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.
So, you want a tattoo…
Great! When done well, a tattoo can be a beautiful piece of art, and you get the honor of being the canvas! They can represent you, your family, your friends or your memories. They can be cool, funny, sad, serious, political, symbolic and creative. They can be black and grey or vibrant colors. They can be hidden — your little secret, or they can be displayed for all the world to see. Because they can be so many things (permanent being among them!), it is important to take a few things into consideration before you enter the wonderful world of body modification.
1. They Are Permanent
Yes, I realize you all know that. But, working in a tattoo shop, you eventually learn that a lot of people don’t really consider their permanence when they start coming up with ideas for their tattoos. You may think you’ll always like your tribal armband or having Tinkerbell on your breast, but trust me, you probably won’t. When choosing designs, think long and hard about the fact that it willalways be there. Yes, there is now tattoo removal, but relying on this fact is a lousy idea. Laser removal is both more expensive and more painful than the tattoo itself, and it doesn’t always leave your skin looking new and fresh. If you’re going into a tattoo with the idea “well, I can always remove it later”, you probably shouldn’t get that tattoo.
2. Does It Mean Something?
I’d estimate that, in the tattoo industry as a whole, 25% of our business is covering up old tattoos. The #1 reason? “I got this silly tattoo when I was 18…”. The problem, of course, isn’t with getting a tattoo at 18, but with getting one that means nothing to you. Getting a tattoo with some friends on the spur of the moment may sound like a fun bonding experience, but if the piece itself holds no meaning for you, you will come to hate it.
Now, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get something fun or outrageous (we love it when people ask for weird things!), it just means you should ask yourself why you’re getting it. If you can’t think of any reason besides “uh…it’s cool?”, don’t get it! The tattoos people treasure the most are the meaningful ones — a memorial piece for a parent, a piece of art you’ve always loved, a symbol of your favorite memory, sport, band or childhood hero, an inside joke between you and your best friend, a piece with spiritual or intellectual significance or some other symbol that would only make sense to you.
3. What Do I Want To Be When I Grow Up?
I’m 32, and I’m still asking myself this question, so don’t think this is a lecture reserved for the young among you.
While I’m happy to report the world is slowly coming around to the idea of tattoos, a lot of people still frown on them. Yeah, we’d all like to say we don’t care what others think of us, but if there is a career or lifestyle that you are passionate about pursuing, you may have to care a little. Certain professions still forbid visible tattoos in the workplace, so you need to consider whether you may end up in one of those professions.
The good news is that this doesn’t mean you can’t get a tattoo at all — you just may want to consider putting it somewhere that can easily be hidden; an ankle, the back of your shoulder, your upper arm or on your ribcage are all good options for the hidden tattoo.
4. Timing Is Everything
A tattoo shop’s busiest season is in the summer. It shouldn’t be.
Tattoos need a decent amount of time to heal (expect 3-6 weeks), and should not be exposed to direct sunlight or a lot of water in that time. This means no tanning and no swimming. Depending on where you get it, you may also want to do it when you have a couple of days off work (my feet swelled up so badly, I had to just sit still for a day!). It’s the artist’s job to give you a good tattoo, but it’s your job to look after it; make sure you get it at a time when you can care for it properly.
5. Are You Ready?
There’s a lot more to getting a good tattoo than saving up some cash and picking a design. One of the regrets I hear most often from clients is that they got their first tattoo at the first shop they saw (while we at I-Kandy of course hope you’ll all come to us for your tattooing needs, we also realize you may be reading this from Taiwan or Timbuktu). In my experience, a person is truly ready to get a tattoo once they’ve:
-Thought long and hard about the piece they want
-Researched the shops in their area and chosen the cleanest, most experienced shop with the best reputation
-Looked through the artists’ portfolios and chosen the one most suited to their piece
-Had a consultation with the artist
-Saved up enough money for at least the first session (if it takes more than one)
Tattoos are a beautiful thing. Take the time to do it right, and it will be a permanent piece of art that you can carry with you forever.
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.