Using Negative Space
Using a Manual Camera
Pigments and Needle Depth
Working With White
Making Tribal Work Solid And Clean
Working on Dark or Tanned Skin
Protecting Carbon Needles
Working on Sunburned Skin
The Future of Body Art
Gradations of Color
The Income of a Tattooist
Pricing Large Tattoos
Lining and Cutback Machines
Single-Pass vs. Developed Lines
Support for a Plasticene Model
Poorly Healing Lines
Machines Heating Up
Muted Complementary Colors
Partial Color Blindness
Rough Healing on Redheads
Scanners and Digital Cameras
Keeping Hair Under Control
A. That's a big question. Where to begin? First, what is your artistic experience? and I mean real experience, as opposed to art school diplomas or that sort of thing. Anything from high school doodles to intensively involved multimedia projects that you work an extra job to pay for. Without some kind of artistic experience, there's not much you can do. The next suggestion I'd have is to gather together your best art examples into a portfolio, then spend a few days or weeks drawing sheets of tattoo designs. The purpose of this exercise is to show yourself and any potential employers how you would handle the kind of basic tattoo requests that come in a shop on a day-to-day-basis (hearts, birds, crosses, flowers...) but in your own artistic style. This is also a demonstration to any potential employers about your willingness to do the homework. Next, you need to shop around. Try local shops first, since relocation is a big deal. It's a competitive market, so be prepared, but it's not nearly as male-oriented as it once was. This step can be frustrating and takes some persistence. What you really want is a shop owner that recognizes your potential and teaches you for the purpose of having you as an employee. An employment situation like this is the most likely to get you taught the quickest, since they would have nothing to gain by holding anything back. Many apprenticeships are frauds, where you are charged $5000+ for the honor of scrubbing toilets for six months, and your signature on a contract promising that you won't tattoo in a 500 mile radius for the next 20 years or some crap like that. Avoid these situations like the plague. If you have trouble finding any good prospects, try attending a few tattoo conventions, go to some seminars, watch artists work, and introduce yourself to as many people as possible. Show your portfolio relentlessly, ask for feedback and express a willingness to relocate. Something portentious may happen. In the meantime, continue drawing on a daily basis any subjects that you find interesting and tattooable. Let your style evolve; get feedback whenever you can. This gives you a big head start when you finally do get the chance to sit down with an actual client and work on their skin. Last but not least, don't get discouraged and avoid trying to start out with a beginner's tattoo kit and no guidance. You will learn more in a long search for the right teachers than you will hacking away at people in your kitchen. It is easy to learn the wrong things early on and to carry these bits of misinformation as burdens for your entire career. If you have any real potential and you are sincere, you will find a good niche.
Q. Using Negative Space - I was wondering if you have any good exercises for understanding negative space? I see it used in many tattoos, but not always properly. You however seem to almost tell a story within your work, allowing negative space to lead the eyes through your work. Do you feel this is mostly practice, or have you discovered some kind of rules for what is more visually appealing? More of my past work has included negative space as a shape. You however seem to apply it with a more natural feel. Any suggestions you may have would be greatly appreciated, and possibly help to move me away from such 2D imaging.
A. There are many facets to this. The three basics are the flow of the neg space, the development of its edges, and its interweaving with other elements in the design. Basically, the negative space should generally flow in the general S-curve of the body part, especially if other elements don't... in this way, otherwise awkwardly shaped design elements can be made to fit the body. That's the simple part. The development of its edges is important, too- we don't want it to look like it was cut out with a razor or just accidentally left untattooed, so the edges need to be carefully developed into a soft atmospheric look by using low power and large looping motions with a magnum, possibly with the pigment diluted by dipping into the rinse cup, much like a grey wash. There is a chapter in the book which describes this process, including diagrams. If the negative space is softer than the rest of the design elements, it will work better as an atmospheric tool. The interweaving part has a whole logic to it, but once you get into the practice it's really not that tricky. Basically, you are aiming to use it to describe the relationships of other elements in the design. For instance, if you have a tiger in the foreground, a tree behind it and a waterfall in the background, a stream of negative space that passes behind the tiger but in front of the tree will help to establish the relationship of the tiger and the tree, and help to visually separate them. Another stream of negative space, perhaps a thinner and softer one, could run parallel to the first stream, but this time go behind the tree and in front of the waterfall. In this manner, the different layers of the design are kept separate, hopefully in a way that helps the piece to flow nicely on the body part.
Q. Wrist Strain - I thought maybe one of the topics you could cover in an addendum to your book might be physical limitations brought on by prolonged tattooing sessions. I myself have had some pain as of late in my stretching hand thumb tendons. To alleviate this I stretch now with a folded up paper towel instead of my thumb and index finger, and it seems to be better, and a good massage once a week definitely does wonders. Any other ideas?
A. As far as the hand fatigue thing is concerned, the paper towel thing is a good idea. Personally, I use a stretch (for my hands, as opposed to the client's skin) that was worked out by orthopedic surgeons for the purpose of preventing carpal tunnel problems. Every couple hours of work, take a break, stretch your arms out straight in front of you, make fists and point them downward towards the floor, making a 90 degree angle with your wrists. Take a deep breath and tighten the fists, pulling the knuckles toward your stomach. Get a good stretch but don't pass the pain threshold. Next, with your arms still extended, relax your wrists and exhale completely to expel toxins released by the stretch. Then extend your fingers out with your palms flat out and your fingers pointed up at the ceiling, this time making a 90 degree angle upward. Take a deep breath and pull your fingertips toward your face while spreading them out. Feel the fullness of the stretch, taking care not to overextend, then release them, again exhaling completely. Relax your wrists, then repeat cycle 3-5 times. This is a good opportunity to center and relax your whole self, yoga-style. Repeat the cycles in a smooth and continuous manner, paying attention to the breathing and feeling the stretch. Try looking out a window at a faraway object, focusing your eyes there and tracing the outline with your vision. This will help relieve eye fatigue and possibly extend their effective life in years to come. Stretching is only helpful, of course, if you don't overwork. If you have periods of intensive long hours, such as a convention or a busy summer season, make a point of taking days off whenever possible where the hands are used for simpler things, like bike riding or even movie-watching. If you've had a long day and you feel like you've overdone it, try icing your hands and wrists for a half hour before going to sleep. Other work habit things can make a big difference too. Colored pencils are great but are hell on the wrists. If you've been really feeling the wear and tear, try using other media, such as watercolors or Photoshop, for coloring designs. Sometimes a few minutes with colored pencils over a printed digital color rendering can give the look of a full colored pencil rendering. If you're trying out color options for a design, this also gives you more versatility. I try to share computer tasks between hands, doing much of it lefty to take the strain off the much-overused right hand. I am by no means ambidextrous, but the left hand is a perfectly good, if somewhat undertrained hand and I was surprised by how little time it took to get used to using it. Believe it or not, good diet and hydration can also make a big difference. Clean water in the body is an essential catalyst for healing and tissue building. Minerals such as those found in vegetables and dark leafy greens are good too. Apparently beta-carotene and vitamin B12 are good for ligaments and cartilage flexibility. Anyway, that's just the tip of the ol' iceberg. I'm sure the whole tattoo community could learn a lot if we all swapped our wear-and-tear saving tips.
Q. Sensitive Clients - I have a very important question to ask of you, but first, a little background on me. I recently left a shop that I worked at after a year and a half of dealing with clashing personalities. I'm 25 years old and I've been tattooing for almost seven years for several shops in Indiana, New Jersey, and North Carolina. I am a professional full time tattoo artist, and I say that only so you know that I'm not some beginner with a kit, writing to ask a million starry-eyed questions. I care deeply about what I do, and put forth all of myself into every piece no matter what it is... I work my best, and give my best, everyday and cherish that a strangers allow me to put my artwork on them forever. The money in tattooing is not why I'm here, don't get me wrong, it's nice to have, but it's the farthest thing from my mind when I'm working. Now that all that info is out of the way, here is my situation. When I left NC, I left behind a few large pieces in progress. Painful as it was for me to say goodbye to those tattoos and the people who wore them, I had to go. I have been contacted by my old boss, whom was contacted by one of those people wearing one of those unfinished pieces, and he really wants me to finish it. It's an honor to be tracked down by a customer four states away, but that doesn't remove the fact that he has two to three more sits left on his arm at two hours each or more. Now, this gentleman has a little bit of a problem sitting for more than three hours, and I have about five to six hours left...obviously, I'm concerned with his well being. I can do the same job without damaging his skin, even though I prefer to work in layers with healing time in between, but can he handle it? This is where you, tattooist and artist extraordinaire, come in...and maybe you can help me, please? In your seminar, you spoke briefly of using Noxzema during large pieces that go over long periods of time sitting, getting tattooed. How does this work? When does one apply it? Does it interfere with pigment coloration? Does it have any ill effects on a customers' skin and healing process? Does it burn?
A. There are a few ways to numb the tattoo, but the number you can get it, the more likely it seems there will be healing problems. I have used this stuff called Bactine, which is a watery consistency and can be poured on over an already-open area, left to sit for a few moments, and rinsed off thoroughly. Some clients experience a profound numbing, while others only a mild relief-- either way, it helps. So far, I haven't heard of any healing problems associated with Bactine. At the other end of the spectrum is Sustaine, which contains tetracaine, lidocaine and epinephrine (the active ingredient in No-Doz). Applied over a lightly worked area and left to sit for a few minutes, it can make the tattoo almost 100% numb. People can't believe it. It needs to be rinsed off THOROUGHLY (4 or 5 paper towels) to prevent problems. Although this stuff is amazing, and I use it on myself when I get tattooed, it has caused me some pretty major healing problems, ranging from an overall washed-out look to the cratered aftereffects of those nasty 3/8" thick oozing oatmeal-cookie kind of scabs that you normally only get with a staph infection or something like that. This has basically shocked me into a state where I only use it as a very last resort, and only one application per session per area. Clients like it so much that they will abuse it if allowed to, often to their downfall. Another thing you can do to make it more comfortable is to work smallish areas to completion, rather than skipping around over the whole thing. If any outlines need to be done, do them first, then select areas to work to completion, working from top to bottom in a way that makes it easy not to spill on or wipe over finished areas. This also makes it possible to break it into two consecutive days, a top session and a bottom session. Believe it or not, clients find that day two is usually just as easy, if not actually easier, than the first day. This way he'll not be pressed to exceed his normal limit of three hours.
A. Here's the deal with healing time: Technically, the skin is ready after only a few weeks. I've waited as little as two weeks. However, since the piece continues lightening for up to half a year after the last laser session, covering up a freshly lasered piece is like shooting at a moving target- it's harder to do the tattoo since we don't know precisely how dark the old piece will be when it's finished lightening. Since the new piece incorporates existing pigments from the old piece as part of the design, this can throw off the final results in a small but noticeable way. Since we're aiming for a piece that we can complete in one session, I guess I would recommend a minimum of 3 months lightening time from the last laser session before the new piece is done.
Q. Photos - I've always had the crappiest time getting good photos of my work. The lighting in the shop doesn't seem to lend itself well to photography, so I use a flash diffused with a bit of tissue which seems to work half the time. I think the problem is my old camera and I was curious what kind you use, since your photos always seem to work out so well.
A. Fact is, my photos don't always work out well-- I just only use the ones that do. I have done many major tattoos that I never could get good documentation of. A lot of it has to do with lighting. Outdoor daytime photos are always preferable, but not always possible. When it's overcast outside you should get good results if the sun is behind you and a dark area, such as a shaded doorway, is behind the tattoo; this area will appear as mostly black in the photo. If it's sunny outside, have your client step into the shade of a building, with the tattoo just out of the range of the direct sunlight. This gives it the most possible ambient light without dealing with the glare of direct light. Then, for good measure, shoot a few out in direct light, although the ones shot in the shade are usually much clearer. When I finish a piece in the evening, I try to get the client to return the next day while it's light out, although I always shoot a few that night, just in case something comes up and they can't make it. Next-day outdoor shots are the next best thing to healed photos. If I have to shoot indoors, I make sure there are no bright lights shining on the tattoo, which will cause glare, and try to use only ambient light while I am focusing and composing the shot. I also make sure the piece is good and dry, which also reduces glare. I usually shoot some with and some without a piece of paper surgical tape over the flash, sometimes even with two pieces, just to cover all bases. Part of the secret is to shoot a lot; for some major pieces, I'll use a whole roll, and minor pieces usually get 10 or 12 shots, all from slightly different angles or with variations of lighting and composition. If you shoot enough, you've got a better chance of having a winner. If your shots are decent but just a little dark or a little washed out, I recommend learning Adobe Photoshop, which is one of the greatest image manipulation tools ever invented. In Photoshop there is a tool called Levels (also known as Color Space Compression) which brings the lights and darks to where you want them without altering the color; also, you can use Color Balance tools to adjust the shot if it turns out too yellow or too blue. As long as we resist the temptation to improve the tattoo, there's nothing wrong with improving the photos. Oh yeah, almost forgot- I use a Canon Rebel... any of the Canon EOS series are good workhorse cameras. I also use Fuji 200 speed print film.
Q. Using a Manual Camera - I have been taking lousy photos. I've lost so many to "flash burn"... The two pieces of paper tape did the trick by reducing the light, but I still feel the color could be a bit richer. Where do you set your light meter indicator? In the middle of the "optimum" zone or all the way down to let in all the light? I have fluorescent bulbs above and have turned off all extra lights pointing towards the client. I have a manual Pentax K-1000. Any more recommendations would be helpful...
A. I have mixed luck with my photos. My best luck has been recently, using a mostly automatic camera. Since your camera is manual, I would suggest doing a quick experiment. Try shooting a different roll of film for each of the basic different lighting situations you may shoot in-- indoors with the flash, outdoors in bright sunlight, and outdoors on an overcast day. For each roll, try each f stop, and several different shutter speeds for each f-stop. Write this info on a card that you hold up next to the tattoo that you're photographing, so that this information will be in the print itself. Try shooting a tattoo on someone you work with- this is for experimental purposes, not documentation of a piece you'll never see again. When you get your prints back, you will have a variety of shots of varying qualities, each with all pertinent information right there in the picture! Another thing which may help is a polarizing filter. This is an inexpensive ($10-20) item that screws onto the front of your lens. If you look through your camera at something with a lot of glare on it and slowly rotate your polarizing filter, at one point in the rotation the glare will drop down to almost nothing. It manages to do this without blocking any of the desired light, only that producing the glare. This is tricky to use with a flash, since you don't see the glare from the flash while you're looking through the camera; it only appears for an instant. You could do another experiment where you shoot a 36-exposure roll of film of a tattoo on a glare-prone area such as a shoulder. Each shot, rotate the filter another ten degrees. If you wrap a piece of masking tape around the outside of the lens and make 36 marks, then hold up a card in each photo with the number of that mark, you will see in the developed roll exactly which mark the filter was turned to when you got the best results. You can then make a more permanent mark with enamel on both the lens and the filter, so that when you're using the flash, you'll know exactly where to turn it.
Q. Pigments - I am using Talenz for black and mostly Unique for my color. I am getting low on some colors and am asking a couple of artists whose work I respect what they prefer color-wise. I guess I am trying to figure out if there has been anything come out as good if not better than Unique yet.
A. I'm still using Unique for 75% of what I do-- I can now see 11-year-old work I did with it, and it's definitely standing the test of time. They can be reached at 817-276-9222. However, this hasn't stopped me from playing around with Starbrite colors (firstname.lastname@example.org). Many artists are using these colors with good results. The yellow is particularly spectacular. Try also the bubblegum pink, lime green, orange, red and yellow ochre. These colors are thinner in consistency than Unique (similar to black) and can be used more readily for lining or detail work. However, I can't yet vouch for its longevity- only time can do that.
Q. Needle Groups - Just wanted to ask a question about using different needles. The basics I use are 3,5&7s for lining purposes and 7,11&14 rounds for coloring and shading. I don't have much knowledge how to use flats or mags. I have heard of people lining with mags at a slight angle to get extra wide lines, is that possible? I have done all my coloring and shading with rounds. Do mags and flats push the ink in better? Are flats better for shading only or coloring too? Whenever I use a flat or mag do I proceed in a forward brushing motion? I know I can't go in small circles- that will do some chewin! I learned that when I did some of my first pieces, so I quit using them and went to rounds.
A. Are you happy with how your coloring looks when you use rounds? Some artists work quite successfully with them. Others have trouble with them, since the needles at the core of the group always have to pass over areas that the needles around the outside of the group have already passed over. Because of this, it can be difficult to achieve solid fields or smooth gradations with a large round. Flats have their drawbacks too, since the needles are laid out in a straight line, almost like a little razor blade. It can be easy to accidentally leave all kinds of choppy little corner marks in an area that's supposed to look smooth. It's also hard to pack in solid black or color with a flat, since the layer of needles is so thin. I have come to prefer magnums for shading and coloring, since they seem to create a good compromise between rounds and flats. They have the added advantage of having their needles spaced further apart than a round or a flat, which makes it easier to control the layering of color, allowing multiple passes without trauma. I am referring to a spread mag, basically a seven flat with a razor woven between the points before drawing the solder up, as opposed to a stacked mag, essentially a five flat and a four flat stacked on top of each other. Because a stacked mag is more densely packed, it's easier to cause damage with it. Using a spread mag, we want to work in overlapping ovals, overlapping forward brush motions and any other motion we want. Overlapping is an important part. A magnum is a versatile tool that can be used for almost any kind of job, including making fat lines, as you mentioned. The chewing you experienced in those early tattoos may have had to do with the fact that you had so little experience at that time. Maybe the spring tension was way too high and the power cranked to maximum. I would recommend giving them another try.
Q. Pigments and Needle Depth - I am a tattoo artist in Indiana, I have talked with you in Detroit several times. I have a few questions that I hope you can answer for me. First, I use PermaPro pigments, should I cut them down with anything before applying them to the skin? Second, I use several different styles of mags (flats) to tattoo and when I set up my machine if you would press the armature bar forward after the machine is set up the needle would hang out the end of the tube tip about the thickness of a dime. Should I back this off more or is that the correct depth? And in closing, some of my tattoos have been scabbing more than normal and I don't know why. Any suggestions on what I may be doing wrong? I have all my clients use PROVON soap and lotion for the care and I don't know if that could be the problem.
A. I normally leave the colors uncut, just the way they are when they arrive. I enjoy the thick and creamy consistency for the whole process of dipping back and forth between ink caps; it's more like oil paint and seems to lend itself to this process very well. When I am working with any colors containing lots of white or with uncut white, I sometimes will touch the tube tip to the surface of the water in the rinse cup, letting just a small amount of water into the tube tip. This mixes nicely with the ink in the tube when the machine is run, and allows it to run without bogging down. If you want to try a thinner pigment, try Starbrite colors. I began my career with a dime worth of needle hanging out, and gradually have worked up to almost twice that, just a bit more than a nickel's width. With the machine running softly enough and a good enough stretch that the stretching fingers feel the penetration of the needle, you'll get just the right amount of puncture before the needles retract back into the tube. Only a machine running too hard is capable of burying a magnum. With a lot of needle hanging out, you'll get better visibility and a much greater degree of control. As far as the scabbing is concerned, I need to know more before I can really answer that. You could be running your machines too hard or working areas too many times, or a combination of the two. If you've been using Sustaine for numbing purposes, that can cause scabbing problems if not used sparingly and washed off thoroughly after each application. The soap and lotion could be a problem, although I am unfamiliar with Provon. Ivory soap or Dr. Bronner's peppermint soap are both good, mild soaps for cleaning tattoos. It's good to avoid soaps and lotions that contain lanolin or any perfumes or colors. I usually recommend Betadine H ointment, which is a clear cholesterol-based ointment, great for healing tattoos. Two or three very thin applications per day for three or four days, and very little after that. If people continue to come back with healing problems, look to see if it's always the same color that it happens to. It could be a bad batch of color, or even a contaminated bottle causing infections. This is not unheard of. Usually, though, scabbing is a result of too much trauma, caused by overworking or running the machines too hard. This is the first thing I'd check.
Q. Needle Points - I have a question about needles. I have for a long time used needles with a long taper point (12/13), and that for everything, lining, shading, coloring.. everything. Then I read in a tattoo supply catalogue where you could by pre-made needles that they used long taper points needles just for the liners, and for the other needles for coloring and shading with they never used needles with a long taper point, and my question is why, I can't understand it. I have heard that long taper points needles could cut in the skin like a knife when using them. I have never noticed such a thing; for lining they are just perfect in my point of view, easy to solder and the tightening procedure is easy, and they go into the skin really easily. I don't have to use a lot of power or anything like that. So in my point of view they don't cut the skin when lining. I have tried to line with other needles in the same size, but with a "regular" point, I found it very difficult compared to long taper points. First of all, they were very difficult to tighten, and then when I used them I had to use a lot of more power to get a nice line. In my eyes, it seems like the one that messed the skin up was the one with a regular point. To come to the rest (coloring, shading), I found it much easier to, for example, make a solid tribal with long taper points. Like with the lining, I don't have to use a lot of power and in my eyes they go into the skin much easier than the one with a regular point. It's much easier to do solid black than with a regular point, where I feel like I have to work much harder to get the ink into the skin. About shading, there I can't find any special difference. It looks like you can come to the same results no matter which kind of needles you use. I understand that the regular points are more or less a standard amongst most tattoo artists for shading and coloring. So what have I missed? Could you get a better result when using those standard points for coloring and shading compared to the long taper points, or will it get a better result over the years when the tattoo gets older, or?
A. The common experience is that the regular point, which is not only blunter but also has a ridge where the point ends and the straight part of the shaft begins, has better ink-pushing qualities that a tapered point. Naturally, a blunter point requires slightly more power and possibly a small increase in spring tension, but only if your spring tension is already very light (you can feel the tension by pushing the armature bar towards the coils- the stiffer it is, the more tension you've got). This increase in power is what makes this type of needle more effective for putting in color. You can take this a step further by using carbon-tipped needles, which are slightly textured and very good at pushing the pigment down into the skin. Since they aren't stainless, you have to dip them in mineral oil as soon as you finish soldering them to the bar, to keep them from rusting. Since they put the color in faster and easier than the stainless tapered needles, you don't have to pass over the skin as many times, and healing is often easier. For fine lines and smooth grey shading, you may have more luck with tapered stainless needles. These needles put in less color, which gives you more control over your gradations. Lines done with these kinds of needles are less likely to blow out than lines done with carbon needles. On the other hand, they may be more prone to dropping out. Everything has its price. Neither needle type is necessarily more prone to cutting the skin than the other. This is probably more dependent on the type of needle group, whether or not it's too tight, how much power is used, and whether your hand movements overlap in loops or slide back and forth on top of each other. Any time you're trying a new needle type or group type, give the new setup a few tattoos to sink in before judging it. Any new tool will feel unfamiliar at first, making it hard to make the most of that tool's strong points. If you're going to try different things, try giving each of those things an opportunity to show you what it's capable of.
Q. Fading Color - The biggest source of concern in my tattooing is a tendency for colors to fade very shortly after healing. It's hard to objectively describe what's occurring, but I'll try. Looking at photographs of tattoos in the national magazines is inspiring and a little daunting. What are those folks doing that I'm not? The colors look rich, smooth, and even, with no holidays, and with very impressive gradients blending from one color to another. It looks as though the work was achieved with an airbrush rather than a tattoo machine. I have been using Starbrite ink from Dermagraphics because artists whose work I admire are said to use it. I have a Mickey Sharpz Iron T-Dial machine, same deal, highly recommended. Also I'm using a double stack 13 needle flat shader, 7 on bottom, 6 on top, my logic being more needles in, more ink in efficiently. I'm trying to lay the ink in thoroughly, slowly, in those little wee circles as I was initially taught. I try not to hammer the skin too hard and find a happy medium where the ink is going in nice and easy without a lot of drippy bleeding. Sometimes I watch a particular artist at work and I see a good deal of bleeding and blood beaded up and looking a bit drippy on the surface of the skin, to his credit he does seem to have less of a problem with fading than I do. He says he packs the skin pretty aggressively, knowing that most customers' aftercare practices are remiss, and that fading is almost inevitable due to neglect. Still, I'm a little unsure about a more aggressive pounding of the skin, worried about scarring or making the skin heal a bit lumpy.
A. Solid colors and smooth gradations are a combination of many elements working together- machines, needles, pigments, hand movements, spring tension, amount of power used and the stretch, just to name a few. Mickey Sharpz machines are solid workhorses and very reliable, but if the gap is too narrow or the spring tension wrong it won't do the job. Make sure the machine is set up properly to drive a magnum, with a nickel's worth of gap and just enough tension to pull the front spring against the contact screw. Use good magnum tubes with a 45 degree bevel. Be sure that the tube tip fits the width of the magnum snugly, but not to the point of binding. If there's any noticeable side-to-side play, you'll lose precision. I recommend Papillon tubes, email@example.com. The theory that more needles means more color goes in sounds great, but doesn't necessarily help. When needles are packed too closely together, we have little chance to get an even coat of color in each area before the skin has reached its limit. This will especially hold us back if we're trying to achieve airbrush-like gradations. I recommend using spread mags instead of stacked mags, where you make a 7 flat, tack them with solder at the blunt end, and weave a razor between the points of the needles. You then draw the solder up to a quarter inch short of the points, then pull the razor out. With a little practice, you'll be able to control the amount of spread between the two layers. The advantage of using a spread magnum is that you can work over an area several times with different shades of a color, creating smooth gradations. You can also easily saturate the skin with a color on the first pass if a solid field is desired, simply by slowing down and finding the right rhythm. This is easiest if there is plenty of needle hanging out, providing good visibility, and you have a good 3-point stretch (thumb, finger and the heel of your tattooing hand). You should be able to feel the needles striking the skin with your stretching fingers; if not, you don't have enough of a stretch; the needles won't penetrate properly and the quality of the color will be affected, especially after healing. You don't need to pound the skin. The brutal method will not actually help the look of the tattoo, since it makes it difficult to create subtle effects and could cause a hard heal. Slow down, work in an even rhythm, layer the color until the skin has a nice velvety saturation, and it should heal smoothly. If we saturate gently, the piece should heal easier, and less color should fall out. Carbon-tipped needles are also helpful, since their textured points push color in better than stainless. The points of these needles need to be protected with mineral oil or petroleum jelly as soon as you're done soldering them together. You may enjoy doing some of your richer colors with a thicker, more opaque pigment, such as Unique (817-276-9222). These colors feel more like using oil paint, and may have better opacity because of the larger particles of pigment in them. You can dip your machine back and forth between different inks, even different brands, to get nice in-between colors, which help us to create smoother transitions. I recommend practicing your coloring and gradations by doing tattoo drawings on either tracing paper or illustration board, using colored pencils (try Berol Prismacolors). The hand movements you'll use with the colored pencils are very much like those you'll use with a tattoo machine. This will help you to create a smooth look, which is just as important as good saturation. Even with a lot of experience, it's natural for some of the color to fall out. Keep in mind that much of the published work you see isn't healed. A lot of the bigger healed work is done in multiple sessions, giving the artist a chance to work each area as many times as needed to get it to look right. With some practice, you'll be able to create smooth gradations and even fields on a first pass. But perfection is another matter entirely.
Q. Healing - What is the best way to heal a tattoo? I recommend the use of the product called "Tattoo Goo" because it does seem to make a positive difference in healing speed and color retention. Its main ingredient is olive oil. Have you ever heard of anyone using plain old olive oil to heal a tattoo? I'm curious, but I hesitate to try it out or recommend it. On the other hand I'd like to offer an inexpensive and effective alternative to the petroleum based products, (A&D, Bacitracin, etc.) the buzz is that these formerly tried and true ointments may well be draining color from healing skin.
A. In my experience, the less we mess with a tattoo, the better it heals. The body is naturally very experienced at healing and can do it with very little help from us. It has been classically recommended that we use an antibiotic ointment for healing. Many people seem inclined to really glop the stuff on, which can indeed draw out the color, and creates a sticky surface for foreign matter to attach itself to, largely negating its germ-killing effects. Antibiotics are really only necessary when there is a risk of infection. If you're cleaning the tattoo thoroughly with a mild soap a couple times a day until it forms a light layer of scab, it shouldn't be very infection prone. If it's in an area where sweat drains, such as the stomach, the back of the neck or the ankle, it may be good to use an antibiotic such as Betadine H for healing. This ointment is cholesterol-based instead of petroleum-based, making it less sticky and a nicer consistency in general. Apply it in very thin coats and blot off all excess. If your clothing sticks to it, there's too much. If you're not using antibiotic ointment and the tattoo needs moisture, try something really benign like 100% pure cocoa butter. Tattoo Goo might also be good- I have no experience with it, but I've heard good things. Apparently it comes in a small round tin, making it easier to carry and making the client more inclined to have it with them and use it.
Q. Sensitive Areas - I wondered if you have any good idea how to handle the skin on those more sensitive areas, i.e. the inside of the elbow joint/lower arm, the shoulder just above the armpit skinfold, the back of the neck/uppermost spine area, ...do you know what I mean?
A. These kind of areas can be especially tricky in tattoos that span over several skin types, where part of the piece is on tough skin and part is on delicate skin. The thing to do in a case like this is to outline the whole piece, making sure to turn down the machine when working the sensitive zones, and then work the piece to completion or almost-completion in sections, starting with the tender area (just to get it over with). You'll want to keep your machines running as lightly as possible in these areas. Since the skin is thinner and softer, it takes less power to put in the color. It's also easy to scar these areas of blow out lines and edges. Start with your machines running way too slow, and add power gradually until it's putting the color in. This way, there's no risk of pounding the skin too hard. Work with the machines in smooth, even overlapping ovals, since the smoothness is easier on the skin and less irritating for the client. This is way too little power to use in the other, tougher areas of skin. That's why you want to work these areas separately, since the right amount of power for the tougher parts will be too much for the tender areas, and vice-versa. It's good to avoid having to constantly readjust the power. Plus, the tender zone will feel best in the long run if you get it out of the way early in the session. More so than with other types of skin, you need to be sure not to enter the skin at too great an angle with your needles. The angle between the skin and the tube should be a minimum of forty-five degrees. Any less, and you risk slicing this delicate skin. Be sure to use a light layer of petroleum jelly on the area you're about to work, which makes it easier to clean up excess pigment without having to scrub the skin, which can get quite irritating later in the session. When the sensitive areas are finished and you're working near them in tougher zones, keep plenty of petroleum jelly on the finished area to protect it from stray gobs of pigment, which would later have to be painfully scrubbed off. You can even cover it with a paper towel while you're working nearby, eliminating the need to clean it almost entirely.
Q. Working With White - I have noticed that whenever I work with white, regardless of what kind of needle I'm using, I get a grey spot in my ink cap every time I dip. I pack the white in carefully, but it usually seems to heal a little muted, not at all like the brilliant highlights I see in the magazines. How can I get my highlights to look bright and crisp?
A. There's basically no such thing as a perfectly clean tube. Even a tube that's straight out of the package, which was rinsed, cleaned in an ultrasound, scrubbed and autoclaved will have a tiny bit of residual pigment left in it. Usually this doesn't affect us, since it's such a small amount that the colors we're working with will normally overwhelm it. But white is a different story. White isn't actually a color at all, but a neutral colorless pigment. It is mostly translucent, with just enough opacity to lighten the skin a shade or two. If there's even the slightest amount of residual pigment in the tube, this delicate translucency will be visibly stained, and even the slightest stain will mute the effect of the highlights. Once we put a stained white into the skin, even a later session with perfectly clean white will have only a partial effect on making it right. While we're working with white, each time we dip the grey stain will sometimes get darker, and the longer we work with each tubeful of pigment, the more stained the white coming out of it will be. To avoid this, we rinse in clean water frequently and thoroughly. I like to work with two rinse cups; one of them is the pre-rinse cup, the other one is the after-rinse cup. Using this system, after 4 or 5 hours, the pre rinse cup will be a dark muddy brown while the other one is still relatively clean. When you're ready to start the white, if you don't have a rinse cup of clean or almost-clean water, take a short break and get yourself one. Rinse the tube thoroughly with the machine running, blot out most of the water on a dry part of a paper towel, then dip in the white ink. Pull the tube tip out of the ink cap, run it for a short burst, and dip again. The machine will probably slow down a bit at this point from the thickness of the pigment, and you'll sometimes have to turn up the power a small amount to compensate. Go ahead and work for a few moments. Don't work until the tube is empty, since the last white pigment to come out will be stained. When you're ready to dip again, though, rinse first. This will sluice out any of the stained white left in the tube tip before you dip into the clean white. It also will keep the machine from bogging down too much from the thickness of the pigment. Next, blot the tube tip dry and dip in the ink, run the machine for a short burst, dip again, then proceed to work. Repeat the process each time: Work, rinse, blot dip, work, rinse, blot, dip. The rinse in each cycle ensures that the white will be as pure as possible, with the bonus of helping to keep the machine running smoothly. This is sometimes also a good idea with yellow or light orange, especially if it's right after working with a dark color using the same tube. Some artists like to use a thinner consistency of white, which is easier to put in. The conservative part of me is afraid these smaller particles will have less opacity and reflectivity than the larger flakes found in Unique colors and many more traditional flake powder pigments, although there's no proof of that. No matter how clean your pigment is, your white highlights won't be very effective unless they're planned properly. Use them strategically, not throughout the whole tattoo, which tends to cancel them out. Sharp edged highlights tend to appear brighter than soft-edged ones. Areas of dark or medium color around them will make them appear sharper and make them glisten, while placing them in an area of all light colors might make them less effective. (The following chunk of text is from an e-mail I received from a client regarding the whole issue of staining white, which I thought was interesting enough to include here.) In the chapter on getting the tips cleaned out I felt I had some info to share. When using white or any color that has a lot of white mixed into it, the contamination in the colorcup is mainly powdered stainless steel. Thing is, the color (being titanium which is harder than steel) actually serves as a grinding agent between the needles and the tubetip, making them wear each other down. The residues (finely powdered stainless steel) will end up in the inkcup. The reason why the machine tube has to be rinsed so often, is because this progress is constant as long as the machine is running and there's white in the tip. Carbon Needles will lower the ink/contamination speed by approx. 50%. (exactly why, I do not know, maybe the steel is harder, so its only the tip-wear residues that will end up in the cup. But frankly I do not know) Plastic tips will eliminate the problem completely. Take care and thanks again for the book! -Mankan
A. That all depends on the effect you're going for. The more water you add, the lighter the wash. Grey wash work usually looks best if we use the full range of contrast, including areas of solid black, greys so light they're barely there, and everything in between. The portrait work of artists such as Jack Rudy, Brian Everett and Tom Renshaw are good examples of the full use of value range. Filip Leu's black and grey work usually incorporates large areas of long gradations from black to skin, using every tone in between, then smaller detailed areas of various values, which is a very effective strategy for differentiating foreground from background. Since I am rarely asked to do greywash work, I usually mix my washes in the cap for each tattoo. If I did it more frequently, I'd mix bottles of various strengths: one that was 100% black, then a 50%, 25%, 10% and 5%. In the cap, I usually fill one halfway, put about ten drops in another and only two in a third cap, then top them off with water. I also keep a rinse cup of clear water handy. We can achieve the full range of grey by dipping between the caps. If we dip in the straight black, run the machine, then dip in the 50% cap and then run it, we'll get an approximate 75% wash in our tube tip. At the same time, we'll leave a trace of black in the 50% cup, so it becomes a 51% mix. If we start tattooing and the wash seems a little dark, we can either move to a darker area of the design or we can dip in the rinse cup or a lighter wash to create a lighter value in our tube tip. We can then dip back and forth as much as we like to get any effect we need. In theory we can accomplish this with just black and a rinse cup, but this process will eventually dilute the black in the cap and limit what we can do. The range of several washes in our ink caps makes it a much more convenient and intuitive process. To keep from getting confused, it's good to always lay our ink caps of washes out in the same order; for example, with straight black at the far right, the next darkest value to the left of it, and so on to the lightest wash on the far left. After all, they look identical in the cap. For many years I've used Talenz black (inkguana.com) with much success, for solid black, grey washes and color work with black shading (I've even dipped back and forth between Talenz and colored pigments to get muted colors). It seems to last well, as time has attested. Some folks seem to like using bug pin magnums for grey washes, since they push in less pigment and allow more control. If you choose to use these, you will need a narrower tube tip, since these pins are of a smaller diameter and make for smaller mags. You may actually find that a nine mag of bug pins fits in a tube that normally is used for a seven mag. You may also find that a machine that normally is ideal for driving a seven mag is perfect for a bug pin nine mag, since these smaller, smoother needles produce less resistance. However, they would slow you down enormously for putting in color.
Making Tribal Work Solid And Clean - A lot of people here in London seems
to be blocked on black tribal work (which is nice but I prefer to work with
colours because I seem to be able to express myself better), so I get a lot
of requests for that. Well, the tattoo seems all right when I first finish
it but after a few weeks it seems all patchy; I use 7 mag or 9 if the work
is really big and I fill it in using a circular hand movement ,I try to dip
it in the cup as many times as I can but I still have no complete joy with
this kind of work; it seems to be particularly bad with very large pieces
Also ,can you advise me on a good quality black ink for tribal work? I have
seen some stuff coming out of a tattoo studio from Belgium (Calipso?) and
that black is truly the blackest I have ever seen (I know is a mix of 2 inks
,one from America and one from France but I don't know their names at all
,and I was wondering if you did...)
A. I've been using Talenz drawing ink for years (www.inkguana.com) with good results. As far as the patchiness is concerned, here are a few pointers. First, it's very difficult to pull solid black exactly against an outline using a large group like a seven mag without occasionally going over the line, so I suggest that you concentrate on making the inner areas of the design as solid as possible with the mag, then switch to a smaller group like a five round to pull it up against the outline. Not only will you get a more solid look but this also allows you to fine-tune the edges of the tribal shapes, to sculpt and smooth the curves and arcs of the design to a greater level of precision than you'll get with a single-pass outline. This method is very much like the 'tightening' process described in the book. Second, you need a way of double-checking the finished piece before wrapping it up. A good way to do this is to get it good and clean, then to apply a thin coat of clear water over the whole thing. For some reason this gives a much better view of the tattoo than looking at it dry, and reveals holes in the shading that you wouldn't otherwise see. This is especially helpful on darker skin. After checking the piece this way, re-hit the parts that look weak, clean the tattoo, get it wet and check it again. This only takes a few extra minutes and with a little practice, eliminates the need for touchups.
Working on Dark or Tanned Skin - I'm
still working on my color work and trying to find the best way to do colors
on darker types of skin. I'm trying to figure out if there's a way to mix
certain colors to get it to stay good and dark or bright if you will on darker
types of skin (African American and Hispanic or even tanned skin).
A. Try avoiding any colors lighter than their skin tone, since it will just make the skin cloudy and the design appear dense. The key here is more about openness and contrast in the design than it is about actual color use. Some parts of the body will hold color better than others- particularly on very dark skin: the inner arms, for instance, are paler and softer than the outer arms, so if a dark-skinned client should request a design that needs some subtlety in its coloring, try steering them this way. Red and green are usually quite visible on dark skin, but orange will usually blend with the skin tone to the point of partial invisibility, while blue and purple will look like tainted black on dark skin. If you have any regular clients with dark skin, see if they are willing to let you experiment with color a bit to find out exactly what you can get away with- being conservative, of course. Keeping the design open and clearly readable is of foremost importance. I once had a very dark-skinned roommate in my first year of tattooing, and tried many things on his arms, including white highlights. These looked very impressive for about 6 weeks and then disappeared almost entirely, leaving a weird milkyness. Apparently white will be visible only on light and medium skin, since it is so translucent. Very dark skin simply overpowers it. Same idea applies to yellow, at least in very dark areas. I also recommend making sure you have excellent lighting at your station, especially if you have a lot of dark-skinned clientele. In cases where you are working an area that is so dark that you have difficulty seeing what is done and what isn't, occasionally clean the tattoo and wet it down with water, leaving a thin film of water on the surface while you examine the piece in progress. This thin film of water seems to help visibility somehow. You can also use this method to look for imperfections on black tribal designs in all types of skin. Working on dark skin is a reminder to us how we need to pay attention to the clarity, balance and contrast of a design first and foremost, regardless the skin type. Although we can get away with more detail and subtlety on paler skin, we always need to attend to the basic clarity and readability of a tattoo first and foremost. Working dark skin is a good exercise in this.
Protecting Carbon Needles - I
recently purchased the carbon needles and seem to be having problems with
corrosion.. I've used mineral oil, Listerine and Vaseline to coat the needles
after making them. I'm thinking that the corrosion is due to the hot water
I use to wash the flux off the needles before I coat them..... could you describe
how exactly you make your mags in detail to see if my throw away percent (75%)
A. It should be more like 5%. Maybe try blotting them super dry after rinsing them. Glycerin is a good sealant to try- not just a thin coat, but a good glob on the end of the needle group, something guaranteed to keep oxygen at bay. This is then wiped off with alcohol as the needle group is removed from the bag at setup time.
Q. Inspiration - I feel I have a true love for what I am doing...and I just want to be the best I can be!! So any advice that you may have could do nothing but teach me more!! I seem to get discouraged when I see the work you and other artists do! I have to ask.. where do you get your inspiration?
A. As far as inspiration goes, that's not a simple question/simple answer kind of thing. One major factor that I think has contributed greatly is a television-free existence (pretty much my whole adult life!). This means more reading, more looking at art books, more productive time making art. This doesn't mean a total ban on the occasional rental movie and that kind of thing, but I've always drawn a hard line as far as network trash is concerned. I read a lot of science fiction, and always have. The best writing is good enough to trigger massively inspirational visions. If this sounds interesting to you at all I can make some recommendations. Tattoo conventions are and have been a major source of fun and inspiration for me throughout my whole career. I have attended around a hundred of them now, so it is a familiar and comfortable environment for me, but at the same time continually new and surprising. At almost every show I will see amazing work from artists I have never heard of before- incredible talent just crawling out of the woodwork. I also really enjoy the chance to compare notes with, and occasionally collaborate with, other tattooists. My favorite non-tattoo artists are (in no particular order of importance!) Alex Grey, Bob Venosa, Beksinski, De Es Schwertberger, Salvador Dali, M.C. Escher, H.R. Giger, Robert Williams, Michael Whelan, Chuck Close... I could keep going but these are the ones that leap out. I am very inspired by Nature, and try to spend as much time as possible out in it, weather permitting. This means a minimum of an hour a day (usually on a bicycle) through most of the year, and usually more than that. We live in an isolated part of Illinois, far from any cities, where it's easier to be close to these kinds of environments. I am also very inspired by my wife, Michele Wortman, whom I have been a creative partner with for a decade now. She is a constant source of fresh energy. Throw all of these elements and more into the melting pot of my brain, and you get the artist that you are familiar with. Inspiration is a form of alchemy, not necessarily something that 'strikes' from out of nowhere, but rather like a relationship you might have with another individual; you must recognize what feeds and nurtures it, and what stifles it, and do your best to make it happy and keep it around. Oh yeah, a little faith doesn't hurt either. It makes no difference what that faith might be in, as long as it lets you believe that life is a good thing, that you are on the path that you are meant to be on, however strange and convoluted, and that everything you have ever done or will do are part of that path. Try to banish doubt and regret from your life, since they will only serve to drain your energy and stifle your love of life. Remember that anything you can envision, you can accomplish, given enough time and effort. Some visions may take years or even decades to come fully to fruition, but those are the most exciting ones that bring the greatest rewards. Things that pay off quickly will bring you less value, although every effort will pay off even in the short term, where you can sit back at the end of the day, review what you have just done, and compare it to what you were capable of the day before. This is the only true measure of progress- to compare your abilities to other artists is not only misleading, but discouraging (as you may already know!) Be your own measure of success, and you'll most likely surprise yourself with what you can do.
Predispersed Colors - I
mix my own colours (from the old system-distilled water, isopropyl and glycerine-to
the listerine-with no caramel) but I don't want to look closed- minded. Some
fellow artists recommended that I try predispersed pigments. What are the
significant differences between these types of pigments?
A. No one has yet offered any evidence that predispersed pigments have any disadvantages that hand-mixed colors don't have, although they are comparatively new. I have used Unique for 12 years and they have aged well. The other brands I am using, Starbrite and Intenze seem promising, but I have only been using them for 2 years and can't say anything about longevity except so far, so good. A good predispersed pigment will have a homogenized blend of large flake powder color, like the old pigments, and smaller-particle colors, which by themselves tend to be watery and thin (like Starbrite colors, for instance). This blend will theoretically give the reflectivity and longevity of the large flake particles, along with the ability to create cleaner edges and sharper detail that the small particle allows for. They also seem to be ideal for quick and easy saturation. As far as being open minded is concerned, it is good to explore new options while at the same time not throwing away all of your valuable experience. If you have something that works, try a couple new pigments at a time, while still using your familiar colors for most things. Phase them in slowly and you stand less of a chance of getting unpredictable results.
Working on Sunburned Skin - I've
been working in Miami for two months now and I'm doing a lot of color work,
but I'm not happy for what I'm using now. When I see the piece healed, the
color is really dead, with no life, no brightness. Could you recommend some
good colors to use? Do you think the needles could be wrong as well?
A. One challenge you're facing is the sunburned skin in the Miami area, which is no fault of your own. Some pigments I recommend are Starbrite, which can be bought at Papillon (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Mario Barth's Intenze colors (starlighttattoo.com). You may also want to try using carbon-tipped needles, arranged in a spread magnum type of group, which seem to push the color in more efficiently. There is a lot more detail about these subjects towards the end of my book. Pigments and needles are only part of the solution; a lot of it is in the design. Especially when dealing with sun damaged skin, a strongly contrasting color design is important to compensate for the dullness that tattoos on that kind of skin will generally have. Placing rich purples next to bright yellows, or magentas next to lime greens, will create a brighter look. Bold outlines used sparingly also seem to make designs appear brighter and add to the sense of color contrast.
The Future of Body Art - Over the next few months I intend to write an
extensive article about the future of Body Art. It would be great if could
get your opinion, advice or quotes on this topic that I could work into the
article. If you feel like it and you can find a few minutes of your time,
why don't you drop me a few lines about how you see the future of tattoo,
piercing and body modification? What has changed and how will it go on? Will
we be becoming even more extreme or will it all die out? Will there be new
technologies or materials in the industry? Will we, one day, be fully integrated
and accepted by "normal society"? Or will we set standards for what
is "normal"? Will different worlds and people come closer together
with the help of body art or will there be new barriers to overcome?
A. This is a big wide-open topic; I wouldn't even know where to begin. I think it's safe to say that, as with most other things in culture, the polarization process will continue: to many, tattoos will become more commonplace and thus, more acceptable; the community grows and reaches tentacles into many other aspects of culture. To others, they become more undesirable, possibly more of a threat. The pain and permanence factors will always serve as a wall preventing mainstream culture from accepting tattoos as anything other than a novelty-- fine by me, I wasn't attracted to tattoos in the first place for their mainstream charm. But as a 'fad', tattoos will have trouble simply dying out, like any commonplace fluffy cultural ephemera-- simply put, tattoos are hard to make go away. Their permanence prevents us from ignoring or forgetting about them. In my opinion, this is a good thing.
Q. Gradations of Color - What is the best way to achieve a gradient? Say, for instance, orange and yellow, would the best result come from a solid yellow base with the orange fading over top or fading the two colors together equally?
A. Here's a good exercise for you, which should answer a lot of your questions: Try doing a simple sketch of a basic tattoo design on illustration board, some kind of a design that involves long gradations of color. Then work through the color scheme with colored pencil. It's fairly simple to do this-- for instance, if you are doing a long gradation from yellow to orange to red, you would start out filling one end in solid yellow, then fade it out by using lighter and sparser pencil strokes as you move into the area that you plan on making orange. Next, switch to an orange pencil and start in the sparse yellow region using light, sparse strokes, and get denser and more solid until you approach the red region, where you fade out again, like you did with the yellow. Repeat the process from the orange to the red. Then maybe switch back and forth between the three colors, refining the gradation and saturating the area until there is no white paper left showing. The secret is that there is no such thing as an 'approved tattoo hand movement'. Basically, any kinds of hand movements that you might make with the colored pencil strokes, will work with a well-tuned tattoo machine just as well, provided you have a decent stretch at all times. In general, whether in pencil or in skin, overlapping oval-shaped strokes will give you the most even coverage, but you are not restricted to this. You can move your hand any way you want, scribbling, looping, skating, etc. As long as you don't overwork the skin, there's no problem here. Just try thinking of it the same way you'd think while using colored pencil, free yourself of any restrictions that your teacher might have imposed on you, and you'll be amazed at how easy it is to tattoo just like you would draw with colored pencil.
The Income of a Tattooist - I
live in the Seattle area and am being layed off from the Boeing company......
In exploring my avenues regarding a possible career change, I have seriously
considered becoming a tattoo artist. Maybe this might seem a bit forward of
me to even ask, but I was wondering, is it possible to make a living that
I can support a family on doing this, and how stable will it be? I have nothing
but respect for the art and have appreciated tattoo art since before I can
even remember. I know that there are many different things that will affect
my income as a tattoo artist, like where I'm working, how good I actually
am, etc..... I have quite a bit of natural artistic talent, and I will be
attending a local community college for graphic arts.
A. You hit the nail on the head-- the income of a tattooist can vary from pitiful to extremely comfortable, depending on location, artistic skill, people skills, salesmanship, etc... there are some very mediocre tattooists who own multiple shops and roll in the dough, and very fine artists who barely pay their bills. So there are a lot of factors. If you are a dedicated artists to begin with, and you get good training and end up in a clean, well- established shop, you can expect to bring home about $100 a day, and sometimes much more, even after giving the shop their 50% cut. There is a slow season, which varies in length and intensity from year to year, that you need to be prepared for. Bottom line is, it is what you make of it, provided you are willing to work harder than at least half the other artists around you.
Hourly Rates - I've
got a question I did not see discussed. PRICING? I'm directing this more at
your caliber of work. For example, if someone calls you on the phone for a
particular piece, do you have them send out a deposit before you start any
rough sketches and from there do you use a flat rate? The reason I ponder
on this is because in my past years of being an Illustrator and doing custom
work in the art field other than tattooing my pricing has always been much
higher than what the majority of tattoo customers are looking to pay for something
that is a "PERMANENT PURCHASE". Simple roses etc. that have a somewhat
standard price set by this industry (by the way I think is way to low) I came
forcefully to understand. A piece from scratch like fig. 2.1.L in your book
for example, I can see and appreciate the planning and time that went into
this before even being presented for the final job. I know reputation plays
an important role with pricing but I'd be interested in your formula for setting
the final price.
A. Most artists base their price on an hourly rate. This can vary from $100 to $250, or even higher. I get $250. Many very skilled artists, some with well-known names, get $150-175. $100 is about as low as you should go- this is a good price for the first few years of an artist's career. An hourly rate is a good place to start and easy for the client to understand and accept. However, it doesn't hurt to be flexible. For instance, in the case of a large multiple-session piece, a flat rate per session of 4 or 5 hour's worth can be enough to make it worthwhile to work 6 or 7 hours, while still being affordable enough that they can come in regularly. I usually begin by asking what budget they are hoping to stay within. This sometimes gets a hesitant response, but it's so important to establish this in the beginning that I won't proceed any further until It's been discussed and both parties feel comfortable with the amount. I have found that the client relaxes visibly after this stage. When I quote a price, I will not charge more than that quote unless the quote was a 'rough estimate' on a large piece and the client understands perfectly well that it may end up being more. But especially in the case of a single session piece, I believe it is our responsibility to stick to our quote, even if it means giving away some time. If we underquote the piece, that shouldn't justify rushing to finish the tattoo and compromising the results. My hourly rate is for the tattooing part only. Although a fair amount of time may go into drawing and preparation, I feel that it is my responsibility to make sure that my hourly rate for applying the tattoo accounts for the preparation time. A deposit is a very good idea unless you are very familiar with the client. I have had personal experiences with time wasted on elaborate drawings for people who never showed up. Most clients have no trouble with this-- just be sure to keep good records of deposits, and write up a receipt of some sort for the client in case your records are unavailable; it's best not to be left with any doubts about either party's integrity.
Pricing Large Tattoos - I've
given 3 back Pieces, but they have either been free or super-reduced price
(friends). I was wondering what the average rate is for a back piece, got
a customer coming in tonight... He wants bold lines, massive color, custom
piece; I usually charge $150 per hour for custom designs. He has cash flowing
out his ears and wants to pay totally upfront, what do you suggest as guidelines
for pricing a tattoo? I figured it would take me 30- 40 hours (I may be wrong
on that)... so 6-8 thousand was what I was thinking, but do I swing him a
deal for 5? Or do backpieces generally run more because of planning?
A. This is one of those grey areas that really depends on your own judgment. It's customary to swing deals to our better clients, but we also want to avoid situations where it's expected of us. Even more importantly, I've found that people tend to value their tattoos less when they haven't paid (or worked for barter) for them. I have done large work where I was strict about the hourly rate at first, then more relaxed when it felt like they had paid enough, but I wanted to keep noodling on the piece for my own satisfaction, even though it could have been called finished. I usually try to avoid collecting up front on a large piece, since it's nice to get paid for each session, and unless you're really organized about just storing the cash away and then paying yourself when the piece is finished, it's normal for the money to be long gone well before the piece is finished. One thing you could do is charge by the session, planning on four hours per session and charging $600 each time, but working until you're satisfied and/or the client can no longer sit, even if it means a free hour or two for them. I have actually found that people find it in themselves to sit better and longer once they realize the clock has stopped and it's merely their skin that's hurting, not their wallet. In the long run you would still end up in the $5-6000 range. This allows for a bit of 'slop time' and perfectionistic tweaking without going way over budget, but at the same time you still get paid a respectable amount. If the client is keen on paying for the whole thing up front, you can still go by the 'per session' rate, and simply keep track of how many sessions. If they pay you $6000 up front and later you are finishing your tenth session and realize there's still a bit of work to do, it's your call whether or not to charge them for additional sessions, or if you feel that the original price is sufficient. This is something that you may want to discuss with them beforehand, just so there are no surprises for either party as the piece nears completion. (It's very possible that your client is offering to pay up front in entirety hoping for a better deal because of it. It's up to you to decide if it's worth it).
Lining and Cutback Machines - I
ordered your book a few months back, and I have a question regarding section
2.6 (Lines & Edges). My confusion may stem from the fact that I was originally
taught that "short stroke, short front spring, hard-hitting for a liner",
and "long stroke, long front spring, soft-hitting for a shader".
Maybe I'm not understanding you here, but it seems that you are suggesting
to not use a cutback, hard-hitting, short-stroke machine for lining, and instead,
to use a softer, long stroke machine with minimal power to build them up,
using a loose 5. A harder hitting machine does indeed seem to be likely to
cause damage with the type of small oval motion you describe. Are you saying
that a MicroDial-type machine is not necessary for this type of line work?
Or is the key to this, the use of the looser needle group? I'm wondering if
you feel cutbacks are only necessary for more traditional single-pass, bold
outlines, say in the style of Sailor Jerry, Seth Ciferri, etc with larger
rounds like 5's and 7's?
A. Actually, I use a Microdial to drive my threes, but with a long enough stroke that it takes a flick of the wrist to start the machine. I like a softer-hitting machine for this process simply because I do not rely on single-pass lines, and enjoy having the opportunity to build and develop them. A harder-hitting machine leaves the skin in a state where additional poking around would take it past its trauma limit. The reason I have grown to prefer a developed line over a single-pass line is from watching both types of lines age in my own tattoo collection, and noting that single-pass lines, no matter how skillfully applied, seem more prone to blowouts and dropouts over time than a developed line. In general, it seems that a longer stroke, softer-hitting machine is ideal for this kind of tattooing. However, I recently did some collaborative work with Paul Booth where we used each other's equipment. I was not too surprised to find that our machines ran very much the same, but I was blown away to discover that he was running his seven mag with a cutback! I guess the moral of the story here is that the way the machine runs depends on many more things than just the springs and the point gap.
Single-Pass vs. Developed Lines - I
just finished the book in full detail and I have one more question so I can
clear my mind for the second read of your book. I'm lost in the pages starting
at 2.6.3 on tattooing lines. Are you saying that you never do a single straight
pass with one group of needles? For example: If I outline with a three or
a five needle in one pass and that's it I'll most likely end up with work
like the one on your leg, fig.2.6.c? I'm tattooing for around 5 years now
is that what I have to look forward to from my past work? From what I'm getting
from that section is that single line weight is no good. Should I do all my
line work with the build up method? If I can't use a single needle group and
need a line as thick as a three group should I work with a single needle and
build my line up to a three? How would you go about doing a full tattoo in
fine line? Should I just hit myself over the head with the book and call it
A. I'm not saying that a single pass line is no good; simply that it is less reliable than a sculpted line and more prone to blowouts and dropouts. Indeed, with a lot of skill a durable line can be applied with a single pass, but in general it will not have the same kind of reliability as a carefully built line. As far as very fine lines are concerned, once you are talking about lines so fine that you need a single, you're talking about a line that will be unreliable over time regardless of how it's applied. In circumstances like this you may want to consider downplaying the line altogether, maybe by greylining the edge of the shape and shading or coloring up against that greyline, possibly switching back to a small needle group to develop and sharpen that edge. This gives a fineline or realistic look without the problems we normally associate with single needle lines.
Q. Support for a Plasticene Model - I tried my first plasticene model last week, and it was an abysmal failure...though I did learn a good bit from the experience. I used a wire gauge too thin to support the twisty shapes, and as a result, the 2 main structures began drooping a little more each day...heh. It was fun though. Better luck next time. My question was this...and we'll use Don's sculpture for easy reference... how do you get the series of repetitive (though evolving) horn structures attached to the main body of the center shape? I cannot see where you may have reinforced it with more wire before adding those pieces... so do you sculpt those separate and then attach them or do you slice the thickness of clay for the shape and then cut them out once attached to the main body? Which tools do you use for which pieces during the process? If you could go into a little detail of your sculpting process I would greatly appreciate it...it is quite difficult starting out in a new medium...I would like to avoid as many pitfalls as possible.
A. The spines were reinforced with slices from a piece of corrugated aluminum 4" flexible conduit, such as you'd use for venting a clothes dryer. This works much better than just using slices of sheet metal, since the corrugation makes it stiffer and more workable, plus gives the clay something to grip onto. It is easy to cut with scissors and actually quite user-friendly. We used it for many parts of the model. For stiffening wire, I recommend keeping a few different gauges of soft copper refrigeration hose available, from 1/8" to 3/8". This stuff is flexible and stiff, not too hard to cut, and easy to find at any hardware store.
Biomechanical Designs - I
am interested in learning how to do Bio-Mech. This is really a stretch for
me, if you remember my more traditional style of tattooing. I have no one
around here who does good bio-Mech. I just keep looking at Giger, Aaron's
tattoos and your stuff. Any suggestions would help me at this point.
A. Here are some important elements of biomech: Repetition and graduation, rhythm and variety. Layers of elements to create depth. Large dark and light areas that contrast well from a distance. A good coherent, internally self-consistent flow. Areas of different textures. Areas of small detail contrasting areas of smooth simplicity. There should be plenty of room in here for your personal interpretation.
Tuning Machines - I
met you briefly at the Mass. Tattoo convention and bought a copy of your new
book; It's really a wonderful resource. I became inspired to branch out and
try some new avenues . # 1 I bought Unique Pigments, #2 I bought a Freedom
II powersource and #3 I attempted To adjust my spring tension by softening
it up. Well...... This affected my machine and it started running poorly and
I couldn't make a nickel gap happen, which I've always had trouble achieving
anyway. So..... I re-tightened my spring by bending it back the other way,
and set a dime gap because I can't seem to get the nickel gap without my machine
sounding awful. Which is a M.Sharpz Iron T dial by the way. I Did all this
two weeks ago and started using the new pigments and power source. 3 tattoos
came back faded this week...... Is it the ink, should I throw it all away,
or could it be the spring tension I messed with? Your words of wisdom would
be so appreciated because I don't know what to do. I did start by ordering
a spring gauge and new springs, they should be here any day...
A. For starters, it's good to have a set of backup machines handy at all times, especially when experimenting with some of them-- just so you have the familiar to return to, just in case. That said, I'd recommend trying a small increase in the point gap at a time, just to see where your machine responds the best. If you are adjusting tension, it's not a bad idea to have a few spare springs, since you can only add tension to a spring- once you have more than you want, you need to start with a fresh one, since bending it back will compromise its integrity, making it run unevenly and eventually snapping in two. Hopefully your new springs will arrive soon. As far as the pigments are concerned, I know they're not the problem, since they've worked so well for myself and many others. What brand(s) have you tried? Did you shake them thoroughly? One thing I noticed when I first tried Starbrite colors was that they seemed watery and hard to saturate in the skin. This was because I was used to a slightly thicker pigment, whose consistency I was accustomed to and developed my rhythm around. It took a few tries to start getting the results I wanted, but I quickly became comfortable with them and now enjoy working with several different consistencies of pigment at a time. As with the changes in machine tuning, I recommend trying out new pigments gradually, especially if the pigments you are currently using are giving you decent results. Start with two or three colors from the new brand, while still using most of the colors from your familiar brand. That way you can get used to them and see their results while not seriously compromising the tattoo. Plus, then you can compare how the familiar brands healed compared to the new ones. If there isn't a difference, that means it's probably the way that the machines are tuned.
Poorly Healing Lines - Lately,
I've been doing a few pieces using a 4 needle liner, and then sculpting the
necessary lines with the same needle. I really like this method. However,
some of the lines in these tattoos are dropping out a bit in the healed piece,
and not necessarily the sculpted lines. At first, I considered the possibility
that maybe they were neglected a little during the healing process. Although
it's always the linework, and very seldom any coloring of the tattoo. I'm
using long tapered Hemming Phoenix needles for my liners, and I'm running
my machine a little slower to sculpt my lines, because I spend a little more
time on them, using a really tight circular motion while sculpting. I've checked
to see if maybe some of the lines look a little overworked in the fresh tattoo,
and this doesn't seem to be the case. I've never had significant trouble with
my line work, I've only noticed this in the tattoos I'm using this method
with. I was wondering how you prefer to sculpt, and whether or not you do
at all. I have, in the past, set up a couple of liners for a tattoo, maybe
a 4 and a 7, or a 3 and a 5. Depending on the tattoo, of course. Any advice
would be greatly appreciated, since having one machine to do several degrees
of linework will certainly be more convenient than using a couple of machines
A. When going for a variety of line weights, I normally use a 3 and a 5, and sculpt them with the same overlapping ovals that you describe. I have found that single-pass lines, regardless of the size of the needle group, tend to be less reliable than sculpted lines, especially over time, so I usually sculpt all of my lines. If I want them to remain thin, I do this with a 3 and use overlapping rocking motions, instead of ovals. If I want a line to appear finer than this, I normally just shade or color right up against it and then use a small round to pull the shading or color neatly against it creating a sharp edge with no visible line. One thing that can cause problems is having the needle group too tight. My needles are barely tightened at all, which allows for better penetration and ink flow. If a group is tightened too much, it stops being a group and becomes one big nasty needle, which doesn't penetrate as deeply without excessive power and has less capillary action of ink between the needles. This can actually make a dramatic difference.
Machines Heating Up - After
a few hours or so into a tattoo, obviously, my machines are pretty warm. I'm
using 0.002 gauge polyethylene bags from dermagraphics to cover my machines.
I've noticed that you use cellophane, and that there's a lot of direct contact
between your barrier and your machine. It seems to me that this would create
a lot more heat inside the barrier. Do you think it makes a substantial difference
what you use to cover your machine, as far as heating is concerned?
A. I don't actually use cellophane- I use pleated sandwich bags. The reason for this is that these bags are thinner and looser than the bags that are made specifically for machines, which allows for easier tweaking of the rubber bands or adjustment of the contact screw without having to de-bag. I have never noticed a problem with heat, but this may be due to the fact that I run my machines soft and low, with very little spring tension. I also tend to switch between machines many times during a tattoo, which prevents them from having the opportunity to heat up too much. I do this more for artistic reasons than because of heat concerns.
A. Brown does not have a complimentary color, since it is not a pure color. Look at the shade of brown and ask yourself where it comes closest to on the color wheel- is it more orange, or red, or greenish? Whatever it's closest to, look at that color's compliment, and you'll have something to contrast it as much as possible. You could also try colors like slate grey and murky turquoise, which are not pure colors either but will contrast brown, giving the tattoo more natural look.
Partial Color Blindness - The
question I have is that I would love to paint/tattoo like you as I think you
are awesome! However, I am color blind or color deficient; I can see colors
but all of the shades of color I have problems with unless there is a drastic
change of color from, for instance, dark blue to light blue. It all looks
the same to me; blues and purples look the same and so on with many of other
colors. I guess how things work for me is I use black shading and color over
the shading to give me the tones of color. This is OK I guess but it limits
me on my work. How can I excel on my tattooing or even painting? If you have
any advice it would be greatly appreciated as I strive to be the best that
I can be at my art. It just seems that being self-taught it always feels like
there is something I am missing??
A. Believe it or not, each one of us sees color differently-- for instance, red does not appear as bright to me as it seems to for other people. Here's an idea: look through a bunch of art books and find the paintings that seem the most colorful and dynamic to you. Gather a dozen or so of these, then sit down with your wife and compare notes on the way you both see color. This should give you some insights. Then, try using these color schemes as a basis for you to work with, then compare notes again with others about your finished results. I imagine that this comparing notes process could be very helpful. Find out if colors that appear dark to you seem light or medium to others, and vice versa. If you remain conscious about these facts, you should have no trouble finding a way to adapt, and to phase out some of that unnecessary black shading when color shading could do the job just as well or better (I find that complex tattoos look best if some elements have black shading, and others strictly color). Most importantly, though, is to make art that looks good to you. Accept that your vision limitation is part of your path as an artist, and that your unique color perspective is there to help you create something new and unexpected. See it as a gift, not a handicap (I should point out here that I have only one functioning eye, hence no binocular vision- could this have something to do with my pursuit of depth illusions in tattooing?)
Rough Healing on Redheads - Recently,
a few of my clients have been having a very rough time with the healing of
their tattoos. The skin looks very irritated for about two weeks with a waxy
appearance to the new skin. In addition there are spots, usually where the
darkest shading is, where there is heavy scabbing. All of these clients have
fairly light skin and reddish hair. If they continue to treat their tat as
if it were new, i.e. keep using ointment a few times a day, the tattoo seems
to heal all right, albeit very slowly. This has only been occurring when I
do black and grey work. I've asked a few other artists and they seem to concur
with the reddish hair, light skin, Scottish descent theory about why their
skin is reacting as it is. So here's the question. Obviously, what is working
for the great majority of my clients, (my shading technique), is too damaging
to these few clients. So, how do I go about getting the same gradation of
shading with these people? I haven't had this problem when I do color work
on these folks so I'm considering working backward with them, i.e. doing my
color work first, waiting for it to heal and then adding what ever shading
is necessary to deepen it. But if they only want black and grey then I'm still
faced with the problem. Have you seen this in any of your clients and how'd
you deal with it?
A. Interesting, I'd never made that distinction but I can recall a couple rough heals in the past on redheads. On the other hand, I can recall rough heals on other types of skin as well. Who knows? It's entirely possible that really fair skin is more sensitive in general. Here's a few things to try. For starters, what type of black ink are you using? I have had good luck with Talenz Drawing Ink for many years. Whatever you're using and regardless of how successful it is in most clients, try another brand for the redheads (or possibly for everyone-- why not?) If this makes no difference, maybe try using bug pins for black shading on fair skin-- smaller hole, less trauma, but less ink makes it in as well. Many black and grey artists swear by them. This may relieve some of the irritation.
Scanners and Digital Cameras - The
portfolios you sent to our shop last spring were all 8x10 printouts (if I
remember correctly)... were these print photos which were enlarged in a lab
and then scanned into a computer and printed out at that size? Aside from
this methodology, I was researching getting a film scanner or even a prosumer-level
digital camera which creates extremely high resolution printouts. With these
latter options, though, I might be trying to kill a fly with a sledgehammer,
so to speak. I really want to avoid that grainy nastiness which you see a
lot when tattoo artists print out 8x10s of their tattoos from a computer,
but I'm just not sure if it's possible to get photo reproductions adequate
for a tattoo portfolio using a flatbed scanner. I've asked some experienced
amateur/professional photographers about this and they seem to give different
answers based on what they're used to using as well as their particular photography
needs (which in none of their cases was tattoo photography). So...if you guys
have any input as to what a tattooist's best approach to this might be, it
would be appreciated. I'd hate to drop $3000+ on equipment if I can produce
comparable results with little more than what I have now.
A. That graininess is usually going to be from misuse of the equipment more so than the equipment itself. Most flatbed scanners are capable of around 1200 dpi these days, so resolution isn't really an issue so much as making proper use of the scanner. 300 dpi is considered photo quality. So if you scan an 4x5 photographic print at 300 dpi and blow it up to 8x10, you're only getting about 150 dpi. If you use Photoshop to size the file up before printing it, it will smooth it out to some extent, but the image is still going to be compromised. Thus, for the highest quality, scan a 4x5 print at 600 and then blow it up to 8x10 at 300dpi- there will be no loss of quality that way, and the file will be the exact same size as it was before expanding it to print size. Also, it's important to have your scanner set the right way in the first place, kind of like the exposure on a camera. Regardless of what scanner driver program you're using, there will be various buttons to push which will bring up dialog boxes for setting parameters of the scan. The most important of these is equivalent to the Image>Adjust>Levels feature in Photoshop (also known as Color Space Compression) where you'll get a graph with a pair of slide bars along the X axis, and a thing that looks like a mountain range along that graph. Slide these bars back and forth in such a way to trim off any blank space or sparsely populated areas, keeping only the bulk of the mountain range. This will dedicate all of the scanner's power to the colors and values that fall within that range. Without setting this feature first, it's likely you'll get an inadequate scan. The quality of the printer will also have a significant effect- we have 2 Epson printers, a $300 model and a $1200 model, and there is a sizable difference in quality, with the prints from the cheaper model generally not being good enough for a portfolio unless the image is of superb quality to begin with. You may want to look at some of the 6-color printers Epson makes, which will fall in the $500 range and have met good reviews from professional photographers. Of course, what you see on the monitor is just a simulation of what you'll get on paper, so there may be a bit of trial-and-error involved in getting your prints just right. For instance, if they look good on the screen but have too much contrast when printed, make a point of bumping down the contrast of each image before printing. With these things worked out, you should be able to get the results you want from any good photographic print. We keep a digital camera around for convenience and goofing-off type things, but it doesn't come close to the real thing. A much higher-end digital camera will approximate the resolution of traditional film (it must be at least 5 megapixels to even come close- an 8x10 image at 300 dpi is 20.6 megapixels!) and may have other advantages as well, but for the time being you probably want to continue archiving your tattoos on traditional film.
Keeping Hair Under Control - After
my entire sleeve is finished (we start next week) how do I keep the hair off
of it? Shave it? Wax it? Epil stop and spray? What have you found that works
the best? Will any of these damage my tattoo? Should I just have a hairy gross
A. As far as hair is concerned, none of the methods you listed should cause any damage to the piece. On the other hand, most of them are kind of a pain in the ass, and one of the joys of tattoos is their lack of a need for any serious maintenance besides the obvious sun protection. What I usually do is use a hair clipper with the guard taken off, which gets all but the last eighth of an inch or so. This can be done quickly and bloodlessly, and without the risk of ingrown hairs. A small amount of hair won't compromise the clarity of the design, and if you choose a hair maintenance plan that's quick and easy, you'll be more likely to stay on it.
Inconsistent Power - I
have been trying everything to solve the mystery behind the inconsistency
of all my machines, so I ordered a new machine from BlackLotusTattoo.com.
It is an ingenious design for adjusting the rear spring tension while the
machine is running. I have cleaned all contacts, even under coils, checked
for shorts, proper spring tension and alignment, new clip cord, new springs...the
armatures hit flat on the front and a paper width in the rear. These time
machines have served me great, but I have isolated the problem down to coils
that may be weak due to two years of spray disinfecting and a few overheats,
or my ten-turn National supply is going bad. Hard wiring and a variety of
spring tensions don't fix the oscillating frequency. Do you think a fried
capacitor could cause my problem, I have ignored polarity in the past...will
that fry a capacitor, there does seem to be more spark...
A. If you have access to another power supply, try out all of your machines on it, preferably in an actual work situation. If nothing feels significantly different, that eliminates the power supply. (This is the essence of the troubleshooting process-trial and elimination) The capacitor will make a noticeable difference, but if it's fried you will see a lot of spark, not just a little, and the machine will rattle. The spray disinfectant may make a difference, which is why I just simply bag my machines, and use no harsh chemicals on them unless pigments creep up the inside of the tube and splatter the fronts of the coils (rare and avoidable!) Finally, it could have nothing to do with any of the above-- you could simply be working in a building with inconsistent power (My shop was on the ground floor of an apartment building, and around 5:30 every day when people started coming home and turning on their microwaves and TVs I could feel the power getting wavery) In a case like this, a battery would be preferable.
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