There has never been a better time to be a tattoo artist. With over 145 million Americans sporting permanent body art, tattooing is only gaining popularity.
That means there are more and more new advancements in tattoo technology and equipment. Whether you’re interested in becoming a tattoo artist or you’re curious about different tools of the trade, getting your setup right is a crucial consideration.
Your tattoo machine is probably the most important component of that setup. There are actually different types of tattoo machines to choose from. For instance, a tattoo pen is not the same as a tattoo gun. But what’s the difference between a tattoo pen vs a gun?
If you’re a new artist, it might feel overwhelming trying to decide what you should use. Keep reading to learn the differences between a tattoo pen and a tattoo gun to figure out which option is best for you.
History of Tattoo Machines
The very first true tattoo machine was developed and patented in December of 1891 by Samuel F. O’Reilly in New York City.
This first machine was adapted from Thomas Edison’s rotary-operated stencil pen. Electromagnetic coils created the movement of the needles. This device was easily converted into an early tattoo machine.
Types of Tattoo Machines
Ultimately, all tattoo machines do the same thing to produce the same result: rapidly moving needles up and down to deposit ink under the skin.
The biggest difference between tattoo pens and tattoo guns is how they function and what produces the movement of the needles. Both are adjustable and can use different types of needles.
Tattoo guns will be familiar to almost any artist, as they’ve existed for many years and are an iconic symbol in the world of body modifications. Tattoo pens are a newer development with a more advanced design.
There are several pros and cons to consider if you’re trying to decide which tattoo machine is right for you.
What is a Tattoo Gun?
A tattoo gun is more traditional and based on the design of O’Reilly’s original machine. These machines are generally considered the standard of the tattoo industry, and they’ve been around for a long time.
It uses electromagnetic coils, which rotate and move the attached needle up and down. Tattoo guns can repeat this motion between 50 and 3000 times per minute.
Tattoo guns are controlled with a foot pedal, much like a sewing machine or pottery wheel. This allows the artist to change the speed of the needle’s motion as they work. Machine speed is based on personal preference or to create different effects on the skin.
Tattoo guns are corded, so they will require being connected to the pedal in order to function.
While tattoo gun needles are interchangeable, it can be a bit of a hassle. It’s common to use different needles in a single tattoo, so this is something to consider.
You’ll also have to be a bit more conscientious about hygiene. Tattoo guns have more individual components that need diligent cleaning between each session.
Anyone who’s been to a tattoo studio will recognize the iconic buzzing sound that tattoo guns make, and they can get pretty loud.
They’re also quite heavy and generate a lot of vibration, which can be pretty tiring for artists over many hours of tattooing. It’s not unusual for tattoo artists to end up with numb hands after gripping a tattoo gun for an extended period of time.
What is a Tattoo Pen?
Where a tattoo gun uses electromagnetic coils, a tattoo pen instead uses a motor to move the needle.
The major benefit of a tattoo pen is how easy it is to use. Artists can make much more precise adjustments to how quickly the needle moves up and down.
Tattoo pens can be corded or run off of batteries, so having a cordless option is very appealing to some artists who prefer a more minimal setup.
Another benefit is that the needles for tattoo pens come in cartridges and are quick and easy to swap out to create different line widths or even several needles at once for shading.
Tattoo pens are much quieter and lighter than tattoo guns, and reduced vibrations mean they offer more stability for the artist. This results in less strain on the artist and also means that the artist has more control over every little movement and placement of ink.
Another great benefit of tattoo pens is that the entire machine can be sanitized in an autoclave. As every well-trained tattoo artist knows, hygiene and risk reduction are a huge part of the tattoo process.
While you don’t have to have medical training to become a tattoo artist, you do need to carefully follow specific safety protocols to keep your setup and equipment clean.
Being able to easily and thoroughly sanitize your entire tattoo machine in one step will help reduce any chance of cross-contamination. No one likes an infected tattoo!
Should You Use a Tattoo Gun or a Tattoo Pen?
You can create all the same effects with both machines, so it’s really up to the artist. Which tattoo machine you use really depends on a few different factors.
It’s unlikely that tattoo pens will ever completely replace tattoo guns. Many artists will use both, choosing which machine to use based on specific tattoos and the aesthetic they’re going for or that the client prefers.
Sometimes it makes more sense to use a tattoo gun for smaller or more traditional tattoos. Alternatively, larger and more intricate tattoos may be a bit easier for you as the artist with a lighter machine that doesn’t vibrate the way a tattoo gun does.
And if you’re working on a tattoo that will require multiple needle changes in a single piece, a tattoo pen will make the process faster and easier with less hassle.
If you find that your hands become easily fatigued and cramped or even numb from the vibrations of a tattoo gun, a tattoo pen will alleviate a lot of that discomfort. Many artists find that they don’t need to take as many breaks during larger tattoos and also make fewer mistakes with these lighter, more stable tattoo machines.
But of course, there’s always something to be said for tradition. Tattoo guns are still popular for a reason, even with a newer, more technologically advanced option available.
Many artists are purists who prefer to stick with tattoo guns and also believe that any new tattooer should learn how to use traditional tools. Knowing how to tattoo with different machines is part of being a well-educated and well-rounded artist.
Tattoo Pens May Be a Better Experience for Clients
There aren’t any statistics on this, but tattoo clients sometimes feel as though tattoo pens are less painful. While there isn’t documented proof that this is the case, it does seem to be the experience of many.
It’s possible that this is a trick of the mind. Getting a tattoo is a singular experience: the smells, sounds, and feeling of being in a tattoo studio chair may create certain expectations for many clients, and pain is definitely one of them.
Tattoo guns are louder and vibrate more, so the lack of vibration and sound from a tattoo pen can either physically or mentally seem less painful. Ultimately, this does create a more positive and comfortable experience for the client. A happy (and most importantly, still) client always makes for a higher-quality tattoo than someone who can’t stop squirming in the chair.
You may find that you get more new and returning clients using a tattoo pen because they can relax more easily during the process without all the extra sound, vibration, and potential pain that comes with using tattoo guns.
Choose the Tattoo Machine That Takes Your Art to the Next Level
There are certainly benefits to tattoo pens over tattoo guns, but at the end of the day, you should use the tattoo machine that works best for you.
For artists who like to stick with old-school traditional tools and techniques, tattoo guns are still a great and reliable option. If you like to be on the cutting edge and the benefits offered by a tattoo pen are important to you, you’ll probably prefer to use tattoo pens.
Both tattoo machines are capable of making stunning permanent artwork for your clients. And whichever option you choose, nothing can replace practice and quality education from qualified and experienced tattooers.
Let us help you get your hands on all the right tools to reach your full potential! If you want a solid foundation and start your tattooing career, schedule a tour at the Florida Tattoo Academy to see what we have to offer.