Tattooing is an ancient art form; it is even believed that the first tattoos appeared 14,000 years before Christ. The oldest tattoos found by scholars were those of Ötzi, a mummy more than 5,300 years old, he had 61 tattoos on his body. Of course, back then they didn’t know the tattoo machine of today. How people got into tattooing back then we discuss below.
Old tattoo tools
Ancient Egyptian tattoo tools:
Tattoos have been discovered on Egyptian mummies dating to about 3,000 BC. These were mostly depictions of Gods and animals. They also found web-like geometric patterns on the bodies, these were presumably inked into the skin to protect people from evil spirits and death.
The ink they used was made of a carbon-based pigment, probably soot. This was inserted into the dermis layer of the skin using a tattoo tool with multiple needles. This allowed larger areas to be covered and rows of dots and stripes to be achieved.
Each needle tip of the tool consisted of a rectangular piece of bronze, folded inward on one side and hammered into shape. Then they tied several needles together and attached them to a wooden handle. These they then immersed in soot, with this they pricked through the skin and applied the soot to the body part.
Ta Moko tools:
Polynesian tattoos are known for their beautiful designs and long history. Ta Moko tattoos are traditionally practiced by the indigenous people of New Zealand. These inks are still sacred after centuries of tradition. Each design was used to represent a particular tribe and indicate one’s rank, location and status. The tattoos were mostly tattooed on the face.
The tattoo tool they originally used for this, called an Uhi, was made of a sharpened bone with a wooden handle. The ink they used was made from burnt wood, before they applied it, incisions were made in the skin. The ink would then be drummed into these incisions by using a chisel-like tool.
Ta Moko largely died out in the mid-19th century after colonization. Today, traditional tattooing is beginning to revive thanks to modern descendants of the Maoris (indigenous Polynesian people) who consider it important to preserve their tribal rituals.
Dayak tattoo techniques:
In Borneo, an Indonesian island, there is a tribe called the Dayak who have been tattooing for hundreds of years. To do this, they used needles made from the thorns of orange trees. The ink used was a mixture of soot and sugar. The reason someone was tattooed could vary greatly, a tattoo could indicate sexual maturity, having a child, social status, etc.
The Haida people lived on an island on the West Coast of Canada for about 12,500 years. Haida’s tattooing was very rare and was enormously expensive. A tattoo conferred high status on someone and was accompanied by a ceremonial celebration which revolved around the giving of gifts to the one with an important position. The more gifts you gave, the higher your status became.
A long stick with needle was used to place the tattoo, and their ink was made of lignite. They used both red and black pigments for their tribal tattoos.
Early modern tattoo tools
Thai Sak Yant:
This ancient tattoo tradition dates back to the 16th century, when Thailand’s King Naresuan and his soldiers sought spiritual protection prior to battles. Today it is still popular and a religious festival is dedicated to it.
The traditional tattoo is applied by a holy man (a Buddhist monk) while reciting prayers to provide the tattoo with spiritual protection. It is believed that the closer the artwork is to the head, the luckier you will be.
Buddhist monks used long spikes made of polished bamboo or metal. To do this, they need both hands, to guide the tool and tap the end of the rod to anchor the ink in the skin.
This Japanese technique dates back to the 17th century and is still hugely popular; until about 40 years ago, all tattoos in Japan were done by hand.
The Tebori technique involves attaching a set of needles to a wooden or metal rod known as a Nomi. It is a very slow process, but it gives a more saturated finish and smooth gradation between shades of the tattoo.
Victorian era tattoo tools
Beyond the light bulb and film camera, Thomas Edison also invented an electric pen in 1875. Originally, this pen was designed for making duplicates of the same document using a stencil and ink roller.
Unfortunately, the invention never got off the ground. Despite its failure, this invention did provide the inspiration for the first electric tattoo machine.
O’Reilly’s electric tattoo machine:
15 years after Edison’s pen, an Irish-American tattoo artist named Samuel O’Reilly received a U.S. patent for the world’s first tattoo needle. After making a name for himself in the tattoo world, O’Reilly began experimenting, aiming to invent a tool to speed up the tattoo process.
In 1991, he became inspired by Edison’s pen. He added two needles and an ink reservoir and adjusted the angle of the holder. Thus, the first rotary tattoo machine was born. The machine was capable of performing 50 skin perforations per second, which was at least 47 more than the fastest and most experienced artist tattooing by hand. The machine revolutionized the tattoo industry and changed the course of future tattoo tools.
Contemporary tattoo tools
In 1929, tattoo artist Percy Waters developed the first modern tattoo machine with a familiar shape. He designed and produced 14 frame styles, some of which are still used today. Thus, he became the world’s leading supplier of tattoo tools.
After this, it took another 50 years for someone else to patent a tattoo machine. In 1978, Canadian Carol Nightingale developed a complex electrical device for tattooing people with a variety of customizable elements. Although the machine was never mass produced because of manufacturing problems, the idea formed the basis of electric tattoo machines used in tattooing today.