Tools of the Trade: Tattooing Supplies
No tattoo artist, even the most talented, can tattoo without tools. The tools of the trade are, despite some variation, basically the same among all modern tattoo artists. Of course, if you were doing traditional tribal tattoos you could use charcoal and a tapper, but this essay will only concern itself with the tools of the modern tattooist.
While these tools are much newer than that, many have existed in basically the same form for decades. That said, there is a large amount of variation in the quality and flexibility of each tool, and any responsible tattoo artist will pick the best tools for their style and budget.
The core of your toolkit will be the tattoo machine. Depending on your style, you might just work with one, or you could use several. Many of the classic coil machines come in liner and shader varieties, while rotary machines tend to come as all-in-one, which is an option for some coil machines, too. Coil machines have a much longer history, they are relatively inexpensive, and somewhat more forgiving than rotary machines. However, rotaries are lighter, much quieter, and more consistent and precise in how they move your needles. Rotaries also have the option of working with pneumatic power, which allows for both an unbelievably light machine and greatly simplified sterilization of your machine.
All electric tattoo machines run on DC power, and there are specially made tattoo power supplies with extra controls for voltage, including foot switches for hands-free control. Pneumatic power supplies actually use an air compressor, using forced air to power the movement of the needle. The power supply you need will depend on the machine you’re using. Some machines can basically just be plugged into the wall and be ready for use.
Tattoo needles are what the tattoo machines are made to move, and they come in different arrangements for different tasks. It is rare that a tattoo moves only one needle at a time. The two major categories are rounds and flats. Liners almost always use tight rounds, a circular arrangement of needles often just called liners. Wider-spaced rounds are sometimes used for shading or color fills, although usually flats are used for these purposes. The two major types of flats are simple flats, which are arrangement of a single rows of needles, and magnums, which are generally double rows in a staggered arrangement. You’ll have to decide what works best for your shading and coloring purposes, but the use of tight rounds for lining is pretty much universal.
Tattoo needles are designed to force tattoo inks beneath the skin. Tattoo inks are evenly-mixed suspensions of extremely fine pigment powders in a carrier, which usually includes water and either alcohol, propylene glycol, or glycerin. The pigments are made from various chemicals, including carbon for black and various metals and metal oxides for the other pigments. Some of these are known to be toxic, and alcohol can actually increase the rate at which they seep into the body, so it may be a combo you want to avoid. The inks can be bought pre-mixed or, if you want to try your own mixing, you can buy pigments and carriers separately. Pre-mixed inks will generally be pre-sterilized, but when mixing yourself it is essential that you use only sterile components. It’s not good to inject germs beneath people’s skins, after all.
These are the major components involved with actually creating tattoos, but there are, is, of course, a great variety of other equipment you’ll need before you can really be ready to work on a client. Every tattoo artist needs an autoclave, for instance, for sterilizing reused equipment between clients. You’ll need gloves and anti-bacterial soap for your hands. A tattooist really needs everything that a dentist or outpatient surgery room would need to prevent infecting their clients with a blood-borne disease. You will also need anti-viral sprays for the same reason. You will need disposable razors to shave the area of skin you’ll be working on, even if it’s not a hairy area. Every inch of the human body has hair, even if it’s hard to see. That anti-biotic soap will be needed again for the shaved area when you’re done.
There’s a lot of equipment that goes into being an able and responsible tattoo artist, and it’s not a cheap field to get into. Still, tattooing is relatively simple compared to something like being a mechanic, at least in terms of the tools you’ll need, and the most important technical aspects will be in safety and artistry, not in the particular choices of machine and ink.