When a former game designer turned tattooist felt the strain from nonergonomic tattoo-machine technology, he used 3D design to remake an industry. Richard "Bez" Beston taught himself Fusion 360 to design and develop a tattoo gun that damps vibration and requires less pressure to operate. Ego, the tattoo equipment company he subsequently founded, has since expanded into other ergonomic devices and prioritizes sustainable practices.
Many professions with unique physical challenges come with corresponding ailments. For example, athletes suffer from knee injuries; astronauts deal with muscle atrophy. Tattoo artistry also comes with its own health hazards.
Using a weighted, vibrating tattoo machine amplifies the grip strain from drawing or handwriting. Traditional tattoo gun grips are thin like pencils, so one needs sustained pressure to hold them steady. Add the many hours it can take to apply a professional tattoo, and potential health conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome become common—and can shorten a tattooist's career. Richard Beston, a UK tattoo artist known professionally as “Bez,” says that arthritis and other rheumatic diseases are common not only in tattooists but in anyone who grips a pen-like object for prolonged periods of time.
Ego founder Richard “Bez” Beston never expected to design tattoo machines, but he’s gone from self-learning Autodesk Fusion 360 to selling more than 3,000 products per year. Image courtesy of Ego.
Bez came to tattooing comparatively late in life and had already dealt with back problems, which made him very aware of his body while working. After establishing Triple Six Studios in Sunderland, UK, Bez noticed that standard tattoo machinery left a lot to be desired when it came to ease of use, even for artists without health issues. His colleagues agreed that the ergonomics of tattoo guns (devices used to apply ink to skin) were terrible.
So Bez set about remaking the machine completely, and founded the Ego tattoo machine company to create a better tool. He wasn't an engineer and had never designed or built tattoo machinery, so he had to first teach himself how the machines work. His former career designing real-world objects in the digital realm helped. “I have a background in the computer-games industry, which gave me a lot of experience working with 3D design software,” Bez says. Using CAD and Autodesk Fusion 360 to conceptualize his tattoo gun designs, he was able to translate the basic functionality across professions.
Ego’s fixed grips are made of stainless steel and aluminum and have indentations for the fingers. Image courtesy of Ego.
The first priority was redesigning the internal mechanism of traditional tattoo machines to fix their weight distribution flaw by shifting their center of gravity away from the back of the hand, letting the artist hold it more like a pen. Rather than a coil, Bez fashioned a unique rotary system with lubrication-free bearings from igus, a specialist manufacturer of plastic bearings. This effectively dampens the needle’s noise and vibration. Later Ego models introduced a more accurate linear drive using special rails to remove the side-to-side vibration of traditional machines.
Next, Ego invented the larger, softer Biogrip, which requires far less pressure to hold a tattoo gun. Another advance called the “Power Triangle” was so revolutionary Bez sought a patent. Those two products signaled that Ego had evolved—and before long, it was a thriving business.
The Ego Polygon tattoo machine, rendered here with an optional grip, has been a company best-seller. Image courtesy of Ego.
Ego has become more than just a tattoo-instrument company. Other types of artists have been enthusiastic adopters, and Ego even developed specialized grips for the Apple Pencil. And a surprising new market opened up: learning. “We find kids with learning disabilities love it,” Bez says. “It makes learning fun for them, and their writing improves massively. We’ve got really good feedback from teachers.”
The Contour grip resembles the traditional way of handling a pen, but it uses the weight of the hand to write rather than users having to press down with the pen and straining muscles. The Curve helps with writing or drawing, reducing the finger strength needed or allowing for an irregular grip and letting users fit the grip to their limitations and needs. Bez and his partners have found it the best for small hands and the limited motor control that can accompany developmental disabilities.
The company’s growing portfolio of medically oriented grips also includes the Flo, which looks like a gaming mouse and supports the palm while gripping the pen. This improves writing posture and greatly helps with hand or finger injury, repetitive strain injuries (RSI), carpal tunnel, arthritis, and so on.
Bez says that success was never his intention. “The aim was just to make life easier for artists,” he says. “But knowledge and understanding of the business aspects of doing this has been another steep learning curve. We outgrew our original facilities when we realized the products were in such demand.” Turning the original concept of Ego into a business has been a challenge that included discovering the importance of marketing, market research, and product design. The company has since grown quickly and relocated several times.
Bez and his team gradually streamlined their prototyping methods for building and testing new models. The time-consuming old method saw Bez sending designs to Germany or China and traveling there to check the prototype, make changes, and review them again.
Then about seven years ago Ego invested in a 3D printer fleet from MakerBot, and its technology has since grown increasingly more sophisticated and impressive. Now with Formlabs Form 2 printers, Ego can finish and test 20 or 30 iterations in a week or two. With Fusion 360’s integration, a team member can make changes and get results in a matter of hours.
Bez also chose Ego’s and Triple Six Studios’ home base in the northeast of England for its potential to be a “creative hive” to attract makers and engineers back to what was once a thriving local manufacturing hotspot.
Rapid prototyping using 3D printing allows Ego to update its tattoo machines and grips quickly. Image courtesy of Ego.
“We’re increasingly expanding with more 3D printers and tools, so we’ve had to upgrade our premises. We hope this will be somewhere that lets us bring in likeminded people to use our equipment for creative purposes. My ultimate aim is a collection of talented individuals in a hub of amazing ideas and products without having to travel all around the world to do it.”
—Richard “Bez” Beston, Founder, Ego
The company's momentum dramatically shifted when the pandemic hit. Though technology kept large segments of the global economy running from laptops on dining tables, tattooing is unavoidably a face-to-face enterprise, and Ego’s original market nearly vanished overnight.
Bez and colleagues were firming up new supplier relationships for other products—many of them overseas—when COVID-19 shut down everything. That put Ego in an impossible situation: Without its primary market, the company needed to expand, but the supply to do so had been interrupted.
But Bez considers himself an inventor above all else, so turning to other products is in Ego’s DNA. He’s currently developing knee and wrist braces to provide more ergonomic support for Ego users. And after the shocks to global trade practices, the company is doing due diligence to bring more in-house.
Ego has expanded from tattoo machines and tattoo machine grips to other popular items like these grips for the Apple Pencil.
Another impactful change to the business has been prioritizing sustainability, using recycled plastic for Ego’s flagship products. “There are moral implications,” Bez says. “We’re trying to reduce our carbon footprint, because that’s going to become a bigger and bigger thing, for the industry in general and just from my own personal standpoint.”
It all points to a company—and an industry—in flux. Ego manufactures in plastic and metal but is seeking ways to make its products more earth friendly. It’s also eyeing expansion but wants to bring more processes under its own roof. Art can generate serious commerce; when a game designer can be a tattoo artist, entrepreneur, and inventor, anything’s possible. “Working as an engineer and a tattooist keeps me creatively stimulated,” Bez says. “I’m able to get a lot more gratification out of both disciplines.”
Ego Biogrip products are made of high-grade silicone rubber and allow people to work comfortably without having to grip too tightly. Image courtesy of Ego.