In the last decade or so, it’s safe to say that tattooing has ‘blown up’. It has become huge worldwide.
It has become so common that many people nowadays seemingly walk into tattooing studios having mulled over their ‘important’ decisions for only mere seconds prior to getting their new tattoo-for-life. Others let their friends tattoo them with a machine that their parents bought them for Christmas – “who cares what it’ll look like – it’ll be funny!”
Well – truly enough, there was a time when you couldn’t just stroll into a tattooing studio, or just buy a tattooing machine from your favourite online store for under $30.
Origins of tattooing
Through time, many different regions and cultures adopted their own individual and specialized ways of puncturing colourful inks into human flesh for a variety of different reasons (religious beliefs, cultural identification and sacrificial ceremonies to name a few).
When technical evolutions developed, tattoo care procedures had to progress too. Different areas of the world harboured different environmental dangers, and tattoos had to be looked after very carefully once completed in order to ensure that infections didn’t set in. Skin infections were much more dangerous in the days before antibiotics, and they could very easily kill within days or hours if not treated promptly and correctly.
Unique Tattooing Techniques Around the World
The following methods are some of the most popular historical tattooing techniques – and all of them are still practiced by various cultures throughout the world to this very day.
Widely seen as the main technique that started the tattooing culture within Japan – bamboo tattooing is both fascinating to watch, and extremely difficult to master.
A handle is crafted out of bamboo wood and is smoothed down and completely rounded for comfort and accuracy, and is finished off with up to two dozen sharpened points added to the end of it to act as the tattooing needles. More or less sharpened points could be added to the ends of the handles for moments when finer or thicker lines of ink are required by the artist.
In order to get the desired effect, the bamboo handle is ‘punted’ into the skin once ink has been applied to the extremely sharp points. This swift, hard punting effect pushes the needles just deep enough into the skin to allow the ink to set in location. This was a very painful tattooing procedure if the artist didn’t ensure that the ends were extremely sharp and pointed (blunt ends hurt a lot more than sharp ones when forced into a piece of flesh).
Of course though, the skill required to punt the needles in at just the right angle and depth takes tremendous skill and experience. It can take many thousands of tattoo hours to truly master the art of bamboo tattooing – and it often takes hundreds of hours to complete a single large tattoo using this technique.
Rake & Striking Stick Technique
This is one of the oldest and most primitive known tattooing methods from throughout the world. Although this technique died out in most countries/civilizations hundreds of years ago, it is still prevalent within some South Pacific territories – namely small areas within countries such as Papua New Guinea and Samoa.
Check out the Fiji travel guide.
When using the rake and striking stick method, the artist will ensure that the customer's skin is well stretched out (sometimes by getting a second person to stretch the skin for them) before hitting a sharpened rake attached to a long horizontal handle with a thick solid stick in order to punt the rake into the stretched skin. This rake is traditionally made of bone, and is dipped into ink before being carefully moved into place above the area that is next to be tattooed.
Metal Tube Tattooing Technique
This technique was most prevalent in Southeast Asian countries, and was highly popular within ancient Thailand. Current Western tattooing techniques are actually thought to have originated from this tattooing method.
Metal (normally brass) hollowed-out tubes are used to house a smaller and thinner metal rod that is slid down the tube. The bottom of this thinner rod is tipped with an extremely sharp point.
The artist dips the point into ink before proceeding to carefully place the tube over the required area of skin and firmly pressing down on the tube repeatedly, much like how a sewing machine works, in order to pierce the skin and distribute the ink.
So this is where the majority of the world is at today – the tattoo machine. If you walk into any commercialized tattooing studio on the planet; 99% of the time, the only way that you will be able to get tattooed is via extremely sharp (chemically sharpened) needles which are attached to an electrified tattoo gun.
The needles are slotted onto the end of the gun, which is then connected to a power supply. After the needles are dipped into a pot of ink, and at the push of a button (or a foot pedal), the electrically-charged gun will proceed to cause the needles to extrude and contract many thousands of times per minute. When pressed against the skin, this in-out motion allows the needles to pierce the skin cleanly and accurately.
As you can see – tattooing has come a long way from stabbing areas skin with a stick before rubbing soot into the wounds – but older, more indigenous methods definitely still have auras of romance, dedication and technical skill attached to them.
After all – take this scenario as an example:
After spending a year travelling through the jungles of Papua New Guinea and learning about local history and values whilst at the same time getting extremely attached to the unique culture – how would you like to sign your trek off in order to forever remember the experience?
With a ‘normal' tattoo made with a standard machine in a street-corner studio once you’re back home?
Or with a special tattoo created using an ancient, unique (and ultimately dying) technique performed by a true local craftsman at the very location in which your whole memorable experience took place?
I know which one will truly mean more to you when looking back many years from now.
Dan, a Master of Fine Arts and a participating member of the tattooing community for over 10 years is the resident writer at AuthorityTattoo. While no longer as active in the tattooing community, Dan still attends many tattoo conventions around the country and is here to help educate, teach and advise readers on all things tattoo related. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.