Tattooing Through the Times: Tales of Tattoo Traditions and Techniques
by Content Team on Oct 26, 2023
For some reason completely unknown to us, the rad history of tattoos has been completely left out of textbooks and classrooms for far too long. Sure, we know all about Egyptian pharaohs, but why didn’t they teach us about the oldest tatted mummy to be discovered? If they had, we might have paid a lot more attention in history class. Just saying.
So, “tattoo enthusiast” may not be synonymous with “history nerd,” but the origins of tattoos and their various techniques are definitely worth geeking out over. We’ve come a long way since the days of using sharpened rocks and bones to pierce the skin, and it’s high time we stop to appreciate the road that led us to where we are today.
Let’s take a little tour on the tattoo time traveler. We’ll bring the history. You bring the snacks.
Otzi the Tatted Mummy
Move over, Tut, there’s a new mummy in town. Perhaps one of the most extraordinary things to happen during the 90s was the discovery of the oldest tattooed mummy in the Otzal Alps bordering Austria and Italy. This guy, who came to be affectionately known as Otzi or the Iceman, likely lived between 3350 and 3105 B.C. and was found shockingly well-preserved in an icy glacier. Examinations of Otzi’s bones revealed 61 tattoos in the form of black lines created by pressing ink made from soot or ash into small punctures in the skin. Talk about pain tolerance. Mad respect.
The Ta Moko Technique
One of the oldest recorded tattooing techniques comes from a Polynesian tribe known as the Maori, who eventually settled in New Zealand. The Maori became known for their love of tattoos, which often covered most of their bodies. Their technique utilized sharpened animal bones, shells, or greenstones to cut incisions into the skin, which were then filled with ash. The process was incredibly tedious, lasting for hours at a time. On top of that, the technique was extremely painful, often causing tattooees to lose vision and experience extreme swelling of the skin for a few days. And in the not-so-unlikely case of infection, the result was usually death.
The Samoan Rake and Strike Technique
In this technique, artists would take a bone-tipped rake with a small needle at the end of it, dip it in ink, and hold it against the skin. Then, using a striking stick, the artist would whack the rake into the skin to create punctures. Because this technique required so much force, several assistants were needed to pull the skin, keeping it taught while the artist was at work.
The Japanese Bamboo Technique
Ancient Japanese tradition developed a method of tattooing with a long wooden or metal pole. About two dozen sharp edges were attached to the end of the rod and acted as needles, which were then dipped in ink and used to pierce the skin. Although the tools of the trade have evolved since the tradition began, this technique is still in use today.
The Thai Metal Tube Technique
In Thailand, ancient Buddhists developed a tattooing tool that would eventually inspire modern-day tattooing machines. This technique features a metal tube with a needle running through it, which is dipped in ink and pressed into the skin.
The Stick-and-Poke Technique
Also known as DIY tattooing, hand tattooing, or machine-free tattooing, this method stems from the metal tube technique and requires no machine. Instead, a sterile needle is dipped in ink and poked repeatedly into the skin.
In the U.S., a stick-and-poke artist named Martin Hildebrandt served as a soldier in the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. Hildebrandt would travel from camp to camp, tattooing soldiers with their names or initials in case their bodies needed to be identified.
Tattooing as an occupation began growing in popularity in the late 1800s, starting with Sutherland Macdonald, who opened the first recorded tattoo parlor in Britain. Though it takes some time, this method is still quite popular today.
The Invention of the Electric Tattoo Machine
Believe it or not, we’ve got good ol’ Thomas Edison to thank for the modern tattoo machine. After witnessing Edison's electric pen in action, New York tattoo artist Samuel O’Reilly was inspired to create the tattoo gun. In 1891 O’Reilly patented a motorized needle that could rapidly puncture the skin up to 50 times per second, completely revolutionizing the tattoo industry. Today, the modern tattoo machine can deliver up to 3,000 punctures per minute.
Through the ages, people have used tattoos as forms of self-expression and storytelling, reminding us just how much we share with those who came before us. Although this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the rich and fascinating history of tattoos, it’s impressive to see how far this art form has come. Instead of enduring torture techniques to make a personal statement, you can drive to a local artist’s parlor and plan your next tatt or pick up some tattoo graphic tees to wear your style on your sleeve.