Tebori is a traditional Japanese tattoo practice. Masters use a stainless steel rod with a cluster of needles to repeatedly hand poke ink into the wearer’s skin. This art form comes with a long history, meaning people from all over the world travel to Japan to experience it. There is some controversy surrounding tattoos in Japan though. Once used as a form of punishment and still widely stigmatised today, it’s a complicated relationship. However tattoo masters today still continue to perform these magical tattoos to keep the tradition going. Let’s take a closer look:
The word tebori comes in two parts. With te meaning ‘hand’ and bori meaning ‘to carve’. Tattoo artists in Japan call themselves ‘Horishi’ or carvers. Woodblock artists share this same title, as the original carvers from the Edo period were reportedly tattoo artists in their spare time. This is because skill sets overlap and the skin is tattooed similarly to a woodblock in preparation for creating a print. Up until around 40 years ago, tattoos were all done by hand in Japan – from full-body designs to smaller tattoos. Similar to Sak Yant tattoos, this practice requires a lengthy apprenticeship to start with. There’s much more to learn with a hand poked practice such as angle, strength and timing. Meaning it sometimes takes artists years to open their own studio.
The equipment involved consists of two things: a metal or bamboo rod and a cluster of needles. Traditionally, the needles were fixed together using a silk string but different materials are often used today. The colours used for tebori tattoos are usually brighter, more saturated, stronger and longer lasting than those of standard tattoos. Not to mention, the hand poking method can help to create smoother gradients. Tebori tattoos are often large, colourful designs that incorporate dragons and flowers. They’re truly a unique style of tattoo that’s rich in culture.
Does it hurt more?
People sometimes wonder whether tebori tattoos hurt more than machine tattoos. Just like modern day stick and poke, tebori tattoos are hand poked. Meaning it’s slower, takes much longer but less trauma to the skin. Compared to a machine tattoo where the needles poke much faster, so it really depends on the individual. Many people who’ve got tebori tattoos noted what a magical experience it was, similar to modern day stick and poke. In the past there’s been worry about whether this old practice is safe and because of this, many tebori artists have responded by disposing of their needles after every use.
The stigma surrounding tattoos in Japan reportedly started in 400AD. Supposedly, a man tried to overthrow the emperor and he was punished with a tattoo near his eye. For the next 1000 years, this is how they were used. Since then, tattoos have been stigmatised and associated with crime. Later on, Japanese people would get tattoos as a spiritual expression in a strict class system. Because of this, in 1868 the government outlawed tattoos and they went underground. After World War II the ban was lifted, however tattoos are still seen as taboo. Wearers will often cover up their tattoos when in public. Even today in many Japanese locations such as pools, you’ll see signs forbidding entry if you have visible tattoos. But tebori artists who are passionate about this traditional practice still exist. They continue to perform these culturally rich tattoos, in a bid to keep this tradition going.
We’re now seeing a rise in tebori interest from people all over the world. Many tebori artists have noted that most of their customers are international and will travel solely to get a tattoo from a proper artist. This art form doesn’t interest many Japanese people anymore, as the finer line created with a machine has become more popular. Many things in life are cyclical and come back into fashion. But could the recent interest in tebori be because young people have a new appreciation for handmade, traditional practices? Japan has a complex relationship with tattoos and from the previous paragraph, it’s clear there’s still a stigma that surrounds the topic. But tebori honours a tradition that’s rich in culture and hopefully in the future, the controversy that surrounds tattoos in Japan will ease.