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  • Writer's pictureScott Glazier

Tattoo Machines

Good Morning Speakeasy Readers!

Another bright and sunny day in Los Angeles, hope everyone has fun weekend plans!

This week I'm going to talk a little bit about the history of the tattoo machine, and common types of machines. As I have learned in some of my past historical blog posts, tattoos have been around for thousands of years. Whenever I look into the history of tattooing in different cultures or different centuries, I am also looking forward to learning about how different people throughout time and different parts of the world have creatively built tools to tattoo with. There have been so many versions of a tattoo tool, and today we now have the machine.

The first tattoo machine was invented in 1876 by Samuel O'Reilly. It was based on Thomas Edison's autographic printing pen, which was used for engraving hard surfaces like paper.

O'Reilly modified the pen to puncture the skin by replacing the needle with a tube and adding an ink reservoir. The machine operated by a foot pedal, which controlled a rotary device that drove the needles into the skin. This invention revolutionized the process of tattooing as it allowed for much more precise and controlled movements, and greatly reduced the risk of infection compared to the traditional methods of hand-tattooing.

O'Reilly's design became the standard for tattoo machines, with only minor modifications made over the years to improve performance and reduce noise. Today's modern tattoo machines still operate using the same basic principle as O'Reilly's original design. There are various types of tattoo machines in the market, and although they evolve and improve over time, the most common types include:

1. Coil Tattoo Machines: These machines use an electromagnetic coil mechanism to drive the tattoo needle. They typically have one or two coils and are the most traditional type used for lining and shading.

2. Rotary Tattoo Machines: These utilize an electric motor to move the needle. They are considered more versatile, quieter, and smoother compared to coil machines, making them popular for precise works like lining and shading.

3. Pneumatic Tattoo Machines: This type uses compressed air to move the needle. They are more modern, lightweight, and easily sterilized. However, they can be expensive and are not as widely used as coil or rotary machines.

4. Linear Rotary Tattoo Machines: A subtype of rotary machines, linear models facilitate smoother and more precise needle movements with adjustable stroke lengths, enabling greater control and precision during both lining and shading.

5. Cartridge Tattoo Machines: While not a distinct machine type, cartridge machines are built to use cartridge needles. These needles are contained in disposable housings, making for easier setup and cleanup. Both coil and rotary machines can be designed as cartridge machines.

Tattoo artists often have their preferences, and some might use a combination of these machines to achieve the desired results. Technological advancements continue to shape the tattoo industry, and newer machines will emerge over time.

Just as people all over the world and different points of time have always figured out new ways to be able to tattoo, we still have people today who do the same with limited materials. While not allowed, tattoos have been a common practice in prisons. I do not endorse or encourage illegal activities or making tattoo machines in prison, but it's important to know that inmates are quite resourceful, and have also found ways to build tattoo machines in prisons.

Prison tattoo machines are generally homemade and crude, put together from available materials. To understand the resourcefulness of inmates, here's an outline of how they might build a tattoo machine in prison:

1. Motor: Inmates usually salvage a small motor from items like cassette players, electric razors or even handmade designs using magnets and copper wire.

2. Power source: A power source is needed for the motor, and inmates typically use batteries from remotes, walkmans, or other electronic devices.

3. Needle: The most common makeshift needle comes from a staple, straightened paper clip, guitar string or a small pen spring. The needle has to be sterilized, which can be done by heating with a lighter, boiling in water, or using a disinfectant.

4. Barrel: The barrel is the part of the machine that holds the needle. This can be crafted from a variety of materials such as pen tubes, hollowed-out mechanical pencils, or even a piece of a plastic toothbrush handle.

5. Tube: This is another piece needed for holding the needle. Usually, inmates will use a hollowed pen, a straw, or a small plastic tube for this purpose.

6. Grip: A grip is needed for holding the machine comfortably. Improvised grips can be made from toothbrushes, pens, or other items made of plastic or rubber.

7. Frame: The frame holds everything together. Inmates may use materials such as a spoon, toothbrush, pieces of plastic or metal, and fastening them together using tapes, rubber bands, or threads.

8. Assembly: The motor, needle, barrel, tube, grip, and frame are all put together to create a functioning tattoo machine. The needle is attached to the motor using either an eraser, rubber bands, or small pieces of plastic.

As history has shown, tattoos aren’t going anywhere and people will always find a way to do it. It has become so ingrained in our culture as an art form and a way for people to honor their cultures or use for self expression. While we have come a long way with our machines and practices, you can’t help but to wonder what a tattoo machine would be like 100 years from now and beyond.

Tune in next week, while we take a look at tattoos and their possibilities in the future.

Until next time my fellow apes,

Peter Hernandez


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