891.  Edison later modified his pen with an electric coil, and in 1904 Charlie Wagner modified that design for use in tattoo.  

Cheyenne Hawk 
 Modern rotary machines are smaller, quieter, and far more consistent than a standard coil tattoo machine.  Most of these machines make use of the same accessories as coil machines, the same tubes and needles.  Their growing popularity among tattoo artists has resulted in a number of other machine systems entering into the market-place.  One such system is the Cheyenne Hawk.  The Hawk builds on the rotary tattoo system by including a special grip and cartridge assembly, replacing the standard tube and needle.  The advantage is that pigment and other contaminants do not go up the tube and reach the machine, making the Cheyenne Hawk in theory cleaner and safer than standard systems.

Cheyenne Cartridges.  Stock up!
 New devices are designed to look very high tech and operate using novel systems.  The Centri Cobra is one such machine; using two magnets to create a centrifugal force that actuates the needle bar.  This makes the movement of the machine virtually without friction, which should result in smoother operation and greater control.  The cobra comes with a built in spot-lamp, a feature that is popular on many new devices.  

 The problems with these new machines is the price, and it is not all in the initial cost.  As I stated, with a coil machine system I can purchase components from a broad base of suppliers.  Maintenance and modification of my coil machines is simple and I have numerous options.  A Workhorse Iron coil machine runs about $500 (you can get a machine for much, much less).  If the coils on my Workhorse go bad, I can replace them for as little as $20 if I want to go cheap, and no more than $50 if I want top-of-the-line coils.  With a system like the Cheyenne Hawk, I have to use the needle cartridges and grips for their system.  If the Cheyenne company goes out of business, I have a a $600 device (drive and grips) that are rendered useless when suppliers run out of cartridges.  With the Cobra, if something fails with my $600 device, I have to purchase another $600 Cobra if I want to continue using that kind of machine.  

Centri Cobra, from the future!

 This is the reason for the continued success of the coil-machine system; your initial investment is easy to maintain.  The innovations of new devices are interesting, but the marginal improvements in use and convenience (many systems are designed to offer multiple types of stroke, but switching from one machine to another when going from lining to shading really is not that difficult) do not really make up for the high initial price and long-term maintenance costs.  More over, many artists who use rotary machines or some other new system have a set of coil machines as a back-up for when their more modern system fails.

 That speaks volumes, in my opinion.

 Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him a message at

Friday, November 14, 2014

Following Through With Your Client


 I read one of your articles, and I have some questions.  I recently got a tattoo and I am concerned about the way it is healing.  I don't want to ask my artist because I don't want them to get angry with me for doing something wrong..."

 I get an email like this at at least twice a week.  Today, after responding to one such email, I found myself wondering why the client did not go back to her artist?  If I go to a doctor and have a question about the procedure or the instructions I was given, I call that doctor and ask.  Ditto for my electrician, my plumber, my auto-mechanic, even my grocer.  If I have a question about a service, I go back to the source.  Why is it different for these tattoo artists and their clients?

 I do not consider myself a great artist.  I am always striving to improve, and I do well as a tattooer, but I am not great.  I write a fair article that people seem to enjoy, but I do not consider myself a great writer.  I am not well known in the tattoo community.  I am making a bit of a name for myself, but even the greats in tattooing are only known by a minuscule percentage of the population.  My point is that these people did not seek my advice because of who I am.  They came to me because of something their artists did, or did not, do.  

 When I get a question from another tattoo artist's client, I do everything I can to avoid being critical of the artist or their work.  This is not a matter of professional respect for my fellow artists, but of respect for their clients.  They are already so clearly anxious about their tattoo that they have reached out to a total stranger for advice. They don't need some guy they will probably never meet making things worse by telling them they made a huge mistake with their choice of tattooer.  That ship has already sailed.  When they get to me, they want an answer, and they want to be re-assured.  

 I give them the information they need based on my own experience and research, and I always encourage them to talk to their tattoo artist and follow his or her instructions.  It is your work, and if you are a professional then you will be fully invested in making certain that the tattoo is the best it can be and your client is happy.

 But, if your client understood that, then why did they reach out to me?

 Getting a tattoo is intimidating.  As artists, I think we forget what it is like to walk into a tattoo shop for a client.  For us, walking into a tattoo shop is like coming home.  For a client, they have no idea what to expect, but they know tattoos involve pain and can go wrong. They know they are going to spend potentially hundreds of dollars in the hope that the artist they select can give them a tattoo they will be happy with.  There is always some trepidation for a client when getting a tattoo, especially that first tattoo from an artist they just met.

 Artists are usually very good at the sell.  They point out the strengths of their portfolio. They demonstrate a firm expertise about safety procedures and best practices when tattooing.  They have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of tattoo history and the industry.  When they get their client in the chair or on the table, they can be very personable.  They can chat the client up and keep their mind off the pain of the tattoo.  They joke and keep things light.

 However, once the tattoo is completed, it usually is about getting the client out the door.  For the artist, the transaction is complete.  They offer after-care instructions, maybe set an appointment for their next session, and thank them as they leave.

 That is not what your client needs.

 We generally tell the client that the tattoo healing process will take about two weeks.  We also know that while they are looking at their new tattoo in the mirror, they are not listening to us.  That ink in their skin is your reputation.  If you are wise about your business, you see every tattoo you do as an advertising investment.  You know that most issues with a tattoo occur when the client does something wrong during the first two weeks.  Why would you leave your reputation to chance in the hands of your client?

 When I go to the doctor, I get a call from a nurse a couple of days later.  It is called a "wellness check", just to confirm that I understand the instructions I was given, that the treatment is effective and not having any unforeseen consequences, and that I am generally content with the visit to the doctor.  In any real sense, how different is what we do from what a doctor might do who performs minor surgery?  

 I typically reach out to my clients after just a few days for the same reasons; do they understand and are the following the instructions I gave them, and do they have any questions or concerns?  That wellness check, after a few days and toward the end of two weeks, confirms in the minds of my clients that I am responsible for the work I did, and that I will follow through with making certain they are satisfied with their tattoo.  It confirms for them that I am a professional who cares about my work, and who sees them as more than a source of income.  That simple email, instant message, or call to ask how they are doing with their new tattoo lets them know that we are in this together.  That bond means they will come back to me for more tattoos, and that they will tell their friends.

 Close out the tattoo session with a solid discussion about after care and ask the client how best they can be reached (phone, email, Facebook, etc). Let them know that you will follow through with them in a day or two, and emphasize for them the ways they can reach you if they have any questions.  That conversation, and the wellness check, is what makes a client into a repeat customer.

 Again, I do not consider myself a great tattoo artist, but those artists who do not follow through with their clients, who do not establish that bond of trust and treat each tattoo as an investment in their own reputations, should know how their clients respond when I give them my advice.


 Thank you for the email.  I feel so much better now, and I will follow your advice and talk to my artist.  If I were in Austin I would be coming to get my next tattoo from you!"  

 A client should never leave your shop thinking that you will be angry with them for asking a question.  Your client should have the confidence in you as a professional to reach out to you and know you will be as professional and competent as when they were getting the tattoo.  It is more than their ink, it is your reputation.

  Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him a message at

Friday, November 7, 2014

Tattoos in the Workplace

 Several stories have been making their rounds on the Internet regarding people who were not hired because of their tattoos.  Bill Roach was told he would not be getting a job with a company in the medical industry because of his visible ink (, and Charlotte Tumilty, who was turned away on her first day as a teacher's assistant at St, John Vianney Primary School ( because of her tattoos.  Their tattoos are not vulgar or distasteful (relatively), but they are difficult to cover with clothes.

I can clean that up for you and get the color back in if you want.
 The cute blonde girl is getting far more sympathy than the dude in California, but this article is not about the blatant hypocrisy of gender and the Internet, it is about tattoo choices.

 You may be surprised by this, but I believe that the businesses in these stories are in the right. While I think it may be time to adjust such policies due to shifts in the culture, I do stand for the right of a business to have such a policy in place.  An employee on the clock who interacts with the public IS the business in the minds of those they deal with.  If a medical company considers tattoos unprofessional and a school considers them inappropriate, then that is their business (literally).  

 Imagine having some person as your representative who acts on your behalf before you meet potential clients or often people you will never have direct contact with.  "Hi, I am Jason's legal and official representative."  Now imagine that person represents you in a way that is diametrically opposed to who you are.  "Jason, as you know, is a tiny woman with a club foot who hates art in all its forms."  

 See, that would not be cool.

"Hello, ma'am.  I with ABC Med Supply. I have your power chair."
 Both of these people claim that they are being discriminated against, and technically they are correct.  Discrimination is simply a matter of opting for one type and denying another. People who lacked the education or training for those same positions were also discriminated against. People who prefer chocolate ice-cream to vanilla are discriminating. "Discrimination" is a buzzword that is meant to suggest that these folks were unfairly denied employment, and I don't think I can agree with that conclusion.  A business has a right to determine who will represent the business to the public, and the manner and form of that representation.

 Moreover, calling it "discrimination" in this instance is not only petty, but it belittles the many times in history that discrimination was in fact unfair.  Race, ethnicity, and gender are all consequences of birth, and clearly discrimination on those grounds is unfair (the individual had no choice in the matter). Religion is a matter of spirituality that is a consequence of our upbringing and who we are at the core of our being, again uncool to discriminate against. Sexual orientation and gender identity, while not through all the legal hoops to become truly protected, is either a matter of birth, at the core of your being, or both, and businesses should not be allowed to discriminate on those grounds.

Actually, I kind of wish she taught me in grade school.
 But tattoos?  You elected to go under the needle and get your girlfriend's lip prints tattooed on your neck?  That was a choice. You made that choice because that is how you want to represent yourself to the world.  A business may choose to exclude you from the way they present themselves to the world. Also, did you think the tattoo through?  Did you really think a neck tattoo would not have consequences in the corporate world?  I find myself looking at people with neck and facial tattoos and hoping that they are fellow tattooers, otherwise they are almost guaranteeing a career that will have to be outside the mainstream.  Do you want to be represented by someone who is too short sighted to see the consequences of undergoing a permanent transformation of their image? What other choices might they think are "okay" if people would just try to understand them?

 Does it suck that people with tattoos are considered less professional than those who have never felt the sweet kiss of a tattoo needle?  Yes.  In fact, most tattooers I know hold themselves to a higher professional standards than many doctors, lawyers, and CEOs you may hear about. But is it wrong for a business to manage itself based on that premise?  No.  I support a business' right to make those choices, even though I will actively choose not to patronize them if I can (choices have consequences).  

"But I look super-cute at the pub!"
 Think before you ink.  A tattoo is a commitment, even in this age of laser-removal.  A tattoo that cannot be hidden by clothing is even more so.  Society will judge you, and if you could not care less what people think (bravo!), don't whine if what people think keeps you from something you want.  If it means mom and dad will kick you out, or that job you want as a paralegal will be closed to you, don't get a neck tattoo.

 Personally, if I were either of these people, I would work my momentary notoriety into a job with a tattoo friendly employer. 

 Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him a message at

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Using Pig Skin to Practice Tattooing

 How does one get good at tattooing?  The answer is obviously that they practice.  How, though, do they practice?  When you are just starting out, it seems hard to imagine that people are lining-up so a new tattoo artist can TRY to give them a tattoo (the truth is that people do line-up for just such an opportunity because they are more concerned about getting it cheap then getting it done well).  Even if you do have a number of people willing to let you potentially scar them for life, what is the transition from drawing on paper to using a needle in skin?

 I cannot stress the following point enough:

 The best way to learn to tattoo is through an apprenticeship.

 No amount of watching YouTube videos and reading tattoo blogs can make up the difference that a hands-on tattoo apprenticeship offers.  You are more likely to learn a bunch of bad habits than good tattoo techniques going it alone, and what you can learn from an experienced mentor in a few months can take several years to discover through trial-and-error.  

 So, if you are going to even practice tattooing, you should do it with the guidance and supervision of an experienced mentor.  

The skin texture makes a clean stencil difficult.
 That said, if you insist on practicing, typically you do it on something other than people.  You will read about a number of options; the skins of fruit (bananas, oranges, grapefruit), styro-foam containers, chicken parts with skin on them, even fake "skin" sold by some tattoo supply companies.  The best thing to practice on, in my opinion, is pig skin.

 As an aside, don't waste your money on fake skin.  Most the stuff is basically the same material as a mouse-pad.  How much like skin does your mouse-pad feel?  Your needle doesn't really act the same way with fake skin, the stuff does not hold ink in the same manner (if at all), and it is hard to tell what you are doing because of the way it responds when you dab or wipe excess ink off it.  Usually you will stain the "skin" with the excess and discover none of the ink is in your mark.  If I run into a practice skin that is worth anything, I will definitely feature it here, and I welcome any manufacturers who think their fake skin is worth the buy to send me a sample.

 Pig skin, on the other hand, is about as close to human skin as you are going to get.  It is far tougher than most human skin, does not have much elasticity to it, and can smell awful (hopefully unlike most of your clients).  It does hold ink in much the same way, and responds to the needle in the same manner.  You can learn to manage needle depth, learn about speed, practice your line-work, shading, and coloring, basically everything that you might do when tattooing.

Excess ink does not wipe off as easily.
 You can get pig skin at a local butchers or meat section at a local grocery.  Most national food chains will not carry it, but groceries where they cut their own meat will often have the skin for sale for making pork rinds or as trimmings from other cuts of meat.  You want the pig skin as a sheet at least five or six inches wide.  Strips of skin will not do you any good.  I purchase mine from a nearby oriental market.

 Again, pig skin is different than human skin.  The texture of the skin and its tough quality makes getting a clean stencil on the skin difficult.  You are probably better off drawing a stencil by hand on the skin than you are using stencil paper (but it is also a good way to learn to use and apply a stencil with stencil paper).  Ink stains the skin much faster than human skin, though with some effort you can clean the skin off.  The skin also tends to dry out quickly, which means you will find yourself over-working the skin in a complete tattoo's late stages if you do a fair-sized piece.

 You should set-up to do the tattoo in the exact same manner as you would for a real client, observing all the protocols about being aseptic and avoiding cross-contamination.  Practice is the time to form good habits, not bad ones.  Do not cut corners.  When I practice, I place the pig skin on a prepared arm-bar, simulating a limb of a client.  The skin itself will need to be shaves and cleaned.  Definitely wear gloves (again, good habits).  

Skin is dry and not responding well to color.
 You have about an hour to work with your skin before it starts to dry out.  With this in mind, I would focus on one aspect of tattooing at a time or do small tattoos.  Have specific goals in mind when practicing.  If you are practicing lines, focus on consistency, whipping the lines out, and doing clean lines.  When practicing shading, work on getting a soft and smooth gradient.  With color, work on even and solid distribution without over-working the skin (and learning what over-worked skin looks like).

 While the skin will not be very elastic, you should still practice stretching the skin.  Learn how to use petroleum jelly on the skin while tattooing, and learn how to deal with excess ink.  Your mentor should be checking your work every step of the way, making suggestions as you go (without a mentor it is hard to say if your work is right or wrong).  Practice break-down and clean-up the same way you did set-up.  

 Pig skin is not easily saved, and typically is not worth the effort.  However, you should take photos of your work to study and to document your progress.  You cannot get enough practice, but if you can do clean lines, soft shading, and consistent color in pig-skin, then when you have the other basics of tattooing down working with human skin should be far simpler.
 Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him a message at