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Tattoos 101 > View Lessons

Tattoo Techniques and Methods: Ancient and Modern

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.

by britishinkArtist

September 30, 2005

The practices and tools used differ from one culture to the next and have changed over time with influence from outside societies. 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 used.

Pierce, puncture or cut.

Piercing 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.

Puncturing 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 scratches.

Cutting 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 BCE)
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."

Tattoo hand implimentsThe 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

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