“Trying to give a service to tattooists and make things a bit more professional”; that’s the mission of tattooist and innovator Bez who is revolutionising the industry with his machines and software.
Once a computer games designer, Bez has drawn on his technical skills to design his own machine ‘Ego’ and develop the programmes ‘Brain Basket’ and ‘Design Thru Chaos’ which aim to ease the tattoo design process for you artists! Unknown to many, Bez actually started a project called Nine Mag some time ago with the view to helping tattooists progress, so it’s only fitting that we should feature him in our first issue! We were also lucky enough to have Marcus Maguire from Custom Inc in Glasgow do the interview!
Interview – Marcus Maguire
Photography – Various
How did it end up looking like this?
Well, I ran with the design for about a year, I designed this from an artistic point of view. I didn’t have a clue about engineering.
You wanted it to look… Cool?
I wanted it to look like a spaceship. I’m a sci-fi geek, well we all are, and I wanted it to look like no other machine, which it does! Unfortunately it could never work though, haha! So from that, I had to ditch the whole project. I did a re-design and spoke to an engineer, we did some simplifying, and came up with something a little more economical to make. Originally it was aluminium (your standard material) it’s nice but there were issues with certain things, the cost of getting the shells CNC’d and the price of the aluminium were too high.
Presumably these are changes you had to go along with? That must have been frustrating?
Yeah, it was heartbreaking. I don’t have the bottom of the machine anymore but we actually had a proper CNC one made. It was just beautiful but cost us £1,400. It was heart breaking to move from that but we came up with a cleaner, simpler design.
Did you feel like once you had begun the process you were in too deep to just give it up? Just chugging along with something more effective or…?
Well I learned it all from the ground up, I invested a lot of time with a lot of money put into prototyping. After months designing something, you kind of get to a point where you can’t really turn back, although about six months ago, I very nearly did! We got over that and after the aluminium one we decided, after lots of deliberation, to go plastic! The overall aim of the machine is to produce an affordable cheap workhorse that tattoos awesomely well, and ticks all the boxes. I like plastic, you can have funky colours. The vibrations probably aren’t the best but, I wanted to develop the grips as well. It gives you that lightness that no other machine has – It’s probably the lightest machine out there.
And this is by no means the final point?
No, this is the entry level to Ego; we have other products as well but as far as machines go, this is the little Ego, It’s all based around the power triangular system, which are interchangeable between six different colours. They have different gives that just slot into the machine. The black one is hard to two extremes and the yellow one is soft – so that’s a very hard spring pushing the needle down, and the back spring pulling the needle back up is your soft one. They just replicate the front and back springs.
Do you recommend any combinations?
Flexible, I tend to go middle of the road for everything, I’m lazy, but Pixie likes black and yellow, which seems to be the favourite, you can change the characteristics of the machine and the stroke, even with the black and yellow combination. Even just turning it round, the machine will work totally differently so there should be a combination that will work for anybody. On a rotary you generally have it how it runs and you have to deal with it, with this it gives you the flexibility to get a coil feel.
It’s not overly complicated either, you’ve got your Swashdrives and the like that you can tinker with but to me, this is quite simple, and if you get it the way you like then it’s reliable.
Yeah well, that’s what I want from a tattoo machine. I used to use coils but I want to come in and I want to pick up a machine like I pick up a pen.
Same, I want to focus on doing the piece.
Yeah, I’m not bothered about the tools. The needles, the colours and the ideas in your head, that’s the bit I’m interested in. I don’t want to worry about the machine, I just want to pick up and tattoo with it. It’s like a marker, you can just pick up and draw and that’s what Ego was designed for and as I say, it lines really well which a lot of rotaries don’t, it looks pretty cool and makes a great gun if you’re bored, haha.
So, you go from innovating that, you get all the hardships and the headaches but also the glory at the end.
Yeah, well as I say, it’s just the first stage so I’m sure I’ve got more headaches to come. Even the current generation now, we’re updating the motors and more and more stuff as we’re going along. Everyone’s machine gets updated, so nobody gets left behind.
Well, that’s good!
We’re trying to give a service to tattooists and make things a bit more professional. We have the Grips that have just come out, then in March the all singing all dancing expensive machine.
What’s new, to me anyway, are the grips. Was this something you were thinking about early on or was it nearer the end that you thought something else was needed to complete the design?
Yeah, I was just sick of using grips that were basically a lump of rubber which is all most grips are. I’m getting calluses! You see so many tattooists with gnarly fingers, that’s basically because their fingers are pressed against the tube, so I wanted to create something that feels good on the hand and also has a good balance. That’s why you’ve got the step and the lip at the back so you can balance the machine better and not have to grip it. How many tattooists do you know that complain about their hands? They seem to be complaining about their hands younger and younger. Before it was just the old tattooists, “oh my hands are getting all messed up”. We’re getting soft.
Yeah, we’re getting spoiled and now you’re spoiling us more.
As I said, it is designed for that balance. You should have very little grip on a machine whereas a lot of people have to really grip and that’s what’s causing problems with hands. This has a section at the bottom of the grip for your finger to sit in which will prevent calluses and make the whole tattooing experience a bit more pleasant. The lip section is designed for your hand and it just creates a nice flowing balance. You can rock the machine without having to grip which should make long tattoo sessions go a lot more easily. And hopefully the length of time you’re tattooing should go for a bit longer as well.
So are you aware of who’s using the machines? How are you getting them out there?
Yeah, well basically we’re finding artists that I think are exciting. We’re going to focus on Britain first, we’re basically going to have Team Ego UK, Europe, The States and others. I want to find a group of artists that I think are pushing tattooing forward and that are doing awesome tattoos and try and get them on board, but only if they like them.
There are people with a genuine interest in the machine as well, artists who got excited about when you were first speaking about the Ego. Are they using it now? Were you approaching people or were they coming to you wanting to try it?
Well they’re coming to buy them but if we see an artist that is doing really nice work, unlike a lot of companies we’re trying to do it professionally. When we sponsor an artist and back them with the machine other artists see the results making them want to try them out too. It’s a good way of people having a bit of faith in the machine instead of going “Oh right you’re a sponsored artist, here’s a banner, you get a discount”. We’re putting our money where our mouth is. We’re letting the artists have the machines – it is good for spreading the word. If people can see we’ve got a good group of artists, like we have in the UK that are pulling out really good work whilst using the machine then it’s really going to help to promote it.
So the feedback’s good?
The feedback is excellent, yeah.
Are you getting useful feedback from people that are maybe inspiring you to change or tweak them?
We basically have the main team and a group of testers, which is the B team. There were a few little problems that were spotted, daft little things like the RCA coming loose and there was a ball falling down shorting the motor.
Was this sorted quickly?
Yeah those problems have been rectified, we sent a group of people to test the next stage going out too, then I got a little bit more feedback. But yeah, the response so far, I’m well happy! It’s the breadth of different styles I use on it as well, it’s not just people being like “ah Bez’s colour realism” or whatever, I mean that’s not just one style, I do everything.
They seem to be able to line really well, I’ve heard that the lines come out real nice and solid from the guys I work with. And I mean that just opens up…
Ah massively. We have Matt that works for us upstairs and he’s totally and utterly traditional, he’s so traditional he hasn’t actually had the bollocks to try and line with it but he colours everything with the Ego. That’s not because we force him to. It’s nice to see so many different styles with one machine because it’s so flexible. That’s the thing with the team, we’re trying to get people from different backgrounds with different styles to work with it.
It’s good because it creates confidence for the people that are buying the machines as well. They can see the broad spectrum of artists they like and admire using it; it’s good… because people do have reservations when new machines come out.
We have the same comments, ‘can it do this? can it do that?’ but like you say, that’s just tattooing.
It is. Tattooists don’t like change. I mean I’m always going to back mine but I wouldn’t back it unless I used it. I can rave about it but I’d rather have people see artists using it. People have to remember they are tools and that’s what I’m trying to get into people’s minds. It’s a tool which does the job awesomely well and that’s by having people from different backgrounds saying that it does for every different style.
It makes you feel like you’re not just selling somebody something! If you buy the machine, use the machine well, and then take the next step into improving.
I mean I could come up with loads of bollocks about what it is and what it’s going to do but at the end of the day it stabs needles into the skin. That’s what I want from a tattoo machine, I want it to do that well, I want it to do it consistently and it does it every day at a reasonable price and that’s basically what the little Ego is about.
It will be good when people get that across as well.
There seemed to be concerns over the plastic casing, people had reservations about it, saying “it’s plastic AND a rotary”, but to know that’s the intention of the Ego and that it’s not something to be precious over – it’s not going to endure five years. I’m not going to lie to you, it’s not going to last five years but no rotary will. It’s a motor and it has a lifespan. You get a good year, year and a half, two years out a machine that has cost you two hundred and forty pounds, if you look back you’ve saved serious money.
I think that people need to see that more. They need to be aware that what they’re using has a certain longevity; it will come to an end.
Yeah, a lot of the rotary manufacturers are getting bad press because two years down the line the machines are getting a bit rough, but that’s just the nature of a rotary. People need to get out of the mindset that it’s going to last forever. As I said earlier, a coil won’t last forever. It still needs tweaking, it still needs fixing. Send off the motor and get it serviced. That’s just the nature of the beast when it comes to rotaries. They are tools, if you use a drill every day building a house, you’re going to have to replace that drill at some point, it’s not going to last forever. And that’s what we do, drilling.
Just drilling! That’s what I like about rotaries, they’re predictable, obviously to an extent. If you get your hours out of it then there should be no complaints or nit-picking.
Exactly. It’s like a marker, it’s not going to last forever.
Yeah, you don’t take a marker back to the shop to get refilled.
No, you don’t.
Or have you? Ha ha ha.
I’ve usually lost my marker entirely by that point, haha.
Design Thru Chaos / Brain Basket
Ok, I’m going to pick your brains. Brain Basket, how did that come about, did you have basic knowledge of the package and the programme to do that?
Yeah well my background’s 3D, I’m from the 3D games industry, it’s where I specialised before I came to tattooing. I’ve tried to bring some of that knowledge and make it accessible for tattooists, because it’s quite a high-end thing but there’s ways of simplifying it so we can all use it.
Well everyone seems to have (even if it’s very basic) an understanding of Photoshop. It’s not a brand new programme you need to get your head around, so people should be able to take to it.
Well that was the idea. I did the whole thing in a seminar about two years ago, for Paradise Gathering. I was asked to do something for technology and tattooing. Basically I had nothing so I had to create something very quickly, that’s when I came up with the Design Thru Chaos, Brain Basket thing. We all use Photoshop in the studios, or at least have access to Photoshop or someone who knows the basics, and originally I was going to design the whole package (which I’ll certainly do in the future), for the tattooist to visualise tattoos, but I thought I’d go with Photoshop because we all know it and it’s all dead simple.
And did it primarily start with the skull concept, because you went from the skull to the koi to the Hanya?
Yeah, originally it started from doing the seminar, I originally created a few limbs and a few body parts and from doing that the program which has now become Brain Basket. Here is the Hanya I’ll now just try and spin things around. See here you’ve got the Hanya and all of it can be seen from different angles, that’s the beauty of it. Here you’ve got a red looking Hanya.
At the minute, stuff like a Hanya we all seem to take a reference from say three pictures from one website.
Yeah yeah, I see.
A lot of people don’t realise Photoshop has really good 3D capabilities; it can render and do a lot. The whole idea was so simple that we can use it as reference, at the moment I’m working on ‘the perfect’ rose, I mean how often do you want that ‘perfect’ rose and if you do find it you’ve got one picture. You can’t go and use that again and again. You want something you can rotate and use different angles, use a different light, a crazy line and create some funky stuff, but if you’ve only got one picture you can’t do that.
And then you can start seeing repeats with people’s different take on the same photo. This is what I like about this, the angles and cast shadows. You can use the same angles of the Hanya but with the lighting possibilities, you can quickly create different moods.
Yes, I mean as you see here you can change the colour, you can change the position of the lighting, or just rotate it round and you can get whatever effect you want. A lot of the stuff is random that you do by accident, and that’s the underlying thing you do through this, you can create happy accidents.
Well, my expectations of this were a basic model that you can move about. So when I figured out you can play about with the lighting; I mean to do that in your studio or your home, the set up you need is, unless you’re really into it and it was a hobby, it’s expensive, and potentially just a pain in the arse. But here you can just sit down and create. I had a customer in recently, who to be honest wasn’t prepared for it. I played with the skull model for like fifteen minutes, threw some shadows on it, printed it, and had a strong idea to work from, that saved me an abundance of stress.
I would love to know how much time we all waste typing in ‘human skull’ or ‘rose’… but when you’ve got this you’ve got an infinite number of angles.
There’s a reference book I use for skulls, even though it’s got numerous angles, I just always feel I need to tweak it a bit.
Yeah as I said, you can rotate the skull round and you can zoom in. I use it for painting just to do the eye sockets ‘cos you can render shadows. You can do what you want with it. It’s just a time saving thing. With Photoshop, the only thing you need to have is version CS4 – 5 with extended on, press the letter ‘k’, which gives you rotation, go in to rotate the skull, you can get any angle you like and zoom in. I’ve also done different skins so you can turn that around, to the Day of the Dead object no problem; I’ve forgotten how to use it! Ha ha ha! Now I’ve got to cut that bit out, ah there we go.
So you can add skins?
Yeah you can add skins, to this model here, I don’t know who’s actually even got it. If you use Design thru Chaos it shows you how to take off the skins, but from that I should technically be able to draw on the skull, so all of that’s done with the letter ‘k’ and the rotate – that’s just on the skull.
You’re talking about saving a lot of time, with those angles! You can spend a lot of time trying to get it right and it is frustrating but with this it’s so simple.
Exactly, it’s designed for people who don’t know 3D, and don’t know Photoshop that well. I can grab that and I’m going to just randomly apply something here, I don’t even know what it’s going to look like but let’s have a look. It’s just to create some nice new effects. Oh my god!
What the hell is that!? I’ll put some shadows on it, you can do that with some Day of The Dead and that should give you a nice, really cool mask. (see left)
Who has Brain Basket? Is it out there as much as you wanted it to be? I don’t think a lot of people realise what you can do with it, I didn’t! I got it, played about with it and I was still pleasantly shocked.
Brain Basket I haven’t really pushed, I sort of did it and then put it aside. I’ve got a habit of starting things then moving on, and then I moved on to doing the design side of things. I finished the koi, but after I finished Design Thru Chaos I came back and re-did them and they’re going to be made available in the New Year.
Then you put all your time and effort into Design Thru Chaos which I think has been noticed on a much bigger scale than Brain Basket. Nobody really spoke about Brain Basket. I didn’t hear much about it, I only became aware through talking to you or being in the studio. This is making a bigger impact I think. I’ve seen people increasingly using it, playing about with layouts and to see people layering stuff to see how it will look on their arm! It saves time and it is exciting.
The main focus behind Design Thru Chaos was to address the many different ways to learn now. I think the level of tattooing has plateaued. Everybody’s doing nice finishes but to get to the next level, it’s design. That’s what I want to try and push with this, to show the artist and the customers that you can have variety, that’s the most important thing with Design Thru Chaos for me.
It’s incredible that customers can see this; it must be exciting for them to come here and see you put something significant down. We both know people or customers, that don’t have the same vision. You can talk until you’re blue in the face and they simply won’t see it. They want to see drawings, they want to see sketches and that can take up a lot of time but with this, you throw some images down, show them what works and it’s enough for them to have faith in what you’re doing.
Yeah, you’ve hit the nail on the head! A lot of artists struggle with ideas and with this you can do stuff very quickly, Here I’ve just nicked a casino related picture off the Internet. I’ve just flicked back, and then straight away you’ve got an idea or the start of an idea for a sleeve with very little work. With a little bit more Photoshop work you could have a very nice looking sleeve.
Say the customer doesn’t like her face, just add another one, you can grab images – it’s that quick. You can easily go back and create happy accidents, flaws and new ways of seeing things. It doesn’t matter how much you draw things on paper, you recycle images all the time, looking at references and looking at other tattoos. With this you don’t need to look at stuff, throw images on and you’ll see little bits and flashes of inspiration.
Yeah but that sort of thing can encourage you to be motivated or to go in a completely different direction, your not being lazy, you’re not just rolling images on an arm just to copy them, you can spark something, and like you said, if you see something coming down a forearm it can open you up to redesigning your own ideas. Like mechanical material, it’s endless what you can do with that using the same image.
It stops you recycling other tattoos and other pieces of work. You can come up with loads of ideas in an hour. Two of them might be worth working on, but they’re two ideas that you’d never have got if you didn’t try it out. Here are two images taken from an Iron Man suit, a bit more work and you’ve got a nice bio mechanical sleeve which has never been done before. We do a lot of artwork which is based on popular imagery, like a piece of nature, just stick it on and that’s it. I might not use this as a final tattoo even though I think it would make an awesome piece, but there are little sections I think ‘oh, I could use that in the design’.
It’s not only clients that can’t see it, I know there’s artists out there that have trouble visualising too. They know they want to do it, they’re excited about doing it but they are also taking a risk with jumping in and doing it. That can be insane. For example, Matt upstairs does a lot of traditional stuff, he uses it to do back pieces. He’ll do a design and a sketch and just scan it in. Not every client’s going to go for it but you can just show them that they can have it a certain way. And usually, when a client can see it in front of them it that makes things so much easier.
You’re always going to have a customer that comes in and questions what you do. They’ve seen your work and they’ve got that bit of trust but they also want to see the design and although you would like to show them, there is not always enough time. When I get to go home and want to veg out and relax, I could definitely relax doing this. I couldn’t relax with all the blueprints and sketching involved in a sleeve, it’s too stressful when you have a piling workload.
This is fun; I wanted to do something that was fun for artists to create designs. There’s nothing worse than coming home on a night and you’ve got to sit down and come up with something new. I mean straight away, instantly, that’s a great back piece, not too great near the bum but you can take bits and lay them over the top. (see photos on right) It helps to make us all think a little bit differently. You’ve got nothing to learn with the Design Thru Chaos, you’ve basically got your own digital mannequin. I’ve created some really cool new flows, just randomly sticking things on and thinking,’ I’d never have thought of that!’
You just want to motivate people too… you kind of want people to see the process differently and see how infinite designs can be? I mean why not be the guy with something unique about his studio? You have put it out there for every one to use.
Yeah I wanted to bring something different. I’m sick of seeing too much secrecy in tattooing where people keep things to themselves. I’m from the other side of the art world so I’m used to art and sharing it. The thing with tattooing is it’s very competitive, to me art shouldn’t be competitive, it should be art, you should be bouncing ideas around. I’ve always had the saying ‘art breeds art’. I know a few artists such as yourself who keep it as a secret weapon, but I’d rather bring something to tattooing. I’d like to look back in five or six years’ time and go “without that, without me doing what I do, that amazing, cool tattoo from the next generation of artists wouldn’t have happened”.
Straight away you’ve got a back piece there. No effort, take that and polish it; to me it just needs a background.
That takes so much stress from the overall tattoo design, sitting down with paper and your layout. Here you know it’s right there in front of you. It’s not a case of being lazy, rolling images off Google and then copying it, (that we all hate) there’s only so much you can do with that. The programme provides enough to inspire creativity, to get off your arse and bring your own thing to it.
I see what you mean, it will be great to look back and say, ‘that’s my little bit, and I pushed that level of design’. At the minute we look at magazines and we look at art, especially with Instagram and Facebook. We all see the same tattoos all day every day and it only seems to get pushed when somebody does something new and then we all copy it, but with this you can have a hundred new ideas. You sit down for two hours and have a little library of ideas just to get your brain going, just to get people’s brains out of this cycle that we’re in at the minute. We all say we do tattooing for the artist side of it, but we all stick with the same formula when it comes to designing. To me, the next level coming to tattooing is design and to me this will get people thinking.
Is this where it’s at? Will there be attachments?
Yeah, at the minute the DVD includes a hand, a right arm, a back and a front. I’m just about to release the expansion pack which is the rest of the body parts; that’s legs, feet, the other arm, and separate pecks so you can get more detail on the chest. They have to be created in a way that we can focus on specific areas, thats why i am creating male and female body packs. From there I’m going to re-release Brain Basket, to put the new models in; the new koi, hanyas, roses, etc.
We’ve got some packs coming out, which include the skull. I’ve been designing women’s faces and Day of the Dead faces. I’m going to have it so there’s lots of different packs that you can change the texture to, then you can get loads of different effects and loads of different patterns. I’m also looking to do some signature models, that other artists will design, for example Billy Hay, he’s got a really cartoony look to his work. I will get him to draw a skull, and then remodel it.
So you’ll build a model from it…
Yeah so you’ll get the feel of the artist, Thomas Kynst, he’s famous for doing dirty horrible skulls. We’re working with him at the minute creating a signature range.
That’s cool as well, that’s going to open it up to everyone. People don’t really want to get pigeon holed but they do like a certain style.
I’m also doing the next set which is flowers – mainly Japanese flowers. I draw lotuses every other day so it will be nice to have one that I can flip or rotate and use as reference, instead of going to Google and finding the same three bloody lotuses thats not quite at the angle I want. With peonies and stuff like that, they’re a nightmare to draw but I can get this to generate line work as well
Yeah if you check the skull… if you want to feature that, I haven’t really pushed it but when I release it, if you go to the same section and you go to retrace it through your shadows, you’ve got render settings here and you’ve got line illustration.
Right then we edit this a little bit, then you essentially have your line work. It rotates with everything else and you can fine tune it to get a better look. Let’s try. There’s enough line work there to make a stencil from.
I’ve got the likes of my little skull reference book which I thought would give me every angle I would need but I’ve already exhausted it, I’ve gone back to particular ones I like but this hasn’t given me a new set of options.
I’ve said that before, this skull originally came from the book I did, I rendered out a load of angles and stuff like that, which I lent to you a little while ago but this has all come from that. There’s only a certain amount of pages in a book for a certain amount of angles, whereas with this you can get any angle you like.
It will render it to quite a high level as well; you’ve got all the texture marks in there. The longer you leave it the higher it will get, it will actually get to print press quality after half an hour or so. You can change how soft or hard you want the shadows. I wanted to create something for people without 3D knowledge, without being a computer nerd, all you need to do is rotate, move a light, spend fifteen minutes learning it and there you go. Then you’ve got all the references you might need. If the customer doesn’t like what you want then change the angle. What I’ll do is print something from the angle I like then I’ll draw from it, and create my version from that skull. With that reference and that angle my days a lot easier.
No question, and that’s what you want, you want things to be smoother. As you said earlier, all you care about is the piece you’re doing and getting to that happy point. So again with distribution, is this out there, are you happy for people coming to you asking for this or…?
Yeah, Design Thru Chaos is available through a few distributors, Guy Aitchison just took Design Thru Chaos on, he was very impressed and you can buy it at Tattooeducation.com, you can buy from my site, triplesixstudios.com, and a few other online retailers. The DVDs I am currently working on will become available in the next few weeks.