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Tattoo Machines - Guy Aitchison

Tattoo Machines NOW: Could you explain your style of tattooing and how your tattoo machines help you to achieve that style?
Guy Aitchison:Guy Aitchison Tattoo Machines


Both my graphic style and my technical execution are a blend of bold, aggressive styles with subtle, more painterly ones. I tend to move my hands quickly, fanning the points over the skin's surface at a rapid rhythm that, by the end of the session, averages out to being a smooth solid look. Some artists prefer to plug into the skin and methodically saturate it in one even pass, but that's the opposite of the way I work, which I believe gives me the most intuitive means of blending colors, textures and values, giving me flexibility to push and pull any given part of the tattoo right up until the last poke of the needle.

TMN: What is a typical tattoo machine setup? Are you partial to a certain tattoo machine builder or company?
G: I'm using a number of different tattoo machines, and I tend to rotate through a fair number of machines over the course of a year. I'm curious about equipment in general and when an artist I respect tells me they are crazy about a new tattoo machine, I want to try it. Presently I'm doing most of my 5 round work with a Welker Iron, which has a rubber silencer plug fitted into the armature bar right where it strikes the front coil core- it not only quiets the tattoo machine a bit (much to my clients' apparent relief) but also seems to add to a general sense of smoothness. I am also using a pair of Fallen King aluminum machines for my 5 and 7 mag work- their machines are very smooth and consistent, and although the aluminum ones seem to require a really stiff clipcord (slightly inconvenient if you swap machines many times during a session, as I do) their overall smoothness and even power are more than worth it. I do my large mag work with an Aaron Cain tattoo machine- I have a number of his machines, some which are really consistent production model workhorse machines, which see daily use, and then some one-of-a-kind custom tattoo machines that I'm a bit more timid about using because they're such fine works of art. For years I have also been using Next Generation aluminum tattoo machines for all kinds of general purposes- they have been a consistent part of my toolbox for a long time. I use mostly aluminum machines simply because of the weight issue- I do not prefer the way aluminum machines run- nobody does- but my wrists demand them.

TMN: Do you have a favorite frame or tattoo machine style?
G: As long as it runs great, I'm not picky. When I'm working they are covered with plastic bags so it really doesn't even matter. I always get a kick out of holding Aaron's machines, though, and just handing them over to visiting tattooers for them to drool over.

TMN: Is there noticeable differences in tattoo machines with different amounts of coil wraps?
G: I think the number of wraps will make less of a difference than the other major factors such as spring tension, capacitor size and frame geometry. I've run 12 wrap tattoo machines that ran light as a feather and 8 wrap tattoo machines that you could tattoo a battleship with. Generally, I don't think anything more than 10 wraps is even necessary... ultimately we want to aim for machine designs that waste as little power as possible, using almost all of it for driving the needle, rather than generating extra heat and vibration.

TMN: Have you found a spring setup you find works better for different applications?
G: I generally ask the tattoo machine builder to set up the springs for a given style of working, then I leave them as-is. One thing I do differently from many tattoo artists is that I start magnum first with most tattoos, so the work I'm doing with the small round groups is not a single pass line pulling exercise but instead one where the machine is being used like a pencil, with a wide variety of hand movements. For this, I like a medium stroke machine with minimal spring tension, so it runs at the lowest power possible. This lets me work the skin more than a harder hitting machine would allow for.

TMN: Do you use a digital power supply or tune your tattoo machines by feel/ sound/sight or a combination thereof?
G: I have a drawer full of power supplies but keep returning to a custom one-of-a-kind unit that was made for me as a gift many years ago... it has 3 machine setups, which I need. I also like the Critical digital units, simply for their small size and weight, but have never once looked at the numbers while tuning my tattoo machines. If it doesn't feel right, the numbers on the readout are meaningless.

TMN: How often do you perform maintenance on your tattoo machines and what does that consist of?
G: That depends on how long I've had the tattoo machine- you know, newer machines tend to stay in tune longer. I try to make sure to clean the coil core every couple weeks. I tend to leave the contact points alone unless the machine is starting to run unevenly, and then it's the whole rigamarole with twisting the point, filing it, running it, twisting it again... but I try to keep this to a bare minimum to maintain a close resemblance to how the machine's maker set the thing up in the first place. I recommend using emery paper instead of a file for routine point cleaning, since it takes less metal off.

TMN: Have you noticed healing differences due to different tattoo machines?
G: That really boils down to how well a person's working style matches the way their tattoo machines run. If it's a smooth running machine it will only cause healing problems if that artist's working style combined with the tattoo machine's running style adds up to too many holes in the skin.

TMN: Do you have any experience with pneumatic,rotary or half coil tattoo machines?
G: Several of my machines are half coil tattoo machines, and I like them for the weight difference... as I said earlier in the question about coil wraps, I have found that the amount of copper in the coils is a small factor compared to the rest of the machine's setup. If a machine is put together well it will run with more than adequate power even with half coils. The Fallen King irons I'm using have one full coil and one half coil each- interesting setup, a strange conclusion for a machine builder to come to... but they work great.

Pneumatic and electric rotary machines are another animal entirely. What I'm focused on here is what I refer to as a "stroke profile", where you imagine a graph of the actual motion of the needle as time passes. With a coil tattoo machine, you'll most likely find that the needle pauses for a period of time at the top of each stroke as electromagnetism builds, then when the magnetic power is adequate to overcome the spring tension, it suddenly pulls it down. As the armature bar approaches the coil, its distance decreases, hence greater magnetic pull as it moves downward... so in effect, the needle pauses at the top, accelerates toward the skin, then pulls out immediately without any kind of turnaround time. With any rotary tattoo machine, the opposite happens- the needle is always in motion in a smooth oscillating motion, meaning that the needle is actually slowing down as it approaches the skin... it slows down to a stop, then speeds up again gradually as it pulls out. In some ways, the needle strike of a rotary tattoo machine is the polar opposite of that of a coil tattoo machine. What this translates to is that with rotaries, the points spend more time in the skin, so the tattooist needs to adapt their hand motion to this or there is a continual sense of the needles snagging the skin. Many color realists have found that this modified hand motion lends itself to their working style perfectly, although I find that it cramps the style of my rapid hand movements, which I like to keep uninhibited.

Todd Myers from Morphix and I spent a day doing ink flow experiments with a variety of tube tip styles, including some prototypes. To be thorough, we tried these tests on a number of machines including a Neuma Hybrid. I found that the Hybrid scored up to 50% better on ink flow than the other machines. I suspect this has something to do with that slow oscillating motion- at the top end of the stroke it slows down, picks up pigment, then speeds up again as it heads back down, while a coil machine enters and exits the tube tip far more abruptly. My wife Michele is using the Hybrid and finds that she can hang the needles an extra millimeter or so out of the tube without them getting too dry. So each type of needle motion has its advantages and disadvantages.

It's worth mentioning here that the Hybrid has a cam system that I helped design and am listed on the patent as a co-inventor... it has a progressive cam geometry so that the needle spends 40% of its time in the lower half of the stroke and 60% in the upper half, more closely emulating the action of a coil machine. We're working of further ways to emulate a more idealized stroke profile. Until then I'm still using coil tattoo machines. I believe that the answer lies ultimately in a totally new kind of tattoo machine that combines the best features of both worlds.

Guy Aitchision's tattoo machines 2009TMN: Any comments?
G; There's no single correct answer for tattoo machines. As long as there are a wide variety of personalities tattooing we'll have a call for a variety of machine types, and it should always be that way. the fact that so many individual artists are making and modifying machines is an important part of the evolution of this art form. Within a diverse environment like that, an artist should be able to eventually find something that fits their working style.

Tattoo artists, discuss this article in our tattoo machine forum. Also,check out our catalog of tattoo machines for sale.