But long before we understood the concepts of electromagnetism, we inked each other with far more primitive tools – mostly bones, shells, rods, plant thorns, and wood. In many cultures, these tools have endured despite decades of progress in tattoo technology, due to the longstanding heritage and cultural value that they possess. Some of these tools, on the other hand, are so ancient that the people who used them are long forgotten, their cultures so distant that we have only a scarce idea of what life was like for them.
Today, we’ll explore some of the world’s most ancient tattoo tools, from those that existed long before the modern age, to those that are still in use in temples, homes, and tattoo shops to this very day.
Stone Age Tattoo Tools
The oldest tattoo tools in archeological history are tattooing awls (piercing tools) that have been dated to the upper paleolithic age (between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago), in Europe. Similar excavations have revealed stone age figurines with tattoo-like markings, suggesting that the practice dated back to prehistory. The oldest tattooed mummy, Ötzi, was discovered on the Ötztal Alps, between Italy and Austria.
Anything we might say about tattoo art around and before this period is almost purely speculative. Researchers do generally suspect that Ötzi’s tattoos were made with bone tools (similar to ones found in ancient Native American sites), and that soot was rubbed into his wounds. Given the location and style of his tattoos, it’s thought that they were largely therapeutic in nature (single lines and crosses made over joints and major points of muscle strain), though older figurines suggest that tattooing was also done decoratively during select portions of the late stone age.
Ötzi’s bone tools were, presumably, either dipped in a mixture of soot and liquid, or used to create lines onto which soot would later be rubbed to produce pigmentation.
Egyptian Tattoo Tools
Tattooing tools dating back to 3000 BCE and 1450 BCE were discovered in Egypt – the older set consisted of metal points with wooden handles, while the latter set was bronze. The pigments discovered on the needles suggest dark colors – black, green, and blue.
Tattoos in Polynesia
Traditional Samoan tattoos, or tatau, are created by a tufuga ta tatau, using specialized wooden or bone rakes – handles with a sharp attachment of a single row of bone needles, similar to a miniature leaf rake. Since Samoan tattoos are largely geometric in nature, the rake allows for more ink to permeate the skin with each tap. A second wooden mallet is used to drive the rake into the skin rapidly, while assistants pull the skin taut. The tattooing process usually requires the rake to hit the skin perpendicularly, rather than at an angle. Many different cultures utilize the same or similar practices, including Tongans, the Tahitians, and Maori. However, while Samoan tattoos largely include the pe’a (a body tattoo, typically o the thighs and buttocks), Maori tattooing customs are different.
An older dig site revealed that before using bone, some Polynesian cultures (in the Solomon Islands) used obsidian to create razor sharp tools, with inks made of ochre and charcoal.
Maori Ta Moko Tattooing
Maori tattoos (ta moko) use uhi, or bone chisels, similar to the ones used in Tahiti, Tonga, and Samoa. A tohunga ta moko would specialize in creating tattoos, including facial tattoos. Like in Samoa, the use of a chisel-like rake rather than a needle leaves deeper scars and rougher skin art, rather than a smooth inked surface. While men received tattoos on their buttocks and thighs as well as the face, women traditionally received lower lip tattoos. In New Zealand, the Maori made use of soot collected from burning resin, mixed with fat, to create a black pigment.
The earliest references of Japanese tattoo art come from ancient Chinese documents making note of the appearance of indigenous Japanese, who were ‘painted’, roughly 300 BCE to 300 CE. On the other hand, the oldest collection of Japanese myths makes no mention of tattoo tradition among Japanese mainlanders, calling it foreign. Tattoos were a custom among the Ainu of Hokkaido, however, who traditionally had facial tattoos. Because most Ainu have assimilated into Japanese culture, few remain with traditional tattoos.
Japanese tattoos as they’re known today originated in the Edo period, after a bloody period of constant warfare. Cultural imports from China (particularly the story Water Margin) popularized tattooing among the more affluent merchants, who sought a way to flaunt their wealth without drawing the ire of the oppressive samurai class.
Soon, many motifs popularly carved into the skin of interested customers by ukiyo-e artists became tattoos for firefighters, dock workers, and other laborers, and the art of tattooing became separate from woodblock carving, spawning the horimono title (carver) and irezumi art. In Japanese irezumi, traditional tattoo technique is called tebori, which means to carve by hand. While ukiyo-e artists first used woodblock carving tools to gouge tattoos, eventually these were refined into sets of bamboo-hilted tools, used to drive metal needles under the skin.
The second hand holds the skin taut, and paints over the tattoo with a brush. Limitations in pigments meant most tattoos were made with a limited color palette, typically blacks, greens, and blues. Nara black sumi (ink), which had been in use as a calligraphy ink for centuries, became the primary ink for tattooing. Red pigments may have included mercury, which made red a very dangerous but meaningful color in old irezumi art. Today, most tebori artists also use tattoo machines, as most customers seem to prefer the expedience and cost effectiveness of a tattoo machine over the traditional art.
Filipino Tattoo Techniques
Northern Filipino tattoo art, from the Kalinga tribe, makes use of a freshly picked citrus thorn embedded in a tattoo stick, and ink mixed from water and cooking soot, crushed into a finer powder. A second wooden mallet is used to drive the inked thorn under the skin, while the primary hand slowly guides the thorn over a premade pattern, made with a basic stencil created from a single helm of grass and the aforementioned ink.
The Kalinga tradition of tattooing traces back to their history as headhunters, as recently as the early 21st century. Experience with guerilla warfare and their isolated location in the Cordillera mountains allowed the Kalinga to evade Spanish, Japanese, and American control for centuries, allowing them to retain much of their culture. While there are records showing an extensive tattoo culture in the central region of the country (the Visayas), no tools from the region survived.
Tattoos in Myanmar
Traditional tattooing is quite significant in Myanmar (previously Burma), with a rich history dating back approximately to the 14th century, to the Shan people of Southeast Asia. The Shan used tattooing as a form of protection, and introduced the practice to other ethnic groups, until the British seized control of the region in the 19th century.
Traditional Myanmar tattoos are made with soot and red pigments derived from cinnabar. Black ink was mixed from soot and gallbladder, boiled and turned into a dried paste. Greens were made by dabbing wounds with the leaves of the cassod tree. A hnitkwasok, or tattoo artist, utilized a brass instrument to pierce the skin, and dab it with ink. A Burmese tattooing kit can be found at the British Pitt Rivers Museum of Body Arts. Myanmar artists today typically use tattoo machines rather than traditional metal tools.
Cambodian & Thai Tattooing
Sak Yant or Yantra tattooing can be traced to the Khmer Empire, and is practiced by monks in Thailand and Cambodia, as well as Laos and parts of Myanmar. This is a primarily Buddhist practice, utilizing the ancient Khmer script to inscribe a powerful symbol on the wearer’s back. Sak Yant tattoo culture has several different motifs and meanings, each with their own unique protective or empowering qualities. One common motif is the Yan Paet-thit, or the eight directions of the universe.
Due to its popularity with foreigners, Sak Yant tattooing has drawn some criticism and ire. Many deeply religious Buddhists feel it is greatly offensive to utilize the image of the buddha in vain, and some Sak Yant enthusiasts worry that Westerners won’t properly understand or appreciate the heritage and meaning behind the ancient art.
Traditionally, Sak Yant tattoos are created with long metal rods, which act as a sheath to several metal needles, routinely dipped in ink and quickly pricked into the skin at an angle.
Native American Tattoos
Some of the oldest tattoo tools in the world were discovered in North America, made with cactus spines some 2,000 years ago. Native Americans and ancient Meso- and South Americans had their share of complex tattoo art, although scarce evidence remains of what the old tools and designs looked like. English settlers noted and chronicled the marks of the Native Americans in modern day Virginia; the Roanoac, Secotam, Pomeiooc, and Aquascogoc, who shared an affinity for crosses and arrows.
The Yurok, Hupa, and Tolowa women living on the Pacific coastal regions of North America had a practice of tattooing their lower chins, much like Maori women, as an indicator of age and maturity. Similarly, the Chimariko, Shasta, and Chato tattooed themselves as well. Unlike other cultures were puncture tools were used, these tribes utilized a form of pigmented scarification to create their tattoos, making incisions in the skin with stone knives and covering the wound in an ink made of soot and various plants.
In Southeastern tribes, scarification was common as well. A warrior’s name would be scraped into their backs without ink at childhood, with a second and third following the first once they prove themselves capable. Among the Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole, tattoo art took on more aesthetic purposes and made use of nature motifs and stars, rather than any specific social or status symbol.
If you’ve made it this far, you’ll see that ancient tattoo techniques generally consisted of either single needles, sharp combs, or cutting and rubbing ink – while individual techniques varied, and the tools were made of a number of different materials (from volcanic glass to metal), and most inks were made of primarily soot. Metallic inks were also used, but generally more dangerous – and in all cases, tattoos of centuries prior took much more time, much more suffering, and much more patience to complete.
Nowadays, most tattoos are made with tattoo machines. However, depending on where you go and what you want, you can still get tattooed as people did thousands of years ago, whether it’s a souvenir in Thailand or a full body suit from a tebori master, or a protective charm from a mambabatok of the Kalinga.