It’s the soundtrack for most tattoo shops—at least most New York tattoo shops—the familiar click-buzz-hum of a tattoo machine. Different brands with a shared lineage: Samuel O’Reilly’s Tattooing-Machine, US Patent No. 464, 801 granted December 8, 1891.
Vaudevillian antics aside, O’Reilly (1854 - 1909) deserves credit for electrifying the art with his riff on Edison’s electric stencil-pen. “Professor S. O’Reilly” first appeared in New York in 1888, already a famed tattoo artist working out of a shop at 5 Chatham Square in Manhattan’s Bowery. The Professor illustrated all manner of bodies, from members of the sideshow and curiosity scene to US sailors shipping out to the Spanish-American war. In a letter to The New York Sun in 1898, O’Reilly explains:
Well, he patented it but, like most history of invention, it’s more than probable O’Reilly developed the electric tattoo machine in an atmosphere of experimentation and artistic development. The mid-to-late 19th century saw an explosion of handheld electronic machines, though rarely were they more than novelties.
And then there’s this from The New York Times: “Tattoo Artists at War,” January 1, 1900.
The case lasted for a year and was later dropped without settlement. Carmen Nyssen, historian and researcher at the Tattoo Archive and creator of BuzzworthyTattoo.com, dug up both the 1899 subpoena and the 1900 case files:
Conclusive? Hardly. But it does shine some light on the journey from Edison stencil-pen to modern tattoo machine. Is O’Reilly the godfather of electric tattooing? Yes, according to the US Patent Office. But as demonstrated above, O’Reilly was one of many contributors to the tattoo machine’s march to modernity, sharing the stage with greats like Elmer Getchell.