The practice of marking the skin has been
recorded in every culture all over the world. The methods used by
different cultures are similar in that the result is to get the ink
or pigment under the skin in such a way that it heals and is
permanent. The practices and tools used differ from one culture to
the next and have changed over time with influence from outside
Let’s start by thinking about the
need to get that ink in; the skin is surprisingly strong and
durable, water proof yet permeable, one of three methods can be
Pierce, puncture or cut.
the skin involves an object being pushed into the skin,
sometimes being drawn out through the same hole.
Piercing; as a motion to introduce
tattoo pigments into the skin, is generally but not exclusively done
at an acute angle to the skin. This requires less force to penetrate
the stacked cell structure and often this method allows a faster
motion and less resistance.
the skin is when an object is put through the surface which
requires a relatively large amount of force.
As a protective barrier to our environment, the skin is an
amazingly strong and resilient material; it must be waterproof yet
permeable, flexible and durable. The tissue structure of stacked,
cells provides an effective wall against most everyday strikes and
the skin, also scratching or scraping, divides the surface
cell structure and gives access to the underlying cells. The flesh
has a tendency to resist an object cutting through it and ‘drag’ may
slow this method down.
The pigment must come into the
equation at some point and this can be before, during of after the
skin surface is breeched depending on the method used.
Piercing The Skin.
Some of the earliest tattooing
needles date from the Upper Paleolithic period (10,000 BCE to 38,000
Found at several archaeological digs
around Europe, the sharpened bone needles pierced the skin easily
and the pigment came from dipping the needle into holes in a disc of
red ochre mixed with clay.
Needles made of fish and turtle
bones have been excavated on American Indian land from The Plains
Cree to the Mohave and the Yuma, of Arizona share similar patterns
tattooed on the chins of the women, vertical stripes from one corner
of the mouth to the other and varying in thickness according to the
shape of the individuals face. It is also recorded that long thorns
and splinters of rock, possibly flint, were used.
The ancient Egyptians tattooed the
courtiers and concubines to the Pharos. Many mummies have been
unwrapped to reveal elaborate patterns of dots and stripes around
the waist, buttocks, legs and back. Needles of copper or bone and
thorns would have been used to make these marks.
The sixth century Roman physician,
Aetius, wrote “…prick the design with pointed needles until blood is
drawn, then rub in the ink…” The Latin word stigma is defined by
Webster as Latin and Greek in origin meaning a “tattoo mark, a prick
with a pointed instrument, a mark of disgrace or reproach.”
The Inuit tribes of Canada
and Alaska also use a piercing method; however the needle has the
same structure as a bone sewing needle and has an eye at the blunt
end. A thread is strung through the eye and drawn across the ink to
soak it. The needle is then sewn into the skin, up and down, up and
down, pulled through and the pigment deposited in the channel left
by the needle. This is highly skilled work and generally only
practiced by the older women of the tribe. They have the extensive
knowledge and experience gained through sewing animal skin clothing,
boots and boat covers. To complete one line you must sew the first
pass and then repeat to fill in the gaps between the stitches. The
depth of penetration should be limited to allow the skin to hold the
ink. Too deep and the immune system will flush the pigment as a
foreign body, Too shallow and the skin will push out the ink through
growth and cell replenishment.
The traditional Japanese method also
is a piercing technique, known as Tebori; a group of needles is
attached to a stick of bamboo, wood, ivory or various metals, and is
held in one hand. The other hand holds the skin taught and the tool
is placed between thumb and forefinger much in the same way a pool
or snooker cue is held.
The needles are drawn back across the surface of the skin at an
acute, shallow angle and then pushed forward to pierce the surface.
This motion is repeated around 5 times a second in the hands of a
master. The pigment is applied to the needles before they are pushed
into the skin and one must dip into the ink, which may be on a brush
held between the ring and small finger on the stretching hand,
frequently. The artist uses different needle groupings for different
sized lines or for shading and coloring. This method is still used
today and in the hands of a master can produce amazing subtleness of
color blending and shade.
The ancient tools were often long and delicately sharpened ivory
needles, intricately carved and works of art in their own right.
Split bamboo or shell could be used for a wider distribution of ink.
The application of permanent make-up
in beauty salons can be done by hand and this is similar to the
Tebori method but using shorter hand tools. A needle groups is held
in a short, stout handle and dipped into the pigment. The needles
are rested on the skins surface, drawn back at an angle and pressed
forward and up piercing the skin and placing the ink. The resulting
sound is something close to cutting, or more accurately crushing,
vegetables such as carrots. The disturbing sound aside this method
is slow but virtually painless.
The modern tattoo machine is a
piercing and puncturing instrument. Groups of needles are driven up
and down at various speeds (approx. 80-150 strokes per. second) into
and out of the skin. Resistance can be a factor if using larger
groups of needles but tends to be negligible when an appropriate
machine set up is used. Power and depth of penetration will depend
on the individual machine and its operator’s preferences. Modern
tattooing is done a various angles to the skin dependent on the
required results. Lining a tattoo generally happens at ninety
degrees to the skin and coloring and shade at lower, more acute
I relate the needle groups to my
clients as “steel brushes”, a fine line would be painted with a fine
brush and a wider shaded area with a wider brush, the same thought
process applies here. Three needles together in a tight point for a
fine line and larger round groupings (eight, fourteen etc.) for
shade and color. Flat needle configurations have the same use as do
“magnums”; a double stack of flat needles reputably invented by
Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins in the 1940’s.
The pigment is retained in a cone
shaped reservoir at the tip of the tube and is deposited via a
combination of injection (the needle pushes ink into the hole it’s
making) and suction (the ink is drawn into the hole as the needle is
Puncturing The Skin.
The difference between piercing and
puncturing the skin lies in the angle at which the instrument enters
and the force applied. Piercing requires a shallow angle and
relatively little force. Puncturing, however, seems to take a
disproportionate amount of energy.
In Burma monks practice tattooing
with a long, sometimes up to four feet in length, severely tapered,
brass or even glass rods. This is guided through a brass sleeve
which serves to steady the rod while it is repeatedly driven up and
down inside the sleeve at a ninety degree angle to the skin with one
hand. The instrument is dipped into the ink and then applied to the
skin which must be stretched by assistants while being worked upon.
The top of these rods often are decorated with animals and mythical
In Thailand the instrument is
similar but no guide sleeve is used. Designs made this way can be
seen to comprise of hundreds and thousands of dots punctured into
the skin. There is a ritual still practiced in Thailand that uses a
clear oil, which has been blessed, and is tattooed onto the shaved
head of the participant, This oil will leave no mark when healed so
one must conclude that it is done purely for the act of tattooing,
the sacrifice of time, blood and the pain endured become the ritual
The Polynesian method is usually
equated with the word tattoo; records show that the Polynesian
practice was recorded before Captain James Cook coined the term in
tattooing tools consist of a comb with needles carved from bone,
conch shell or tortoise shell, fixed to a wooden handle, this looks
much like a small rake. The needles are dipped into the pigment and
then placed on the skin and the handle is tapped with a second
wooden stick, causing the comb to puncture the skin and insert the
Captain Cook returning from his trip to the Marquises
Islands wrote in his diary “they print signs on people’s body and
call this tattaw”.
He did make some mistakes though when putting it into phonetic
English. For a long time it has been thought that the word related
to the sound of the sticks that beat the color into the skin.
But with a little knowledge of the Tahitian language we understand
it to be spelled ta-ta-u.
ta-ta does not relate to the sound, but to an act that is done with
your hand (ta) and u means color. The repetitive ta-ta tells
that your hands beat several times to get the color u into
the skin. The Marquesan word is Tatau.
It is also
called tatau on the Island of Tonga, where the word means a picture
In 1721 Sir
James Turner, a military historian, used the word tattoo to denote
the beating of military drums that signaled the closing the canteen
in garrison or camp.
The roots of ‘tattoo’ are from the mid 1500’s and indicate a strike
or tap (tap-toe). It is easy to see how the meaning of the
Polynesian word ‘tattau’ could have been equated with striking or
This method requires two hands to
administer so some helpers to stretch the skin being tattooed are
needed. It can be excruciating and last for hours at a time. The
needle combs vary in width from five points to fifty or so.
The Dayak tribes of Borneo use much
the same instruments as the Polynesians and in the same fashion.
Their sticks are a little shorter and the beating stick often has a
hammer headed end which is intricately carved. Traditional designs
are cut from wooden blocks and printed with ink on to the skin
before being hammered over to tattoo the skin below. The tattoo
instruments are stored in a special box also carved with protective
images such as dragons and serpents.
Cutting The Skin.
Cutting, scratching and scraping the
skin divides the skin cells and allows ink to be rubbed into the
The Maoris of New Zealand have a
long history of “Ta Moko”; intricate spirals and swirls tattooed on
the face and body. The instruments used to create these designs are
chisel shaped called "Uhi"
and are made of greenstone or various animal bones
the preferred bone material being from the albatross.
The first pass is with a strait edged chisel (Uhi) to cut the design
into the skin, followed by toothed edged Uhi. These are dipped in
ink and struck with a mallet repeatedly to put the ink in the skin.
A very painful process which must be done with no reaction from the
receiver of the tattoo, it is the measure of their fortitude and
bravery, if so much as a wince is shown the tattooing is stopped. An
unfinished moko is a mark of disgrace and shame.
Ta Moko is also tattooed with
instruments similar to those used in Borneo
and Polynesia and modern
tattoo machines are used today.
Cutting was also the preferred
method for the native tribes of Virginia. The Roanoac, Secotam,
Pomeiooc and Aquascogoc share a range of identifying tattoos in the
shape of strait arrows and crosses which tell of their tribes and
That’s what it all boils down to,
regardless of the method used; the results project our own identity.
And in each of these societies and
cultures those applying the tattoos revere the process, the ritual,
and of course the results. This ancient art is in our hands and it
is our duty to pay it the respect it has earned through thousands of
years of history and billions of tattoos applied.