In 1891 Samuel O’Reilly revolutionized tattooing with his invention of the electric tattoo machine. He opened a tattoo studio at 11 Chatham Square, in the Chinatown area of the Bowery, New York City, in 1875. At this time, tattooing was done by hand.

The tattooing instrument used by O’Reilly and contemporaries was a set of needles attached to a wooden handle. Tattooing by hand was a slow process, even for the most accomplished tattooists.

In addition to being a competent artist, O’Reilly was a mechanic and technician. Early in his career he began working on a machine to speed up the tattooing process. He reasoned that if the needles could be moved up and down automatically in a hand-held machine, the artist could tattoo as fast as he could draw. In 1891 O’Reilly patented his invention and offered if for sale along with colors, designs and other supplies. Tattooing in the US was revolutionized overnight.

Samuel O'Reilly, Watercolour by Pepe
Samuel O’Reilly, Watercolour by Pepe

O’Reilly was swamped with orders and made a small fortune within a few years. After Samuel O’Reilly was issued his patent, many sideshow and circus attractions came to him for additions to their tattoo collections, folks in the show business thought that his electric machine was faster and produced cleaner work. O’Reilly took on an apprentice named Charles Wagner and during the Spanish-American War in 1898, O’Reilly and Wagner worked overtime as sailors lined up to be tattooed with images symbolizing their service in the war. At that time over 80% of the enlisted men in the US Navy were tattooed.

Little has been written about O’Reilly, and most of what is known about this New York City tattooist comes from newspaper articles and the 1933 book Tattoo, Secrets of a Strange Art as Practiced by the Natives of the United States by Albert Parry. Parry described O’Reilly as an Irish immigrant who holds the honor of patenting the first tattoo machine in the United States. Samuel O’Reilly operated a shop on Broadway and the Bowery in New York City but it was at 11 Chatham Square where he made his name.

The famous 11 Chatham Square shop was not much more than an over-sized closet in the back of a barber shop. There are also stories of O’Reilly working the summer crowds on the famed Stillwell Avenue of Coney Island. Samuel O’Reilly died in 1908 from a fall while painting his home in Brooklyn, NY.