Tattoo archive

Hand Tattooing Tools by C.W. Eldridge

Centuries before Thomas Edison was issued the patent for his electric stencil pen (in 1875) and Samuel O’Reilly received the first tattooing machine patent (in 1891), tattooing was done by hand. It has only been 128 years since the electric tattoo machine was patented. Just imagine the amount of tattooing that was done around the world before the electric machine came on the scene!

There are two different hand-tattooing methods that require specific tools. There is the hammer style, where the pigment is literally hammered into the skin and the puncture style, where the pigment is pushed into the skin. Both of these basically include a piece of wood that is designed to holds a needle or chisel shaped tip. Before metal was available tattooists used bird bones, shark teeth, and prickly pear cactus spines. As we found out with a recent National Geographic article, there are even stories of human bones being used for hand tattooing. 

The hammer style of tattooing was popular in the South Pacific. The Maori of New Zealand used a tattoo style that was very similar to their carving and design styles. Their tattooing tools were created with the same level of craftsmanship as their carving tools - only a bit smaller. They carved the skin much as you would a piece of wood. The bone tip of the tool was shaped like a rake. This was fastened to the piece of wood at a right angle. A small mallet was used to pat the tool and push the edge into the skin. The Samoans along with other island groups also used this style of tool with more of a needle shaped tip. So instead of carving the skin like the Maori, they punctured the skin to create their design.

Puncture style tattooing was used around the world by many cultures. This tool was a bit simpler in design. A series of needle shaped tips was attached to one end of a piece of wood, shaped much like a chopstick. Like the hammer-style tool, these needles were made from natural material like bone, wood and thorns. In fact anything that could be shaped down to a point. The needles would then be dipped into the ink and pushed into the skin creating the design, dot by dot. American and European tattooists also used this type of tool. 

Once metal was introduced around the world the use of bone and such in tattooing tools gave way to this new metal material. Today there is resurgence in the popularity of hand tattooing, often using traditional style tools and materials.

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