What Are Tattoo Guns?

A tattoo gun set up

When people make the decision to get a tattoo, they will be facing a tattoo tattoo gun, also referred to as a tattoo machine. These devices are what the tattoo artist uses to apply your tattoo.

What Is a Tattoo Gun?

A tattoo gun is a handheld gun-shaped machine (hence the name) that drives tattoo ink into the skin. It allows the artist to make tiny hand movements and is gentle enough to use even on the face - such as when permanent make-up is applied. The term tattoo gun is still used in Europe; in the United States, tattoo machine is a more popular term.

The Inventor

Interestingly enough, the tattoo gun was invented by Thomas Edison (yes, the light bulb Edison). The machine was patented in the US in 1876 as an autographic printer. In 1891, Samuel O'Reily tailored the printer into a tattoo gun by adding a tube and needle system. This wasn't the first time society found a use for one of Edison's inventions that he hadn't intended, but it is doubtful he ever envisioned his printer being used to create tattoos or that a variation of his invention would still be in use over a hundred years later.

How the Gun Works

The tattoo gun uses electromagnetic coils to move the needle up and down to drive the pigment/ink into the skin. The needle moves up and down between 80 and 150 times a second, allowing the tattoo artist to penetrate the skin with ink without moving his hand. Most tattoo machines can control needle depth to almost any degree and different needles are used depending on what kind of work is being done. Most versions of the gun are turned off and on through the use of a foot pedal.

Tattoos go into the lower layer of skin, or the dermis and are not designed to go into the fatty layer of skin. The tattoo machine has to be exact enough to penetrate the scaly layer and epidermis layer to leave the ink in the dermis layer. The needle of the tattoo machine makes little holes in the skin, which the ink is deposited into. The ink does fade out of the dermis layer after a while, so get your tattoos refreshed every couple of years.

Does Tattooing Hurt?

Being on the receiving end of a tattoo gun can be painful, although reports vary about how much. The level of pain depends on your artist's skill, your own pain threshold, and on what part of your body the tattoo is applied. Some people describe it as similar to being stung by hornets over and over again or receiving multiple injections which, really, is exactly what they're doing. Others describe the feeling as a strong tingling sensation.

Tattoo Parlor Cleanliness

Tattoo gun at work

It is important that tattoo equipment, especially the tattoo gun, is properly cleaned in an autoclave. Needles, gloves and masks should be single use and unwrapped in front of you. If you do not see an autoclave on the premises or the equipment does not seem spotless, go elsewhere for your tattoo. Using a dirty tattoo needle is no different than sharing a hypodermic needle with another person and can spread a variety of diseases and blood borne illnesses, including HIV.

Tattoo Gun Construction

There are ways to make your own tattoo gun and instructions for doing so can be found on the internet. However, it is recommended you buy a tattoo machine from a reputable tattoo supplier or learn how to make a gun from someone who has made a working model. If interested in making your own tattoo machine, talk to an artist at a tattoo parlor.

What Are Tattoo Guns?