Tattoos have been part of human history for thousands of years – and for most of that time, the tools of the trade consisted of a sharpened shell, bone, or pieces of metal, and a couple of small cups full of ink. And then, seemingly overnight, the tattoo machine was born. How did this happen so suddenly, and whose idea was it? As with many inventions, the answer is not one, but several people and ideas.
In 1876, prolific inventor Thomas Edison patented what he called a “Stencil-Pen” – an electric pen, run by a rotary motor, designed to create stencils. The machine would puncture the paper (Edison boasted it could make 50 punctures a second), which would then have an ink-roller taken to it. The invention was designed to help secretaries, printers, and office workers who often had to make numerous copies of one document. It went on sale in the U.S. in late 1876, and was then quickly followed up by an improved, two-coil electromagnetic version, selling in both the U.S. and the U.K. Ultimately, however, the pen was not all that successful; similar products, as well as the earliest typewriters, were already on the market, and Edison’s invention didn’t seem much of an improvement on the current technology.
While the Stencil-Pen was overshadowed by better products in the office, people in a very different industry were just beginning to see its potential. Around the same time Edison released the rotary machine, an Irish man named Samuel O’Reilly began tattooing – an art which, at the time, consisted of poking and cutting ink into the skin. O’Reilly was good at what he did, however, and eventually moved to New York, where he tattooed circus “freaks”, daring celebrities, and many fellow Irishmen, gaining himself a large clientele and a reputation as a legitimate artist. He was also, apparently, a shrewd business man. Legend has it that O’Reilly first spotted a rotary Stencil-Pen in the window of an office supply shop, walked in and asked for a demonstration, and immediately contacted the patent office to find Edison had let it expire. O’Reilly purchased the pen, made a few minor alterations, including an ink reservoir, and patented it as the first tattoo machine in 1891.
Across the Atlantic, Thomas Riley of London was working on a similar idea, using the electromagnetic concept. Riley created a single-coil machine using a modified doorbell assembly contained in a brass box, and patented it just 20 days after O’Reilly patented his. The autumn of 1891 saw the tattoo machine born not once, but twice. One rotary, one electromagnetic; one American, one British; both inspired by Edison’s failed pen.
From that year on, artists and engineers took these two machines and altered, improved upon, and re-patented them many times. Alfred Charles took Tom Riley’s machine and added a second coil, creating the immediate predecessor for the machines we see most often today. Charles Wagner, thought to be a student of Samuel O’Reilly’s, patented an improved version of O’Reilly’s machine in 1904. As both designs evolved, they began sharing more and more features, and in 1929, Percy Waters took the best of both machines, made heavy alterations to the design, and patented the machine we still use today. It was Waters’ modifications that really changed the landscape of both tattoo machines and tattooing as an art-form – his design allowed for adjustments, which meant the speed, depth, and angle of the needles could be changed as needed. He also improved the functionality of it, making it lighter and easier to handle. It was this machine that artists would run with, and from then to present date, alter, modify, and personalize.
It is doubtful that Thomas Edison would have ever seen any potential in the Stencil-Pen as a tattoo machine. It is doubtful that Samuel O’Reilly imagined his adding an ink reservoir to it would spawn a whole new industry. It is doubtful that Tom Riley thought his doorbell in a box would become the prototype of today’s machines. Yet the ideas of these three men, along with many others along the way, all directly led to Percy Waters’ perfected version of a tattoo machine, and launched the first major tattoo supply company in America. Were it not for these inventors, artists, business men, and engineers, we may very well still be getting tattooed with shells and sticks.
Body piercing is, perhaps, the most common type of body modification – everyone and their mother has their ears pierced these days, and even those that were once frowned upon (at least in Western culture), such a nostril, lip, and navel piercings, have slowly become acceptable. But where did they come from? Who was the first person to say “let’s punch a hole in ourselves and fill it with metal”? It seems a bit of an odd idea to have come out of nowhere, and yet, someone had to have it!
While we of course have no idea who did, or had, the very first piercing, we can be sure it was long ago. Mummified remains dating back over 5000 years were adorned with earrings, and, in the Middle East and India, both ear and nostril piercings have been common for at least four thousand years. Piercing, and stretching, lobes and lips, has been standard practice in Africa for as far back as we can trace, and ancient Greeks often used piercings as a way to make clear their status or profession. Suffice it to say, body piercing is not a new fad, and, in fact, Western society is very much playing catch-up with many older cultures in this regard.
The reasons for piercings vary as much as the cultures that practice(d) them. In the Bible, we can read about a bride-to-be being gifted with gold earrings and a nostril ring. This made their marital status clear, and also served as a sort-of insurance in case of divorce or the death of their spouse – gold was of high value back then, and could be traded for money or goods. In India, it was thought that piercing the left nostril would aid in fertility and an easy childbirth. Aztecs, Mayans, many Native and African tribes, as well as some Greek and Roman warriors, would pierce their septums as signs of their wealth, status, and virility. One of the most common, and wide-reaching, reasons for piercing, however, was magical protection. Several different cultures were of the belief that demons, or negative energy, were deterred by metal, and so piercing the various openings in one’s body (ears, nostrils, mouths, etc.) made it harder, if not impossible, for these negative entities to enter.
How, then, did piercing become popular among cultures that did not hold such beliefs, or engage in these rituals? We can point in a few different directions to answer this. The Punk Rock era helped to popularize piercing in the United States, when punks, in an act of defiance, began piercing themselves with safety pins. This was taken even further when Jim Ward and Doug Malloy opened the first professional piercing shop in the U.S., distributing pamphlets on the art (which later gained widespread criticism for their inaccurate history, but still succeeded in garnering interest and attention), and making their own customized jewelry. Perhaps the most important person in Westernized body piercing, however, is Fakir Musafar, founder of “Modern Primitivism”, and Master Piercer. Musafar developed an interest in ancient tribal practices at a very early age, and began experimenting on himself with piercing, scarification, tattooing, and suspension in his teens. Over time, these separate subcultures became more and more familiar with one another and their respective practices and rituals, and a new subculture was born. In a relatively short period of time, these groups brought piercing from an underground practice to a mainstream form of expression. While many of the ways and reasons piercings are performed have changed, the one thing that seems to remain throughout all cultures and eras is the declaration of self. From ancient times, right up to present day, people are adorning themselves with these markings to claim ownership of their bodies, to make clear their position on individualism and to claim their status, whether as individual, part of a subculture, or as a walking piece of art.
When one thinks about the history of tattoos, they often picture a great-grandfather, adorned with a faded blue American eagle on his bicep, or a Navy-inspired anchor on his forearm. In Western culture particularly, tattoos have, until fairly recent times, been associated with soldiers, bikers, and bad boys. The true history, however, goes back further than anyone could imagine.
When Ötzi the Iceman, the oldest known European mummy (dated to approximately 3300BC), was discovered in 1991, archaeologists were amazed to find his body adorned with several tattoos. It had been previously believed that tattooing had only been practiced for the last three or four thousand years; the discovery of Ötzi’s tattoos pushed that back at least another thousand years, and some historians believe it goes even further back than that.
So how did this all begin? The answer, of course, depends on the culture, as each had their own reasons and practices. It can be safely said, however, that tattooing was (and in many ways, still is), associated with initiation, identification, and the completion of rituals. They’ve been used in every possible way, from marking criminals, to celebrating one’s coming of age, to symbolising a connection between oneself and nature. Coptic Christians often tattooed crosses on various parts of their bodies; ancient Filipinos used tattoos to show their rank, or celebrate accomplishments, Hawaiians would tattoo their tongues in times of mourning, and many tribal cultures believed that tattoos brought magical or spiritual protection and wisdom.
How these ancient tattoos were done varies as much as the reasons they were done. Ancient Egyptian tattoo implements were small pieces of wood and bronze, and resembled wide, flat needles – these were often bunched together to speed up the process, and create intricate patterns. In Tahiti, sharpened shells were attached to long sticks, and tattoos were essentially scratched into skin. Japan and China took to very long and sharp metal needles, while various indigenous tribes would use sharpened pieces of bone. Inks were made of everything from crushed plants and flowers to the natural inks of sea creatures, some created so skillfully that their pigments can still be seen today on mummies and frozen remains.
In the early 18th century, tattooing became a more common and well-known trade, with sailors, traders, and colonists viewing and picking up its many different practices on every corner of the globe. From there came the advent and improvement of tattoo implements, culminating in the first modern tattoo machine, inadvertently invented by Thomas Edison in 1876 (Edison’s “electric pen” had been intended as a duplicating machine, but Samuel O’Reilly saw its potential as a tattoo device, and began modifying and using it as such in 1891).
While most cultures have evolved with the times, improving their tools and sharing their techniques with others, the reasons and rituals behind tattoos still remain as varied as they were thousands of years ago. From deeply ritualistic markings, to spur of the moment experiences, to meaningful pieces of walking art, tattoos have risen far above other cultural fads, only becoming more popular and personal as time goes on.