Black Ink and Mohawks

Chapter 3

“Stone the Snatch in My Hand. Or How I Tattooed a Grasshopper”

“Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours“ 

-Hindu Dave

Once again, I was waiting impatiently for the mail truck to arrive; only this time it had actual tattoo equipment on board!

I had all the parts that I needed to put my “tat gun” together with, the motor, the power unit and an old bic pen. And India ink, I had lots of that. 

I’ve had a number three ”Windsor-Newton” series 7 brush and a bottle of “Pelican” India ink in my hands since I was probably thirteen years old. 

It only took me a day and two band-aids to build the damn thing. I was on a roll.

After I had my “tat gun” built I needed to try it out, but it was not going to be on me. I was not going to go down THAT road again. I needed to try it out on something other than human skin. What could I use? 

I looked down and there it was, “Spaulding & Rogers tattoo equipment catalog”. I picked it up and thumbed thru it, I got to the back page and right there under the eight hundred number it said: 

“If you have any questions about our  equipment or tattooing in general, please call and talk to one of our representatives“. 

My problem was solved. I picked up the phone and dialed as instructed.

“Hello, Spaulding & Rogers manufacturing, this is Linda, may I help you?” said the representative. 

“Yes” I said. “How do you practice tattooing?” There was a long pause. 

Did I ask the wrong question? Did she think this was some kind of a prank phone call? Then she said. 

“Well, first you get all your friends together and…..”   

“NO…NO!” I interrupted. ”I mean WHAT do you practice ON, you know, is there something I can use that’s NOT human?” I asked. 

“Do you have any cats roaming the neighborhood?” she asked. I was about to answer her in a serious manner when she said, 

“No, I’m just kidding! We suggest you use fruit!” I thought about this, and asked “Fruit, how do I do that, what kind of fruit, where can I get some?” I bet she thought, this guy is really going to hurt someone with that “tat gun” he’s just built. She came back on and very slowly said, 

“Go to the store and get a grapefruit or some bananas. You can practice on those. You want nice clean lines and try not to gouge or bruise the fruit, or that’s what you’ll do to the skin. Then when you think you’re ready, get your friends together and practice on them.” She sure wanted me to tattoo my friends. 

A few years later, I figured this out too. I think a few professional tattooists paid ol’ Huck Spaulding under the table to get dumb-ass guys like me to muck up all their friends, so that they, all the professional tattooers, had a steady stream of botched up tattoos to fix. 

And as a professional, I would later come to thank said tattooers and good ol’ Huck Spaulding for their insight! I thanked the nice lady, hung up the phone and headed for the store.

Two grapefruits and six bananas later, there I was. One home made “tat gun”, a bottle of India ink and banana. I plugged the power box into the wall and turned up the dial on the box, The E-string needle started to move. I turned the knob up so more, that little cassette motor was really moving now. 

I dipped the tip into a medicine bottle cap I filled with the India ink and was about to go to work on the banana, when all of a sudden the goddamned gun started flying apart! 

The “eraser cam” thingy came flying off and about took my eye with it! The E-sting needle flew out of the thing!  I never did find it! And the bic pen needle tube broke in half! 

Stinky Pete just got himself put on my “People I’m going to kick in the nuts if I ever meet them” list! 

My brand new homemade “tat gun” was totaled, an innocent banana was bleeding to death, and there I sat with a bunch of parts in a pile and back to where I started. 

A friend who was willing to let me practice on him and no tattoo machine to do it with! 

I unplugged the power box from the wall socket, cleaned up the bloody banana as best I could, put the India ink back in the bottle and put all the parts of my totaled “tat gun” in a shoebox. 

I lit a cigarette and sat there rubbing my eye that I had just about lost in “The great tat gun disaster of 1980”

I’m not done yet. I’ll figure this out, even if it takes me the rest of the day.

The basic design of the gun is sound, I reasoned, It’s these cheap parts I am using. If I sit down and figure out a way to make a professionally sound machine, I know it will work.

So, as they say, back to the drawing board. Literally. I sat down at my drawing table with my trusted “Spaulding & Rogers tattoo equipment catalog” and figured out how to use one of their professional needle tubes and needles. 

First, I had to design a bracket to hold the motor and needle tube, and then I had to design a cam that I could attach one of their needle bars to. At this point, I was patting myself on the back for my foresight in going to all of my high school drafting classes. 

Art class and drafting class was about all I attended before I dropped out to go to art school. I drew up my plans and headed off to the machine shop. 

Believe it or not, there was a time when you could get a machinist to make you just about anything for a nominal fee. 

It was all done by hand so you didn’t have to pay them thousands of dollars to set up their fancy automated computerized laser guided water jet cutting lathes, you could get them to make just one part for you and not have to sell your house to pay them to do it. 

Bob the machinist said it would take a week to make my parts for me.

So While I waited impatiently for my “tat gun” parts to be made, back to my trusted “Spaulding & Rogers” catalog I went, And this time I would actually order something from this magnificent manufacturing company. 

I figured it was the least I could do, especially after the nice lady told me what kind of fruit to practice on. I wrote down my order on the form provided. These people think of everything. 

I ordered two needle tubes, one square tip three-needle outline tube, and one flat tip six-needle shader tube. Six needle bars w/ needles attached, three, three needle round type needle bars for outlining and three six needle flat type needle bars for shading and coloring. An assortment of primary color pigments, a bag of ink caps and a bottle of that wonderful smelling “Tincture of green soap”. 

And one t-shirt that read “Tattoo Artist” with a cool dragon wrapped around it! Total, less shipping and handling came to…. $121.97!   HOLY SHIT! How was I going to come up with that kind of money!

I know that doesn’t sound like a lot of money now, but this was 1980. A brand new right out of the box Harley-Davidson Electra-Glide was less than $6000.00. The mortgage payment on my Parents 3500 sq. ft. tri-level house was only $353.00 a month!

A hundred and twenty one dollars and ninety-seven cents was a lot of money. Then a miracle happened. Once again, my path had been chosen for me. 

        A few days later in the mail, there was a U.S. government check, addressed to yours truly! 

I cannot really go into many details here, or a certain government agency might want to make an arrest. Let’s just say a  person of questionable moral character used something that didn‘t belong to him, because he could not use his own or he would not have gotten anymore of his state comp checks! 

So there it was, a government check made out to little ol’ me. A check in the amount of… Are you ready? $157.98! I couldn’t believe it! I started looking around for the cameras or someone who was, at any moment going to yell, “APRIL FOOLS!” 

I waited around for a while and nothing happened, so off I went to the bank to cash “MY” check and procure a money order made out to; “Spaulding & Rogers” for $121.97 plus $4.00 S&H. That left me plenty to pay the machinist and even buy a couple of packs of cigarettes.

No really, I’m not kidding.

I got my parts from Bob the machinist and waited another week or so for my package from the “Great Spauldini” to arrive! The next Saturday my package arrived. I tore it open, put my “Tattoo Artist” t-shirt on, put everything I thought I would need in the shoe box with the other parts from my “tat gun” and went down to my Dad’s radiator shop, there were tools there I thought I might need to barrow. I should have stayed home!

My Dad and I could never see eye to eye. And he REALLY didn’t like me being an artist. “Quit drawing all those sissy-ass pictures and play football!” he would tell me when I was in seventh grade. He wasn’t even going to let me attend art school, until the financial aid guy told him 

  “Art directors start out at a $40,000 a year salary!” 

Don’t get me wrong, I love my Dad, he’s a great guy. When he’s sober! 

I walk into the radiator shop. Tattoo t-shirt on and shoebox in hand. 

”What do you have in the box?” my Dad asks me. And like the fool that I am, I told him. 

“It’s a tattoo machine I’m building!” 


I’m going to kick Pete Coors right in the nuts too, if I ever meet him. I thought my dad was going to explode and get guts and beer all over the shop!  

I got in my car and went home to build my tattoo machine.

Bob the machinist did a great job on the parts I had him make. I connected the needle tube bracket to the motor with a small hose clamp this time, instead of electrical tape. 

And I had an honest to God cam this time that attached to the motor with a setscrew! No chance of losing an eye with this new and improved version! 

It took me the rest of the afternoon to build it, but when it was done, it ran GREAT! I could even adjust the needle tube on this one. 

I went to the refrigerator, got my grapefruits and the bananas, and practiced tattooing them until I thought I was ready to tattoo on “Grasshopper”.

I went to school on Monday and told my friend “Grasshopper” that my “tat gun” was ready and so was I. We could do his tattoo this weekend if he wanted to. 

”This weekend would be great” he told me. “Get the dragon drawn up so I can take a look at it”. I had to draw the damn thing five or six times before he was happy it. 

We finally agreed on the design and made plans for the weekend. I knew we had better not do it at my house, with my Dad being a raving lunatic over this whole tattoo thing. So we decided to do it at our girlfriend’s house. It just so happens that he and I were dating sisters at the time. 

I spent the week getting ready to do my very first tattoo with a machine, well not really a machine, a “tat gun”. I thought I needed to practice a little more, so I outlined and colored three more bananas and two grapefruits. 

At this point, I would personally like to thank all the grapefruits and bananas who gave their lives for my tattoo career.

                           Ten o’ clock Saturday morning was way too early to start a tattoo, so we decided to take the girls out to breakfast. We get back to the house from breakfast and I start setting up my “tat gun” and my little ink caps on my paper plate with Vaseline. I have my spray bottles all ready, one with tincture of green soap and the other with seventy percent isopropyl alcohol. I even stole one of my Mom’s “Tupper-ware” lazy Susans for my assortment of primary color pigments. I was ready to start the tattoo. 

I Shaved and cleaned the area to be tattooed with the green soap, pulled out my pen and started to draw the design on Grasshopper’s arm. 

He already had a tattoo of a peace symbol shaped like a heart with a flying eyeball in the middle of it. The dragon was going to go behind it. 

“What the hell are you doing?” Grasshopper asked me. Aren’t you going to use a stencil? I thought you knew what you were doing!

“A stencil? They didn’t use a stencil on me when I got my tattoo,” I told him. “How the hell do I make a stencil? I don’t need a stencil. I’ll just draw it on. Don’t you trust me?” I asked him. 

“Yah, I guess. But you really need to learn how to make stencils” He told me as a matter of fact. 

I got the dragon drawn on and plugged in the power box, turned my gun up and dipped the needle in the ink. I put the needle to his skin and started the first line. “How’s that feel?” I asked him. See, I already had a good bedside manner. I was born to tattoo! 

“That feels right and the line looks good, keep going,” he says. 

I got about half the outline done, when all of a sudden, he’s screaming.

“OW! STOP! What the hell are you doing?” 

I quickly pull up the tat gun away from his skin and the needle is sticking out about an inch to far! 

Part of the line I just did is bleeding a lot more than the rest and it’s a lot thicker than the rest of the line! The vibration of the gun had caused the needle tube to creep up, so the needle was sticking out way farther than it should have been.

Now I was shaking, sweating, and apologizing to beat all hell! 

“OH SHIT! I’m sorry. Are you OK man? That’s never happened before Dude! I’m really sorry!” 

We get the bleeding to stop in a couple of minutes, but it takes another twenty minutes for me to stop shaking so I can finish.

I finally finish the line work and start in on the shading. It takes me about four hours to do the line work and the shading! We decide to quit for the day and finish the color work in a couple of weeks after it heals. 

This was a sound idea to me. I was beat, and it would give me a chance to practice my color work on some more innocent pieces of fruit.

Continued next month