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The History

A tattoo gun (or tattoo machine) is a hand-held device for creating a tattoo, i.e. marking skin with ink. Tattoo guns utilize electromagnetic coils in alternation to move the needle bar up and down, which drives the pigment into the skin.

The basic machine was invented by Thomas Edison, and patented in the United States in 1876, as the "Autographic printer", which was intended as an engraving device. In 1891, Samuel O'Reilly found Edison's machine could be modified to introduce ink into skin, and patented a tube and needle system to provide an ink reservoir. Most tattoo guns can control needle depth to almost any degree and thanks to this control, tattooing has become a very precise art form, so precise that facial tattooing has become popular in the United States of America. The procedure is called dermapigmentation or "permanent cosmetics".

How it works

Basically the machine works similar to alternating current— charge causes magnets to pull downward on the bar, which disconnects the circuit and allows the upward force of the spring to pull the bar upward. This process repeats between 80 and 150 times a second, providing the artist with a means to penetrate the skin with ink without moving his hand.

The frame can be of a conductive material such as iron, brass or copper and plastic bushings at the contact points are to be used to isolate the current from the frame. The capacitor regulates current flow. The needle tube provides a grip for the artist's control, and a small reservoir at the tip for ink.

The needle(s), are soldered to the needle bar. Finished needle bars are made by soldering small needles to the bars in varied numbers, depending on the desired coverage. For thicker lines and for shading in large areas, an appropriate sized "shader" needlegroup is used. The tube's size, at the mouth, must be appropriate to accommodate the width of the needle bar.

In a nutshell:

The tattoo machine is basically the very same since it was first designed. Coils send an electric current through the machine, causing the needles to move in and up-and-down motion at a very fast pace. This electric current is regulated by a power supply, and the machine is then turned on and off through the use of a foot pedal.

To inject the ink into the skin they use an electrically powered tattoo machine that resembles (and sounds like) a dental drill. The machine moves a solid needle up and down to puncture the skin between 50 and 3,000 times per minute. The needle penetrates the skin by about a millimeter and deposits a drop of insoluble ink into the skin with each puncture.


Image of traditional 2 coil machine © Photographer: William Rafti of the William Rafti Institute

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