Modification Around the World: Early Tribal Tattooing Techniques

by Lorna
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tattoo machines and modern technique

Tattooing has been around for thousands of years, but the art that we see today has evolved primarily within the last century.  The tattoo machine in fact, wasn’t invented until the late 1800s, with several tweaks to its design and style made since the 1950s.  So how did people tattoo themselves before that?  Well, it’s actually pretty interesting.

Although Ötzi the ice man remains the oldest example of tattooed human remains, it’s known that several other ancient cultures engaged in tattooing, including the Egyptians and Nubian Kingdom, and islanders in what are now Polynesia, Samoa, Tahiti, and Scandinavia.  As expected the majority of primitive tattooing techniques employed by these cultures included pigments made from organic material.  Amongst the most common were soot from the burning of specific woods, red ochre or similar minerals, and plant matter.  (Red ochre is actually still used in body painting by the Maasai, the Himba, and other North African tribes.)

 legs of himba woman painted with red ochreHimba woman with red ochre leg paint

Methods of depositing the coloring varied widely across continents, and incorporated three basic ideas.  The first, used by the Maori and other tribes in New Zealand, is a two step process in which the skin is first scoured or carved into, and pigment is then rubbed into the wounds.  This type of tattooing would take longer to heal, and thus was generally applied only by tribes living in warmer climates where healing wounds could be properly exposed.  The second style is far less invasive and could be applied by peoples in cooler areas such as the Scandinavians and the Inuit.  This is often referred to as “sewn-in” style, and it involves the use of a bone needle and some type of thread or sinew along with pigment.  Essentially the string would be passed through the coloring and then pulled under the skin by the needle, leaving designs behind.

Maori tribal tattoo art designTraditional Maori tattoo design

Finally, there’s the method adhered to by the Samoans and the Ancient Japanese, which is tapping.  In this method, an instrument with many sharp edges like a comb or serrated chisel is dipped in the “ink” and then tapped or pounded into the skin to leave markings behind.  The traditional Japanese style of full body tattooing known as horimono still utilizes a form of this technique today, although it is practiced by very few artists.

Japanese style full body tattooJapanese style full body tattooing

Examining primitive tattooing practices not only tells us where we’ve been culturally and artistically, but also allows us to appreciate where we are now.  I don’t know about you, but I for one am extremely glad that my next tattoo won’t be performed with a needle and thread.  Ouch!

by Lorna

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