The Godfathers

The Godfathers of Modern Tattoo Machines

I have been on this history kick for a while now (mostly all my life), especially in the realm of the creation of the tattoo machine.  I believe it to be one of the most enriching parts about my career.  I love the feel of a machine in my hand and I still am learning so much about each of them.  It is almost an art form in of itself and I was deeply inspired by my purchase of “Gentles” book.  The dedication that he put into my machine was immediately apparent.  It literally has a human tooth on it! I was blown away by that…I mean for someone to even think of that is just plain brilliant. So I decided to use my blog at the end of every week to document a certain angle within the scope of tattoo art.  I believe for my first effort should definitely be to show a historical evolution of the tattoo machine as well the art form of the tattoo machine itself.  A great deal of pride goes into the making of many of our instruments and that is something that the general public has little knowledge of.  Although I don’t believe in giving secrets away and never will.  The pure unique and artistic qualities of the tattoo machine are the points I plan to touch on. But first a bit of a history lesson.

Thomas Edison the famous inventor is actually the one responsible for our accidental discovery of the modern day tattoo machine. During his career as an inventor he was responsible for creating many of our modern day luxuries but one that many know little about  is the stencil graph. The original intent of this machine was to build a device that would create a writing utencil that would create mutiple copies of the same document in one pass. However after its design, the machine was adopted for other uses.

During the 1800’s the movement of American tattoo art was taking shape. However it wasn’t until the beginning of the Civil War that, German born Martin Hildebrandt who had been tattooing since 1846 found employment in Washington D.C.. It was during this dark time in American history many Soldiers Confederate and Union alike welcomed him into their camps to tattoo their unit insignias and names of their loved ones.  In 1870 he opened the first tattoo shop in the U.S on Oak St in New York City where he tattooed for 20 more years.  He was renowned for tattooing full body suits.  His clients easily found employment as circus attractions and as they traveled the country people flocked to see the walking pieces of artwork.

In Dec 1891 an Irish immigrant by the name of Samuel O’Reilly created the first tattoo machine under Pat No. 484,801.  This invention was a huge step for the industry but the machine although leaps beyond the original stencil graph was oddly shaped and had little power.  In Aug 1904 O’Reilly’s apprentice Charles. Wagner patented his improved version of the tattoo machine. Not too far from the current models these machines were lighter and shaped more comfortably tattoo artists ensuring a better product.  It had coils side by side which in today’s tattoo world are called “side winders”.  Although tattoo machines of these types are rarely used our current industry because of their top heavy weight distribution they are still manufactured and many artists still prefer them. It wasn’t until August of 1929 when the current model of tattoo machine was patented by a man named Percy Waters of Detroit Michigan under Patent number 1,724,812. This model had an “L” shaped frame that housed the two electric coils and since then not much has changed as far as the shape and size.  The frame allowed the weight of the coils to disperse more comfortably and tattoo artist ever since have been using them. The Carol Nightingale machine that you see below was a model that never quite caught on with tattoo artists.

I have also included a few examples of current artistry within the realm of tattoo machines.  I borrowed them from Shag a well known tattooer and machine builder in AZ. I wanted people as well as other younger tattooists such as myself to see the time and thought that go into making these machines.  I’m no machine builder but I want to be in the coming years because it is an important part of what we do. I also wanted others to see the importance of the connection between ourselves and our instrument. If you are a professional tattooer and you want a solid machine this guy is top notch! An artist in every sense of the word…you can check out his site on my blog roll.

I would also like to cite C.W. Eldridge a world renown tattoo artist and historian.  I am greatly influenced by his work and his life long devotion to the art and love of tattooing. You can find more on him in my blog roll as well.

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