This article originally appeared on VICE Italy
Quality isn't a word you tend to associate with DIY tattoos. By way of example, let's tot up the scenarios in which you might allow someone totally unqualified to take a needle to your skin: because it's 4AM at a house party and even the Sports Direct mugs of warm white wine have run dry, or because you're in prison. Without exception, the story behind your homemade skin scribble is better than the scribble itself.
Mind you, just because they're not always the most aesthetically-pleasing, doesn't mean DIY tattoos don't have a certain charm to them. Which is why, when I recently found out that the Homemade Gallery – a travelling art space in Milan – was hosting a workshop that promised to teach you how to build your own tattoo machine, I decided to join.
The event was held as part of the gallery's exhibition "La Pelle Abitata" (The Skin We Live In), and was hosted by the tattoo artist Piereeno, who explained that he'd been working on the technique of assembling a working tattoo machine for the past year. You can basically use anything available to make them, and Piereeno's method involved a toothbrush, some batteries and a lighter.
Here are some of the tips and tricks we learned.
Our tools are laid out neatly on the workbench – scissors, pliers, nine-volt batteries with clips to connect them, toothbrushes, lighters, sellotape, tiny electric motors similar to what you'd find in an electric razor, buttons, super glue, a cutting knife and screwdrivers. All stuff you could have lying around, Piereeno mentions – even if you're in prison.
The first task is to build the frame, which serves as the base for the handle and will eventually support the whole mechanism. For this, all we need is a plastic toothbrush and a lighter. Piereeno, who made his first tattoo machine last year, tells us to heat the bit between the head and the handle before bending it 90 degrees, making sure the handle remains longer than the head.
I soon realise that the quickest and most effective way to bend the toothbrush is to allow the plastic to catch fire, before putting it out and immediately twisting the brush. Sure, you might inhale some fairly toxic fumes, but it saves time.
The next step is to create the tube that the needle will slot through. We'll use the barrel of a ballpoint pen, cut to about half its length. Some members of the class try cutting the barrel with scissors, which is not only difficult to do, but also creates frayed edges that need to be smoothed. With my tolerance for toxic fumes now established, I use the lighter to heat up the blade of a knife cutter, allowing me to slice through the plastic.
At this point we return to the tip of the pen. Using the pliers, we remove the ink tube and the metal tip. That way, all we're left with is the metal support, which is placed back inside the tube. This is the stage where everything – hands, face, workbench, clothes – gets covered in ink, assuming you haven't already set everything on fire.
Preparing the Needle
Since finding a sterile tattoo needle in prison is famously difficult, inmates often use guitar strings or sewing needles instead. Outside of prison – and in our case – a sterile tattoo needle with a thick tip is your best bet. The tip can't be used as it is: we need a wire cutter to remove the ring at the end of the needle. Then, with the pliers, we fold a centimetre of the needle's base over by 90 degrees and slot it through the tube.
It's time to start thinking about the actual mechanism. In order to preserve the battery life of the machine, we first need to build a switch. We take the clip from the batteries and cut the red wire in half. Now we slice back the insulation and leave around half a centimetre of bare wire on the ends. Heating up the insulating material makes it easier to remove the thick outer coating, exposing the copper inside.
Now for the switch itself – we use the screwdriver to undo the screws just enough so we can insert the two ends of the red wire and fasten them again on the other side. To test it, we attach the battery to the clip and rest the ends of the red cable and black cable on each of the two motor contacts. The motor should start turning once you flick the switch.
The Motor and Transmission
Before we permanently attach the motor to the battery, we need to prepare it so it'll drive the needle in a circular motion, creating a continuous loop of the needle going forward and backwards. To that end, we leave a drop of super glue in one of the holes in the motor and insert the tip of the rotor. The needle is then placed inside the hole opposite the one we just glued.
Attaching the Mechanism to the Frame
We're now ready to attach our mechanism to the frame. To get the right measurement, it's best to rest the motor and needle against the section of the frame with the toothbrush head. It's important the needle sits perpendicular to the handle so that it doesn't jam when we attach the biro tube. Once we've found the right position, we attach the motor using insulation tape, being careful not to cover the electric contacts. Once we have mounted the engine, we can place the battery underneath, with the contacts facing the toothbrush head.
Here we connect the cable of the clip-switch to the motor's contact points and fix the switch in place with tape, sticking it between the head of the toothbrush and the motor. Lastly, we join the clip to the battery, before covering up the motor with the same tape to make sure it doesn't spark or give the user an electric shock.
We're almost done. All we need to do now is attach the tube from the ballpoint pen to the toothbrush handle. With the motor off, we push the needle through the button hole opposite the one we glued the rotor to. Then we insert it into the tube and, turning the button by hand, choose the maximum distance at which we can fix the needle so that it can move without jamming. At maximum extension, the tip should stick out by around a centimetre. And there you have it: a DIY tattoo machine.
WATCH: Needles & Pins – DIY: Homemade Tattoos
It's time to test our machine, by inking something or someone. When doing tattoos in prison, Piereeno explains, inmates often use lampblack – a fine carbon made from charcoal or soot – mixed with urine, which is meant to be sterile as long as the person who produces it is healthy. We will not be using that. Instead, we turn to basic tattoo ink.
As for our subjects, we decide on a banana and an orange. At this point, our instructor shares the fact that when he built his first machine, he tried to tattoo himself on his leg, only for the ink not to settle properly and for the battery to run out halfway through. He shows us his discoloured tattoo, which, on the plus side, at least proves that he really does know how to assemble a working tattoo machine, and that adding that battery switch wasn't an unnecessary luxury.
Piereeno tattoos his name on a banana, while one guy in our class draws the outline of a bottle and another doodles a rather detailed penis. Another participant, Allessandro, is an apprentice at Queequeg Tattoo Studio, one of the oldest studios in Italy. While scribbling on his banana, he explains to me in detail how any DIY machine is unlikely to be hygienic or precise.
Though following the workshop has definitely given me some sense of accomplishment, I don't think any of us will be using our new skills to ink our own skin any time soon. Doodling on pieces of fruit seems permanent enough, for now.
DISCLAIMER: Just because you can build a DIY machine and tattoo yourself, doesn't mean you should. In fact, it's basically always a bad idea. But if you are going to do it, please make sure your needle has been sterilised: you don't want to lose an arm because of an objectively terrible weed leaf tattoo.
This article originally appeared on VICE IT.