21 September, 2021


Hey there, Lauren here. If you like art, permanence, and shallow wounds, you may have a tattoo or seven. And you’re not alone: A Harris poll from 2012 indicates that here in the U.S., almost 40 percent in adults under the age of 40 have at least one. So our question for the day is “How do tattoo machines work?” And yes, the preferred industry term is “tattoo machines,” not “tattoo guns”. As it turns out, the technology used to apply tattoos hasn’t changed all that much since the 1890’s. Before then, tattoos were given by tapping (or just poking) needles into the skin by hand. But at the turn of the 20th century, two groundbreaking (skin breaking?) patents were filed. Each is basically a motorize darray of solid needles connected to an ink reservoir. When the needles pierce the skin, the tips pull ink from the reservoir into the skin and deposit it there.

This happens because of surface tension and capillary action: Y’know the way that water will stick a little bithigher up to the sides of a glass than its level in the middle? The close-set needles of a tattooing device act the same way, pulling the ink down. Some of it gets trapped in the skin and eventually forms the tattoo. But let’s look at these two machines. Which,we should note, probably weren’t the first of their kind ever used — just the first to be patented. First, we’ve got New York City tattoo artist Samuel O’Reilly’s rotary machine, patented on December 8th, 1891. He based the design on an electric pen patented by Thomas Edison in 1876. The pen would punch through paper to create a stencil of your writing, and O’Reilly realized it could just as easily punch through skin to create a tattoo.

Thanks for being so unintentionally metal, Edison! O’Reilly’s motor is a rotary type, meaning that when electricity is applied, a flywheel spins a cam, which pushes a follower to convert the spinning motion into a reciprocating linear motion of the needles. This lets the needles move up and down very smoothly and rapidly – applying the tattoo more easily than most artists could manage via the traditional poking method. However, this machine probably isn’t what you think of when you think of tattooing. Imagine the soundscape of a tattoo parlor.In your mind’s ear, do you hear a deep, piercing buzz? That’s the noise made by a coil tattoo machine,the second design we’re discussing today. The first patent for it was granted on August 23, 1904 to Charles Wagner. He was another New York City tattoo artist who based his device on an Edison electric pen – this one driven by electromagnetic coils. The idea is simple. You attach a group of needles perpendicular to an armature bar.

That bar is spring-loaded so that it can vibrate up and down. When it’s in its up position, it completes a circuit in the machine that sends electricity through dual electromagnetic coils. That creates an electromagnetic field that pulls the bar down. Which breaks the circuit and releases the bar back to its up position,starting the cycle over again. Since the tattoo needles are attached to the bar, the vibrations push and pull them up and down. Lots of innovators have built on these concepts,making tattoo machines safer, more precise, and less painful for both the client and the operator. And artists use a few other mechanical designs, too – rotaries and coils are just the most common.

Do you have any tattoos? Have you ever applied a tattoo to yourself or others? Tell me your story in the comments. Myself, I don’t have any yet, but I’ve got three different designs in the works. And hey, if you wanna learn more about every thing from body modifications to eye boogers, head on over to How Stuff Works.

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