Mark Pettigrew has been around in the tattoo game since way back in 1972, which makes him an ideal source for this feature. We asked him about the way things use to be in tattoo land when he was starting out, how he got started and how things have changed. Seems like us kids don’t even know we’re born!
Words – Mark Pettigrew
Photos – Various
Mark Pettigrew – The story so far
I started tattooing in my first year of secondary school using Indian Ink I found in art class. I knew it was used for tattooing, so I nicked it. In about 1976 I bought a second-hand tattoo kit. I played with it for a few months and then sold it to a friend, which really pleased my mum. What she didn’t know was that I had sold it to buy a better one. I’ve still got it. That was the start of it, and I tattooed from home for quite a few years.
In 1982, they brought out all these health regulations, so I registered with the health authority. They came round and basically tore me to pieces. They were horrified. Not like nowadays, when someone tattoos from home and they don’t give a toss. So I found an empty shop. I met with the estate agent, and he asked me what I wanted it for. I’d been turned down for other shops. You mention tattooing, and they don’t want to know. But when I told him it was for a tattoo shop he said that’s exactly what they wanted, something with a bit of speciality. He let me have the shop the next day to decorate. I was in that shop for six years.
I moved down here in 1989, and I’ve been here ever since. I’ve made some good friends. I tattooed them and then I tattooed their sons, and then their sons’ sons. I’m tattooing the third generation!
The lost art of needle making
To make the groupings I used a multi-jig with loads of holes in it. I’d tighten up the liners by pushing them through a smaller hole in a jeweller’s block. I’d usually do a big bunch of loose seven rounds and a bunch of tight seven rounds. Or the fives or threes, though you very rarely use three liners now. If you get a seven round of pre-mades, they’re more like my old five rounds. They’re a lot tighter for some reason.I used to use pushbike spokes to make needle bars. You take them out of the wheel, and then you get a metal bar, hacksaw a slot in it, bend it round, squash it down with a pair of pliers and file a flat on the end.
Now when people are setting up they put a bend in the needle bar. I used to avoid that by soldering it on at a slight angle, so I never had to worry about bending a bar.About 25 years ago I told my wife I was going to start making needles and selling them. Now it’s not worth it because they are so cheap to buy. I switched to buying pre-made needles two or three years ago. It’s a shame because nobody can be bothered to learn how to make needles nowadays. It’s not difficult. I showed you how to do it just now!
1. This is Mark’s needle jig. It was bought from Huck Spaulding and is set up for a 7 round. It is designed to hold seven loose needles and keep them in line before soldering.
2. Lining up size 12 (0.35) needles to put into the jig.
3. Checking the needles for consistency with an eye loupe to see that there are no hooks.
4. Lining the needles up in the jig so the points are even.
5. Soldering the back of the needles, using flux to bind them together.
6. The needles go into a tightening block to tighten the grouping as needed.
7. After tightening the needles, more flux is applied in preparation for soldering the needles to the needle bar.
8. Carefully soldering the needles to the bar, ensuring that there is no excess solder on the needle, so it does not rub in the grip.
9. A jeweller’s block, needle jig and a soldering iron.
Old Timers’ Tattoo Club
I’m treasurer of ‘Old Timers’ Tattoo Club’. It’s a social gathering for old time tattooists. There are only about thirty members. Years ago before Jeff Baker died, we used to meet up, chat about the old days, get drunk and play cards; that sort of thing. Next day we might take a day trip to France or something. A good old get together.Woody and Lal Hardy have asked me to do a seminar about old timers at the Brighton show on Saturday.
Bloody kids today
Younger kids coming into the trade have got it easy. Everything’s too easy for them; they’ve got it handed to them on a plate. Years ago we had to make all our own needles and draw our own flash. There were none of these stencil machines. Until relatively recently I to used a biro, and it was only about ten years ago that I started using stencils. It was George Bone that did it. He had a stencil machine and showed me how to use it, and I thought ‘bloody hell!’ and went out and bought one. If they took tracing paper and carbon paper off the market three-quarters of the young tattooists would dry up overnight.