Considered to be the godfather of the American Tattoo, Samuel was tattooing as early as 1875. He developed the first electric tattoo machine based on Thomas A. Edison’s autographic printing pen.
On the Bowery he ran a small parlor at 11 Chatham Sq. He was very successful due to his tattoo machine design which modern equipment is still largely based upon. Unfortunately, he died in a painting accident in 1908, but his legacy was carried on through his protégé, the famous Charlie Wagner, who in turn went on to train Paul Rogers.
Two pages from his original sketchbook have surfaced from a folk art dealer in the South. These pieces, drawn between 1875 and 1900, are currently being displayed at Lift Trucks.
The technology behind Edison’s electric pen left a legacy in one of the more colorful areas of popular culture. In 1891, a New York tattoo artist by the name of Samuel F. O’Reilly produced an electric tattoo needle based on Edison’s pen. It brought the twin advantages of speed and precision to what had previously been done at a much slower pace by hand, an advancement that would revolutionize tattooing.
A curious aside is that by the 1890s, an upward percolation of the practice amongst European nobility (influenced most certainly by the practice’s almost ubiquitous presence amongst sailors) had begun to have comparable effects among blue-bloods across the Atlantic. Being one of the foremost in his field, “Professor” O’Reilly as he called himself, tattooed many of these “society people” himself. However, discretion prevailed and their names typically remained a secret unless leaked elsewhere.
While his invention brought him great success and notoriety, it came to an abrupt halt after a fall while painting his house in 1908. Upon his death, taking up the reins of O’Reilly’s business at 11 Chatham Square was one of his most successful students, Charles Wagner.
Article courtesy of New-York Historical Society.