I love the coil. I love the feel of it in my hands. I love the familiar buzz it makes; that grating hum that has more or less served as the soundtrack to my career. Hell, I even love the tingling it leaves behind in my fingers after a long day’s work. You may call it nerve damage, but I call it the money buzz. The more it tingles, the more cheddar you’re going home with.
I do, however, recognize the subjectivity of the preference. In the words of Monty Python’s Anne Elk, this opinion, “which is mine, belongs to me.” I won’t, for a minute, pretend the coil is objectively a better machine than the rotary. Nor will I pretend that I don’t get the draw of a rotary. There’s definitely a reason that so many of my colleagues have made the switch, and even I can be caught using one for a specific application from time to time. Most importantly, I won’t judge you if you choose to use a rotary, even if I secretly laugh at the fact that you look like you’re holding a dildo. You do you; I’ll do me.
What I will do – and this is for those in the new generation who didn’t experience the traditional apprenticeship and thus, didn’t get that history lesson on why the coil is so precious to so many of us – is explain why I still choose the doorbell over the dildo.
It’s Infinitely Adjustable.
This is really the meat of the argument for me. The easiest, most efficient way to explain it is to parallel this with the Mac/PC debate. A rotary, like a Mac, needs little adjustment. Pull it out of the box, turn it, on and you’re ready to go. It’s already been set up and dialed in to be as efficient as possible for as many applications as possible. It’s user friendly, it’s intuitive, it’s ergonomic, and it practically never malfunctions. Wonderful. You really can’t go wrong with it. But like a Mac, the rotary’s strengths can also be its weaknesses.
The coil, of course, is the PC in this analogy. It might be a bit more cumbersome to the uninitiated, but if you know what you’re doing, it’s totally serviceable in house and has infinite possibilities for customization. That goes for both the individual and the job at hand.
For example, I have an old friend who runs his machine crazy fast – like, somewhere around 180hz. For any normal artist, that would be batshit crazy. But he works, and really, exists, at a freakish pace, so it works for him. He couldn’t do that with a rotary.
There’s a Romance to it.
It’s difficult to put this into words. In one way, it’s a non-argument, because it’s ultimately about feelings – and fuck your feelings, AMIRIGHT? In another way, it’s really the most universal reason that so many of us have remained loyal to the coil.
For those of us who cut our teeth, so to speak, in the ebbing years of the previous millennium, the building and fine-tuning of the coil is part of the ritual, as essential to the creative process as the artwork itself. They have a swagger and style to them that an out-of-the-box rotary machine just can’t achieve for us. It’s ultimately an intangible thing. It’s the same reason an audiophile will swear by vinyl when there’s no legitimate scientific basis for the preference. It’s why guitarists will more often than not choose a tube amp when there are perfectly good digital models on the market. It’s a feeling that’s rooted in tradition, nostalgia, and the punk rock, DIY ethos at the core of the trade. If you don’t get it, that’s OK. It just means that I’m probably cooler than you.
It’s a Vessel of Pride and Tradition.
We touched on this in the last point, but it deserves a subheading of its own. For the artist who was trained on the coil, it represents far more than a gadget that injects the ink into the flesh. It’s an instrument. The fine-tuning and maintenance of the coil is just as much part of the art as the actual artwork. The gauge of the spring, the voltage, the length, the gap – they all play a crucial role in the perfection of the final output.
The fabled titans of this industry developed their own unique specs for their coils and then guarded them more closely than KFC recipe. Legend has it that Jerry Collins was so protective of his secrets that he would often set up extra machines in disastrous configurations and leave them out just to sabotage his nosy competitors.
A finely tuned and configured coil is a point of pride. This is mine, my secret recipe, the accumulation of my validation in a world of protected secrets. Some of my most treasured moments have been when an artist I looked up to quietly gave me a pointer on how to better configure my machine. In many ways, those moments (and there were several) served more as a personal validation than any tattoo I’ve ever completed. Once again, you just don’t have that with a rotary.
Because Fuck You, That’s Why!
In the end, this is a trade based on rebellion, irreverence and individuality. Prior to this new era of catering to soccer moms and annoyingly hip youth pastors, merely picking up the machine was an act of defiance. Therefore, at the end of the day, those of us who love our coils, love them because we do and you can fuck right off if you take issue with that. Of course, I say this all in love and mutual respect.
With the help again of Monty Python’s Anne Elk, I want to reiterate that this opinion, “which is mine, belongs to me.” This isn’t science, nor is it gospel. It’s a conveyance of my thoughts, based on my own experiences. Likely, there are many from my generation of artists who can relate, but I can only speak for myself. The rotary machines are now evolving at a near-exponential pace and will likely soon render my thoughts here obsolete. But until that happens, dear younger generation, you should know that our incessant loyalty is more than blind stubbornness. It’s a mixture of familiarity, mechanics, history and tradition. That is why we are loyal to the coil.
Thoughts articulated by Jeff White
Cowritten by David Pogge
Jeff White is a 25-year veteran tattoo artist and the owner of Urge 3 Tattoos in Penticton, British Columbia. He is incredibly generous with coffee and looks great in hats.
You can follow him on Instagram @amcbutcher.
You can follow his studio @urge3tattoos.