Did you know: the modern art of tattooing is mainly thanks to Samuel O’Reilly?

The second generation Irishman was born in Connecticut in 1854.

As a teenager on the East Coast of America, O’Reilly worked in a clock shop, specializing in brass objects. He is said to have been a wild, rebellious teenager with no time for rules. He even completed a two-year stint in jail after being caught raiding his local convenience store with two accomplices.

The time behind bars evidently gave O’Reilly time to think. It is believed he learned the art of tattooing while in the Navy and by the late 1880s, he had already made a name for himself in the industry.

According to his profile as part of the Irish Times' Extraordinary Emigrants series,  O’Reilly operated out of his Chatham Square tattoo studio in New York - where he gained notoriety as both a showman and a cutting edge artist.

From infamy as a petty criminal to fame as an artist, “Tattoo Man” Samuel O’Reilly’s life was certainly a colourful one. https://t.co/epYgddK3fv #Irishdiaspora

— Irish Times Abroad (@ITabroad) October 17, 2018

Under the nickname Professor O’Reilly, he garnered the reputation of both “the world’s best tattooer” and “a perfect gentleman”.

It was this Irishman who took one of Thomas Edison’s failed inventions - the electric pen - and considered how to apply it to the world of tattooing. Thus, the handheld tattoo machine was born in December 1891, thanks to the vision of O’Reilly.

Legendary tattoo artist Mark Mahoney visited us today. Mark has tattooed the likes of Johnny Depp, Rihanna and Adele! At #EPICMuseum, we feature Samuel O’Reilly, famed tattoo artist of his day, who went on to invent the first electric tattoo machine back in 1891. pic.twitter.com/YksXggkAcr

— EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum (@EPICMuseumCHQ) October 4, 2018

With the machine, artists could puncture the skin up to fifty times a second, unlike stick and poke which could only perform two or three punctures a second.

By the 1900s, tattoo studios were opening up in every major American city and O’Reilly’s influence was even spreading to Europe.

Unfortunately, the tattoo master died after falling while painting his house in 1909. He was just 55 years old.

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