Any good artist understands the importance of using the right tools for the job. No matter how skilled a tattooer you are, having a good tattoo machine will make it easier for you to create amazing tattoos on your client’s skin. Below we have four tips to help you make the best choice:
The last thing you want is for the machine to break mid-tattoo and risk damaging your customer’s skin (and your reputation in the process). You need a reliable machine and be able to trust that it is going to work properly. For this reason you’ll find that the best tattoo machines are made out of iron, steel, brass, bronze, or aluminium. Their strong metal frames ensure a sturdy, durable machine that you will spend less time setting up, and more time tattooing. Aluminium machines are more light-weight, with brass being the heaviest and also the most durable.
As a tattooist you will spend your career applying your beautiful designs to your customers’ skin, potentially for hours at a time. Using a machine that is too heavy will tire your hand out sooner, as well as reduce your ability to comfortably apply fine detail and turn to different angles. Using a too-heavy machine over a period of years could lead to carpal tunnel syndrome, which is a surprisingly common ailment in the tattoo world.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ so it is also important to try the machines and find one which is a comfortable shape to hold. Over-extending your hand, or a shape which you struggle to grip, will have negative effects on how long you tattoo for as well as reduce your ability to make controlled and fine movements, impacting on the quality of the tattoo on your client’s skin.
Over 130 years ago, Thomas Edison invented an electric pen to speed up the process of creating duplicates of content. Little did he know that in 1851 Sam O’Reilly would adapt these ‘electric pens’ into the first ink-and-tube system rotary tattoo machines. Coincidentally, less than a month after O’Reilly’s patent was filed, Thomas Riley patented the first single-coil tattoo machine in London, England. Soon after, Alfred Charles South created the first double-coil tattoo machine that was so heavy it had to be suspended from the ceiling as no one could hold it.
Luckily, the tattoo machine has evolved by leaps and bounds since the 1800’s. Rotary tattoo machines are even more advanced and are considerably quieter and gentler on the skin than their coil counterparts available today.
In the past, coil tattoo machines were the industry standard and known to be “the best tattoo machines,” due to their simple electromagnetic design, easily interchangeable parts, relatively low cost, and ability to handle all types of needles for both lining and shading. And in most cases, artists can maintain and tune their machines, adjusting hit and stroke, with just a few simple tools. For many artists who appreciate bold lines, the ability to repair and tinker on their machines makes them “loyal to the coil.”
Rotary tattoo machines used to be known for only handling smaller needle groupings, but recent developments mean this is no longer necessarily the case. More and more machine builders are offering pen-style rotary machines that are more ergonomic, lightweight, and can handle bold linework. Though these machines do not allow for tinkering (and their warranties can be voided if an artist opens up the case to look at the motor), some of the newer models allow for adjustments to hit and stroke. They also tend to be pricier and can run two to three times the price of a coil machine.
A good artist will pick the best tool for the job, so this is why you see so many tattooists with more than one machine. They know that you need different machines to accomplish different tattoo designs.
Not all power-packs or needles are created equal, so make sure you have the right accessories for the right machine. Some machines require needles and grips from the same company, some are interchangable, so be sure to read your manual and watch the instructional videos. Tattoo machines need more voltage as you increase the coil wraps or the size of the needle groupings, so an inconsistently powered or underpowered machine will struggle to penetrate the skin with the needles, leading to poorly executed tattoos.
How do you know what’s right for you? Talk to colleagues, watch product videos, and look at reviews (three star reviews often give the best descriptions of the limitations of a machine). And remember, tattoo machines aren’t available to the public, you must be an apprentice or professional tattoo artist to purchase them. (And if you are tempted by the tattoo kits that are offered online, be sure you understand the dangers. The inks aren’t even meant for use on human skin!) But this doesn’t mean that you can’t learn to tattoo if you don’t already work in a tattoo shop. Our tattoo apprenticeships provide community, encouragement, and mentorship to learn to tattoo in a safe, welcoming environment. And best of all, we want you to grow with us as an artist in one of our studios when you complete your apprenticeship, so you know there is a job offer for you waiting at the end of the program. Start a chat to learn how you can get started by attending one of our tattoo apprenticeship workshops.