The modern twin-coil electromagnetic tattoo needle was patented in 1891 by one Samuel O'Riley, an Irish-American tattooist. It worked – and, for that matter, still works — essentially like a doorbell, with two coils of wire wrapped around an iron core, two points, and a bar across the top that plunges down when power is applied to the coils, breaking the circuit, then springs back up again to recommence the cycle.
What this means now for Will Wright, a 30-year-old landscape gardener, is that three fine steel needles are puncturing his skin roughly 150 times a second. That's just for the initial scratch outline of the red kite Wright is having across his stomach. "It does hurt," he says. "I do it because it looks cool, full stop". Tattoos, suddenly, are everywhere. According to one survey, a fifth of all British adults have now been inked. The celebs, of course, are there in force: Wayne Rooney has 'Just Enough Education to Perform' (the title of a Stereophonics album), his wife's name and a Celtic motif on his right arm, a flag of St George and 'English and Proud' on his left, and a pair of clasped palms and angel wings across his back. David Beckham, Robbie Williams, Amy Winehouse and Angelina Jolie are also converts.
Once, this was a class thing: tattoos were for soldiers, sailors, bikers and criminals. Borderline deviant behaviour. Now the PM's wife has one. For this is, many feel, a popular artform, and people are only now beginning to realise what it can bring to their lives. "A tattoo gives you something to live for," says J. Woody, tattooist. A tattoo offers you something personal and fun and exciting in a world that can be drab and grey. A work of art, in progress."
Because the other thing that's changed about tatts, Woody says, is that these days "people no longer talk about getting a tattoo, they talk about 'tattooing': a themed, long-term, coherent piece of artwork on their bodies. Something with direction. Something that's been thought about."