Dave Hill

A Conversation

Can you introduce yourself please and tell us how about when you started tattooing?

My name’s Dave Hill and I’m from Karnak, Illinois in the bottom of the state, way down here by the Cache River Basin. I started tattooing twenty-eight years ago.

I got my first tattoo at a fair and met a guy named Ray Youngman, he ended up becoming a mentor of mine, but first I got tattooed by him. I fell in love with the process, the tattooing, the whole thing, I just fell in love with it. It had a little bit of mystery behind it back then. I like that, I liked the mystery behind tattooing. You had to search for it, you had to seek it out and dig for the answers to the questions, so that’s what I really liked about tattooing in the beginning.

Who were your early influences in the tattoo industry?

Jerry Riegger from Metropolis, Illinois, was a great influence on the machine building part, and he was a tattoo artist too. Again Ray Youngman was a big influence on me. Jerry Swallow, a Canadian tattooist, very well known, stayed with me a while and helped me develop some skills. They just pushed me along and when I needed help, they helped me. I owe them some gratitude for doing that.

When did you begin making your own tattoo machines?

I went to Jerry Riegger’s place. He had a house in Illinois where he was building machines. I sat and watched him build machines. He said do you want to try to build one, I said yeah, and so he showed me the mechanics of it. After I learned the mechanics of it, I just fell in love with doing it, and I kept doing it. And the more I progressed the better it got and he was my mentor in that, so Jerry was a big influence on me.

I just followed his motions, and watched him solder coils, learned how to wind coils, just followed everything in his path, then I just kind of went my own way and started building my own machines. From then on I just went my own way with it, you know. Following in another man’s path that’s done it for a while, in a traditional fashion, that’s what’s good about machine building, that’s what’s good about tattooing; they are traditional handed-down crafts that a lot of people can’t understand unless they are in the business.

I watched him build and cut springs by hand and I just felt like he passed all that on to me and I was really grateful for him doing that. He was a great mentor.

You just kept building your own machines from there?

I made a decision to make machines and to be good at it, so when people call me up and they want a long stroke shader, I can do that, I could build that for them. If they wanted a long stroke liner, I could do that. Or if they wanted their machine to run at a different speed, I could do that for them - and the more you work at anything that better you become. It’s just the more you do, the better you get.

What is it about your machines that you pride yourself on?

Quality. USA quality machines; when you buy a machine you can take it out of the box and you can use it without adjusting it, without doing anything to it, being able to tattoo with it as soon as you take it out of the box. A machine should run the way it’s ordered. If it’s ordered in a fashion that they want it, built for black and gray shading, a color machine, an outliner, then that’s what I try to give the people. Give them what they ask for - and that’s what this business is all about, giving people what they want.

In your opinion, what is it that makes a good machine?

The love and the time that’s put into a machine, is what makes the machine what it is. The time and devotion to make it right, handcrafted, like a cabinet maker builds a cabinet. Even though sometimes I don’t get paid what the machine is really worth, it’s just the love of doing it. It’s the love of building - and that’s what makes a great machine, the time you put into it.

I couldn’t count the hours that I’ve sat down here and built machines because the clocks wouldn’t have enough numbers on ‘em. I just do it for the love of it, ‘cause I love to do it.

That’s what’s good about machine building, that’s what’s good about tattooing; they are traditional handed-down crafts that a lot of people can’t understand unless they are in the business.

What do you hope a tattooer who purchases the machines gets from it?

I just hope someone that purchases a machine from me - I hope to see quality work, I want to see that they do quality work with it. To be able to see that is great. There’s nothing better than going to a tattoo show or somewhere where they’re having a tattooing event and seeing your machines being used, the tattoo artist using your machines tattooing people.

That’s a fantastic thing to see people using what you’ve made, or what you’ve done. I mean a lot of people are selling machines, you see machines everywhere and nowadays people that are selling machines, you don’t even see ‘em being used. And when you go to a tattoo show and you see somebody sitting down getting a tattoo at somebody’s booth using your machines, it’s a very good feeling. I’m proud to be able to see that, to see what they’re doing and you see the tattoo work they’re doing and it’s quality tattooing and you’re like he’s using my machine, that makes me feel good to know that, to do that.

Do you have anyone you’re mentoring?

No, and I think that’s kind of the downfall of the system. You know, it’s a shame that all this knowledge is not being taken up on hand. I think a lot of people are passing that up and not learning the history. Back when I started tattooing and machine building, you made it yourself. You made your contact screws, you made your coil cores, you made everything. I think people have lost sight of the mechanics of all of it, and knowing how to build it. It’s a different atmosphere. I hate to see the knowledge wasted. I’d really like to pass it on but it’s different times.

What are your thoughts on the current culture of young tattooers using the cheap imitation machines that are coming out of China?

The cheap machines are like anything else in life; the quality’s not good, and as they said back in the day: You get what you pay for. So if the quality’s not there, and the craftsmanship is not there and the time’s not put into the machine building, then you really haven’t earned anything. Cheap equipment does cheap work. And that’s the bottom line.

I use 10 18 steel for the frames and I have a special made coil core from a man named Ahren Bloomquist that I use - it’s a special material that’s made which gives it a real good magnetic field - and I wind the coils by hand, the springs are cut by hand, the machines are welded together. It takes a few different components, a few different specially selected materials, to make a good machine.

As I said, I make my own coils. They’re fiber washer and I wind with, well the fiber washers are glued onto the coil cores, they have to set overnight - and after the coil cores dry then I hand wind them on a drill, and they’re wound by hand with magnet wire; 24 gauge magnet wire.

The frames are laser cut. I have them on a diagram. I draw up the diagram and take it to a laser, someone has a laser and they computerize it and they put the program in and cut the side plate of the machine out.

What do you promise to the consumer about the machine they purchase from you?

I guarantee it, if that machine doesn’t run right, you can send it to me - I will fix it for free, and if I can’t fix it, I will replace it for free. You don’t get that overseas - that’s a good thing about American quality made machines.

I couldn't count the hours that I've sat down here and built machines because the clocks wouldn't have enough numbers on ‘em. I just do it for the love of it, ‘cause I love to do it.

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