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Guy Aitchison answers some of tattooing's toughest questions

 

This month I'm taking a look at work by Rusty Dornhecker of Red Tree Gallery in Columbus, Ohio. Rusty was a tattooist around 20 years ago, but (he feels) under the wrong circumstances and the wrong teachers. So for a period he had quit tattooing and pursued oth…

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We are well into the second year of taking questions of all sorts from both artists and collectors, and have had many questions about improving overall tattooing. I think the best format for this is in doing critiques, which allow for an in-depth look into an artist's strengths and weaknesses. Although I'm not getting into any specific technical nuts-and-bolts stuff here, I've always asserted that basic design, layout, and overall art skills are a critical foundation to good tattooing, where the technical part is almost secondary. So let's talk about the art part of it- the clearer of an idea you have about how you want your tattooing to look, the easier it is to find the right technique to pull it off.

 

This month's submissions are from Lee Pickles of Spektra Tattoo in the UK. Lee sent a variety of pieces in a number of different styles, including biomech, rea…

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I've gotten a great variety of questions ranging from artistic to professional to healing concerns, and I've been enjoying the diversity of conversation. This month, though, I'd like to touch on something a little different. We all know that tattooing can have an ugly side- as the artistic standards rise to amazing heights across the profession, the garbage being done on skin by untrained scratchers just looks worse and worse. These folks are also all too willing to ignore the professional standards of having clean working procedures, working on sober clients only, and avoiding tattooing minors. This last one is a particularly upsetting subject, as you'll see in the example below. But I believe that even situations like this one can be resolved in a positive way with a great tattoo.

For any of you reading this who have teenagers in the house, show them this article. It's never too early to have The Talk with them about avoiding bad tattoos, because the reality is, they just don't know any better.

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Q, from Robert: Hey Guy, I know you've done a lot of collaborations with other artists like Paul Booth and Jack Rudy. I work in a shop with some other pretty decent artists and we're starting to talk about collaborating. I figured you'd be the man to ask: How do we do this right? I've seen a couple pretty bad collaborations so I know it's not all fun and games. Any tips to working with other artists successfully?

A, Hey Robert, thanks for asking- I've been waiting for someone to ask, as it's one of my favorite subjects. And you are right, I've heard a few horror stories, but all the really good collaborations I've seen (or been involved in) have a few …

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Q, from Ryan: I'm a little over 6' tall and I find it extremely difficult to tattoo without leaning over. Because of this I've developed constant back strain that even multiple different chiropractors and massage therapists haven't been able to fix. Are there any tattoo chairs or massage tables that would be ideal for taller artists? I bump my knees on the cords underneath the tables I've tried, forcing me to lean over.  I've torn a ligament in my back, and since then it's just been a constant problem rather than something that happened only after a long day of work. Any stretches that would be specific to lower back pain would also be great to know.

 
A: I'm one of the fortunate ones who has mostly avoided serious back problems despite very long hours. My issues have been with the hands, wrists and right leg, but that's another topic for another day. The back is where most artists will encounter problems first, and when it gets bad enough there is s…

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Q, from Dale: Hi Guy! I am a collector and have had 3 tattoos now for about 15 years. In the last year, I decided to update my current tattoos and add to them to create much larger more elaborate body pieces. This has also sparked more of an interest in the tattoo world as a whole. So, like any good collector of any kind of art form, I want to educate myself on my chosen art form. I want to learn history, different tattoo styles, and the artistic theories of tattooing such as saturation and line work. I'm just not really sure where to start without overwhelming myself. Can you suggest a good starting point and how to proceed with a thorough education? Hopefully, this will inspire other collectors like myself to actually learn about the art form that will be with them for life. Thanks so much!!! 



A: Dale, I commend you on wanting to do your research more thoroughly. You are right that this could help you make better decisions about your collection in the future. However, by wanting to know such specific things about tattoo design principles, you sort of enter a gray area where much of the educational material that's been pr…

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Q, from Ryan: What is your take on tattoo schools? Ive been drawing forever and have been seeking an apprenticeship for about a year. Most tattoo artists I speak to say the school will ruin my chances of any decent shop wanting to hire me. I draw for about 6-8 hours on a regular day, have a lot of patience and am aware of the years of dedication it's going to take for me to begin. I am just seeking alternate routes that may be helpful in my learning process. At the same time, I don't want to pick up a machine and develop bad habits. Your advice and time would be greatly appreciated. Q, from Nicole: I need some tips on how to get into tattooing. I'm creative, have a steady hand and some drawing talent, and have been honing my painting skills over the past year. I have enrolled in some drawing classes at Alberta College of Art & Design just to improve my skills as an artist... I have friends in the industry but certainly don't expect an apprenticeship to just be handed to me. I'm still a little confused about the best way to acquire an apprenticeship, and many of the artists I've spoken to in regards to this seem to be very discouraging in their advice. There is a shop next to my current job that I know is looking for an apprentice, but I'm nervous that my artistic skills are not quite up to par. I'm also 36, so getting into this a little late in the game, not that that should matter if my passion for it is there and I am actively improving my skills. I'd appreciate ANY positive advice on how to go about getting an apprenticeship, how I should prepare, what sorts of examples should I put in a portfolio, that sort of thing. Q, from David: I've been tattooing for 6 years now. However, I started tattooing in a California State Prison. When I paroled I had to re-educate myself on everything I thought I knew about tattooing. I was offered an apprenticeship at a local shop, but it was owned by one of my "homeboys", and I didn't want to get caught back up in the mix. I've been off parole for over 4 years now but when I try to introduce myself at other more professional shops, it seems I am looked down upon because I learned in prison. I don't use terms like "tattoo gun" or other tell-tale signs that I learned in prison, but I have two prison style half sleeves and "S.F.V." (San Fernando Valley) across my stomach, and am quickly judged for my appearance. How do I obtain an apprenticeship without being stereotyped?

A: This is indeed one of the biggest questions in tattooing. So before I proceed much further, please ask yourselves very seriously: Is tattooing really for me? Do I have something po…

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Q: from Wile: As a new tattooer to the industry, how do you go about sticking to a style when it isn't popular in your area? I'll give you my situation as an example. In my area traditional tattoos are what everyone wants to get; however, I want to do more of a newschool and bio-organic style of tattooing. How do you go about talking a potential client into letting you do that specific style on them when you have not done much of it before?

A: This is one of the fundamental challenges in building a tattoo career, and the answer isn't a simple one, but instead consists of a whole new approach to your career and your relationship with your clients. Remember that trust is crucial to the tattooi…

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Q: From Alex: I’ve had four tattoos done now by the same artist here in town. It’s a good shop and I like the work I’ve been getting so far. The last session was a little weird though, with the healing taking a lot longer than usual, especially on the lines. Now it’s been six months and the lines are pretty scarred. I mean, it’s like a full-on Braille tattoo, with the whole design being raised wherever there is a line. The shading healed just fine, but I haven’t gone back to have the color finished. The tattooist doesn’t know why it healed like that and says that maybe I’m keloid-prone, but all the other stuff he’s done on me healed just fine. What caused this to happen? And is there anything I can do to get it to go flat again? Q: From Carrie: I’ve just had the most horrible healing experience. The artist I went to is a professional with a good reputation. It’s a pretty big piece, a color portrait of Vincent Price on my outer thigh, and I like how it turned out. We did it all in one seven hour sitting, which was challenging to say the least. I’ve got several smaller tattoos, and the other artist who’s worked on me has told me I have great skin for color. But this one seemed wrong from the start. Before we were even finished the skin was drying out and cracking in places. By the end of the second day the whole thing was one giant red sore, so I went to the doctor and ended up on antibiotics. The scab I got was as thick as a cookie and took forever to fall off. Wherever the scab cracked I ended up with big holes in the color. The piece is now mostly healed but I can tell already that it’s pretty much ruined. Why did this happen? Is it my fault, and how can I get more work without knowing how to keep this from happening again?

A: This is a sad story that we’ve all heard far too many times: A good tattoo gone bad because of an infection. This can happen with both experienced and inexperienced artists, and is sometimes caused while the tattoo is being done, other times afterwar…

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Q: From Jennifer: Hello, I have severe acne scaring on my back, shoulders, & chest. The scars are older & smoothing out (15+ years). Can deep pitted skin be tattooed? If so how do I go about finding an artist? I would really like to cover it with something beautiful. Q: From Carlos: I’ve recently begun to book a little further ahead and I am having trouble trying to get things designed for many people. Most of the time clients will ask to see something a week or more ahead of their appointment, which I don’t think is unfair, but I have a full day session and a complete design that needs to be done for tomorrow’s client everyday, and it’s hard to show future appointments almost ANYTHING until the day of the appointment. The problem this creates is that once in a while I’ll get someone who wants changes large enough that I can’t make them on the spot. Are there steps that you take to ensure you and your client are completely on the same page to prevent this from happening?

A: Part of what makes this subject tricky is that every client’s needs are so different. Some will be thrilled with pretty much anything you do as long as you make it look nice, while others only seem happy if they’ve had some kind of guiding hand in e…

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What about this scar?

Welcome to my column! I've had some interesting feedback so far, but if anything stands out it seems that a lot of people, both artists and collectors, are curious about coverup work. With such radical improvement happening in the quality of…

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Q: So I have this horrible tattoo. It's actually already a coverup, and sort of an unfinished jailhouse coverup, if you can imagine that. It's got big areas that aren't shaded or anything, just outlined, but the lines are dark and blown out. The coverup part, which is mainly in the front, is dark and messy. It's a big part of my upper arm, and I'm ready to go to a half sleeve. The artist I talked to said I should consider getting lasered, but I looked into it and it's expensive, and I know the ink doesn't come out completely. Long story short: Is it worth it?

 

 

A: Well, for …

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Ask Guy April 2013

Q) Hi Guy, I've run into this situation a couple times now and thought I should ask you about it. I've got an idea for a half sleeve that I think is killer, my mom and all my friends think it's a great idea too. So I live in California with all these great artists, and I've taken the idea to a couple of these guys, people you've seen in magazines. And all of them have problems with my idea, and say that I want too much stuff in my tattoo. The thing is, I can't think of a way to use less stuff, because it's kind of like a complete idea. It's for my grandmother Diana, who was a very strong woman and a big influence on me. She identified with the Roman goddess Diana, who carries a bow and usually has a deer with her, showing her righteous nature... I'd like to see her in a strong archer's stance. There needs to be an oak tree too. She's a moon goddess, so you need a moon, and my grandmother was a peace protester in the Sixties, so I want to include a dove. She was a Virgo, and so am I, so I really want to include that symbol, plus her name and an RIP. I'm ready to give my whole upper right arm to this piece, and I'm a big guy. Why can't I have all my important symbols?

A) That's a great question, and something that collectors often run into when they are at a stage where they've graduated beyond small singular tattoos and are ready to start getting large work. Why can't there be room for all those cool ideas in one piece? Doesn't more great stuff packed into a tattoo just make it a better p…

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Ask Guy December 2012 2

Q) I've been tattooing for almost five years, and where I'm at, black and gray is really popular. It's really what I want to specialize in, and believe me, I've had plenty of practice. I feel like my work is smooth and my lines are clean, but I admit that it's a little flat. I'm ready to take it to the next level... Could you tell me some good general rules for doing great black and gray work?

A) A lot of the rules that apply to black and gray design also apply to color. Really, it's about good tattoo design, period, with a few crucial differences. It's so simple and so complicated at the same time- I'll try to work on the simple part first:

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Ask Guy December 2012

Q) I look at a lot of magazines and see this amazing brightly colored work, but the stuff in my collection just looks dull by comparison. The linework and shading looks just fine, and everything seemed to heal the way it should... but the colors just don't pop the way I want them to. Right now I'm seeking an artist who can do some really vibrant work, and I wanted to make sure they are using the right pigments to get these kinds of results. What brands of pigments do you recommend?

A) I actually use a number of different brands, and if you look at some of my older blogs at www.tattooeducation.com, these brands are listed. But I have to say here that the brand of pigment you use is far less important than the artist's understanding of color use. It's perfectly understandable to assume that some technical detail,…

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Q)  So I went in to try to apply for a tattoo apprenticeship, and basically they told me that flamer like me has no place in the tattoo industry and would never be able to break in.  They were the only tattoo studio within a four hour drive of me that even offered tattoo apprenticeships and now I've got no clue where to go from here.  Am I basically bashing my head against a brick wall? Give it to me straight, am I a fool for trying to pursue this? I got a fucking degree in fine arts, I do photo realistic oil paintings, I can do really high quality realistic watercolor.  Is how "cool" and butch you are really so much more important that how good of an artist you are?

A) Excellent question my friend! There's an elephant in the tattoo shop here, and its name is Homophobia. And of course this isn't just a tattoo thing... but tattooing is a relatively macho industry, so you'll see perhaps a bit more of it than elsewhere. You're basically experiencing the same thing that women went through a…

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Q)  I have been tattooing for about 15 years and I am well-known in my area.  I do well and I am also a High School Art teacher of 23 years.  Unfortunately my shading does not have a smooth transitioning look to it.  I see others and it is beautiful.  I am stuck in the midwest with two jobs and a sick wife, and cannot tavel and learn as my peers do.  I have tried a variety of different solutions....i am not there.  Can you help me through this forum?

A) To get really specific, I'd need to see a picture of your work to really know what it needs. But here are some good general guidelines for keeping it smooth:

1) Spread magnums! If you are trying to get smooth shading with round shaders or stacked mags, the odds are stacked against you. Spread mags are ideal because they…

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Q) When im tattooing and the tattoo requires to use a solid black in some areas, the tattoo doesn't look damaged or swollen when it's fresh, but when it starts to heal it tends to look damaged- a heavy scab and shiny look to it... what could this be?

A) It sounds like the solid areas might be just a little overworked. Sometimes you can work the skin a little past its limit but it won't necessarily show when it's fresh unless you go far enough to actually trench or chew up the skin. When surrounded by other fresh swollen work, it won't necessarily look overworked. If your he…

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Q) I'm still early into my apprenticeship although I am pleased with my progress, im am still looking for a really light gray wash, i want to use a really light gray and get more values into my tattoos. Could you advise me what gray systems you use and what you mix them with?

A) The answer is deceptively simple- use more water! The more diluted the ink, the lighter the gray. Simple as that.

A number of pigment manufacturers are now marketing graywash kits with a range of dilutions... Silverback was one of the first on the scene. I know that Eternal (whose pigments I use for about 75% of my tattooin…

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Q) I'm having a real problem with blowing people out, left and right... any advice?

A) Blowing people out... Outlines you mean? This can be mediated a few ways, all in combination with each other:
1) Tight stretch, always! Nothing else can go right otherwise.
2) You should have plenty of needle extension- at least 1/8" with the armature bar in the down position.
3) Using a combination of ti…

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Q) I've been tattooing close to a decade now and one of the things I still have trouble with is getting black in tribal tattoos to lay down smooth and in as few passes as possible. I've watched artist I've worked with do it, asked how they do... and I still have trouble getting that flat black layed in on the first couple passes. I've tried the way I lay my tube to allow the needles to hit, tried the way I pack the color into the skin, all the ways i know of, but still a tribal tattoo that should only take 2 hours will take me four. I know there is no magical way, but what am I doing wrong that is preventing me from getting my ink to pack in smooth and completely on as few passes as possible?

A) I guess my first question would be, what needle group are you using for packing in the black? You'll most likely have the smoothest results with spread magnums- 7 or 13, depending on the size of the piece. Rounds or stacked mags may seem like they would pack the black better because the needles are closer together, but in reality th…

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Q) I have a question about clientele approach... I work in a (custom) street shop where most of our clients want to get tattooed the same day or shortly after.  I find this suffocating and wish I had more time to research their art and play with different ideas and mediums before their appointment.   I'm criticized by my coworkers for being emotionally vested in my clients and their art.  It kills me to just slap some on-the-fly design on someone.  Even if it's good, I want it to be great.  I can't help it.  I care about them, even if they're not "cool" or interesting, or easy to deal with.  I'm not sure this kind of environment is right for me, and would love to work in a shop that is as concerned (if not more) with the art it sends out than the amount of money they're bringing in. Do you think I should look for another shop, or is there a lesson I'm missing in this that is helping me become better some how?  Any thoughts you have on this would be greatly appreciated.

A) Well, let me start by speaking one of the basic truths of the tattoo industry: It's hard to find the right gig. Most tattoo artists, custom or otherwise, will spend the first 5-15 years of their career trying to find a work environment where they feel at home and can work in just the manner that suits them. In many cases, artists en…

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Q) Sometimes when I am tattooing an outline I notice the needle sometimes sticks in the skin of who I am tattooing.  Am I not using the correct amount of power to outline the tattoo?

A) This is usually due to one of two reasons- too much needle, too slow of a stroke cycle (not enough pokes per minute). You are working faster than your machine can keep up, so it hangs up. Sometimes it's as simple as turning up your power a hair, but usually it takes a bit more than that. For lining you are looking for a shorter (the…

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Q) I'm tattooïng for five years now. When i put in color, i always have to give it a second pass after three weeks, when the tattoo is healed, because it's never bright and smooth enough. Doesn't matter if i work fast or slow. I was wondering if i'm doing something wrong?

A) Most likely it's not the pigments- these days most tattoo pigments are capable of looking bright and rich in the skin if applied correctly. So your saturation is going to be affected by either your machines or your technique. You need a good machine with a long stroke, opposite of a liner. it should have minimal spring tension- not&…

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Q) What is the proper way of  obtaining a apprentice ship. when you have no tattoo experience but quality art work.

A) That's the big question, isn't it? I'd like to start out by pointing out that tattooing is an amazing career to have- especially when approached the right way. If you end up with poor skills in a crappy shop, it can be a fairly bleak way to make a living, so you need to start out right. That said, I'd like to lay it on t…

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Q) I was wondering about reactions to red pigments and any solutions to the very difficult heal that comes from it...any advice on severe reactions to red inks?

A) Pigment reactions are always a shock and a disappointment to both artist and client. When something like this happens, the first (and most important) thing is to determine that it is in fact a pigment reaction and not an infection. Infections are more common than pigment reactions, so first look for the telltale signs: Swollen and irrit…

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Q) I've been tattooing about 5 years now and feel I've hit a barrier. I want to push myself in new artistic directions. Other artists at our shop seem to be happy doing only traditional and Oriental style tattoos (which I completely respect). I, on the other hand, am dying to learn the insanely smooth color transitions and blending, and I feel I won't be able to learn these techniques from the artists here. I guess my question is: Would going to an art school open my eyes a little? I know conventions are a really good source to learn, I just can't travel too much because I have a family. I'm extremely hungry to learn, and frustrated. I watch artist's DVDs and it helps a little. I know there are more routes like getting a tattoo by someone I can learn from watching, etc. Any advice?

A) Well, if you are looking to find an answer that creates the least disruption for your family, going off to art school probably isn't the solution unless there is a good school nearby that you can fit into your existing lifestyle. That being the case, look through their catalog and see what classes you think would help the most. Some…

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Q) My hands shake a bit; what is the best way to focus my hands during a tattoo? I started using 1 inch grips and that has helped smooth my hand out some, but I was wondering- is there is something I could practice or some exercises I could do to help with my light shaking?

A) Trembling hands are a sign of underdeveloped muscle control. Here's a question for you: How much time do you spend drawing and working in other mediums besides tattooing? If the answer is "a lot", then maybe you could focus on working with your art tools in a way that is similar to tattooing. Try putting larger grips on yo…

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Q) I'd like to lighten my tattoo before doing a coverup... but instead of using the laser, I want to do this by putting in a few layers of white pigment over the old tattoo before starting the coverup. Will this work?

A) When you tattoo light pigments over dark ones, they will eventually all settle into the same layer of skin, so what you get is a pigment mix. You aren't actually putting a layer on top of an older, deeper layer, but mixing new pigments with the existing ones. White will lighten black by about 8-12% on the first pass, an additional 6…

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Q) I'm an experienced tattooist with a record of good healing. Recently, two of my clients have had rough heals on a couple occasions, both in the same areas- their wrists and forearms. It's not confined to a particular color, but seems to be a random bad heal all over their forearm areas. I can't explain this- any ideas?

(This question was followed by a long phone conversation where I found out: (1) the clients were brothers, (2) one of them has dogs, (3) the one with the dogs has a new baby in the house and has been getting a lot of help with the dogs from his brother)

A) I generally discourage a "blame the client" approach to heali…

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Q) A lot of artists I know are switching to disposable tubes. I have tried them a couple times and am not sure if I like them. What's the deal with disposable tubes, and do you recommend them?

A) For a long time, our industry was reluctant to take on disposables, and many artists used them only for travel. One of the big changes that's happening now is that you will find completely legitimate tattoo shops with no autoclave. Many shops are switching to disposables as a way of eliminating the need for a scrub room and the no-f…

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Q) I'm fifty and want another tattoo. I went to a shop on the Islands and the artist I spoke with made a negative reference to older skin. I decided not to work with her. I am not a sun worshipper, but I do see a difference in my skin texture. If tattooing on more mature skin is not a good idea, I'm okay with that. What are the pros and cons, and the realities of dealing with older skin?

A) It's true that as we get older, our skin changes, but only in the cases of severely sun-damaged skin do we not recommend tattooing it. I can understand why a tattooist in the islands might feel a certain frustration when working on sun damaged skin, since it's common for clients to walk in off the beach with a sunburn with the i…

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Q) I did a name and the first letter came out fine cause I only made one pass. But the rest of the letters were a little sloppy so I went back through them to clean them up and they ended up blowing out. Can I only make one pass on the wrist area? Maybe from going over them twice I ended up cutting the skin? I was using a tight 5 round at about 6 1/2 volts, moving slow so I wouldn't mess up. Any advice would be great because now I'm affraid to do wrists!

A) The wrist is a tricky area to put detail into, but you shouldn't be afraid to work it. Since you are wanting to slow down for precision purposes, try turning your power down as low as you can get away with; tattoo for a minute, wipe, then see if you need to add more power. Some parts of the body- the wrist and inner bicep are good e…

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Q) I am a apprentice and i was taught also to work with the least amount of voltage. Sometimes when i set my voltage low and the machine sounds good, when doing the tattoo colour it seems like the needles are catching the skin,. The only was i can combat that is by increasing the voltage... is there any other way?

A) If you are experiencing a snagging sensation, the first thing to try is more power; this may help you to find and work with the machine's natural rhythm. This kind of snagging is relatively rare in coil machines, and is much more common with rotaries- if you are using a rotary machine and dealing with lots of snagging problems that …

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Q) I was wondering what type of markers you use to draw on the skin? Your drawing are fairly well detailed before you begin... how do you get it to stay on for long periods? I'm having trouble finding a marker in Australia that will stay on the skin. Any tips about type and ways to getting a drawing to stay for long periods on the skin will be much appreciated.

A) I've been using Sharpie markers for a long time, along with many other tattooists, and have found them to do well with their longevity during the tattoo process. I like them for several other reasons as well: they come in a wide array of non-toxic colors, and they can be used to blend already dried color on the skin, almost like usi…

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Q) Layering colors seems to be an effective way of getting a painterly look to your tattoos, but how do you know when the skin has had too much before you start chewing it up and running the risk of scarring?

A) Layering color this way is actually a good way to prevent trauma, since you can run your equipment with way less force than if you are trying to pack it in solid with one pass. That's the first important point- when layering, you don't want each pass to saturate the skin. Try to keep in mind roughly how many passes of different co…

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Q) Do you use a power suply with digital readout? If so, what would be your typical power settings for lining, shading and coloring? If you use this type of power unit, I'd appreciate your suggestions about voltage, speed and so on.

A) This is a simple question with a complex answer. I have used a variety of power supplies through the years, including a few with digital readouts such as the Eikon power supply and the all-digital unit being marketed by Critical. These are both good solid pieces of equipment that have proven themselves in our studio, but I have gone back …

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Q) I would like to talk to someone about becoming a tattoo artist. How would I go about doing it? How did you get started?

A) That's a big question. Where to begin? First, what is your artistic experience? and I mean real experience, spending long hours making your art. 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 d…

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Q) 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 crease of the armpit, the back of the neck/uppermost spine area?

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…

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Q) I know this has nothing to do with education, but I'm curious. I've heard your name pronounced ten different ways... what's the right way?

A) It's a long A, like when you pronounce the name of the letter H. It gets spelled a zillion different ways too... the most common ways are Atchison, Atchinson, Atkinson, Acherson, Ackerson, Atchesen, Achison and Acherson. But please feel free to pronounce it any way you want.

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