Tattoo Topic Tuesday: “Gun” vs. “Machine” – What’s in a Name?

Tattoo machines have come a long way since Edison’s electric pen. They’re more precise, more durable and with the recent increase in popularity of rotary machines, lighter weight, quieter and even dare I say less painful. However, what exactly do you call that thing which oscillates the needle and drives the ink into the skin?

In most parts of the world the term “tattoo machine” is preferred, though in some parts of the world the term “tattoo iron” is also common. There is, however, a term that laypeople coined back in the day and is still in common use among laypeople that is considered a big no-no in the tattoo industry and even I cringe every time I hear it – “tattoo gun.”

Now, the term might seem harmless enough but if you think about what a tattoo machine actually does you’ll see why it’s improper to call it a gun. A gun is a device for shooting a projectile (be it a bullet/shell, water, air or whatever). A tattoo machine does not shoot a projectile. It merely acts as an oscillator for the needle grouping and drives the needles into and out of the dermis at a rate far more rapid than is capable by the human hand.

The inaccuracy of the term combined with the negative connotation of the word “gun” in an industry which has a bad enough public image as it is are the reasons the term is very much frowned upon.

All that said, despite the fact the term is frowned upon occasionally you will hear an artist use it because it can become so ingrained in one’s memory. Case in point my session this past Saturday my artist actually used the word twice and I called her out on it both times (all in good fun, mind you). We had a good laugh about it and even she admitted she uses it at times without even thinking. I told her I heard another artist (not from that shop, but in general) said when he was an apprentice his mentor had a jar and every time his apprentices used the word “gun” they had to put $20 in the jar. I imagine one would learn to use the correct term very quickly if it was costing you $20 each time you said the g-word.

Anyway, I don’t write this post to make fun of anyone or anything, but merely to educate those who might not know. The proper term is in fact “tattoo machine” and I know it might be difficult for laypeople especially to adapt. If you ever do start getting tattoos and talking them (and especially with other artists), if you ever want to sound like you know what you’re talking about, use the term “machine.” You might just impress someone with your use of proper tattoo industry jargon.

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