The Metanomicon

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Tebori Tattoos


So, people say that there are three types of people who get tattoos; the collector, the casual, and the curious.  I never really agreed with these very small categories- after all, there are a million reasons to go under the needle, so to speak- but for simplicity’s sake, I will say that I am a collector.  But unlike most tattoo collectors, I am not chasing after famous artists exclusively.  I consider myself a collector of styles or, more appropriately, a potential collector of styles as I am not in possession of a great number of tattoos.  That being said, I love tattoos.  I love the whole process and challenge of getting tattooed and will likely obtain many more before I am done.  But what interests me most about tattoos isn’t the way they look.  It’s their rich history and the way they are created.

After getting two standard punk/Americana style tattoos I found myself interested in the different tattooing styles of the world, namely tebori and hand-tap.  Hand-tap tattoo, or tatau. is a traditional style of tattooing done in the south Pacific, chiefly Polynesian in origin.  Hand-tap uses hand carved combs, usually made of boar tusks, and sometimes a small mallet to get ink into the skin.  Tebori is a similar tattoo tradition originating in Japan that utilizes stacks of needles attached to the end of either a bamboo or metal stick and the rhythm is tapped out by hand.

With an opportunity to visit Japan suddenly within reach, I became more interested in the tebori style of tattooing.  It didn’t take much before I was determined to get one on my visit.  Luckily for me, however, I was saved much toil and the embarrassment of my broken Japanese when I happened across two tebori artists at a tattoo convention right here in the United States.  Both had studied in Japan under different masters and had adopted the traditional ‘Hori-‘ name (the prefix hori means ‘to carve’ and the rest of the name is usually a very typically Japanese play on the artist’s original name) and, lucky me, one of them had openings.

For tebori, I had already decided on a design.  A great number of tebori tattoos are based around the Shiju, or the four legendary gods: Genbu (turtle), Byakko (tiger), Suzuku (phoenix), and Seiryu (dragon).  There are many other common tebori motifs, like koi, chrysanthemums, lotus flowers, and hannya masks.  I went for a Daruma, a round, cartoonish image of the founder of Zen Buddhism. They are used as an image of luck and perseverance and are often used to make wishes on- one eye is colored in when you make a wish and the other is filled in when it comes true.

With the design drawn and laid out properly between my shoulder blades, we went to work.  My artist was Rueben Kayden, or Horikei, and like most modern tebori artists, he decided to do the outline of my tattoo with an electric tattoo machine.  The reason the tebori is a dying style is because the use of tebori needles is slower and a little less accurate than an electric gun and many artists have adopted the gun for the outline to provide a clear, crisp image before tending to the color with the needle.

The biggest question seems to be “does it hurt?”.  Luckily, the answer is simple.  Yes.  Yes it does.  But then, all tattoos hurt.  And being tattooed by hand with what is essentially a sharp stick is going to hurt.  And quite a lot for that matter.  But pain is subjective and your overall comfort would depend on a number of variables.  From personal experience, it hurt.  Quite a bit more than a regular tattoo.

My experience with tebori was definitely a positive one, though I find myself struggling to articulate the pain.  It wasn’t an in-your-face surge of hurt but rather a slow and slightly diabolical progression of pain.  In my first of about three hours, the tebori needle varied between ‘not so bad’, to ‘tolerable’, to ‘very painful’ depending on the different angles and pressures the artist used.  At the best points, the tebori hurt far less, at its worst, it far exceeded an electric machine.  As the hours wore on I found that I had less and less pain tolerance.  Whether this is typical of tebori or simply due to my ill prepared self getting a tebori done by the seat of my pants without any planning is, unfortunately, still unknown.  I was struggling to breathe correctly and had zero ability to release the tension that had built up in my shoulders from the extended tightening.  The rhythm burns and you can feel it tap-tap-tap against your bones; the artist angles the needle higher and the tapping gets more aggressive and, unsettlingly enough, louder, the artist angles the needle down and the tapping is subdued and there is a slight relief from the excruciating burn.

Tebori has one major advantage over traditional electric machines in my mind and that is the aftercare.  I consider myself fairly tolerant to painful sensations- I have never cried or made uncontrollable pained noises during tattoos and I like to imagine that I don’t twitch excessively either.  Aftercare, however, is a wretched, slow process that drives me insane.  The itching and soreness and peeling is gross and a hefty, paranoia-inducing chore.  Tebori aftercare was a dream come true.  In the course of five days, the tattoo had scabbed, peeled, and mellowed out without any excessive itching, weeping, or other horribly uncomfortable side effects.  My only complaint was that it was difficult to wash and moisturize myself but that was due entirely to where I wanted the design.

Tebori is a dying tattoo form, one that will likely disappear if the number of artists dedicating themselves to this art does not increase.  There are relatively few people in the world considered to be tebori masters and more of them retire every year, leaving their shops to finish up tattoos for preexisting clients or stop tattooing entirely.  There is very little demand in foreign markets for tebori tattoos, and only the insanely curious seem to find any interest in getting one.  Once used as the only tattooing method for Japanese yakuza, this unique artform is losing its niche to the modern electric machine.  And while modern tattoo guns are made for safety and aesthetics and are certainly nothing to scorn, I can’t help but find myself attracted to these seemingly primitive, but excruciatingly beautiful, methods of tattooing.  I wanted to experience tattooing in its most fundamental and tebori did not disappoint.

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A writer of nothing particularly useful or constructive. Likes tattoos, video games, traveling, good food, office supplies, and coffee. Weak against fire.

One Comment on “Tebori Tattoos”

  1. Thanks for an interesting and well-written article Sam.
    “As the hours wore on I found that I had less and less pain tolerance.” I find the same to be true when it comes to machine tattooing. You get fatigued and less tolerant to pain as the hours pass.
    I recently published an article on Japanese tattooing myself, you might find it interesting:

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