While on vacation in September 1991, Erika and Helmut Simon decided to hike the Val Senales glacier in the Alpine mountains, tucked just along the border of Italy and Austria. During their trek, at a gully about 3,200 meters above sea level, they spotted something unsettling: a human torso protruding from the ice.
At first, it wasn’t abundantly clear just how long the body had been trapped there. After the Simons notified a nearby cabin owner of their discovery, he alerted the authorities. As it happened, several other bodies had been discovered after melting out from their icy graves—it had been an unseasonably warm summer, the police said. They presumed that this person, too, had been a hiker that met an unfortunate end.
Instead, days later, when a harsh storm finally subsided, archaeologists confirmed that this wasn’t a hiker—this was a body that was over 5,300 years old. This was “Ötzi the Iceman,” the oldest-known Neolithic man ever unearthed, and the current world record holder for the world’s oldest tattoo.
“The iceman was a very special moment for archaeologists,” Andreas Putzer, an archaeologist, tells Popular Mechanics. He works at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy, where Ötzi’s remains are on display today. “It is possible, if we find other mummies, that they would [have tattoos], too…but we don’t know.”
In the several millennia since Ötzi got his ink, tattooing machinery has expanded far beyond any of the ancient techniques that the Iceman may have encountered. From the painful practice of using sharp objects to rub charcoal into the skin to the advent of pneumatic devices powered with the same underlying technology as air brakes on trains, the art of body etching has grown into cultural practice and a contemporary rite-of-passage.
Sixty-one cross marks span Ötzi’s long-preserved skin, all consisting of simple lines or crosses, scattered over his wrists, ankles, and lower back. Curiously, nearly all of the markings were positioned on or near Ötzi’s joints, which meant clothing would almost certainly obscure the images a majority of the time.
That prompted scientists to ask: were these skin etchings symbolic or therapeutic?
Based on his carbon-dated age—which puts him at between 5,100 and 5,400 years old—Ötzi is close to 3,000 years older than the ancient Chinese practice of acupuncture. And yet, the positions of the needles align with common acupuncture points. According to June 2019 research published in the International Journal of Paleopathology, the markings took “considerable effort … and, irrespective of the efficacy of the treatment, provided care for the Iceman.”
“We know that he suffered pain, especially on his back, because he was walking a lot in the mountains … one of his meniscuses was broken, and he had tattoos there, so he probably suffered pain there, too,” Putzer explains. “In the parts of the body where he suffered pain, you see the tattoos, and that’s why we suppose the tattoos were therapy and not ornamental.”
Further complicating matters, scientists noticed that no mere needle could have made the markings dotting Ötzi’s skin; something more rudimentary—something brutal—had inscribed his skin. Researchers think that Ötzi’s “tattoos” are the product of fine incisions in the skin rubbed with pulverized charcoal, which is not dissimilar to the practice of making “stick-and-poke” tattoos, or using India ink and a needle to insert color into the skin through a series of dots.
While it’s possible that he wielded stone or copper tools to mark himself, it’s also probable that Ötzi or another practitioner broke the skin with a sharpened bone tool. Back in 1963, scientists found one of the oldest tattoo kits ever discovered, for instance, on the Polynesian island of Tongatapu, Tonga. It featured an arsenal of equipment made from bone, and may have come from the albatross or even a human.
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Painful, but clearly effective.
The next closest record of ancient tattooing is a pair of mummies known as “Gebelein Man A” and “Gebelein Woman,” presumed to be over 5,000 years old. Strangely, tattoos all but disappear from the archeological record for a full millennium until more tattooed bodies show up between 2400 B.C. and 1070 B.C. During this time, archaeologists believe the Egyptians introduced the first metal tattooing needles.
At the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at University College London, there are a series of tapered, sharpened metal implements tucked into a cabinet at the back of the gallery. According to the museum catalog, these are identified as a “stock of seven prick points,” for removing thorns from the skin, and made of bronze. Notably, three of them are bound together with thread.
Upon closer inspection, Charlotte Booth, a British archaeologist, found that the points were made by folding the corners of a flat rectangle of bronze inward at one end before beating them into a smooth finish. The points that are bound together have permanently fused as a result of corrosion.
Booth noticed that while the points are sharp, they’re definitely not fine enough to remove thorns from the skin or to serve as tweezers in any capacity. So, it’s entirely possible that the Egyptians used these arrays of sharpened bronze points to deposit ink into the dermis.
Because the needles in modern-day tattoo guns are not hollow, like hypodermic needles, and they’re also commonly affixed in groupings of three or seven for line work, they have much in common with this group of Egyptian prick points.
If scholars are correct about Egypt’s tattooing method, the ancient people of the Nile discovered a method that would hang around for nearly 5,000 years. That is, until 1891, when an ex-con living in New York City decided to hack one of Thomas Edison’s inventions.
That man, Samuel O’Reilly, was born in Connecticut to Irish immigrants, and enlisted in the Marine Corps. around 1875, where he learned the tattooing trade. He served time for burglary charges in his hometown of Waterbury before launching his own tattoo shop in the Chinatown section of Manhattan’s bowery in the mid-1880s. And, much like his very distant ancestors, his apparatus of choice was a set of needles connected to a wooden handle.
That’s when O’Reilly came across a demonstration for the electric pen and became infatuated with it. Invented by Thomas Edison in 1876, the machine was actually one of the earliest consumer use cases for electric motors.
Before carbon copies, the autographic printer was intended for use in the business world to duplicate documents. It used a motor to drive a small needle up and down the shaft of the pen. As the person holding it wrote, the pen perforated a piece of paper with holes, creating a sort of stencil. Afterward, the user could place more sheets of paper beneath the stencil and use a roller to squeegee ink through the holes to create a copy.
In its original form, the electric pen resembled an imprecise version of a tattoo gun. But O’Reilly—a brass production worker who specialized in clockmaking—hacked the machine by adding multiple needles and an ink reservoir. On December 8, 1891, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued O’Reilly a patent for the first-ever electric rotary tattoo machine.
His instrument is made up of a five-needle array, but the patent disclosure notes that it can be reformatted to work with just a single needle, or any other suitable combination for line work or shading. The head of the machine, which perforates the skin, is attached to a rod with an electromotor. Connecting gears are enclosed inside the tubular handle so that when the artist grips the device, they do not disturb the movement of the needles.
But as it turns out, there’s a chance that O’Reilly’s tattoo gun is a rip-off of another person’s idea. In 1878—thirteen years before the USPTO granted O’Reilly’s patent—an anonymous contributor to the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper wrote a letter to the editor, describing Edison’s autographic printer as the perfect starting point for a tattooing machine, which they referred to as the “teletattoograph.”
Regardless, O’Reilly’s machine was a revolution for the tattoo industry. Artists could now expedite their body art creations by completing projects about 25 times faster. According to the Spark Museum of Electrical Invention in Bellingham, Washington, tattoo artists could only poke the skin about two to three times per minute with manual needle arrays, whereas O’Reilly’s machine could perforate the skin up to 50 times per second.
Because the pen could pull off more punctures per minute than even the fastest tattoo artist at the time, O’Reilly—who had begun billing himself as “Professor O’Reilly”— was quickly swamped with orders for his rotary tattoo machine and made a small fortune. Customers were happier, too; tattoos became more precise and involved far less bleeding and injury to the skin.
Soon, a majority of O’Reilly’s clientele were men in the U.S. Navy—and that was by design. A shrewd marketer, O’Reilly designed a pamphlet tailored to tattooed members of the U.S. Navy fighting in the Spanish-American War. A Navy veteran, himself, O’Reilly said that a sailor without a tattoo was “not seaworthy,” according to Tattoo: Secrets of a Strange Art.
In his pamphlet, O’Reilly wrote: “Brave fellows! Little fear had they of shot and shell amid the smoke of battle, and after the scrub down they gloried in their tattoos.”
At the turn of the 20th-century, nearly every major U.S. city had its own tattoo shop, in large part thanks to O’Reilly.
Electromagnets and Coils
But much like the discovery of calculus or the theory of evolution, sometimes great ideas come in twos.
Twenty days after O’Reilly filed the patent for his electric rotary tattoo machine, another inventor, Thomas Riley, patented the first electric tattooing machine to use electromagnets, a design element that remains in today’s tattoo guns. This electric tattoo machine uses an alternating current as it flows into the coils to turn the magnets on and off in rapid succession. This pulls the spring-loaded armature bar up and down, pushing the attached needles in and out of the skin.
The original coiled machine was little more than a modified doorbell assembly in a brass box, but Riley’s invention spurred on many inventors to create an entire class of coiled machines. One such inventor was an English tattoo artist named George Burchett. After purchasing his first electric tattoo machine from Riley, Burchett used it in his tattoo shop while making his own modifications. He added a switch that could stop the machine’s motion while alternating between colors. Most significantly, though, he added an external transformer to allow artists to plug the machine into a wall outlet rather than rely on the heavy glass and wooden batteries.
Still, one of the greatest victories of tattooing in the 1900s was Alfred Charles South’s first twin-coil machine, a true precursor to all modern tattoo guns today. Patented in the summer of 1899, it was also based on a doorbell design, but this time in a steel plate box with slabs of brass on either side. Due to all of that dense metal, the machine was actually so heavy that it was typically attached to the ceiling with a spring to take the weight away from the operator’s wrist.
Five years later, another inventor improved upon the machine. Charles Wagner secured a patent in 1904 for a tattooing device consisting of a pair of electromagnets that were positioned perpendicularly to the artist’s hand.
It was at this point that the tattoo machine became less of a modified electric pen and came more into its own, with functionality meant precisely for the tattoo artist. Down below the coils, the tip of the machine included an ink chamber that made it easy to add more ink to the reservoir. A plate spring regulated the ink flow and steadied the needle. The armature’s spring tension could even be adjusted with a screw so that operators could adjust the force of the needle strikes.
To move tattooing forward, German tattoo artist Manfred Kohrs had to take a look backward.
Ever since Thomas Riley introduced the first-ever coil machine, O’Reilly’s original rotary invention became old news. Various iterations of Riley’s coil machine were found in most tattoo shops in the early-to-mid 1900s—that is, until Kohrs revived rotary technology.
In 1978, Kohrs introduced the first new design for a rotary machine in nearly a century. His machine was functionally similar to O’Reilly’s except an electric DC motor, rather than electrified magnets, drove the needles. This slimmer and streamlined version became lighter, quieter, and more portable. It also gave artists more control while ensuring the operator’s hands and fingers cramped less. While some artists gravitated to this rotary revival, others preferred to stick with their trusty coil machines.
In recent decades, new designs began to incorporate lightweight materials—from aircraft-grade aluminum to plastic—easing the weight on the artist’s wrist, and ensuring more freedom of movement and control.
But probably the most notable addition came in 2000 with the pneumatic tattoo gun. Invented by Carson Hill, a tattoo artist based in Newbury Park, California, the pneumatic tattoo machine uses compressors to generate pressurized air that moves the gun’s needles up and down, rather than electricity.
Like so many other tattoo artists, Hill had noticed that rotary machines do not create a “cushion” or “give” in the skin, like coil machines do. Rotary machines push back against the resistance of the skin, causing further trauma. Not to mention, rotary gun needles spend about 40 percent of their life cycle within the skin, as compared to the 10 to 15 percent time that a coil machine’s needle does, creating a sort of catching sensation that causes tissue damage.
To get past this, Hill created the Neuma pneumatic tattoo gun. He and his co-inventors experimented with the shape of the tattoo gun’s cam—a sliding piece in the rotary machine—to reduce the amount of time that the needle stays inside the skin. The resulting design not only reduces trauma to the skin, leading to a faster heal time, but gives rise to a smaller, more ergonomically pleasing tool that feels more like a pen.
An Unfinished Story
All of these tools—from the Polynesians’ sharpened bones to the futuristic pneumatic machines of today—are part of humanity’s evolving relationship with technology.
Modern-day tattoo guns are slimming down and becoming more barrel-like, with customization options exploding every year as artists and engineers design new concepts. Need a sleek wireless, rechargeable tattoo gun? No problem. A machine that can switch between 4.5 Volts and 20 Volts? Done. Glow-in-the-dark pigment? Sure thing. Some artists are even experimenting with virtual and augmented reality to show clients what a design will look like on the skin before a single drop of ink is wasted.
Meanwhile, the precision of these machines and techniques has enabled entirely new concepts in tattooing, like microblading. But not every advancement in tattoos is cosmetic in nature. Harvard and M.I.T. have also joined forces in a new experiment called “Dermal Abyss,” that uses specialized inks to detect levels of glucose or sodium. In a September 2017 white paper, the authors note that the project “combines advances in biotechnology with traditional methods in tattoo artistry” to monitor health in ways that medical devices simply cannot. Imagine a tattoo that changes color when your insulin levels are low.
In a similar scientific vein, Carson Bruns, a molecular nanotechnology researcher at the University of Colorado, is working on a type of smart tattoo that could change from a nearly invisible state to bright blue, depending on the levels of ultraviolet light and heat. So when skin is exposed to high levels of UV rays, the tattoo would function like a sun-exposure thermometer.
Whether you look at tattooing as a cultural rite, a form of personal expression, or a piece of emerging tech, the legacy of the tattooing machine in its many iterations goes to show that the state-of-the art is fleeting. But one thing will always remain: that ink in your skin.