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Using Tattoo Machines

Updated on February 21, 2012
bloodline tattoos
bloodline tattoos

Creating a Tattoo Without a Black Line

If you want to create a tattoo but don't want that black line, you can create something called a bloodline. This is a way for the tattoo artist to define the area where you want the tattoo to be without creating an inked black line. This technique with a tattoo machine allows the tattoo artist to outline without ink by simply using water to lubricate the needle. This way, when he is doing the image it will leave an almost ghost image of a red bloodline at the time of the tattoo but this image will fade away when the tattoo heals.

On the other hand, sometimes a tattoo artist will want to use their tattoo machine to make a line that has a bit more of a grey tone to it for future reference. It could be that the artist doesn't want it to be solid or to go away completely, and so they will make something called a greyline for the outline. This is when a tattoo artist creates a mixture of 3-5% ink with water to use instead of pure black ink.

Both of these techniques are very useful for certain visual effects in a tattoo such as smoke, negative space or when you want to make a very soft background to a tattoo that will not overpower the main image. Once the artist adds in the shadeing or color over the bloodline or greyline the effect they are attempting will be more successful.The bloodline will simply disappear upon healing and the greline will fade into the design.

Because the bloodline will fade away when the tattoo is healed, it is a useful tool for outlining if the tattoo is going to be completed in one session. However, if the artist knows that the tattoo will need more than one session to be finished, a greyline can be a more effective way to outline areas for color or special effects without leaving that heavy black outline.

Picking the Right Tattoo Machines

If you are looking at getting a tattoo, it is probably a good idea for you to know a little about the tattoo machines that are used in tattoo shops these days. Most of these are a pretty simple gun style with a variety of sizes of coils. These coils are different based on what is being tattooed such as a fine line on a bird's feather as compared to the heavy line used for a cartoon character's outline. Here are the different kinds of coils:

8 wrap coil machine – This is used primarily when you are doing simple outlines on smaller tattoos. It is usually used in conjunction with a 1, 3, 4 or 5 needle outliner. Because this is a fairly lightweight machine, it cannot be used for larger outlines as the heat output would be too great. When that happens you often tend to have an uneven line because the timing is broken by the machine trying for higher ampage. Of that happens it is always better to switch to a higher amp machine.

10 wrap coil machine – This is a bit heavier machine and is used primarily for doing shading on a tattoo. This machine works well because as you increase the power the needles don't actually go up and down any faster but the magnetic field is increased. This will bring the needle down into the skin with more force, giving the tattoo artist an ability to cover a wider area of skin in less time.

As you can see there are some real skills needed just in choosing the right machine for the tattoo job. Although you should probably not even consider going to a tattoo artist that cannot choose the right tattoo gun for the tattoo you chose to get, it is not a bad idea to familiarize yourself with the different tools they use before getting a tattoo!

A History of Tattoo Machines

A tattoo machine is the hand held device that tattoo artists use to apply permanent tattoos.  They usually have a tube through which ink is runs, making it easy to apply the tattoo ink in a steady manner.

Today's tattoo machines use coils that move the needle up and down on the skin, which inserts the tattoo ink beneath the skin's surface.

The tattoo machine was invented in New Jersey by an American in 1876.  And guess who it was?  Thomas Edison.  He called the machine the "electric pen."   Edison didn't originally invent the pen for tattoos though; he created it for embroidery purposes.  However a guy named Samuel O'Reilly realized it could be used to administer tattoos.  In 1891 he invented a needle and a tube to accompany the machine to facilitate the creation of tattoos.

There's some argument over who actually invented the tattoo machine.  Although it's based on Edison's original design, it was meant to be used for that purpose.  It was O'Reilly who actually made modifications to it so it could be used as a tattoo machine.  But neither of them had the patent for the machine.  That distinguished honor goes to Charles Wagner who actually dubbed the device the tattoo machine and got it patented in 1904.  How's that for a history lesson?

 Since then, the main concept has remained the same but with a few modifications.  The old tattoo machines were so heavy that they were hung from the ceiling because it was too heavy for the tattoo artist to use.

Nowadays, tattoo machines usually have 2 coils that let the artist control how deeply and how fast the needle pierces the skin.  Tattoo machines are hand-held and let the artist make very detailed and precise lines and filled areas.  Considering how heavy and imprecise tattoo machines were in the 1800's you can imagine how painful it must have been to receive one. 

Tattoo Machine

Modern Day Tattoo Machine

Here's a photo of a modern day tattoo machine.  As you can see, there's at least one (perhaps more) tubes of lovely purple ink loaded into the tattoo machine.

Nonetheless, it gives you an idea of what the device looks like.

As you can see, this looks vastly different from what the machine would have looked like when it was first invented.

This machine is lightweight and easy to fit your hand around, which is good because you definitely don't want it slipping while an artist is using it to administer a tattoo!

Different Types of Tattoo Machines

There are two types of tattoo machines: coil and rotary.

Coil: these are the modern tattoo machines that are based on electromagnetic technology. They were one time thought to be make it easier to control the depth and precision of the tattoo needle.

Rotary: these devices are based on the original design created by Samuel O'Reilly. Until recently, they were thought to be less precise than coil machines.

Tattoo Functions

Linear tattoo machines: these devices are used to create outlines of the tattoo design.

Shader machines: these devices are used to fill in areas of the tattoo with colored ink.


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      3 years ago

      This article is not entirely correct. I am a tattoo artist and really do not appreciate false information given to others from "know-it-alls". This leads to people thinking they know better than the artists themselves. Please people if you would like to know something about tattoos, ask a reputable artist!

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      4 years ago

      dustin is correct, those are coils not ink tubes lol,ink is used by dipping the tip of the needle into ink

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      6 years ago

      U might want to learn up on tattoo machines before u print a story about them...

    • profile image

      7 years ago

      I didn't know Thomas Alva Edison invented the machine!

      You learn something every day!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      The "lovely purple ink" are actually the two coils.


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