Rotary vs. Coil Tattoo Machines


Maud Stevens Wagner, the first known female tattoo artist. Image via The Library of Congress.

Over the last few months we have talked a little bit about the long history of tattooing and how it has evolved into the art form we now know and love. We have touched on its cultural evolution and how tattoo art styles have developed. Now we are turning our attention to the machinery.
From Pens to Tattoos


Left: O’Reilly patent for rotary tattoo machine
Top Right: Edison pen
Bottom Right: Samuel O’Reilly obituary identifying him as the “Tattoo Man.”

The design for the very first tattoo machine, a rotary machine, was actually based on the design for the autographic printing pen invented by Thomas Edison. The pen was initially designed to be a duplicating device but was then modified by Samuel F. O’Reilly - a tattoo artist who lived and worked in New York. This happened 15 years after Edison’s pen patent was published. O’Reilly added a tube and needle that would enable a tattoo artist to deposit ink directly onto the skin without relying on manual scratching and poking to see them through. After much tinkering, O’Reilly was able to patent his design for in 1891.

Many artists played with O’Reilly’s design to create various versions of the rotary machine, but generally speaking, it works by using a motor to move the needles up and down. It is very quiet and smooth in its application.


Coil Tattoo Machine. Image via William Rafti of the William Rafti Institute.

O’Reilly’s core idea of inking electrically with an ink reservoir inspired others to create their own electric tattoo machines. Twenty days after O’Reilly patented his design in New York, another individual contacted Thomas Riley and patented their design for a tattoo machine powered by electromagnetic coils.

Coil tattoo machines have an electromagnetic current that passes between two coils to power the tap of the needle arm against the skin. Coil machines are responsible for the classic buzzing sound people often associate with tattoo shops.

Which is the ‘Better’ Tattoo Machine?

For the most part tattoos artists seem to prefer the rotary machine noting that it is smaller in size and a quieter application, which makes it easier to use. Some of our artists echoed these sentiments:

Our artists credit the rotary machine for its lighter weight and soft sound saying, “it's easier to tattoo longer with a lighter machine, and at the end of the day your hand isn't sore from holding the machine. […] Clients always feel better not hearing that loud buzzing because they will automatically think in their head it won't hurt as much.”

He also talked about the convenience of using a rotary: “[It’s] easy to clean, easy to set up and way more versatile with cartridge needles and traditional needles […] just plug them in and they're ready to go.”

For Lorena Lorenzo, both tools result in the same end product, but at the end of the day she prefers the rotary as well. She expressed that “[T]hey are both good and you can attain beautiful pieces from either of them if you use them properly. […] I choose to use the rotaries because they are more comfortable for me. I’m a woman-- I have small hands and I like the fact that they are lightweight.”

Lorena is confident that technology will only get better from here: “[L]ike anything, times change and technology keeps advancing…so do the way we do things and use tools […] artists are using new machines and more comfortable tools that guaranty quality and long lasting tattoos.”

Want to chime on the rotary vs. coil machine debate? Let us know on Twitter: @blacklinestudio!