Introducing Vulcan Stipple Shader Cartridges: Interview with Phil Colvin

Posted by Olivia Huntley on

Phil Colvin at Memorial Tattoo in Atlanta, Georgia

Phil Colvin is a tattooer based out of his own Memorial Tattoo in Atlanta, Georgia. Tattooing since 1989, Phil has worked alongside many artists from Atlanta’s 1990s tattoo scene such as Shay Cannon and Gary Yoxen, in addition to working alongside Chris Garver, Darren Brass, and Ami James for a few years in Miami. When Phil’s Memorial Tattoo opened up in Atlanta in 2008, his goal was to establish a fully custom tattoo shop in the area. Phil is a very versatile tattooer and specializes in a variety of styles including black and gray, photorealism, Japanese, & traditional American tattooing.

He was one of the first artists that told us about stipple shader cartridges: a configuration of 3 liners in a mag tube cartridge. He told us about the technical aspects of the tool and what its applications could be, the only issue he had was the quality of the stippling cartridges that he could find. We got excited about the potential of the variant and decided to make our own.

Available now, they are made up of 3 groupings of tight 3 round liners evenly spaced within a mag tube. They are also available in groupings of 4 and 5 tight 3 liners for wider coverage.

Picture a pitchfork or a trident design, and each prong is a tight 3 round liner. Stipple shader 03 has 3 prongs, stipple shader 04 has 4 prongs, & stipple shader 05 has 5 prongs. Below is a photo of our stipple shader 03 for reference:

We sat down with Phil to talk about his tattooing background, some modern history of the Atlanta tattoo scene, and what he’s been tattooing with these stipple shader cartridges… 

 Vulcan: Can you talk a bit about your background in tattooing and that history in Atlanta? 

Phil Colvin: I’ve been in Atlanta since 1992. I came here from Phoenix where I started tattooing at Peter Tattoo. I moved to Atlanta in ‘92 and started off at Body Images Tattoo, which at the time was the only shop in Atlanta. There was Painless Paul, he had Ace Tattoo in Decatur. There was Dr. Tattoo down Buford Highway, and a couple random shops outside the perimeter, before the perimeter was even a thing. But Body Images was the only shop in the city. That’s where I met Gary Yoxen, Shay Cannon - owner of Liberty Tattoo, and Whirlwind Walt Clark. If you get down to tattoo history in modern times, Body Images was the first. That was the roots of the family tree. You can trace so many shops here back to Body Images.

V: When did Cap Szumski over at Timeless Tattoo come into the picture?

PC: That was way later, man. So basically, Gary, Shay & Walt all left Body Images at the same time and Gary opened Tornado Tattoo, which was the first shop in Little 5 Points. I went over to work there later for a few years. But then Tony Olivas came to Atlanta. He was working at Body Images for a short minute, then he started Sacred Heart Tattoo. Tony invited Cap to come sit in. Tony told him, “You should totally open a shop here, man, this place is great!” I don’t think Tony believed that Cap would actually do it. Then Cap did. Between the two of them, I mean, they were a couple of powerhouses…  

V: Wow, that’s crazy. The art alone at Timeless is pretty phenomenal. Looking on the walls, you can recognize the Jack Rudy sheets and then you get closer and see these little notes, “For Cap”,  you know, “Stay tattooing! Signed, Jack Rudy.” 

PC: Yeah man, Cap was at the core of that whole early black and gray scene. I think him & Jack, they weren’t together, but in my opinion, they’re two of the most important people in the fine line black and gray scene of the 90s. Nobody was doing what they were doing. Tony’s fucking killer too. Those were crazy days. Cap was awesome, man. He changed my career. I never worked for Cap… I was working at Tornado Tattoo and I was really concentrating on portraits and black and gray work. That’s what I really thought I was going to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to be up there with Cap and Jack Rudy, that was my dream. So I’d have weeks where all I was doing was portraits. I was at an Atlanta convention, and Cap and I were battling in a contest. Cap was like “Man, don’t pigeon-hole yourself. Learn other things.” Cap loved doing traditional, but nobody fucking knew it. The rare pieces you saw of his that were bold and full of color, they were perfect! I actually quit doing portraits for a long time and started really trying to learn American traditional and studying Japanese. Now I’m back to doing portraits again, I love portraits, but I had a phase where I just refused them because I had to force myself. Now, I’m a pretty versatile tattooer. I’m not going to say I’m a master of anything, because nobody should fucking say that, but I can definitely flow in and out of things, thanks to Cap. A five minute conversation with that man just changed my life. 

V: At some point you tattooed briefly down in Miami as well, right?

PC: Yeah, so I left Tornado, moved to Miami, and worked down there at Tattoos by Lou. I was only there for a couple of years. I liked the shop, I got to know a lot of people. I worked with Chris Garver, Darren Brass, Ami James… 

V: I was going to ask if that’s where you started diving more into Japanese and American trad.

PC: You know, not really, because Lou had 4 shops down there. I worked at the Kendall location, it was kind of a locals only, street shop type of thing. It was a lot of flash, hardly any of us were doing any huge Japanese or American traditional pieces really. It was all flash work, even Chris Garver. I’m sitting there with Chris Garver at 2 in the morning watching him do flash. I’ll always regret not getting tattooed by Garver at the time. You would see Ami doing some cool, big shit every once in a while, but it wasn’t everyday. The shop was on the beach, it was churn and burn.

V: What made you come back to Atlanta? Didn’t love Miami? 

PC: I didn’t like Miami. I made lifelong friends there, but the city itself was killing me. I would work from noon to 10, I was living on the beach, so I’d go to my apartment, grab my dog, and we’d go to the Deuce. The Deuce was across the street from Lou's on the beach and we’d just party our faces off every night until like 5am. Go to sleep for a little bit, get up and do it again. It was just nonstop. I made a lot of money down there but I spent it all on booze. All of the clubs that were doing live music we were into were just closing, closing, closing. I just really missed Atlanta. I came back to a shop in Little 5 called Urban Tribe. Myself, Shay, my old apprentice, Tim, and a couple other cats were all at that shop together. We were there for a couple of years. It was owned by a non tattooer and he had some wrong ideas about how things should be in tattooing. Anyways, me and him got into a pretty heated fight. I was like, “Fuck this, I’m out of here.” I found out Shay had already scouted the location for Liberty Tattoo. Pretty immediately after that fight, Shay came to me, “Hey man, I got a shop, come with us.” 

“Fuck yes, let’s do it.” 

So I was at Liberty for the first 4.5 years. Then I think I got to a point where I had just had enough of street shops. I was doing more and more appointment-only, large scale work. Liberty is a great place and it’s a super important shop in the history of tattooing in this city. It’s a fucking powerhouse and always will be. But, it was a lot of noise, a lot of chaos. I was at the point where I was working 9-5 so I could have a few hours of quiet time with my clients before the chaos started. I caught myself one day looking at a location. I wrote down the phone number and the next day went to Shay, told him I was leaving. He knew I wasn’t happy, so it was cool. I did it the old way - when I found a location I really wanted, I asked Shay, Tony Olivas, Cap Szumski, “Hey man, I want to open this spot. Y’all cool with that?” I was friendly but I also knew what I was doing here was different from what everybody else was doing. 

V: There probably weren't a lot of custom shops in the area at this point 

PC: Man, there were no custom shops. This was only 14 years ago. There were no private studios or any of these arthouse tattoo shops - that wasn’t a thing. But I wanted a place where I could concentrate more one-to-one with my clients and not have to deal with the typical street shop chaos. I’d say we’re about 70% custom now, but we’re getting more and more walk-ins all the time, so it’s worked out really well.

V: You mentioned Cap & Jack as being big influences for you. Who are some of your favorite tattooers?

PC: Timothy Hoyer, Scott Sylvia, Jef Whitehead, Danny Reed, Dan Sinnes - he’s wild as shit. There’s so many… 

V: You’re making work in a variety of styles… What are you using these stipple shaders for? What do you like about them?

PC: I’m still pretty new to the whole thing. I was doing a lot of stuff with just tight 3s to get my stippling, which I still do a lot of. I’ve been watching the way some stipple stuff heals and I think that over time, it’s going to keep looking better and better. It’s the 15 year rule. I was watching a Japanese tattooer do a big hannya back piece. He said, “5 years, good. 10 years, better. 15 years, best.” That’s how you should look at everything. So, with the stippling, I think as the dots kind of spread over time and come together, it’s going to look a lot smoother. 

V: That texture that you can get with stippling is going to even out over time... 

PC: I think so, yeah. I showed you that big skull I made on that girl’s shin - that was done with the stipple shader 05. On the shin, I was kind of nervous, I’m like, “Oh my god, this is going to be rough.” But, she sat like a champ. It didn’t hurt any more or any less, I think it actually hurt less than a traditional shader. Watching it heal the past couple months, it’s fucking perfect. It’s healing better and better as time moves on. I think the stipple shaders are going to make black and gray stuff heal even better.

V: So you like stippling because it heals better and makes the image better. Are these shaders also saving you time with the stippling itself?

PC: Yeah I mean, it’s going to save me time if I’m doing a big tattoo with it. You can’t really do the super tight details with the big configuration of the stipple shader 05, but I would just set up my regular tight 3 to do my tiny details. With the stipple shader 05s or the stipple shader 03s, the only issue I’ve had is sometimes getting right up to the line. But it’s like everything, there’s a learning curve. With your needles more far apart it’s just harder to gauge. Also, you have to really experiment with the speed, you can’t run your machine very fast. My main machine that I’m using for pretty much everything nowadays is working really, really well with these stipple shaders. I run it at like 4.8 volts with that needle and it’s fucking golden. 

V: Have you been using the stipple shaders for anything besides stippling? I remember when you first talked to us about these you mentioned doing wood grain texture and hair.

PC: Using them for hair and stuff is awesome. You’d want to run your machine a little bit faster. I’ll take a traditional mag and pinch it in front of the solder - it flattens it and spreads them a little bit. With a super smooth graze, I like to keep them spread out just a little bit more and be a little flatter. Using that traditional mag, I’d run my hand really slow and do hair because if you have really wavy hair, you can get these curves. The stipple shaders are spread apart so much, you can do some really cool hair effects. Just run it a little bit faster and you have to learn to control your hand a lot. Instead of one needle being a little bit shaky, you’ve got 5 needles being a little shaky. Japanese backgrounds too - you see a lot of guys do traditional shading and then going around some of the edges of that with stippling stuff. 

V: Do you think these stipple shaders are more than a trend? 

PC: I think they are something I would definitely use for a long time. The way I’m seeing stuff heal, it makes me want to use them more. Now I’m actually looking for projects to do where I can use these more. Skulls are perfect. There are certain things that are very stipple specific, like the big peonies and the larger roses where there’s a lot of stipple stuff in there. I think it’s all going to heal great and it looks good in the now too. But I think more people should experiment with these even for doing realistic stuff or backgrounds, things like that, just to see how those dots look when they’re more densely concentrated - that’s going to look so much better over time. I think having the bigger 5, 4, and 3 groupings of the tight 3s is just a way to perfect the whole idea of a stipple tattoo. Everything can be made better and if there’s tools to make those things better, I’m all for it. 


Check out more of Phil's tattoo work on Instagram @philcolvintattoo and everyone at Memorial Tattoo @memorialtattooatl. Stop by the shop the next time you're in the Atlanta area. 

Give our stipple shader cartridges a try & let us know what you think! They're available now online, on the vans, & in the warehouse. We'd love to see what you make with them. Tag us in your work on Instagram @vulcanneedles #vulcanneedles

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