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 Tyrollean 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 as 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.