A Tattoo Machine and a Vibrator Walk into a Bar…

…and they really don’t look all that different these days.
When you picture yourself in your favorite tattoo shop, one of the first things to come to mind is no doubt the telltale buzz of tattoo machines (unless you’re at a shop that practices traditional hand-poked tattooing—which can be awesome when done by a trained professional). But in the long history of tattoos, that sound is actually relatively new to the scene: Tattooing is an ancient art, one that has been practiced for thousands upon thousands of years, whereas modern tattoo machines only came into use in the late 1800s. Relatively unchanged since their inception, tattoo machines today conjure up both steampunk vibes and phallic comparisons.

But what were the tools of the trade like, you ask, before that familiar hum filled tattoo parlors the world over? Let’s go back to the Stone Age to find out.

Late Stone Age Tattooing

In Europe, archaeologists have discovered tools and artwork that date back to the Late Stone Age. Thought to be “tattoo kits,” the tools consist of sharp, needle-like fragments of bone and clay disks believed to be ink reservoirs. Although the tools could theoretically have served other purposes, the bone needles may have been dipped into the reservoirs and then used to puncture the skin to create tattoos. Stone and clay figures decorated with tattoo designs have been discovered from this era, along with the famous “Grottes du Mas d’Azil” (Cave of the Azil Farmhouse) in the French Pyrenees Mountains.

If these kits were in fact used in tattooing, we can trace its roots back to between 12,000 and 40,000 years ago. So the next time someone asks if you’ve thought about what your ink will look like when you’re old, take heart: People have probably been asking such stupid questions for millennia.

Tattooing Before (and After) Electricity

Mummified remains like that of Ötzi the Iceman show that tattooing was alive and well long before the advent of electricity. Ancient Egyptians used sharpened bronze tools to tattoo both prostitutes and priestesses. In Thailand, bamboo quills up to a foot long were traditionally used (and bamboo is still utilized in traditional Thai tattooing). The Maori used chisels made from albatross bones to carve designs into a person’s skin as well as to apply pigment. Cultures across the globe found ways to permanently mark their bodies for a variety of reasons, from designating slaves to invoking spiritual protection.
Such traditional hand-poked tattooing methods are still practiced today. For some, ancient methods have an appeal for spiritual or ritualistic reasons; for others, it is a way of reclaiming their cultural heritage, as is the case with the revival of the Maori tā moko; and for some, it is simply a one-of-a-kind experience.

If you decide that hand-poked tattooing is for you, we urge you to seek out a professional who has been mentored in this particular art! And—please—resist at all costs the urge to do a so-called “DIY stick-and-poke tattoo.” Not only will you end up with a hideous tattoo, you’ll very likely contract a potentially deadly disease.

Edison Leaves His Mark on the Tattoo Industry

When you think of tattoos, you probably don’t think of Thomas Edison—but you should!
Edison invented the electric pen, which he patented in 1876 as the Stencil-Pens. The electric pen was part of a duplicating system designed to make documentation easier for merchants, lawyers, and other professionals. Driven by a motor, the pen’s needle could create 3,000 punctures per minute.
The electric pen did not thrive for its originally intended purpose, with demand for the device disappearing in the 1880s. But in 1891, a New York City tattoo artist saw the electric pen’s true potential: By modifying Edison’s invention with a system of tubes and a reservoir, Samuel O’Reilly used the rotary motor to feed ink into the needle, which in turn he used to inject ink into a client’s skin.

As O’Reilly was patenting his rotary tattoo machine in the United States, Thomas Riley was developing an electromagnetic tattoo machine in London, England. Riley’s machine involved a single electromagnetic coil and was later altered into a two-coil machine by Alfred Charles South. Although O’Reilly is considered by many to be the inventor of the first tattoo machine, coil machines have primarily dominated modern tattoo parlors, with rotary-style machines making a comeback in recent decades.

Modern Tattoo Machine Developments

There have been a number of noteworthy developments since O’Reilly and Riley led the way in electric tattooing. Percy Waters’ sidewheeler, Manfred Kohrs’ rotary machine, and Carson Hill’s pneumatic tattoo machine have all shaped the modern tattooing landscape.
Tattoo machines today have settings that control speed, depth, and force, all of which give artists an unprecedented level of precision when tattooing a client. Artists can use these advanced tools to create stunning works of art, such as photorealistic tattoos or painterly pieces with rich color variations—and they can additionally perform cosmetic or post-surgical tattoos that look incredibly natural.
Artists at Paper Crane use a variety of machines, each with different advantages. Consider the following examples:
Cheyenne Pen Machine: These are great for multiple needle setups because they use a needle cartridge that snaps into the grip, which is both quick and easy to change out. Shop founder Mikey Vigilante likes this machine for small tattoos that are either very detailed or require subtle color shifts within a small area. The short stroke of the machine allows for smaller hand movements to pack color or apply grey values more precisely.
Swashdrive Machine: Artists love this machine because it is a perfect fusion of a rotary and a coil relay machine. “The swashdrive geometry gives a perfect and unwavering stroke, while the spring allows the needle to dance a little with the skin and not be too stiff,” Mikey says. The lack of vibration is ergonomic, with the added benefit of keeping arthritis at bay.
Iron Machine: On occasion, you’ll catch Mikey Vigilante using his Soba Rusto, Mickey Sharpe T-Dial, or Dan Dringenberg custom machine to lay down some shading. “I spent the bulk of my career tattooing with coil machines,” he explains. “The first pair I ever used—two Spauding Supremes—I assembled from a kit. The sound of using these machines for me is not purely nostalgic, as they still work really well for me.”
So why did he (and many other artists) move away from consistently implementing these particular iron machines?
For Mikey, the intense vibration caused too much fatigue in his hands. “I knew that if I didn’t change I would have a shorter career than what I would prefer,” he adds.

Additionally, the stainless steel grips used to balance out the weight of iron machines are not disposable: They need to be processed thoroughly to be reused. “The processing put me at more exposure to BBP and noxious chemicals than I liked,” Mikey says of steel grips. “Switching to disposable plastic tubes just made sense.”

Check Out What Our Tattoo Artists Are Working With

Within the industry, professionals use the term “machine” or (less frequently) “iron” when referring to their equipment. Although you’ve probably heard a machine called a “tattoo gun” before, it’s typically not a term favored by artists: Strictly speaking, a tattoo machine doesn’t “shoot” ink the way a gun shoots a bullet, and moreover the violent connotation is not in line with the artistic process of creation.
“Back in the ’90s and ’00s, tattooing was shifting,” Mikey says on this particular subject. “There was a new breed of tattooer emerging, one who wasn’t biker affiliated and maybe went to art school. This ‘new school’ breed was trying very hard to distinguish themselves, and they emphasized a ‘professional’ versus ‘amateur’ approach to tattooing. Describing a tattooing apparatus as a ‘machine’ as opposed to a ‘gun’ helped to set them apart.”
But don’t worry: If you’re a client who has used that particular phrase before, your artist isn’t rolling his or her eyes at you behind your back. “Yes, ‘machine’ is the term that tattooers use to distinguish themselves as pros versus amateurs,” Mikey emphasizes, “but I don’t mind if you call it a gun, a machine, or whatever else. Tattoo machines look more like dildos and vibrators these days anyhow.”
If you don’t believe us about that, just do a Google search for “vintage handheld vibrators”— and while you’re at it, check out the Cheyenne Hawk Pen, which is made from machined aluminum and anodized in a rainbow array of colors.
(Told you so.)
If you’re interested in getting a firsthand look at the tattoo machines we use at Paper Crane Studio, we would love to see you at the shop! Whether it’s for a consultation with an artist or a general conversation, our door is open. We hope to see you soon!