The Machines of Tatts Thomas
Like a baseball player’s bat, or an architect’s pencil, a tattoo machine is more than just a tool of the trade. Be it a time-tested coil machine, a rotary or a newer tattoo pen, the machines are extensions of the tattooers themselves and one of the elements that make up tattooing rich history.
At Great Lakes Tattoo, as part of our extensive collection of vintage tattoo flash, photos and other artifacts, three of Chicago tattooing legend Tatts Thomas’ machines reside in our display case.
“These machines were used by Tatts from the ’40’s until he retired in the late ’60’s” notes GLT owner, tattooer and tattooing antiquities collector Nick Colella.
The nickel-plated machine pictured above is a liner from pioneering supplier Owen Jenson. The two brass machines are modified Bill Moore machines. Moore owned the Chicago Supply House, which was located directly above the arcade on South State Street that Tatts Thomas worked in.
These machines are extremely important to Chicago Tattooing and Tattooing at large as they are the personal, stamped tattoo machines that Tatts Thomas used during his tattoo career in Chicago and Milwaukee. Since Tatts didn’t sell his equipment these machines were most likely used by him and stamped with TATTS to keep other’s hands off.
“I have a few more of Tatts’ machines in the collection” Nick mentions.
Not much history is known specifically about these machines, but the “TATTS” engraved machine and the Jensen liner passed through the hands of Lyle Tuttle at one time. The liner is engraved by Lyle with his id number on the brass Chicago Tattoo Supply House machine.
It’s presumed that after Tatts passed away in 1969, these machines were given to Cliff Raven, but their exact lineage is unknown. All three machines found their way to Great Lakes Tattoo via friends of Nick Colella who understood how important it is that they be preserved in a place like GLT.
Nick laughs when asked if there are any fun, seedy or shady stories attached to these machines. “No stories directly told to me” he smiles” “but I would love to know how many tattoos these machines applied.”