Despite all our advances in technology, the basic needling technique used to insert pigment into skin hasn’t changed all that much over time. The biggest change came when the electric tattooing machine was first patented in 1891. That technology has remained relatively stagnant since–aside from prisoners’ ad hoc redesigns, in which a cassette recorder, an electric razor, or electric toothbrush can be used as a motor. These jailed tattooists’ inventions show just what desperate lengths people will go to to turn a boring patch of bare skin into something that better expresses the self underneath.

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The word tattoo, or tattow in the 18th century, is a loanword from the Samoan word tatau, meaning "to strike".[1][2] The Oxford English Dictionary gives the etymology of tattoo as "In 18th c. tattaow, tattow. From Polynesian (Samoan, Tahitian, Tongan, etc.) tatau. In Marquesan, tatu." Before the importation of the Polynesian word, the practice of tattooing had been described in the West as painting, scarring or staining.[3]
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