Thomas Alva Edison was a prolific inventor who dramatically changed the way we live each day. Electric light, recorded sound and motion pictures are just a few of the innovations Edison pioneered that had a worldwide impact on human existence. Believe it or not you can also thank him for the modern day tattoo machine. Thomas Edison was trying to create a high-speed document copying device and in 1876 he patented an electric pen that vibrated to puncture paper at a speed of 3,000 punctures per minute. The pen was used to create stencils that could then be used to make copies of the original document. The electric pen was not a financial success but in 1889 a New York tattoo artist named Samuel O’Reilly realized the rotary device could be modified to shoot ink into the skin. Samuel added a tube reservoir for ink and a needle. O’Reilly was able to get a patent for his tattoo machine in 1891 and used it in his tattoo shop located the Bowery neighborhood of New York.
After over 100 years the device has evolved to become the modern coil or rotary machine that tattoo artists work with today. Coil tattoo machines use an electromagnetic current to drive needles into the skin. Coil tattoo machines are less expensive and much louder than rotary machines. The noise they make can be quite intimidating for someone getting their first tattoo. Rotary machines use a small motor to drive needles and ink into the skin. Rotary machines are more expensive but apply ink more evenly and don’t make as much noise. The handheld pen for a rotary machine is also much lighter than the one used with a coil machine. Some popular rotary tattoo machine brands are Neotat, Dragonfly and Spectra. Coil tattoo machines are much more common in the industry because of their affordability. Top selling coil tattoo machine brands include Blue Frame Vital, Signature Series and Getbetterlife.
Tattoo artists lovingly refer to their tattoo machines as “Irons”. Do not refer to a tattoo machine as a “Gun” or “Tattoo Gun”. Tattoo artists absolutely hate this term and associate it with “Scratchers”. “Scratchers” are self-taught tattoo artists who learned to tattoo without a reputable mentor. To be recognized and respected in the tattoo community most tattoo artists need to go through an apprenticeship. The apprenticeship can last for years and it is considered a rite of passage for tattoo artists. Tattoo artists feel that not getting the full education of an apprenticeship at a tattoo studio is a danger to your customers and denigrates the profession.
Tattooing as an art form has come a long way since the days of Sailor Jerry. Modern tattooing now mimics traditional art, pop art, photo realism, pointillism and cubism. The number of colors, shades and styles available for tattoos is almost infinite. There are even tattoo inks that glow in the dark. Pen tips for tattoo machines can do fine line work, thick graphics and shading that was not possible in Samuel O’Reilly’s time. The tattoo machine has become an essential piece of high tech equipment that can be customized based on the type of tattoo being applied to the skin. Thomas Alva Edison could never have envisioned that his electric pen would help to create the vast tattoo culture and art movement that spans the globe today.