The Evolution of an Industry & its Ethics (Part 1)

edisons electric pen

The ancient art form of body modification can easily trace its ancestry back many millennia, however, tattooing, as we know it today was established in the late 1800's, and that is where our story begins, with the advent of Thomas Edison's "Electric Pen" in 1876. A device, which was promptly modified and patented into what is now known as a rotary style tattoo machine, by Samuel O'Reilly in 1891, and with it, the modern era of electric tattooing had begun.

By the beginning of the 21st century, Samuel's apprentice, Professor Charles Wagner had further refined his teacher's modifications to Edison's initial invention into the upright coil design that most tattoo machines are still based on to this day. O'Reilly and his apprentice continued working together in the Bowery until Samuels death in 1908, after which, Professor Wagner stayed on tattooing in New York City for another 45 years until his passing in 1953. It was however during this half-century time frame that much of the traditional and ethical foundations of the art form were laid out for the continuing generations of tattooists to come.

No better example of this can be made than to discuss Professor Wagner's mail order equipment business. Being one of the first 3 people to open up a tattoo supply company, Charles new that he had an obligation to the ancient art form to not just let anyone into the business (see - it's always been that way), so he devised a solution for selling his patented machines. They came unassembled. His thought process being, if you knew how to assemble it, then you were probably already a tattooist, and if you didn't, well more than likely you'd end up in someone's shop asking how. Usually, if you were that serious about it, and since you already had equipment, then there was a chance of gaining an apprenticeship into the industry, and that's were the ethical training began…..


Part 2 – The Impact of World War II on the Tattoo Industry