Technology behind the Ink

The parts that make up the whole, a dissection of the machines behind the art.

Tattoo Machines

The Technology Behind the Ink

Tattoos resonate differently among most people, but one thing that can be agreed on in the tattoo community is that they are works of art. Something that people outside of that subculture might not realize is that the machines producing the intricate designs are also considered works of art by the tattoo artists who create them.

Although the machines can be constructed in many ways, the most common design uses a stout metal frame to house two electromagnetic coils that drive the tattoo needle in a repetitive up and down motion. Less common machines utilize rotary motion and cams, or even compressed air to power the needle, but the machine illustrated and described here is most widely used, with a few personal touches from the artist, such as a gold coin and paper money.


Electricity, controlled by a foot pedal and connected to the machine by the clip cord, causes the coils to become electromagnets. When they are charged, they pull the armature bar “Р” and the connected needle “Р” downward to them, driving the needle into the skin. That motion also causes the timing spring, which is connected to the armature bar, to pull away from the contact point screw, breaking the circuit and releasing the magnetic field on the coils. As the coils lose their magnetism, the main spring causes the armature bar to spring back into its default position. That motion puts the timing spring back in contact with the contact point screw, closing the circuit and beginning the entire process again. That process generally occurs 80 to 150 times each second.

Glossary of Terms

Armature bar: Thick metal bar that does the work of moving the needle up and down as the armature bar is attracted to the coils’ magnetic field and subsequently released.
Capacitor: Electrical component used to even out the flow of electricity through the system in order to make the motion more controlled and consistent.
Coils: Electromagnets comprised of wire wrapped tightly around a center core.
Contact point screw: Screw used to set the distance the armature bar travels; the depth of the needle goes into the skin.
Frame: Rigid metal housing used to hold all of the other parts together.
Main spring (back spring): Piece of spring steel used to pull the armature bar back into the default position once the coils’ electromagnetic field has been released.
Timing spring (front spring): Piece of spring steel used to make contact with the contact point screw and close the electrical circuit.
Tube grip: Housing in which the needle travels, allowing the tattoo artist to hold the machine without interfering with the motion of the needle.
Tube vise: Clamp on the front of the frame used to hold the tube and grip.

The dotted lines represent the tube grip, needle, and tip--the parts of the machine that transfer the ink onto the skin.


Technology behind the Ink