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A Tattoo Tool Made in the U.S.A

Add tattooing to the long list of industries being revolutionized by China’s manufacturing boom. “The Chinese are putting out very cheap tattoo machines,” said Walt Vail, chief executive of Superior Tattoo Equipment. And though he says these hand-held machines can’t replicate patterns as precisely as more expensive units, Mr. Vail acknowledges that many tattoo artists can’t resist the urge to save $100 or more a machine.

In November of last year, distressed by his clientele’s growing affection for low-cost machines from overseas, Mr. Vail devised a way for his Phoenix-based company to fight back. “The most expensive component on a machine is the frame,” he said, referring to the outer shell. “If we could just get the frame costs on the units down, we knew we could compete.” That revelation led to the creation of the V-RAD, a tattoo machine that retails for $79, including grip and needle — on par with Chinese models, but with one distinct marketing advantage.

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“It’s 100 percent, Tattoo kits usa made proudly made in the U.S.A.,” Mr. Vail said. “Our customers do like American-made products.”

It was obvious to Mr. Vail early on that working with aluminum, the traditional material for tattoo machine frames, would be prohibitively expensive. He designed the V-RAD to be constructed out of glass-filled nylon, a material commonly found in gun stocks. Mr. Vail, a former engineer, declined to discuss the exact composition of the material used in the V-RAD, except to say that it was manufactured by General Electric.

The active components of the V-RAD, like the tube that siphons ink from reservoir to needlepoint, were easier to design. Contrary to its free-spirited reputation, the tattoo industry has developed rigid standards for equipment. Needles, for example, come in a limited number of diameters, and mass-market machines must be able to hold them snugly.

Superior enlisted a Phoenix plastics manufacturer, which had previously specialized in parts for swimming pools and turbines, to handle the V-RAD’s production. Early prototypes were distributed to local artists, who used them to ink customers; they reported back to Superior with positive reviews regarding the machine’s accuracy and reliability. The V-RAD’s official introduction came at a Toronto tattoo convention, Northern Ink Xposure, in June; since then, Superior has sold more than 1,000 of the machines, primarily through its Web site,

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Aside from saving patriotic-yet-budget-conscious tattoo artists money, the V-RAD has some other advantages over aluminum machines, Mr. Vail said. The nonmetallic frame, for example, doesn’t overheat during marathon inking sessions for, say, a pair of angel wings across a client’s back.

Given the permanence of Tattoo kits usa made, it is only natural for customers to wonder whether a cheaper machine creates a less-splendid tattoo. Mr. Vail said the V-RAD could do beautiful work when placed in a specialist’s hands. He first saw that for himself at a tattoo show in Bangor, Me., when a man approached the Superior booth, hiked up his shorts and showed off a thigh festooned with a richly detailed portrait of his nephew — completed with a V-RAD.

“You could take a pro, and he could take any machine and do good work with it,” Mr. Vail said. “It’s like a great violinist, he could be playing a cheap violin or a Strad, and it’s going to sound good.” In other words, if you’re preparing for a tattoo, look for an Itzhak Perlman with a tattoo machine.

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