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History of the Tebori Tattoo Style

The Tebori tattoo style is an ancient Japanese form of tattooing that often yields large, colorful, and meaningful tattoos. Tebori is still practiced today, mainly in Japan, but has spread to other corners of the globe as well. The Tebori tattoo style is rich in color, history, and tradition. 

There are tons of questions and modern-day misconceptions surrounding this age-old art form. Many believe it takes longer or causes more pain to the client. Many have never heard of the Tebori tattoo method and tradition before at all. 

Wherever you fall, learning more about this incredible method of tattooing that has withstood the test of time, both on the skin and in practice, will prove fascinating and worthwhile. Read on to discover the history of the Tebori tattoo, the details of the process, and more about Tebori today. 

What Is a Tebori Tattoo? 

Great question. Essentially, the Tebori tattoo style hails from Japan and consists of a different method of getting ink into and below the surface of the skin. Tebori tattoos are often large pieces that span swaths of the client’s body and include forms inspired by nature, religious iconography, and the country’s famous “ukiyo-e” woodblock prints. 

The Tebori tattoo style employs a process of hand tattooing using a slender bamboo or metal tool with a group of needles attached to the tip. The artwork is made by repeatedly and rhythmically working the ink into the skin by using a poking technique. 

Until about 40 years ago, the Tebori tattoo style had not left Japan. These tattoos can range from a tiny, one-point flower to the more traditional, full bodysuit tattoo. As the Tebori tattoo method has since spread to faraway corners of the world, its roots and prevalence still remain strongest in Japan. 

Where Did the Tebori Tattoo Style Come From? 

The Tebori style of tattooing came from 17th century Japan, specifically from the Edo era, between 1600 and 1868. However, tattoos were somewhat of a controversial topic in Japan, even today. 

Dating back to 7th century Japan, people of influence and the government began to denote tattoos. They were even occasionally used to mark criminals to demonstrate their wrongdoing. 

During the Edo period, people started to get more tattoos, but it was still an art that was looked down upon by much of the population. Mostly, in the beginning, it was lower-class workers and laborers. Because of this, woodblockers began to emerge as the primary tattoo artists. Why was this? 

Origins of the Tebori Tattoo 

As mentioned before, the Tebori tattoo has strong connections to the ancient Japanese art of woodblock printing. The hand-poke Tebori tattoo style has been associated with woodblock carving and writing since its very beginning. 

Tebori Tattoo and Wood Block Carving 

Artisans of both Tebori tattoo and wood block carving are called “horishi,” or carvers. Although this may sound gruesome, Tebori actually means to hand carve. Because of this, the skin is tattooed in a similar way to how a wood block would be prepared for making a print. 

The woodblock prints and Tebori tattoos have very similar motifs, themes, and aesthetics, which makes sense, as they were originally performed by the same people. Many wood block carvers from the old Edo were also tattoo artists in their spare time because many of the skill sets overlapped. 

What Is the Process Involved in the Tebori Tattoo? 

Tebori tattooing can be likened to the modern “stick and poke” method at its basis, but requires much more skill. The Tebori tattoo process uses a sort of digging motion that takes a great amount of strength and precision on the part of the artist. 

The needles insert the pigment into and under the skin in one motion, which proves to be more efficient than a tattoo machine which simply pokes the ink into the skin. 

The Tools Involved in the Tebori Tattoo Style 

The actual instrument used to perform the tattoo is called a “nomi.” On the end of this device are tiny metal needles that look almost like a paintbrush. The needles come in various shapes and sizes and are always replaced after each client for hygiene purposes. 

The Tebori tattoo device can consist of between 11-42 needles, which can make the process quite efficient and precise. This is compared with the modern tattoo machine, which employs an average of 9-13 needles at a time. Today, the needles are most often made of stainless steel to keep the client’s skin as sterile as possible. 

What are the Benefits of the Tebori Tattoo? 

Despite some common misconceptions, there are actually tons of benefits to the Tebori tattoo style relating to longevity, vibrance, and pain. Oftentimes, the Tebori tattoo method is actually less painful, less traumatic to the skin, and quicker. Here’s why:

The Time Aspect 

Sometimes, the old ways really are the best. Few people know the details of the Tebori tattoo style, and those that do often believe that it is a slower and more painful process. This is understandable — when watching a Tebori tattoo come to life, it seems like an ancient and clunky process. However, this is not the case. 

The time required for a Tebori tattoo is actually quite comparable to a tattoo from a modern tattoo machine when done by a skilled Tebori tattoo artist. Because the Tebori tattoo device can use over triple the amount of needles that a tattoo machine can at one time, it has been said to be more comfortable and more efficient. 

Tebori tattoo needles also tend to be thicker than those on the modern tattoo machine, so they can saturate the skin with more ink and less effort, thus even shortening the time needed to create the tattoo. The Tebori tattoo tool inserts the pigments into and under the skin in one motion.

It really depends on the design, the skin, and the artist. If an image contains smaller details and tighter design areas, the tattoo machine may be faster. Sometimes, Tebori tattoos can take longer than tattoos done by a machine. The time difference can be compared to having something made entirely by hand or made from a machine, and is totally up to the client. 

The Pain Aspect 

Despite looking like a more painful process, the Tebori tattoo technique hurts less and is far less intense. Overall, there is less mental and physical strain involved in this method of tattooing. Often, one feels relaxed after a Tebori tattoo, even a long one. 

The way the Tebori tattoo artist works by hand also surprisingly creates less skin trauma overall. This means less bleeding, inflammation, scabbing, and scarring. The tattoo heals better and faster. Also, because there is overall less bleeding, colors placed using the Tebori tattoo method can appear more vibrant because they do not bleed out as much. 

The Overall Look of a Tebori Tattoo  

Tebori tattoos are historically richer and more vibrant than a tattoo done by a machine, but results can vary. All Tebori tattoos that are performed by a skilled artist, using high-quality supplies, and are properly healed and cared for should come out looking richer and more vibrant, with deeper colors and a fresh, raw look. 

Tebori tattoos offer a much more saturated look for colored ink. This tattoo style is very different and unique, with a visible and authentic commitment to tradition. 

Often, background shading and color shading takes longer when using the Tebori tattoo method. However, Tebori tattooing can yield beautiful results. 

For example, eye-catching gradients that go from solid black to a soft light gray, using hand ground sumi ink can result in a shimmering cascade of dark and silvery grays that is very difficult to reproduce using a machine. The ability to produce a tattoo of this caliber takes not only time but years of skill. 

How Does It Compare to a Traditional Tattoo? 

The results of Tebori tattoos and tattoos that are created using a machine can end up looking very similar. They can also vary greatly. The Tebori tattoo style is often very distinct, consisting of some key forms and content that makes it distinguishable from other tattoo methods. 

However, as you just learned, the time, price, pain index, and results of each type of tattoo can vary, so it can be tough to compare the two. Overall, the Tebori tattoo is a more traditional experience that often yields a brighter, more involved tattoo. 

The tattoo machine, however, can be better and more efficient at creating fine lines, small details, and crisp elements. It really all depends on the size and intricacy of the design, and of couse, the artist. 

Tebori tattoos are often more colorful than the modern, machine-done tattoo. Although color can be achieved with a tattoo machine, it is often known to fade faster than black ink and is less common. Tebori tattoos, on the other hand, almost always include rich colors such as blues, greens, yellows, and reds. 

What Are Some Common Themes Included in a Tebori Tattoo? 

Although a Tebori tattoo and a tattoo machine can technically create the same designs, there are a few things that are very commonly seen in Tebori tattoos because of their rich tradition and historical significance. 

The Lotus Flower is often seen in Tebori tattoos. This symbol has a high spiritual meaning of the struggle to survive in life. The lotus flower slowly rises from the water each morning and repeats this cycle every day. The lotus is a beautiful and stark addition to any Tebori tattoo. 

The Samurai is another form that is common in Tebori tattoo designs. These men were noble warriors that were trained from birth to be able to fight and defend. Because of this, the addition of a Samurai warrior to a Tebori tattoo design is meant to symbolize fighting, as well as the power to be an ethical human being. 

Wind is common in the Tebori style. Large, gusty clouds can add drama to a Tebori tattoo’s design, and can signify a negative or positive connotation, depending on the design of the rest of the tattoo. 

The Dragon is another common inclusion in large-scale Tebori tattoos. The historical origins of the dragon are often disputed, but this mythical beast always symbolizes strength and wisdom. The dragon can oftentimes be a symbol of generosity towards mankind as well. 

The Phoenix is another symbol that often takes its place in Tebori tattoos, and is often even the centerpiece or focal point of a bodysuit Tebori tattoo. It signifies rebirth and starting new. 

The Tebori Fu-Dog is actually the name used to describe a Japanese lion. These creatures are often tattooed with a blue or green body and sharp teeth. They are meant to bring protection from evil, great strength, and courage. 

The Snake is another animal often included in traditional Tebori tattoos. Snakes are known to shed their skin and rejuvenate, so they symbolize independence from needing help. They can also be known to be a good luck charm, preventing disasters from the wearer. 

The Tebori Oni Mask is another traditional Japanese element often seen in Tebori tattoos. The meaning behind the Oni Mask is the notion that punishment will come to those who deserve it in the afterlife. 

What Is a Tebori Hybrid Tattoo?  

As we mentioned before, there are pros and cons to both the Tebori tattoo style and tattoos that are done by a tattoo machine. Because of this, many modern Tebori tattoo artists choose to employ both methods to achieve the desired result at the most efficient pace. 

This may look like a tattoo where the outline is done by a machine for speed and precision while the colors and shading are done through the Tebori method. This is the preferred style for most Tebori artists around the world, including Japan. 

A Tebori Hybrid tattoo allows for crisp, clean, fast lines from the tattoo machine met with the tradition, vibrancy, and beauty of Tebori hand tattooing. Essentially, it’s the best of both worlds. 

Tebori in the Modern Day 

The Tebori tattoo tradition seems to be a secretive and mysterious world with specific rituals and traditions. This can make the entire Tebori realm hard to penetrate. In addition, available public information about Tebori is sparse. 

There is no way to learn the art and tradition of the Tebori tattoo style without completing an apprenticeship under a master Tebori tattoo artist. However, this is possible, and many have done so. Many of these modern Tebori apprentices employ the Tebori hybrid method. 

However, every “horishi” or Tebori tattoo artist, has their own way of doing things. Some may still mix all their ink by hand by combining the “sumi,” i.e. the ink stick, with water. Others may use more modern ink options and use the tattoo machine more prominently. 

Even today, tattoos are sometimes condemned in Japan, so many Tebori tattoo studios are hard to find as they remain underground in modern Japanese society. 

There are now Tebori tattoo studios across the globe in places ranging from New York City to Australia. However, finding an authentic, skilled, and safe Tebori tattoo artist and studio may be difficult, so if you are interested in these incredible designs, make sure to do your research.  

Conclusion

The Tebori tattoo style is one of the most unique, beautiful, and traditional ways of achieving body art. The rich history behind each aspect of the process, from the Tebori tattoo device to the deep colors and authentic content, gives the client an intricate and stunning tattoo with an amazing story. 

Now that you’ve learned more about the process, it might be time to locate an acclaimed Tebori tattoo artist and get one of your own. 

Remember to do research, know the history and importance of the art, and use proper aftercare habits to give your Japanese ink the love it deserves. 


Sources: 

Tebori Tattoos | Japanese Hand Tattoos | Authentink

Tebori tattoos: Can Japan's 'hand-carved' tradition survive? | CNN Style

Tebori Tattoos: History, Tattoo Ideas & More | TattMag

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