Surrounded by dispensaries in Gardena, Union Electric Tattoo seems is if it would just be an average tattoo parlor in a gritty part of town. To the locals, it's the neighborhood ink spot. To those in the tattoo industry, it's the home of a respected artist and the source of some of the finest coil tattoo machines currently being made.
Originally, tattooing was just Big5's retirement plan for when he got too old for graffiti. Long before he'd ever picked up a tattoo machine, Big5 had already established himself as one of the most prolific street artists to grace the southern portion of Los Angeles County. But as early as two decades ago, the graffiti writer knew he was at least interested in tattooing.
"One of my buddies from high school got one of those kits, but he was too scared to mess around with it," Big5 says. "I started using it on him, and then I'd start going to parties and telling people I could tattoo. I'd let them get drunk, and then I'd take them back to the house and tattoo them. I tried to get a formal apprenticeship, but you didn't get one in the early '90s unless you knew someone or had already learned to tattoo in prison or something."
After tattooing out of his kitchen for about a six years, Big5 spent the late '90s and first half of the 2000s tattooing out of various shops around L.A. By the time he'd finally managed to open Union Electric Tattoo in 2006, Big5 knew that while his two preferred mediums didn't have many similarities as art forms, they shared a lot of the same artists.
"They really have nothing to do with each other except that there are a lot of graffiti writers who tattoo," Big5 says. "I call it the 'graffiti writer retirement program' because you can't do graffiti forever, but you can tattoo forever. The thing I love about tattooing is that it's a good way to make a living but still be an artist. That, and you never have to grow up."
Now, Big5 is about to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Union, a shop he'd been trying to open for several years but kept getting denied by various cities for one issue or another. After six years at a smaller location, Union Electric Tattoo is now one of the largest shops in Gardena and located literally on the same paper route its owner used to work as a kid. Aside from his own artwork, the Gardena native now can say he owns multiple businesses in his hometown. In the back of Union Electric's new location on Gardena Boulevard, Big5 and the shop's manager, Rupert Pupkin (real name: Carollo), craft tattoo machines that are being used by artists all over the world.
From the metalworking and coil wrapping to the polishing and testing, everything about Union Machine's products is done right there in the Gardena shop. Unlike many larger tattoo-machine manufacturers, every Union machine is also made by hand and solely out of American-sourced materials. Pupkin was initially one of Big5's regular clients, but the two had a passion for machinery that brought about Union Machine.
"Big5 and I are both car guys, and we didn't have cars to work on," Pupkin says. "We started putting together tattoo machines just to have some fun a couple nights each week because we just wanted to work with our hands. It just blew up."
These days, Pupkin estimates he spends about 60 to 80 hours a week working on machines, and Big5 pops into the back to help whenever he can. The labor-intensive process starts with raw materials and ends with an electrically magnetic machine that most won't understand. As if that wasn't enough, Union is getting ready to possibly start making its own tattoo ink as well. But it's not the actual building of the machines that Pupkin believes separates Union from the rest, it's the personal touch and decades of knowledge put into each one.
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"You have a lot of parts and pieces, like armature bars, coils, side plates, your base and your spring deck, but the rest is just finding your own way and how you want the machines to run," Pupkin says. "It's a lot of trial and error, heartache and money down the drain. Anybody can slap one together, but it takes someone who's been tattooing as long as Big5 has to know how a machine is supposed to run."
As Big5 sees it, building machines is just one tattooing tradition that he can help keep alive. Each tattoo machine Union makes is backed with a lifetime warranty and can be customized to the tattooer buying the piece, because it's a part of the industry Big5 doesn't want to see taken over by foreign corporations and "soulless" rotary machines.
"When I got into my first shop, it was back in the day when we were still making everything ourselves," Big5 says. "Building a machine was just part of it, but I'd never done it professionally. I'd build one for someone, and they'd love it and use it every day. I realized that I couldn't tattoo forever, but I could build machines forever. If you want to stay traditional, you're supposed to buy machines from tattooers. Tattooers build tattoo machines — that's one of the few things about tattooing that's still sacred."