When Ray Webb picks up a block of steel in his shop, there’s something about the familiar way he turns it over in his hand that tells you he knows everything there is to know about it—that he must have handled ten thousand blocks of steel like this one.
And he probably has. Webb is the inventor of NeoTat, an innovative machine for tattooing that has earned respect throughout the tattoo community as smooth-running and lightweight, with less vibration and, according to some, faster healing. The block of steel that Webb has picked up is the raw material for a NeoTat machine.
It will be shaped, painted, and combined with other components, all right here in NeoTat’s production shop in Miami. Then the finished machine will be tested twice and cleaned before being shipped to one of NeoTat’s customers around the world. These include renowned tattoo artists such as Jime Litwalk, Josh Woods, and Jessica Weichers, as well as Top Notch Tattoo in Globe.
At Top Notch, tattoo artist and proprietor Carlos Alvarez has two copper-colored NeoTat machines that he uses for lining, shading, and color. He points to four old-style machines that are sitting on a shelf and says, “That’s the boneyard.” He says he rarely uses those machines anymore and keeps them mainly for sentimental reasons.
Alvarez says, “If it’s a first-timer I’ll use these [NeoTat machines] because it eases them up. They relax a little more.” He adds, “These pack color like no other,” and says that with the NeoTat machines, the tattoos often heal faster.
Webb invented NeoTat about 12 years ago. He is a mechanical and electrical engineer and ran a job shop (a shop that made parts to order) for many years, first in the valley and then at his current location in Miami. One of Webb’s clients was Superior Tattoo, a supply company out of Phoenix. Webb made parts for them and also developed new products for them to add to their line.
Webb noticed that the demographics of tattooing were changing. More women, particularly women over 40, were getting tattoos for the first time. Often, they were getting permanent cosmetics such as eyebrow shaping. Webb felt that the tattoo machines would probably be uncomfortable and intimidating for these women.
“If somebody got in my face with a noisy coil machine,” Webb says, “I would freak out. I can just imagine what women would feel like.”
This empathy led Webb to develop a new machine that was quieter. He brought the idea to Superior Tattoo, but they weren’t interested. So Webb tabled the idea for years.
Then, about 12 years ago, Webb and Superior Tattoo parted ways, and Webb went into business manufacturing NeoTat machines.
Webb explains the difference between NeoTat and the older tattoo machines, known as coil machines. “First of all, a standard tattoo machine is open, it’s really hard to keep clean, and they tend to go out of adjustment if you drop them,” he says. The coil machines also required the artist to use a rubber band to stabilize the needle. Webb says this type of tattoo machine hasn’t changed in many years.
Seeing the drawbacks and limitations of the coil machine, Webb designed a new and improved tattoo machine. His design criteria, he says, were to make a machine that was enclosed, quiet, vibrated less, and also got rid of the rubber bands. “It’s a new way to tattoo,” Webb says—hence the name NeoTat.
Webb’s production shop is full of the sounds of machines growling and humming, and there’s the sharp tang of metal in the air. Coils of cable, tools, and parts are everywhere, in boxes and hanging from the walls. In the background, on a radio somewhere Grace Slick is singing “White Rabbit.”
Webb, a tall man with a white beard and an unruly mass of white hair, describes the difficulties that faced NeoTat in the early days. The tattoo industry was dominated by coil machines, and not many artists were willing to try a new machine. There was some interest in NeoTat among artists in Europe, but not enough sales to support the company. Then, members of the Society of Permanent Cosmetics Professionals caught on to the benefits of Webb’s new lightweight, quiet, smooth-hitting machine, and NeoTat began to attend SPCP conferences.
However, NeoTat continued to be shut out of regular tattoo shows. Apparently, the machine was just too different from what tattoo artists were familiar with, and they weren’t interested in making the switch to a new kind of machine. A break came in 2005 when Durb Morrison, the organizer of the Hell City Tattoo Festivals, allowed Webb to walk around the festival floor in Phoenix, selling NeoTat machines. But the tattoo industry just didn’t seem to be ready for NeoTat.
In 2009 Webb was about to throw in the towel, when Joshua Carlton, a respected pioneer in the tattoo industry, called Ray “a world-class machine builder.” Then the artist Ryan Hadley began to use NeoTat and work in the NeoTat booth at shows. Other well-known tattoo artists, such as Frank La Natra, came on board. Gradually NeoTat began to earn respect in the American tattoo world. By 2011, NeoTat had grown to the point where it was a sponsor of Hell City.
One reason tattoo artists might have had a hard time converting to Webb’s machine is that NeoTat is much lighter than what they are used to. A regular coil machine weighs from 10 ounces up to a pound, but a NeoTat machine weighs only 4½ or 5½ ounces, depending on the model. Webb has designed a new brass machine that will be a little heavier and make the transition from the coil machine easier.
Along with being lighter, NeoTat machines also have a smoother feel. Webb explains that with traditional machines, the needle has a slight wobble or elliptical motion. NeoTat has a linear drive, and the needle moves straight up and down. This allows the artist greater control.
Webb tells the story of a woman who came to the NeoTat booth at a show. Webb had set up a needle and ink, and there were bananas for artists to practice on. The woman took a banana and started to work at it. “She’s like, whoa,” Webb says. “And she says, ‘Okay I’ll take two.’” After the artist left, Webb looked at her work on the banana. “She just did a little ovaloid line,” Webb says. Then he put his glasses on and saw that “in very tiny script, not even an eighth of an inch tall, it says, ‘Hi, my name is Ramona.’ She was able to do that with our machine.” The precision control of NeoTat makes possible the very fine lines that are needed for cosmetics work and intricate designs.
On the other hand, there is the “tattoo machine from hell.” Last year, just for fun, Webb designed and made a tattoo machine that is about ten times the normal size and weighs around 150 pounds—it is the largest tattoo machine in the world. He took it to the Hell City show in Phoenix last year, and Sweet Pepper Klopek of the Monsters of Schlock volunteered to be tattooed with it. The Discovery Channel filmed the whole wild experience for its “Extreme Machines” show.
As much as Webb enjoys the story of the tattoo machine from hell, he also enjoys stories about how NeoTat has improved people’s lives in small and large ways. For example, he points out that tattoo artists often suffer from carpal tunnel because of the vibration from old-style machines. Webb remembers one artist who had tattooed for over 30 years. “She had to give it up because it just gave her so much pain to tattoo,” Webb says. With pride, he adds, “Then she got a NeoTat and now she’s back to tattooing.”
Webb emphasizes the fact that the NeoTat company has an ethical foundation, based on family values, hard work, and hospitality. Everything is hand–fitted and hand–assembled, and all the components except the motor, springs, and set screws are fabricated in-house. Webb’s daughter Zenada works in the shop, along with about seven other employees. Not only is Webb providing employment for Miami workers, but he is giving back to the tattoo community, too. NeoTat often provides free booth space for artists at conventions and sponsors tattoo events.
Webb has discovered the secret of many successful business enterprises: find a corner of the world, and make it a little better. Lucky for us, NeoTat’s corner is just off Live Oak in Miami.
Patricia Sanders lived in Globe from 2004 to 2008 and at Reevis Mountain School, in the Tonto National Forest, from 2008 to 2014. She has been a writer and editor for GMT since 2015. She is currently traveling long-term and researching a book on dance. You can follow her writing on the website medium.com, under the pen name SK Camille.