If you are a tattooer chances are that you know the names of the people who paved the road of tattooing before us. Giants like Sailor Jerry and Ed Hardy, if you have dug a little deeper you might know some of the slightly less famous folks like Cap Coleman or George Burchett upon whose shoulders we all stand. But most tattooers don’t really know about the people and inventions which have directly and pointedly changed tattooing into what it is today. These people and milestones aren’t just important because they left a legacy of artwork or an ethic we can aspire to, in many cases these folks literally invented the stuff we use daily and we don’t even know about it!
My first candidate is also my personal choice for the tattooer who has done the most for the technology of modern tattooing, Bill Baker. Id be willing to bet that 90% of tattooers reading this right now don’t know who Bill baker is, note that i said “is” not “was” because he is still alive and still doing stellar work in Toronto at the Pearl Harbor Gift Shop. In the late 80’s and early 90’s He did the first real scientific testing on tattoo needles and eventually came up with a theory of needle manufacture that led to the first high quality, textured, really sharp pins available in various thicknesses. Today it is a given that needles made specifically for tattooing are available, but prior to Bills work the vast majority of tattoo needles were actually milliners needles or other sewing type needles.
That should be enough to consider him an unsung hero of tattooing, but he didn’t stop there, he founded a company to make and supply those needles called Eikon. Through this company he released his research for free online for any tattooer to study, also through Eikon he literally changed the way we all think of tattoo machines when he created the very first power supply that not only powered your tattoo machine, but told you real, heretofore unknown data about how that machine was running. What do I mean? Prior to Bill producing the EMS power supplies and meters it was commonly believed that a tattoo machine ran at about 25 to 50 strokes per second. Imagine our surprise upon hooking up those first power meters produced by Bills company and finding that our machines ran hundreds of cycles per second! Some power units could tell you how much voltage they were sending to the machine, but none told you how “efficient” it was (the percentage of time the needle was in the extended position vs. the retracted, Bills meters did. In short and overnight we went from a world of tattoo superstition and old wives tales to hard facts and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it turned out that most of the “common knowledge” out there was flat-out wrong!
So these things would definitely be enough to put Mr. Baker in our hall of fame if he had gone no further, but, of course, he did go further. In a series of “zines” put out by Eikon over several years Bill broke down the functions of a tattoo machine scientifically, tested, experimented, tested again and all the while he made this information public! He figured out exactly why and how a tattoo machine works, how to adjust it, and how to make it do all this efficiently and using repeatable, testable, information. Information that was only gather-able because of the meters he invented! He didn’t hide it like most “old timers”, he wanted to better tattooing as a whole, and he most certainly did. Because this blog is open to the general public I wont go into technical details, but rest assured that dozens and dozens of technical things about tattooing changed from the way they had been for decades! I can’t speak for other tattooers, but those zines were the Rosetta stone of tattoo machines for me, I could finally know exactly what I was doing when I built and tuned a machine, my tattooing got better almost instantly and a load of phony tattoo “lore” went out the window. The great shame is that Bill was forced out of the company he founded and provided the innovations for, if he hadn’t been sidelined by the ouster and ensuing legal battles how much more would he have been able to contribute to tattooing?
Every modern tattooer is using some piece of the knowledge that Bill Baker contributed to our world, if you use needles and a power supply to tattoo then something Bill created, modified, or perfected went into making them better.
To finish off this first episode of the great unsung heroes of tattooing id like to briefly mention the contribution of a piece of technology so common today that we seldom notice it, the Ink Jet printer. It’s almost impossible to imagine at this remove what it was like before cheap, highly functional photocopiers/printers were as ubiquitous as they are today. The fact is that even as recently as the late 1990s a copier was huge, expensive, and seriously limited in its functionality. One of the great advantages to the shop where I served my apprenticeship at was that it was half a block from a Kinkos copy center. I’m not kidding, this fact alone made us stand out from the more suburban places where the tattoo you got was the same size as the one on the wall and that was it! Today it is no problem for a customer to ask for a tattoo to be 10% bigger, but until the availability of the modern inkjet this meant either a trip to the copy-store or using some contraption to enlarge the image in order to retrace it.
Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that since the advent of these copier/printers that tattoos have gotten larger and larger as the artist is able to take a small drawing and blow it up until it fits around (and with) the contours of the body. The irony is that a technology which made doing the same image over and over has actually helped steer clients away from flash and towards one-off client specific tattoos. The cheap copier made accommodating the customers preferences easier and helped to make custom tattooing the norm rather than the exception.