Most tattoos are done with a standard tattoo machine. Call it an iron, a gun, or simply a machine if you will — but, it’s how ink gets into the skin in a efficient and fairly pain-free way (okay, everyone’s pain threshold is different, but you get the point).
Historically speaking, the tattoo machine is a fairly new arrival to the tattoo scene. It originates from Edison’s electric pen in the late 1800’s and has become ubiquitous at tattoo parlors around the globe. But tattoos are in no way a modern invention. They go back millennia with independent origins across virtually every culture. Even Ötzi the Iceman — the 5,300-year-old ice mummy that was found in the Tyrolean Alps — was covered in tattoos (61 of them, to be exact).
The point being, as soon as we started making tools, we started scarring ink into our skin. Not at all surprisingly in the Nostalgia/Artisan Era, some of the old tattooing techniques are starting to make a comeback. Let’s look at a few:
One needle, some ink, and a design is all you need for a hand poked tattoo. Well, a fair amount of time will also be necessary. A single, medium-sized needle is continually poked into the recipient’s skin to create a wicked design. You’re 100% reliant on the tattoo artist’s ability and strength to get the correct depth into the skin each time. So be patient and choose wisely.
Hand poke is probably the easiest to source if you’re looking for a non-machine tattoo. The designs will tend to be line-based and you should probably be a big fan of negative space. So don’t go in expecting a lifelike Mel Gibson portrait.
This is hand poke taken to an extreme. Japanese Tebroi uses the same method as the hand poke, and it technically is just that, but the tool used is by far more draconian. A wooden or metal rod is fitted with an array of blade-like needles at the tip. This does allow for amazing variance in what can be tattooed — but, you’re also getting like 15 needles at once. Then there are other rods with more and less needles and blades to outline, shade, and fill in gorgeous pieces of body art.
Next time you’re in Japan find a traditional Tebroi studio and get a traditional tat from a horishi (tattoo artist). Just make sure you don’t accidentally get a Yakuza symbol. Otherwise you may have to Uma-Thurman your way out of the country.
There’s plenty of beauty to be found in simplicity. Skin stitching was the common tattooing practice among the indigenous North Americans for eons. A thread is soaked in ink and literally stitched through the skin and then removed, leaving behind a tattoo. Basically, it’s needlepoint for the skin.
Getting a skin stitch may take a little more than just googling the method. It’s still fairly unique to indigenous communities in the US and Canada and hasn’t hit the mainstream quite yet. The best bets are probably still at tattoo shows at this point if you’re not living near a reservation or reserve.
There was a myth going around for a while the Captain Cook’s voyages brought tattooing back to the western world after a supposed lull caused by a Pope way back when. Although that yarn is a fabrication, we still use the Polynesian word tatau, or tattoo to this day. The use of a hammer and L-shaped tool to ink up skin stretched from Borneo all the way to Hawaii. It’s laborious and, yes, it’s painful.
The tattoos and method work best with traditional Pacific Islander and Australasian indigenous design. And why not get one when you’re in country? Maybe there perfect souvenir from Bora Bora or Borneo isn’t some plastic trinket that was likely made in China, but a boss hand-tapped tattoo.
Thai hand poke is probably the best way to sum this up. Yes, it’s another way to hammer ink into the skin, but the Thais tend to use a tool that looks kinda scary. It’s a long bamboo rod (now, often metal) with a large point at the end. The weight of it alone should send chills up your spine. Luckily the force of the rod will stamp those chills right out since it’s often described as more ticklish than painful.
Getting a bamboo tattoo is a popular trend among backpackers and tourists in Thailand. There’s a bamboo tattoo parlor in every town and even on the idyllic beaches down south. Getting one might seem a bit cliched at this point — while in Thailand — but when you get home you’ll still seem avant-garde as f*ck.
Let’s wrap this up with the last step you can take in tattooing before you get straight up into scarification and branding. Cutting out a design from one’s skin and then rubbing ink into it as it heals over is probably the most intense way to get a tattoo. An x-acto knife is usually used to give the design flawless and intricate detail. And generally, one color is smeared over the wound.
If you want to try this, you’ll be treading in the deep end of the tattoo pool. Be warned, there will be blood.