Any good artist understands the importance of using the right tools for the job. A painter who loves creating watercolor landscapes is going to use a different brush from a portraitist who paints in oils. A ceramicist will have a potters wheel, while a mixed media sculptor might need a welding torch. It’s the same for tattooing. Different machines tattoo differently. No matter whether you’re picking your first tattoo machine or adding to your collection, having a good tattoo machine will make it easier for you to create amazing tattoos on your client’s skin.
If you’re in the market for your first tattoo machine, starting to research which gun is right for you can be overwhelming. What works for one artist might not be right for another, so even if you watch all the videos and talk to as many colleagues as you can, you may still be wondering which one to pick. Keep these four basic things in mind and we know you will make the best choice for you:
The last thing you want is for your tattoo gun to break mid-tattoo and risk damaging your customer’s skin (and your reputation in the process). You need a reliable tattoo 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 aluminum. Their strong metal frames ensure a sturdy, durable tattoo machine that you will spend less time setting up, and more time tattooing. Aluminum tattoo machines are more light-weight, with brass being the heaviest and also the most durable.
As tattoo artists you will spend your career applying your beautiful designs to your customers’ skin, potentially for hours at a time. Using a tattoo 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 tattoo 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 different tattoo machines and find one which is a comfortable shape to hold. Some machines come with different grip options, so you may find that one machine can give you several different size options. 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 tattoo machine counterparts available today.
In the past, traditional coil machines were the industry standard and known by tattoo artists 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 tattoo needles for both lining and shading. And in most cases, tattoo artists can maintain and tune their tattoo machine, adjusting hit and stroke, with just a few simple tools.
For many tattoo artists who appreciate bold lines, the ability to repair and tinker on their tattoo machine makes them “loyal to the coil.” If you like building things and want to customize every aspect of your own machine from the armature bar, to the o rings, to the springs, and everything in between, this may be the right type of tattoo machine for you.
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Rotary tattoo machines used to be known for only handling smaller groupings of tattoo needles, but recent developments mean this is no longer necessarily the case. More and more tattoo 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.
With advancements in battery technology, wireless tattoo machines have become not just a viable option to consider as a tattoo artist but also a very popular one. Traditional wired tattoo guns are not without their issues or annoyances particularly with the actual wired part of them. Many artists find that the wires from the clip cord and the foot pedal will get in the way of tattooing and become an obstacle for executing the desired tattoo design often creating a frustrating experience for the artist.
So you can imagine how liberating it can be for a tattoo artist to be able to put ink on the skin of a customer without any physical wires getting in the way or getting tangled up. Wireless tattoo guns have advanced so much these days that they are as full featured as traditional wired machines and can last many hours to accommodate long tattoo sessions.
The price of a tattoo machine can vary anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $1,000 or more. How much you should expect to pay for a tattoo machine will depend on what kind you choose or need to purchase and what brand of gun you choose. It’s important that you set a budget and stick to it.
From there the cost will either increase or decrease depending on whether you need all the accessories and supplies to start out or just the standalone gun. Accessories and supplies you will need will include ink, tubes, needles or cartridges, a foot pedal, clip cord, power supply, or battery packs. A lot of these supplies will be a recurring cost especially for supplies like ink or sanitization supplies, like clip cord covers and machine bags, to keep your equipment and space as clean and safe as possible for your clients.
A good artist will pick the best machine for the job, so this is why you see so many tattooists with more than one tattoo machine. They know that you need different machines to accomplish different tattooing techniques. So keep in mind that when considering what kind of styles you want to focus on in your career. Also keep in mind that this will impact your overall investment since tattooing more styles will likely mean needing more machines to accomplish those styles well. This also increase the accessories and disposable supplies you will need.
Unboxing your first tattoo machine can be exhilarating, but can quickly be disappointing if you’ve forgotten to purchase supplies or picked some that don’t work with your new tattoo gun. Not all power supplies and not all tattoo needles are created equal, so make sure you have the right accessories and supplies for the right tattoo machine.
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 making getting the proper power supply an important factor.
Some machines require tattoo needles or needle cartridges and grips from the same company, some are interchangeable. Some machines use needles and tubes, some use grips and cartridges. Some machines need a separate power supply while others have a built in battery. Also pay attention to whether your machine has an RCA power connector or requires a clip cord.
Be sure to read the manual and watch the instructional videos, so you are picking supplies that you know are good quality and will work with your machine.
How do you know what’s right for you? Talk to colleagues, talk to your mentor, watch product videos, and look at reviews (three star reviews often give the best descriptions of the limitations of a machine).
There is a lot to consider when choosing the right machine for you and your tattoo career goals and it’s always best to do as much research as possible so you can be as knowledgeable as possible, especially if it’s your first tattoo machine. Remember these four tips and you’ll be sure to find the perfect machine for you:
It’s important to remember that 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, for example!)
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 waiting for you at the end of the program. Start a chat to learn how you can get started on your journey.