Welcome to the Machine | Fireside Blog

Welcome to the Machine | Fireside Blog

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Most tattooers are aware of the long history of the tattoo machine that dates back to the electric pen invented by Thomas Edison. We are also aware of the evolution that is still happening with the transition from the older style machines to the newer rotary machines. Even the most basic machines have a certain aesthetic about them that conjures a mystique to the public’s mental image of the artist. Just as the samurai of old Japan are stylized in conjunction with their swords, so the vision of the tattooer cannot be separated from their own weapon of choice.

I think the first artist to really talk to me about the tattoos they were doing on me was Chris Trevino. During the really long sessions I got in 2001 at Three Tides in Osaka, I would get him to talk about Japanese block print artists, sumi inks and just tell me general tattoo stories. I had no agenda. I was just a guy getting tattooed and I had fallen in love with the art form.

One of the conversations I remember really well was about the machine he was using on me. It was an original Paul Rogers shader, built and actually given to him by Paul Rogers. My conversations with Chris would shape the choices I would make later in my own machine selections.

As I was reflecting back on my first two Mickie Sharpz machines, one being a Paul Rodgers and the other being a Micro Dial, I can’t help but remember all the feedback and advice the artists around me gave. This made me think about the nostalgia that many of us get with machines, as well as the more nerdy technical side to the artists who pride themselves in building their own.

In my own experience and fellowship with other tattooers, I’ve come across three experiences that form the common thread of acquiring a first machine: the gifted machine, the guided selection of a machine and the rite of passage of building your own machine.


The gifted machine:

I don’t really dig the tattoo tv shows. I decided early on that very few of them represent what is good about tattooing. Most shows seemed to have the stage set for drama from day one. Artists are selected and brought in to specifically create drama and conflict that any shop manager worth their salt would cut off before it even started. But you’ll have to excuse me. I could do a ranting tangent for the next 5 blog posts if I let myself.

Ranting aside, I do recall stopping on Amie James’s New York show on one occasion. In the one single time I watched, there was a scene where an apprentice was called into the office after stepping up and cranking out some serious work under fire. As a reward, he was given his first machine. Along with the machine was an explanation of where it came from. It was something that had meaning to the teacher and was being passed down to the student. It had history. It had value. Two things that would continue to grow with the new generation.

Along with Chris’s story about his gift from Paul Rogers, I have come across several others who told me similar stories about why they were using a seriously old school iron. In many cases it was just that, an actual old school reliable workhorse that was given to them by a mentor.


The guided selection:

This seems to be the most common and was actually how I got my first machines. As it came time for me to move into the actual tattooing phase, the folks in the shop I was in all gave me feedback. In fact, the micro dial was the one machine almost everyone in the shop used as a liner at the time.

I think this is the norm for the majority of the artists I’ve known. They all mostly go with what everyone else they work with is using. It is the simplicity of going with what we know.


The Rite of Passage:

As the new Star Wars movie looms into view over the next few days, I get images of Jedi younglings having to make their first lightsabers. It is a rite of passage. Before you learn to wield it, you must learn to make it and care for it. I guess it just falls into the master/apprentice model that these mystical warriors share with tattooing.

As the industry becomes more dominated by formally trained artists, you unfortunately come across this less. However, there are still folks who have had to make their own machines for their first tattoo. I know two guys that had to do this.

I guess I could talk about the view this gives these guys in relation to other artists who only know basic machine maintenance, but the dynamics of the two people I have personal experience with is so different, I don’t think either is actually the norm. One is extremely quiet and humble and just likes building machines. The other is just kind of an arrogant dick. Regardless, both have a skill that is marketable beyond just the artistic side of the business. This is always a good thing.


As I seem to be making a habit, I’ll just leave this open for discussion. If you are an artist, what was your experience with your first machine? Did I miss a category? We would love to hear your stories.

Also, I would love to hear input on anyone who has a rotary as their first machine. Did you have to learn on a traditional first or did you just jump in with only the rotary? Other thoughts on rotaries?


Till next time,


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