Close Up Of Tribal Tattoo Being Inked

Single Needle Tattoos – Everything You Need to Know [2020 Information Guide]

Learn about single needle tattoos and how they’re used. Examine why single needle ink has re-emerged as a popular form of contemporary body art application.

Traditional tattoo has come a long way from the simple designs of anchors and swallows that characterized early American work made famous by Sailor Jerry Collins. New tattoo style exemplified by techniques such as Hyper-realism, three-dimensional optical illusions and geometric designs all demonstrate just how far tattooing has come in the last 100 years.

One more of these trends that has seen a resurgence in tattoo culture popularity applies to designs using the single needle tattoo tip technique.

Single Needle Lotus Tattoo On Girls Back

What is Single Needle Tattooing?

While it may seem obvious—single needle means one needle is used in creating a tattoo.

Most tattoo machines operate with a range of different needles, however in single needle technique the tattoo machine is loaded with a solo needle to etch. 

To really understand what makes this fine line tattoo approach so unique, a better understanding of how a tattoo machine works provides an important starting point.

Tattoo Kit With Needles And Ink

What Does “Single Needle” Mean?

Originally, a tattoo machine used a rotary system originally developed by Edison himself to apply a tattoo design. Most modern machines use one or two “coils,” or electro-magnets, through which an electric current passes and turns the magnets off and on in rapid succession. This mechanism is attached to springs and an armature bar which is moved up and down in conjunction with the coils. The needle or needles are attached to this armature bar – the movement pushes in and out of the skin at speeds of around 3,000 RPMs.

Besides the motor that provides the movement, the other key element in a tattoo machine is the needle, and there are numerous different styles of needles that are suited for different applications and techniques.


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The tattoo needle that gets used in a machine are groupings of several individual needles. The diameter and number of the individual needles, as well as the shape and arrangement of the needles all serve different purposes and influence the effect created with a single pass of the machine.


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For example, a Round Liner is preferred for fine line work thanks to the circular grouping of the needles, while a or Magnum or Round Shader is the go-to for most artists when shading or color packing large areas of ink, thanks to the greater number and broad arrangement of needles.

As the name would imply, these are tips with only one, single needle that will stick and poke tattoo the skin with its tip. Before we take a deeper look at what the pros and cons of this approach are, let’s take a look at the origins of single needle tattooing.

Old School Tattoo Gun

A Tattoo Style Born from Necessity

Before the internet, with its online supply shops that sell everything you need to start scratching on friends – from bugpin needles to a freehand friendly technical drawing pencil for ideas – it wasn’t quite as easy to get into the tattoo game.

Many of the innovators of American tattoo art had a much harder time acquiring equipment. Many moved on from stick and poke small tattoo as they learned the ropes of tattoo culture and style, before building their own machines.


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In the 1970’s, artists like Mark Mahoney, Jack Rudy and Freddie Negrete worked with what they had, almost exclusively single needle. These artists adapted their style to the available tools.

The black and gray style that developed out of this limited approach continues to shape the world of tattooing, and artists like Mahoney, Rudy and Negrete went on to inspire thousands of artists to pick up the machine and learn tattoo art.

Multiple Different Tattoo Machines

A Unique Tattoo Style

Single needle tattoos are characterized by the high levels of detail that can be achieved in comparatively small designs. This approach diverges from the standard “bold will hold” ideas of American traditional tattooing that emphasizes bold lines and vibrant colors to create the stylized depictions of pinup girls, swallows and tigers.

Modern single needle tattoos use an approach that is reminiscent of pencil drawings, with smooth shading and hyper-realistic details. While there is no doubt about the rudimentary origins of single needle tattoos, today’s designs are anything but simple. Thanks to the advances in tattoo machines and equipment, artists are able to create mind blowing designs with single needles.

Most commonly using a needle known as a One Round Liner (1RL) an artist can produce higher levels of precise detail, even in micro tattoos or tiny tattoo design. Black and gray portraits, dramatic scenes from Greek mythology, and abstract geometric designs are all possible with this clean approach.

Tattoo Close Up Single Needle

Special Challenges of Single Needle Tattoo

Despite their growing appeal, single needle tattoos aren’t perfect for everything. Specifically, this precise and intricate approach is best suited for small tattoo design. The biggest challenge that artists face when applying single needle designs is the fact that there is zero margin for error.


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One of the good things about big bold lines over fine line is that they can be used to cover small mistakes, and these styles are generally more forgiving. The level of precision and the lighter tones of single needle work mean that even the tiniest flaw will be instantly visible in delicate tattoos.

These single needles, like 1RL, also don’t typically penetrate the skin as deep as larger needle packs, like the Magnum or Round Shader. This means that single needle tattoos are more likely to bleed or blowout.


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Once again we see artists adapting their style to the tools they have: a common trick used is to dilute the black ink. Stronger inks are more likely to bleed out, and by cutting the ink an artist increases the likelihood of creating a clean tattoo.

Many people are under the false assumption that this will cause a design to fade faster. In reality, this process of diluting ink actually ensures a more uniform fading that will ultimately look better ten years down the line. This is not to say that single line tattoos will stand up to the test of time in the same way that bold line work does. Again, this is one of the reasons that single needle artists recommend smaller designs.

Different Group Of Used Color Tattoo Needles

Growing Popularity

As we can see, single needle work has a long history in Western tattoo art. Thanks to several high profile celebrities showing off some excellent single needle work, the style is seeing a comeback to the tattoo parlor in recent years.

Back in 2016, Lady Gaga called upon single needle legend Mark Mahoney to ink a black and gray portrait on her side. The level of detail in the David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust piece is exceptional—notice the wisps of hair, delicate lines and the smooth shading on the neck—and is a perfect example of Mahoney’s skill and style.

Mahoney was also tapped by Rihanna to apply a portrait of Egyptian Queen, Nefertiti.


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While Mahoney remains a heavy hitter in the single needle game, some of the work from younger artists is giving him a run for his money. One tattoo artist that has caught the attention of the industry for her single needle work is Eva Karabudak, of Bang Bang tattoo shop in New York.


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What truly sets her work apart from other single needle tattoos is her incorporation of color. Karabudak uses a single needle approach for the line work in delicate tattoos and then applies color ink that often creates the impression of old photos, re-colorized.


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Not For Amateurs

The growing popularity of single needle work means that more artists will jump on the band wagon and try their hand at this interesting technique. However, unlike American traditional and other, more stylized approaches to fine line tattooing and design, single needle tattooing demands a high level of skill and dedication to attempt.

As we have discussed, the lack of the usual bold lines or color ink, means that this style is possibly the most unforgiving approach to tattooing. Because of this, anyone interested in getting a single line tattoo had better do their homework. Many a tattoo artist claims they are proficient in the true single needle technique, but you need to make sure by checking their work. No one wants a scratchy tattoo because an artist embellished their design résumé.

Single needle technique has been around in American tattooing as long as tattoo machines. Thanks to the dedication and skill of talented artists, there is no sign that this classic style is going anywhere soon.

Close Up Of Tribal Tattoo Being Inked

Single Needle Tattoo FAQ

What is a single needle tattoo

Single needle means that only one needle is used in creating a tattoo. Most tattoos machines operate with a range of different needles, however in single needle technique the tattoo machine is loaded with a solo needle to etch. 

What’s the difference between poke tattoos and single needle tattoos

Stick tattoos, poke, stick and poke tattoos are all variations of tattooing done without the use of a tattoo machine. While only using a solitary needle, single needle tattoos are done by using a tattoo machine 


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