Athletes have ACL and hamstring injuries; astronauts have muscle atrophy and radiation exposure—many professions with unique physical challenges come with corresponding ailments. Although you may be surprised to hear it, tattoo artistry is no different.
“Arthritis and other rheumatic diseases are common not only in tattooists but in anybody holding something like a pen or pencil for prolonged periods of time,” says Richard Beston, known professionally as “Bez.”
“When we draw or write, our grip uses more muscle power than we’re aware of, which causes strain to the body,” he says. “When we use a weighted, vibrating tattoo machine, the strain is amplified, so there’s more potential for health complications. Conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome are common in tattooists and can mean a short career.”
Bez came to tattooing comparatively late in life and had already dealt with back problems, which he says made him more aware of how he used his body while working. After he established Triple Six Studios in Sunderland, England, it soon became apparent that the standard machinery could be far more ergonomic. Colleagues echoed his sentiments about wrist pain, so Bez set about remaking the tattoo machine completely, for his self-preservation and the health of fellow artists.
Bez, however, was not an engineer and had never designed or built tattoo machinery. He had to teach himself how the machines work. Although they are relatively simple devices, the learning curve was steep.
But his former career designing real-world objects in the digital realm helped. “I have a background in the computer-games industry, which gave me a lot of knowledge and experience working with 3D design software,” he says. Working with CAD and using Autodesk Fusion 360 to conceptualize his designs wasn’t too big of a leap. Bez says a lot of the basic functionality translated seamlessly as he moved from one professional field to another.
A major flaw of traditional tattoo machines was the weight distribution, so Bez’s first priority was to shift the center of gravity over the top of the tube and away from the back of the hand, letting the artist hold it more like a pen. That meant redesigning the internal mechanism.
In older machines, that mechanism is a coil, but Bez fashioned a unique rotary system that uses lubrication-free bearings provided by igus, a specialist manufacturer of plastic bearings, which damps the needle more effectively and reduces noise and vibration. Later Ego models introduced a linear needle motion that converts the rotary motion to a linear drive using special rails, resulting in more accurate puncturing because it removes the side-to-side vibration of traditional machines.
The Ego Vertex 2 tattoo machine in gold. Courtesy of Ego.
The Ego Switch tattoo machine line. Courtesy of Ego.
Because traditional steel grips are thin like pencils, sustained pressure is needed to hold them steady. That leads to the pain and callouses tattoo artists know only too well. So the next innovation was a larger, softer grip (the Biogrip), which requires far less pressure. Another design advance called the Power Triangle was so revolutionary that he patented it.
An Accidental Company
After these quantum leaps forward, Bez built a company to further develop and commercialize the technology. Headquartered in Sunderland, his team now sells tattoo machines, grips, and accessories under the company name Ego.
But the 47-year-old says that was never his intention. “The aim was just to make life easier for artists, but knowledge and understanding of the business aspects of doing this has been another steep learning curve,” he says. “We outgrew our original facilities when we realized the products were in such demand.
“We needed a more sophisticated operation, but turning the concept into a business has been one of the biggest challenges,” Bez continues. “We’re only now learning how important marketing and market research are, as well as simply design. The business has been the result of our attempt to fix those problems as we’ve become aware of them.”
For one thing, Bez and his team have streamlined their prototyping methods. It’s been an iterative process to find the best way to build and test new models, but he thinks they’ve got it down to a fine art now.
“In the past, a design was sent to Germany or China, and I’d have to travel there to check the prototype, make changes, wait for them to be made, and then review it again,” Bez says. “It was time consuming.”
That was until about seven years ago, when Ego invested in a 3D-printer fleet from MakerBot. Bez says the technology has grown increasingly sophisticated and more impressive since then. “Using the Formlabs Form 2 printers we have now, we can get 20 or 30 iterations done and tested in a week or two,” he says. “Instead of spending so much time and money on reviewing products, integration with the current software makes it easy for another team member to make changes and get results in a matter of hours.”
Bez didn’t intend to be the owner of a successful tattoo-machine-parts business—or be the founder and figurehead of a maker community centered on Ego and Triple Six Studios’ work.
But his workshops have drawn other creators like moths to a flame, and he’s all for it. He chose the latest home base for Ego and Triple Six Studios for its potential to be a “creative hive” to attract makers and engineers back to what was once a thriving local manufacturing hotspot.
The Ego Apex Overkill tattoo machine in red. Courtesy of Ego.
One version of the Ego Biogrip. Courtesy of Ego.
An alternate version of the Ego Biogrip. Courtesy of Ego.
“We’re increasingly expanding with more 3D printers and tools, so we’ve had to upgrade our premises for the space we need,” Bez says. “In fact, we’ve had to move three times in the last six months.
“We hope this will be somewhere that lets us bring in like-minded people to use our equipment for creative purposes,” he continues. “My ultimate aim is a collection of talented individuals in a hub of amazing ideas and products without having to travel all around the world to do it.”
Above all, Bez has had more time to strike a balance he couldn’t be happier with: tattooing a few days a week and working on Ego. “The combination of working as an engineer and a tattooist keeps me creatively stimulated, and I’m able to get a lot more gratification out of both disciplines,” he says.