Tattoos are more than just “body art.” They’re a form of expression and storytelling that reaches deep into the early human experience. The practice seems to be as old as the first bone tool. There’s evidence of us using anything we could to get ink in our skin, since the days of Ötzi the Iceman.
Seriously, in every corner of the world, reaching back for millennia. Tattoos are everywhere.
Modern tattoos are mostly rendered via an electric ink gun — or “horse” or “machine” depending on the colloquialism your tattoo artist uses. That tattoo technology is just over a hundred years old. But we know we’ve been tattooing each other for thousands and thousands of years. So what were we using before Thomas Edison came along with his “Electric Pen“?
Well, a lot of different methods actually. And they’re starting to make a big comeback on the tattoo world stage. The seven tattoo methods below are traditional and Indigenous methods that are thriving yet again. Some of these methods will be fairly easy to track down wherever you live. Some of them you’ll need to travel for. But, hey, if you’re inking your skin, traveling to a faraway beach to get a hand tapped tattoo is just part of the story you get to tell when folks ask about the design. That’s a win-win!
TA MOKO (MAORI)
Ta Moko is the traditional tattoo and design methods of the South Pacific’s Moari. The method is based on an ancient technique using a chisel and hammer with ash as a dye. Basically, the artist would use a bone chisel to create cuts in the skin and then fill those wounds with dark ash to draw in the lines. The receiving of a “moko” was a crucial rite of passage between a Māori’s childhood and adulthood and has deep spiritual meaning in both the act of getting the tattoo and its design.
Today, the bone chisel is rarely used as classic tattoo horses chisel the designs with modern, safe ink. Still, this is one of the most badass tattoos you can get. Especially when it’s on the face.
HAND STICK AND POKE (INTERNATIONAL)
One needle, some ink, and a design are all you need for a hand poked tattoo. Well, a fair amount of time will also be necessary. A single, medium-sized needle is attached to a stick that is continually poked into the recipient’s skin. 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 stick and 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 Leo DiCaprio portrait.
TEBORI TATTOO (JAPAN)
View this post on Instagram
Ryu. EDO (1603-1868) IREZUMI STYLE. No electric machine. Handmade traditional japanese tattoo. We are the only workshop in the world to achieve EDO STYLE IREZUMI tattoo. You have exemple of this style in the Ukiyo-e engraving of this period. Tatouage traditionnel japonais technique ancienne sans machine.
This is hand poke taken to an extreme. Japanese Tebroi uses the same method as the hand poke. But the tool used is by far more draconian.
A wooden rod is fitted with an array of blade-like needles at the tip, making this a classic “rake” tattoo method. This does allow for amazing variance in what can be tattooed — but, you’re also getting about 15 wide 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 Tebori 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.
SKIN STITCH (NORTHWEST INDIGENOUS AMERICA)
View this post on Instagram
The @earthlinetattoo Collective in partnership with IOTA Institute will be hosting a public tattoo demonstration Saturday, March 9th at the @mnhnovascotia. The event will start at 2pm with an introduction from Dion kaszas and will feature a hand poked tattoo demonstration done by Jordan bennett. . The demonstration will be followed by a conversation with the cultural tattoo practitioners of Earthline Tattoo Collective: @jordanbennettart, @amy.malbeuf, @dionkaszas and @kaniyewna.tsyeyatalu. . This event takes place one month after the new Safe Body Art Act has come into action and will be followed by a conversation and question period on health and safety practices and the creation of safe spaces when teaching traditional Indigenous tattooing. . ASL interpretation will be made available on site. . To register for this event click the link on our bio! . . . #indigenoustattoorevival #indigenousink #indigenoustattooschool #mikmaq #mikmaqtattoorevival #Indigenousart #Canadianart #handpoke #tattoomedicine #Mikmaki #tribaltattooers #eartlinetattoo #traditionalknowledge #skinstitchtattoo #handpoketattoo #skinstitch #tattoo #ink #HealthandSafety #Health #Safety #SafeBodyArtAct #ASLinterpretation #IOTAinstitute
There’s plenty of beauty to be found in simplicity. Skin stitching was the common tattooing practice among the Indigenous North Americans along the Pacific for eons. A thread is soaked in ink and stitched through the skin. The thread is then removed, leaving behind a tattoo. It’s kind of like needlepoint for the skin.
Getting a skin stitch may take a little more effort than just googling the method. It’s still fairly unique to Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S., British Columbia, and Alaska. The best bets are probably still at tattoo shows if you’re not living near a reservation or reserve out West.
HANDTAP TATAU (POLYNESIA)
There was a myth going around for a while that Captain Cook brought tattooing back to the western world from his galavanting through the Pacific. Although that yarn is a fabrication (tattooing goes back eons in Europe and Asia), the Polynesian word “tatau” did become the word most of the world ended up using for the practice.
The Polynesian practice is wholly unique. They use an L-shaped tool to with a hammer to ink the skin. It’s laborious and, yes, it’s painful — unless you’re The Rock. The tattoos are traditional Pacific Islander and Australasian Indigenous designs that often denote social rank, a story, or a rite of passage.
BAMBOO TATTOO (THAILAND)
View this post on Instagram
Now in progress… in Grenoble tattoo convention. www.sacred.ink #welovewhatwedo #SakYan #ThaiSacredTattoos #Ajarn Matthieu #AjarnRung #AnimisticTattoos #BuddhistTattoos #MagicTattoos #veganink #Thailand #sakyant #SakYanHunter #HandPoke #SakYanAddict #Pranburi #BambooTattoo #KhemSak #TattooOrigins #YantraTattoos #sakyanthai #handpokenomachine #kurosumiink #kurosumi #kurosumitattooink #dermalizepro #thaisakyant #thaitraditionaltattoos #perpetuatingthaiculture
This Thai method utilizes 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 while in Thailand might seem a bit cliched at this point, but when you get home you’ll still have something from a trip of a lifetime to carry with along the next journey.
INK RUBBING (INTERNATIONAL)
Let’s wrap this up with the last step you can take in tattooing before you get straight up into deep scarification and branding. Cutting out a design from one’s skin and then rubbing ink into it is probably the most intense way to get a tattoo. These days an X-ACTO knife is used to carve a flawless and intricate design into the skin before the ink is applied. As the wound heals, the tattoo settles in.
If you want to try this, you’ll be treading in the deep end of the tattoo pool. Be warned, there will be blood.