thanks for taking the time Soba!
As always, feel free to ask further questions and you might get an answer!
Tattoo Machines NOW: Could you describe your tattoo machine building style?
Soba: Hmmm... good question. I never really thought of it in that sense. I guess I build three main types consistently. Liners: I try to make them in the 130 to 150 Hz range- and generally strong enough for loose 7s. Of course, different frame geometries dont allow for this general set up, which is done on purpose. The Pilots for instance are long frames, so the a-bar is heavier. This makes it more difficult to achieve the speed. Shaders (color machines): I usually shoot for the 98 to 109 Hz range, and the hit really varies from frame to frame. Pilots are SLOW and Punchy. Built with the traditional style in mind. Rustos and Clippers are on the faster side of the range, allowing for ease of use with thinner pigment viscosities and lending more toward black and grey styles. The third type that is built with specific intentions are Black and Grey Shaders. I feel a good BG shader should run almost as fast as a liner- around 120Hz, but have a long stroke, and hit softer. I get really good feedback from BG tattooers setting machines up this way.
TMN: What made you want to be a tattoo machine builder?
Soba: Originally, it was just to better understand the tools of the craft, so I could excel at the craft. Being more drawn toward making stuff than illustrating, the natural progression lead me here. I started out trying to understand spring theory. The Eikon pamphlets were my very first introduction to the science behind the art. But even their explanations were not enough for me to grasp- so I just started experimenting. I feel thats the best way to learn anyway... From springs I went to coils, from there to frames etc... It pretty much turned into an obsession. And what kept me wanting to be a builder, was the positive feedback I would get from tattooers who used my machines! I felt I was better at making machines than tattooing, so obviously I gravitated toward that.
TMN: Do you have a machinist background?
Soba; Oh HELL no! hahaha. I was so incredibly ignorant to every aspect of this process. It took lots of persistence and many cold calls to figure out how this stuff gets made. I made tons of mistakes along the way. When I think back to the developmental years, I dont know how I stuck with it! I guess just stubborn desire....
TMN: How long have you been making tattoo machines?
Soba: I began playing around with tuning them in 1998 when I started to tattoo. My first machine was not created until 2000. It has been constant growth since then. Never stopping, always trying to improve.
TMN: How long have you been tattooing?
Soba: Ugh- I hate this question, because I feel like a dick when Im forced to answer it! I started tattooing in 98. I tackled it obsessively, working at the shop 6 days a week for the first year and a half. But the moment I created that first machine in 2000, I began moving away from tattooing slowly but surely. I think I jumped in too quickly- setting lofty goals of being published and working the circuit. I did get into some magazines- but my work wasnt ready. The more I learned, them more I knew was wrong with my drawing skills. I felt foolish, and that caused me to draw less, rather than practice and progress. I remember working at one shop, and all the pictures came back from printing. (Before digital! Ha!) The shop owner was going thru all the photos and dividing them up for all the artists. He came to one of my pictures- a Brian Fraud Fairy piece and goes UGH! Who did THIS?! MUD City! I took that pretty hard... Plus all the egos on the once famous Read Street Forum really did a number on me too... I just felt so shitty about my drawing... So eventually, I stopped all together. I opened my tattoo shop in 2005 with the hopes of better balancing the machine business with my desire to stay true to tattooing, but it still didnt click. I just cant for the life of me sit in a tattoo shop and draw. I still WANT to. I still TRY..... I dont think I could ever throw in the towel completely.
TMN: Has anyone inspired or influenced your way of tattoo machine building?
Soba: Not directly. I used to really suck at building liners, and Seths liners were always super dope- so I got some inspiration from there. I have always made a point of trying to do things differently than other guys. Im not the guy to get all bent out of shape at the whole biting thing- but for me personally, I want to be known and respected for doing MY thing. Plus, I believe whole heartedly in the idea that customer service is #1. (Yes people- even in the tattoo industry!!) I try to give the customer what they want, even if its not my style. If they want my opinion, Ill gladly give it. But who am I to push my theories on them? So I guess Im inspired by a desire to serve the tattoo community.
TMN: How do you view the tattoo machine builder's community? Is there friendly competition going on?
Soba: There is- for sure. I am friends with my two main competitors, Luckys and Pulse. I totally love and respect Jimmy and Brett, and value our business relationships even though we are creating products for the same market! And to be honest, I really dont see that same friendly bond between most other builders. There are a few guys who are within their own clicks- but if you arent in that click, they dont seem to respect you. I think most of them are threatened by competition- and most of them are haters anyway. I hear more and more guys bitching about the amount of other guys building machines now. Every convention booth is selling machines. So fucking what?! That shit is fun! Why wouldnt every other tattooer want to build machines? Get over it! I do meet a few though, who are genuine craftsmen, and love to link up and compare notes and show their stuff etc... I love that aspect of a real community.
TMN: Do you travel to sell your tattoo machines? Any conventions that you regularly attend?
Soba: I really dislike travel. Hahaha... Seriously though- Im a home body. I like my routine. This year Im going to Hell City in Columbus. Im doing a tattoo machine tuning seminar. Other than that, I have no plans. I try to get out once a year- really just to drink with everyone and shoot the shit. See whats going on and come home inspired! I do bring machines with me to sell when I go- but its really just to cover expenses and let people check em out. I try to always bring special ones with me too...
TMN: About how many tattoo artists use your tattoo machines? Any notables?
Soba: I think I have built almost 5000 machines since that first one in 2000. I have no idea how many are still being used today, and I dont have any idea if any whos who are using them. I have built quite a few machines for my friend Hannah Aitchison. Kat VonD used one of my liners on Miami Ink. A guy named Matt Victor was on Inked when that show first aired, and he used a few of my machines on that show. Its pretty cool to hit pause on the TV and show your kid something you made is on. Pretty fucking cool indeed! Aaron Cain tattooed me with one of my Phantoms. That was cool. I am really impressed with a lot of work I see done by guys using my machines- whether they be famous or not. I get so geeked when I see that! When I look through magazines (which is rarely now) and there is convention coverage, I pour over each image scanning for one of my machines.... sometimes- I find one! hahahahahahaha....
TMN: Do you manufacture all the parts yourself or do you deal with pre-made parts?
Soba: Mostly now, we make everything, outside of screws and washers. I mean- we dont make magnet wire or capacitors, but all the other stuff, we make. When I shut down Workhorse last year for re-structuring (read: near nervous breakdown), it was all in the back of the tattoo shop. Now, we have our own huge space, and the machine shop is right next door. Its awesome. We are always tweaking things a little here and there, and having the manufacturing process right there makes it much easier. I think we can really get better quality now, and I can actually take a phone call in almost private!
TMN: Any favorite material you use for your tattoo machine frames and could you explain the benefits?
Soba: I love Ductile Iron and I love Navy Brass. The Iron is great because its easy to machine, and has the good magnetic properties. Id say the downfall is the long term surface finish issues like rust. It seems the binder joints get mucked up faster with Iron frames too. Brass is a bit heavier, but I LOVE the ability to finish the surface so many different ways. I like that it does not absorb the magnetic field over a long session also. I think Brass is for sure my favorite... Not a big fan of Aluminum, although I have seen some frames in the past year that blew my mind. They ran like they were Iron. Crazy... I guess I just have not had a lot of luck with it personally. I actually machined a frame out of Delrin- a type of plastic. I knew it wouldnt work, but wanted to try it anyway. If it had less flex, it would be cool..... I think fancy hardwood frames would be cool as shit too- not that Id recommend that, however.
TMN: Regarding coils and springs are there any specific formulas you use to make your tattoo machines run a certain way?
Soba: Ummm... kind of. I pretty much stick to whats tried and true. I have experimented with different magnet wire gauges and spring thicknesses etc, but always come back to 24 awg wire and .018 springs. A-bars are a standard 3/8 X 3/16 and cores are 5/16.
TMN: Have you had any experience with rotary tattoo machines or any other unconventional tattoo machine types? Opinions on them?
Soba: I have not. And thats not because I dont think theyre a good idea or whatever, I just dont feel like messing with it. I have argued over the years that the cam driven machines, be it powered with air or motors or otherwise, will never have the magic feel of a coil/spring machine. But technology will most likely prove me wrong. Im a very strong supporter of technological advancement, and am sure that we have not seen the last word in machine development. And thats a good thing, really. I will support a better way of achieving putting ink into the skin, even if it renders me obsolete. (Dont expect me to lay down though....Ill have something to add, to be sure!)
TMN: Anything you would like to add?
Soba: Yes, in regards to the exchange of information- I do not feel the methods and theories of tattooing or machine building should be thrown about the internet freely, but I also dont agree with angrily guarding and hoarding these so called secrets either. We should treasure our knowledge- and that means not whoring it out, and behaving as though it has no value. We should also feel good about passing it on to individuals who will also care for it- who will share in our desire to nurture it, and practice the craft with respect and a desire for improvement.
Also- We cannot keep taking and taking without putting back in. Mimicking what wows us is okay at first- but we need to take it further. Be an individual - adding to the pool! Experiment! Make mistakes, cut yourself, get iron in your eye, fail, succeed..... Be a connoisseur, not a fast food idiot.