“On and off throughout my whole tattooing career, if someone had an issue with their machine, they brought it to me,” Jeff Burt, tattoo artist and founder of Brass Monkey Fabrication, intones while toying with a sharpie. “And that snowballed into Brass Monkey and what it is now.”
Burt started off as the go-to-guy for simple coil machine fixes, with colleagues coming to him when things went awry. His natural inclination for tinkering and toying, however, opened him up to a world beyond mechanical problem-solving.
“The in-between part was really fun, because I just got a little bit more and more involved,” Burt says. “At first I was just buying frames online, doing my own thing, buying people’s coils. And then I was like, well, I could make a cool frame like this.” Burt found himself incrementally improving upon machines that were already complete, until, piece by piece, he found himself building them almost entirely from scratch. “I was that kid that liked to play with legos. I was the kid that wanted to build models instead of playing football.”
“I was that kid that liked to play with legos. I was the kid that wanted to build models instead of playing football.”
Essentially a combination machine engineer and designer, Burt works with a machinist for the frames. He draws them out, plays with the geometry and weight and shape, and sends them along to be fabricated. “Same thing with the coils,” Burt says. “The ones I found in the market I was either tweaking them or completely reusing them, or changing them up, and I got to the point I was completely making them on my own.”
After a few years of this, Burt decided to give his machine operation a name. In 2013, Brass Monkey Fabrication was born. Despite having a good system for creation and a cool name, Burt wasn’t quite ready to be selling his work. “I feel like I put out a lot of bad machines, unfortunately,” Burt says. “But it made me a better builder. A lot of trial and error.” As with anything, there is no try — only do. So Burt learned as he went, and continues to do so even today. Brass Monkey is currently specializing in only coil machines, but Burt wants to expand to rotary.
“The industry is really snowballin’ that way,” Burt says. “You can’t limit yourself because of an old stigma. Like, loyal to the coil. You gotta use what’s good for you. And what you think is gonna be, in your opinion, better for your client, better for the tattoo. And that’s why I think you gotta have all the tools in your arsenal, ready to go.”
The timeline for when Brass Monkey will have rotary machines ready isn’t clear yet, but like any powerful tinkerer and engineer, Burt is already working out the details. He’s teaching himself the best practices for a rotary engine, and trying to problem solve what he can do differently than what’s on the market. After all, expanding his business is the key to staying in business, even beyond tattooing.
“One of the reasons I started was I wanted something for my retirement,” Burt explains. “A lot of tattoo artists, we don’t have 401(k)s. I’m thinking, I’m 42 now, I’ve probably got another 15-20 years of this, and the eyes, the hands, my back’s gonna go, I’m not gonna really be able to put that level of quality to my tattoos that I do now. I was thinking, this is what I want to do when I retire.”
Burt travels all over with Brass Monkey, selling and teaching as he goes. You can learn more about his business, and where he’ll be next, over at the Brass Monkey website.