Was it just the time and the effort that you put in that made you really master machine building in the way that you have?
I studied tattoo machines the way I should have studied in school. I try to learn as much as I can and still keep the magic. The way it works is this: Tattoo artists are creatures of habit. People are on this rotary kick again. It seems like it never really goes away. Everybody’s saying coil machines are old technology. No, rotary is. Rotary was first. December 5th, 1892, Samuel L. O’Reilly took the tattoo machine patent. It was a rotary machine. It was proven, at the end of the 1800s - didn’t even last ten years – it was insufficient. It didn’t work right. It was faster than poking, but it wasn’t what it could be. And today, it still isn’t what it could be. The more I learn about tattoo machines, it seems like the less I know. There’s so much more to learn. So I keep trying to push the envelope. That’s what this place is. It’s a learning facility. If I was by myself right now with the machines, without other people, I’d have no challenge, no feedback, no pushing. Same with tattooing - you get around people and you push the envelope, you feed, you learn and you keep challenging each other. The team of people I have here have worked with me for many years, and we push each other. We’re good friends, and we work together. I try to create a family environment here, like we all eat together, we do things together. That’s the way it is. And in doing so, we get to know each other, and we bug each other. But this is my life, this is all I know, and it’s too late to turn around and do something else. We try to keep pushing the envelope so we can help other artists. It’s like, one of the things I tell people when they come here: If you can’t appreciate what you’re doing, ‘cause you’re making a tool someone’s going to use to feed their family with, then you don’t need to be here, pretty much. Because that’s what we do. We build tools that people use to feed their families.
You’ve had some hard times along the way yourself. Do you feel like that gives you an appreciation for what other artists go through?
Yeah, there was a point in time when, I think my parents were just waiting for the phone call that I was dead, you know what I mean? I lived my whole first half of life trying to fucking die it seemed. Then when I fell into this, it was a little different. I always tell people, I didn’t pick this career, it picked me. Two relationships later, that’s the only thing I still have that’s the same. I got a good daughter out of the first relationship. The second one I had sixteen wonderful years, I thought, but the business takes its toll. It wears them down. It cost me two relationships, a relationship with my daughter, and this business is kind of like a drug for me. I’ll come in here and start working sometimes and I’ll forget to eat.
Because that’s what we do. We build tools that people use to feed their families.
What is it about your machines that make them so sought after by so many great tattooers?
I like to think my machines are well thought out. I like to make ‘em bullet-proof. I’ve had machines where I’m tattooing and a customer goes to get up and accidentally cuts my clip cord, and the machine fell off the table, and man, I tried grabbing it, stabbed myself with the needle. It hits the ground and it just doesn’t work right no more. I try to build my machines where if they’ve hit the ground, you pick it up and you can still use it, because it’s an investment. Like I said, my Dad was a heavy equipment mechanic. His tools were not second-rate. He used Snap-on or Mac. He used the best – and my Dad would break tools all the time. He’d take ‘em back to ‘em, they’d just give him another one. There wasn’t a question of where you bought it, or whether or not you have a receipt – if their name was on it, they stood behind it. Know what I mean? And it’s like, that’s the kind of quality that I feel is lacking in our civilization today. Our civilization today is a consuming one, and that’s how our country has been downgraded. We don’t have product to sell, we only consume. When you ain’t got nothing left to sell, pretty soon, you’ve got empty pockets, so you’re gonna be downgraded. Until we get back a quality of merchandise that is sellable in an open market, our country will never get better and will only go down. So in my way, I feel I’m staying true to the American way of doing things, when our country was unstoppable. As new as America was, people couldn’t win wars without our help. Because we were an industrial society – that is now gone. We’ve been taxed and we’ve been pushed right out of every aspect. You buy an American-made car, from China. It’s like, it’s like every one of these other countries that got tired of being third world are going to surpass us, because we’re lazy. I’m not afraid of hard work. I’ll work hard for my money, but I’ll also earn it. And that’s where I’m at with it. I think that’s the way tattooing should be. That’s what keeps it real.
What do you hope a tattooer who purchases a tattoo machine from you gets?
I hope they get a tool that they want to use every day that will only increase in value, not go down. My main goal is to keep it where it’s part of their retirement. I try to make machines that will increase in value. I hand-engrave for people, and some of them I’ve lost my ass on. Some of them I’ll do an engraving and not like it, and start it over again, and have to build the whole machine again, but that’s where the passion is. I try to give them machines that they will have for a long time, I’ll stand behind anything we make. If I put my name on it, it means something to me. To me, I think the product should be smooth to the touch and pleasing to the eye – and work well. Not just one or the other. And if it doesn’t work well, the customer lets us know. It’s not working for them, and we work with them until it gets working the way they need it to work. That’s our goal. Stay real with it. We make our own armature bars. It’s all hand buffed, we tumble the frames after they’re all buffed and smooth to make them finish basically all the same. Nice and even. The corners all smoothed and rounded. But it’s still all the hand love that goes into each polishing and finishing of it. The more I learn, the less I know. You have to. If you don’t learn every day, it’s a wasted day. And time is precious. I wasted lots of ‘em. And I don’t want to ever lose any more. Life’s too short. Nobody’s guaranteed a tomorrow, so what we gotta do is give an all today – and try to make a difference. That’s really where I’m at. I really want to leave everybody I meet, touched, inspired and motivated. I do, that’s my goal. That’s what wakes me up every morning, to try to make a difference. Am I? In my own mind, maybe I am. But you know what, I get up, and I do, I ask somebody how they are doing, I genuinely care. Know what I mean? It’s like, a friendly smile, it changes something. That’s where I’m at today. That’s my goals, nowadays. Making a difference, one person at a time. Really am. And this shit right here, is gonna make a difference. Somebody’s gonna feed their family. In a weird way, I kinda take my position, I do my part.
What are your thoughts on the current culture of machine-building?
Um, wow. Not real good. The state people are in now – they’re in instant gratification mode. I’ve been told by people: “Yeah, I know it’s not Dringenberg, but this one is more affordable.” My machines aren’t that much more money than what they are paying, but they haven’t even bothered to look. There’s a lot of my machines being knocked off right now in China – even my hand-engraved ones. You know, I mean, I was in Milan and I seen probably a thousand of them just sitting right there and I just was like – I couldn’t even talk. I ended up just blown away, because those are my machines. Know what I mean? (continued above)