When you hear the phrase ‘tattoo machine’ you probably instantly think of a handheld needle gun that is connected to a power unit. Then there is a foot pedal on the floor that the artist steps on to move the needle bar up and down in a rapid motion, not unlike a sewing machine. This is the picture that immediately comes to mind when discussing tattoo tools, because this is probably the only scenario that we have seen or experienced.
Tattoo tools were not always this sleek or convenient to use. In fact they were not always powered by electricity or batteries, nor were they always able to penetrate the skin in an average of 3,000 times per minute. Tattoos have been a part of significant societies and cultures from centuries ago, so it should not be surprising that along with the art itself, the tools used to create skin art have evolved, too.
Long before the modern tattoo machine was even conceptualized, ancient tattoo artists ingeniously tools that were naturally in abundance. These tools included sharks’ teeth, rose thorns, and pelican bones which were used like needles. In place of modern store-bought ink, natural pigments such as soot and red ochre were used.
The Maori from New Zealand who were known to tattoo both their male and female community members used bone chisels to directly carve designs into the flesh.
Unique Tools of Thais
Traditionally, tattoo tools used by Thais were made of bamboo. They were formed into quill-like needles that were split in two and sharp like razor. These minimalist yet effective tattoo tools could be anywhere between six and twelve inches long. The technique used for this type of tool is hand-tapping.
Tools for Tebori in Japan
Another technique that means tattooing by hand, Tebori is a traditional Japanese art that uses a row of fine needles attached to either a metal or a wooden handle. Constant motion with the handle creates delicate Tebori designs. Unlike your modern tattoo machine however, this traditional tattoo is done in an ongoing rhythm, not by doing a line and then stopping.
Thomas Edison and the Grandfather of Electric Tattoo Machines
Did you know the very first tattoo machine was invented by Thomas Edison in 1876? He actually drew some blueprints for what was to be an electric engraver but instead had become the invention that would revolutionize tattooing significantly. Of course tattoo machines that were patented by other individuals later on, each with one’s own improvements.
The first “electric pen” for example, was a device built from the blueprints Edison made. Samuel O’ Reilly is credited for this tool but the only change he made with Edison’s original version was the ink reservoir he added.
The tattoo machine as we know and love it today was first patented by Charlie Wagner. It was called a dual coil reciprocating engraver that is especially created for tattooing.