How Fast Do Tattoo Needles Go?

  • Written By Dan Hunter on November 9, 2020
    Last Updated: January 1, 2021

Tattoo needles, when attached to tattoo machines, move up and down rapidly. Each time the needle pierces the skin, it leaves a small amount of ink behind. These little drops, when added together, create the tattoo image.

The speed with which the machine moves makes it possible for an artist to create complex images from thousands of tiny holes in your skin filled with ink.

Depending on the tattoo machine speed settings, a tattoo needle will penetrate your skin between 50 and 3,000 times per minute.

Tattoo Needle Speeds

Tattoo machines operate at different speeds depending on the desired effect required by the tattoo artist. They can move the needle up and down relatively slowly at 50 times per minute, and they can also adjust the speed to make it move up to 3,000 up-down cycles per minute. 

A skilled tattoo artist uses their needle to pierce through the epidermis, which is the top layer of skin. The needle needs to reach the dermis, which is the second layer of skin. 

Unlike the epidermis, which sheds and regenerates regularly, the dermis is a more-permanent layer. With each stroke, the needle penetrates the dermis, about 1/16 of an inch (2 mm) below the surface. 

How Tattoo Needles Work

A tattoo needle is a collection of points. The ink gets held between these points. When the solid needle punctures the skin, the ink gets drawn down into the tiny hole, where it remains. 

You can quickly deposit ink into the tiny holes with a motorized tattoo machine, creating complex images relatively quickly. The rapidly-moving needle allows artists to fill or shade large areas of skin and create well-defined lines. 

Because of the needle’s uniform movement, the artist can be sure that the ink reaches the right depth with each stroke. This repeated motion makes it easier to ensure quality and uniform colors in the tattoo. 

How Do Tattoo Machines Work?

Tattoo machines have changed surprisingly little since the 19th century. A man named Samuel O’Reilly created the device, which he based on an engraving machine. These early machines relied on electricity just like today’s versions. 

Tattoo machines use an electric motor to move the needle. Today’s tattooists use disposable, sterilized needles. For health and safety reasons, these needles get thrown out after one use. The device also has a tube or reservoir, which holds the ink. Ink is also single-use, though you can reuse the tube provided you first disinfect it in an autoclave. 

Why Does the Machine Have to Move? 

The needle moves upward to dip itself into the ink, then it moves downward to pierce the skin. This motion ensures that there is always enough ink and the artist is not merely making empty holes in the client’s skin. 

How does the needle movement occur? The motor of a tattoo machine moves the bar, called an armature bar, at the back of the device. The needle attaches to that bar, while the tube slides on the front of the machine and fits around the needle. 

Machines also have a foot pedal that the artist can use to control the needle. This pedal is not unlike the one found on a sewing machine and it functions in the same manner. 

What Other Factors Can Influence Speed?

Factors such as the amount of electricity going to the machine, the weight of the armature bar and the tuning of the machine can all affect the overall speed of the tattoo needle. 

Experienced tattoo artists know how to set up and adjust their machine for each customer based on their needs, skin type and tattoo style. New tattoo artists need to undergo an apprenticeship before becoming full-fledged tattooists. During this period, they learn how to tune their machine and what speeds to use for specific types of tattoos. 


Tattoo needles move up and down at a speed of between 50 and 3,000 times per minute. The rate can vary depending on the needs and preferences of the tattoo artist. 

Artists can control speed, angle of the needle, ink colors and other aspects of the process with their tattoo machine. The rate of the needle makes tattooing faster than manual tattoo methods used throughout history. 

However, the rate can also give the artist the level of control needed to make high-quality tattoos for their clients.

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