By Jay Brown
The tattoo machine has been around for 135 years now, the first stencil pen by Thomas Edison was used by tattooers. Then in 1891 Samuel O’Reily came up with his version of the tattoo machine and then it has just evolved from there. The odd thing is, the basic concept of the machine hasn’t changed all that much since the turn of the century, and the inline electromagnetic coil type machine still reigns supreme in today’s modern world.
I am a tattoo artist of 25 years, but I am also a tattoo machine builder. In this day and age it seems like everyone is building or assembling machines, some who haven’t been tattooing long enough to know the nuances of the machine itself, yet others really understand the geometry, and workings of a machine due to years of experience tattooing.
A few years ago everyone had to have apprentices, and apprentices had apprentices, now it seems the fad is to build machines. I personally do it because I have had a passion for tattoo machines since the beginning, hacking off Supreme frames in the 90s to do it as a version of Paul Rogers’ Mad Bee or Mike Malone’s Rollo-matic. And then 10 years ago I began building machines, starting out with some basic designs and bolt together-s in steel and aluminum, then cast brass only doing 13-20 a year. Now I work with steel, kind of gone full circle, all though I still do Jonesy replicas in cast brass. In the past few years I have made it more a full-time venture. Now I build 50-100 a year, all handmade and my designs and geometry. I really enjoy building good quality tattoo machines, and knowing that the artist using it gets to create beautiful skin art… So how do you know who a good machine builder is?
Well, there are many competing opinions on who is the best. Well, this is not one of those lists, this is not a Top 10 list, and in no way am I trying to say that one builder is the best, or that one guy is ranked higher than the others. This is just my opinion of who are or were great machine builders, (yes, I am going to be putting some historical builders on the list, these men were the forefathers and blazed the trail for the rest of us, so they deserve mention) not a cliquey “Top Builder’s List” because they are who everyone is buzzing about, but people I feel build solid, top-notch machines. Some you may have heard of, and some you may not have… So back to what makes a great builder?
First and foremost I believe performance is key, does the machine run well, and not for just one tattoo, but thru hours of continual use? Second, I believe design and usability are important, some machines I see these days are no more than expensive paper weights, and even if they run good, they are awkward because they have too much flashy crap on them or are a design nightmare. Sure they look cool but are they practical in daily use? This is not to say that they are not great for the collectors out there. And a good machine should be aesthetically pleasing. Third, are they truly handmade frames fabricated from scratch? Cast frames are the exception, it takes a lot to design something to be cast. There are a lot of assemblers out there, and let’s not even get into the Chinese crap. Do the builders wind their own coils, make their binders and A-bars and so forth? Or is it a pre-fab (don’t get me wrong I’ve seen some great pre-fabs in my day) that someone just assembled. Did the builder put time into it and make it something that they would tattoo with themselves? And finally, is the machine builder willing to stand behind his machines or are they solely in it for money?
As a machine builder these are some of the things I look for in a machine. And I am not saying that this is it, the gospel, this is just the way I look at it. So the other day I thought to myself, “Man, this would make a great article.” As I started listing candidates for the article I found that the list got long really fast. Thus, I decided that I would stop at 28, because it’s as good of a number as any, and it was enough for a broad spectrum of builders. So here it is, 28 tattoo great machine builders… (If I missed anyone don’t be offended, it’s nothing personal, I just had to think of space. Maybe there’ll be additions in a future article?) So without further ado here they are, starting with historical builders, because they were the pioneers and should be recognized first, (plus I’m a history buff) and then moving to present day. Again this is not a Top 10 list, just a list of great builders, hope you enjoy…
[Editor's note: The list complied by Jay Brown will be broken up into four separate blog installments.]
Wagner worked the Bowery for over 50 years starting in the 1890s until his death in 1953. One of Wagner’s more important contributions was his tattoo machine ideas that he patented in 1904. This patent was the first tattoo machine patented with coils in a vertical position, that is, in line with the tube assembly. This was a major improvement on machine design; in fact most machines built today use this alignment. Charlie Wagner, one of America’s great tattoo legends tattooed in New York City from the 1890s up until his death in 1953. Working on the Bowery in lower Manhattan, Wagner took over the shop space at 11 Chatham Square that Samuel O ‘Reilly had occupied for many years.
Percy Waters was born in Anniston, Alabama in 1888. The legend goes that Waters saw his first tattooing at the sideshows, during this time Percy was learning the foundry trade of molder. In 1917 Percy Waters got into trouble for tattooing the wrong person and was told to “leave town or else!” After a brief stop in New York City, Waters settled in Detroit where he stayed until the late 1930s. While in Detroit Waters built a very successful tattooing and tattoo supply business. At that time, Waters supply business was probably the largest in the world. In the 20 years that Percy Waters worked in Detroit, he designed and manufactured many styles of tattoo machines. In 1929 he received a United States Patent for his machine ideas. In 1939 Waters left Detroit and returned to his home in Anniston where he ran his supply business until his death in 1952.
Owen Jensen was born in Pleasant Grove, Utah. As a young man he worked in the railroad shop in Ogden, Utah. In a 1930s radio interview with the roving reporter Jimmie Vandiver, Jensen said that because he had skills as a machinist, he was offered a part-time job working in a machine shop making tattooing machines. He was interested in how the tattoo machines worked, and before too long he became a tattooist. It is unclear when Jensen settled in Los Angeles, but when he did he kicked his supply business into full swing, setting up at #120 West 83rd Street, while tattooing at 243 South Main Street. As the only tattoo supply house on the west coast, Jensen’s business was a success, offering quality machines and well drawn flash. Jensen lived from 1891 to 1976.
Milton Zeis was born in Rock Island, Illinois, a small town on the Mississippi River. Fascinated by tattooing at an early age, Zeis traveled from the 1910s to the 1930s and learned much about tattooing. In later years Zeis worked out of the basement of his home, operating a supply business on one side and a tattoo shop on the other. For nearly 20 years he sold flash, pigments, machines and other supplies. Zeis lived from 1901 to 1972.
Bill Jones designed one of the best known tattoo machine designs, with some of the best geometry. Jones used to sell his machines at 3 for $10 dollars, which sounds absurd in this day and age due to how valuable his machines are now to collectors. Many of great machine builders have built great tributes to the Jonesy machine over the years, National Tattoo Supply has the closest version. Bowery Stan Moscowitz makes Jonsey style machines, using one of Bill Jones’ original molds. The Jonesy Squareback, and the Jonesy Roundback are two machines that have a set place in tattoo history.
Amund Dietzel was born in the town of Fredrikstad, Norway in 1890, and went to sea at age of 10. He learned the art of hand tattooing during those early sailor years. By 1907 he was tattooing on State Street in Chicago. As with other tattooists of his era, Dietzel worked in many cities. 1915 found Dietzel back on State Street, this time working with Bill Grimshaw. In 1916 he made the move to Milwaukee and opened a shop. He still hit the road in the summer months to tattoo in different towns. It was around this same time that Nick Melroy started working on two tattoo machine frame designs that went on to be associated with Dietzel. Amund Deitzel tattooed until 1966 retiring after the Milwaukee tattoo ban. Dietzel died in 1973.
On September 9, 1905 Paul Rogers was born in a log cabin in the woods of Couches Creek, North Carolina. Paul got his first tattoo from Chet Cain, a circus/carnival tattooist who was working with the John Robinson Circus at that time. As the story often goes, Paul’s first tattoo changed his life. Just two years later he mail-ordered his first tattooing machine from E.J. Miller of Norfolk, Virginia and began his life-long career as a tattooist. In the early 1940s Paul’s tattooing caught the eye of Cap Coleman in Norfolk and Coleman offered Paul a job. Paul was thrilled at the opportunity to work with one of the greats and worked with Coleman from 1945 to 1950. By the 1970s he was building machines for some of the best-known tattooists of that period. It is because of these machines that Paul is known today. Most machine builders and suppliers working today have at least one Paul Rogers style machine that they sell. Paul spent countless hours in that little 12×12 tin shed, affectionately called the “Iron Factory” building un-stylish but dependable machines. The name “Iron Factory” came about because Paul referred to his machines as “Irons.”
Ernie Carafa was kind enough to share a funny experience he had with Paul: “Here’s a good one,” Carafa said. “I don’t think I can ever forget when we were in Atlantic City. I had an apartment over top of the shop, across the street was a bar named the Melody Bar. One night after work Paul went upstairs and I went to grab a drink. Guess I was gone maybe 45-minutes, I came out and found business cards taped all over my front window, ‘Chris the Greek tattooing’. I started pulling them off when a car pulled up and two guys got out they introduced themselves and I started talking to them and one of them mentioned Paul had passed away. So I said, ‘Hey come up stairs and have a drink with me’. Well they did when we got upstairs we were all sitting down having a drink, and I said to the guy, ‘What were you telling me about Mr. Rogers?’ and he answered, ‘Oh yeah, he died a few years ago’. So Paul looked at him and said, ‘Hi, I’m Paul Rogers’ and that guys face turned white and they hightailed it out… the guy was Chris the Greek.”
(Jay Brown is a tattoo artist, a machine builder and a contributing blogger for TAM. Jay can be found at A Fine Art Tattoo www.gypsy-tattooer.com and Tattoo Machines by “Peg Leg McGee” www.gypsy-tattooer.com/coinshop.)