Hydrodipping: The 'Redneck' Artform Taking YouTube by Storm

Water transfer printing has taken hunting culture and internet viral video culture by storm.

Jan 21 2017, 2:00pm

Hydrodipped helmets. Image: ACE Hydrographics

Hydrodipping, a colloquial term that refers to using water transfer printing to apply colorful designs to three-dimensional surfaces, has quickly gone from a niche hobby to a viral trend. If you're an avid hunter or outdoorsman, you've almost assuredly seen guns, boots, antlers, skulls, and other paraphernalia colored via this process. And even if you're not, you've still probably seen a few hydrodipping YouTube videos, some of which have millions of views.

"Hydrodipping is a rad effect, an ingenious way to print on a 3D surface," Pittsburgh-based illustrator Emily Traynor told me.

The process was developed by engineers in Japan during the early 1980s as a way of taking two-dimensional images from pieces of film and spreading them evenly across objects. The film, which had been gravure-printed with the image, is dissolved in the water. After the item getting hydrodripped is submerged, the image on the film curves around the item's surfaces.

Hydrodipping has become especially popular in rural communities where hunting and recreational gun use have long been part of the culture—hence the existence of companies with names like Redneck Hydrographics and Redneck Dippers Hydrographics. As far as start-up costs go, a hydrodipping operation is a safer, more inexpensive proposition than many other small businesses: would-be owners can expect to spend around $10,000 to $15,000 on a water tank, film, paint, activating solution, spray guns, and an air compressor. Many larger hydrographics operations, such as Pennsylvania Hydrographics, host training seminars and also act as suppliers to smaller firms, selling these items in bulk.

"It's something I can do in addition to car body work; there's a lot of overlap and I can store my materials in the same place. Out where I am, I would say that most hydrodip requests I get are for firearms and hunting trophies—bones and skulls and stuff," said Jacob Arenetti, who runs ACE Hydrographics out of his father-in-law's car repair garage in Bentleyville, Pennsylvania. "But you can hydrodip most anything, from mining helmets to engagement rings, and of course I'll dip it if the money is right. How it turns out varies a lot based on the size and shape of what you're dipping...it's not the best idea to hydrodip a golf cart in camo, I don't think, but if that's what you want, so be it."

Ryan Christie, an army veteran and gun owner who lives in Southwestern Pennsylvania, expressed strong approval for hydrodipped art. "I guess it's very much a hillbilly thing, a redneck thing, but like with any kind of art that develops this way, there are good examples and bad ones. I've seen some stupid stuff, but I've seen plenty of amazing designs, too."

When asked why so many hydrodipping videos on YouTube have millions of views, Arenetti stressed the visual nature of the medium. "It isn't slow, like painting a picture. It's very dynamic. Processes that are dynamic, like throwing a clay pot or hydrodipping...people will want to watch that."

Christie echoed Arenetti's assessment. "You see an AR-15 go in after the tank is all set up, you wait, and then it emerges and it's coated in the Confederate battle flag. I mean, it's pretty close to magical, I'd say. You look at what goes viral on YouTube—trick shots, weird fails, amazing guns being fired, surprising feats of human ability—and it's all stuff that triggers the part of our brains that is very primitive. We respond instinctively to it."

"I'm all for it," Arenetti added. "Watch those videos as much as you want, then get your own stuff hydrodipped. We want the business."