Tattooing is one of our most ancient art forms. Marking our skin with ink has been a part of human culture for at least 5300 years or so, but we didn’t always have nifty electric needle guns and FDA-approved ink to do it. Our ancestors had to get a little more creative if they wanted to rock some permanent body art, so tattooing utensils have come in all shapes and sizes. For some groups, so long as it was pointy, it got the job done. For others, tattoo implements were remarkably advanced, and some even created designs comparable to those made with modern instruments.
For many of our earliest cultures, it is thought that tattoos were created by piercing or cutting the skin with a sharp tool (like a sharpened stick or stone), and then rubbing soot into the wounds to cause permanent discoloration. The position of the tattoos found on our earliest example of an inked human, Otzi the Iceman, suggests that tattoos were used for medicinal and therapeutic purposes, rather than personal expression. They lacked any real detail, and consisted mostly of repetitive dots or lines drawn across areas that would typically deteriorate with age (for example, the knees or lower back).
In ancient Egypt, small bronze needles were used to insert dyes into the skin. It is speculated that these were attached to wooden handles or tied into bunches to create repetitive designs; the dyes themselves were likely made from ash/ soot or oil. Women were more commonly tattooed than men in this culture; evidence from tattoos found on Egyptian mummies suggest that women may have used tattoos as amulets or talismans to help them survive childbirth and pregnancy. Others think that the tattoos were a sign of status among women, and indicated rank.
In Thailand, it was common to use sharpened bamboo to create tattoos. These tools were quill-like in appearance and razor sharp, and ranged from six to twelve inches in length. The Thai also frequently used long metal tubes that is fitted with a sliding, pointed rod that goes down the center; the artist would repeatedly pierce the skin with the rod, sort of like a sewing machine, while an assistant held the skin pulled tightly to ensure clarity. These tattoos were created in a ritual called Sak Yant by Thai monks, who believed the tattoo would bring good luck, fortune, strength and protection; the ritual is still practiced today.
In ancient Japan, tattoos were created using very small needles set into bamboo handles that were dipped in ink and then tapped into the skin by hand. This method, often referred to as hand-poked tattooing or Tebori, is still practiced today by specialized artists. The end result has a very similar effect to that of modern tattoo machines, though it generally took a substantially longer time to complete a design (think hundreds of hours!).
The Maori of New Zealand used a somewhat different approach. Rather than creating needle-like implements, they used a sharp bone chisel to carve designs into the flesh. Afterwards, they would use the same chisel to tap ink into the open wounds to create the tattoos. Most of these tattoos were done on the head and face; they were extremely painful to receive, but considered a rite of passage for both the men and women of the Maori.
In Polynesia, the general practice was to create a “rake” of tattoo needles made from tortoise shells or bone. The rake was dipped into ink and then tapped into the skin using a small hammer; the process generally took several days in order to achieve the full-body tribal designs that the Polynesian cultures are known for. This method also usually requires two people to complete: the artist, who wields the rake and striking stick or hammer, and an assistant who keeps the skin pulled taut to avoid errors or imperfections in the design. Analysis of various artifacts found from other ancient South Pacific cultures suggests that obsidian flakes were also used as tattooing implements.
Modern Day Inking
We have a lot to thank Thomas Edison for- the light bulb, the phonograph, motion pictures- and apparently we can add modern tattooing to that list. In 1876 Edison created an electric stencil pen; it flopped commercially, but it became the forerunner for the modern tattoo machine as we know it today. Samuel O’Reilly realized the potential of Edison’s failed stencil pen a little over a decade later in 1891, and converted it into the first tattooing machine by adding a reservoir for ink and tube system to feed the needle through. It was this early tattoo gun that made mainstream tattoo culture possible.
Nowadays, tattoo machines (or tattoo guns) generally run on a two-coil system that is small enough to fit comfortably in one’s hand. The heads can be changed out to fit the needs of the artist, and range anywhere from one needle (for delicate linework) to 18 needles… though combinations of 3, 4, 5, and 7 are most popular. The tattoo gun is powered by a foot pedal, and can pierce skin hundreds of times per second. This allows the artist to quickly create highly detailed and saturated designs.
But it doesn’t look like tattoo innovations are going to stop there. There are already 3-D tattoo printers and robotic tattooing machines in the works, that can create designs with laser precision from plans entered into a computer. Who knows what the next few years will bring?
We’ve come a long way in our development of body-art technology, and it is clear that the need to express ourselves with tattoos is a drive that was- and continues to be- a strong part of human culture. For the many societies who continue to embrace their ancestral methods of tattooing, the process is just as (if not more so) important as the artwork itself. So whether you’ve gotten your ink via old-school handpoking techniques with handmade tools, or you earned your colors sitting under the gun in a studio, you’re in clearly in good company.