The Irish-American who invented the modern tattoo machine
Samuel O’Reilly’s invention made him famous and revolutionised the tattoo industry
Samuel O’Reilly learned the art of tattooing during a brief stint in the Navy.
Body modifications like tattoos have long since been a part of Irish culture, and are depicted in many ways throughout history - in both print and paint. Daniel Maclise’s masterpiece ‘The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife’ in the National Gallery shows tattooed Irish warriors strewn out on the battlefield. While the practice of tattooing may have ancient roots, the modern art of tattooing has been made possible thanks to one particularly extraordinary member of the Irish diaspora.
Samuel O’Reilly was born in Connecticut in 1854 to Irish immigrant parents. Very little is known of O’Reilly’s early years, but the 1870 Census (as discovered by Carmen Nyssen and Rich Hardy at Buzzworthy Tattoo History) shows the teenage Samuel O’Reilly as being employed in a clock shop, probably specialising in brass objects, given that the area he lived in was famed for its brass production.