Every craft has its own set of tools. Carpenters have their hammers and levels, painters have their brushes and chefs have their knives. Tattoo artists, similarly, have their own assortment of tools specially designed for their unique purpose. Most people are at least vaguely familiar with the standard setup employed by most artists in the West – but did you know that when it comes to tattooing, the tools of the trade can be as variable as the designs themselves? Here's a look at how artists from different areas and time periods put their own take on tattoo tools.
Here in the U.S., almost every tattoo studio relies heavily on the use of electric tattoo machines. These contraptions, which give tattoo shops across the country their characteristic buzz, consist of a needle, or group of needles, powered by a motor. But there are even variations within this family of machines. Different combinations or types of motors and needles can produce different results that are subtle, but can make a huge difference in the hands of a skilled artist.
For example, older machines are known as rotary machines, Tattoo Today explained. These devices consist of a simple motor that drives the needle up and down. Slightly different – and newer – are coil machines. Instead of a motor, these use an electromagnetic coil to move the needle. While the difference is very slight, it can result in subtle changes to the lines made due to small variances in how quickly the needle moves, and the angle at which it sits. The source noted that a new type of mechanical machine using pneumatic power was introduced in 2000. These machines are meant to be more resistant to blood-borne microbes.
Of course, while there is a striking array of methods and machines within the U.S. alone, the long and storied history of tattooing has left in its wake a near-countless number of traditional tattoo implements. In fact, LiveStrong noted that tattoo instruments have been found in civilizations dating as far back as ancient Egypt. These ancient methods were obviously less complex, with tools consisting of little more than sharpened sticks or bronze needles – talk about tattoo regret!
The tribal cultures of Polynesia are perhaps among the most well-known when it comes to cultural tattooing – in fact, the eponymous "tribal tattoo" trend derives from the types of designs coming out of this part of the world. More than aesthetic preference, tattoos in many such cultures held social importance as a mark of status. As you can imagine, a culture that takes tattooing so seriously is likely to weigh in with tools of its own. LiveStrong described one of the most common implements of the region, consisting of a wooden rake with bone needles inserted in the end at a 90-degree angle. Tattoos were performed by tapping the needles against the skin with a wooden handle.
Another culture with an illustrated tattoo history is Japan. For traditional Japanese artists, the tools used to administer tattoos and the process performed were holistically intertwined in a practice known as Tebori. Loosely translated to tattooing by hand, the artist used a simple tool consisting of a wooden handle tipped with a bundle of needles. Unlike modern mechanical machines, Tebori artists must use the continuous motion of their hand to create designs instead of relying on a motor. This means that Tebori tattooing is a much more fluid process than that of the modern tattoo artist, and requires a skilled hand to avoid resulting in bad tattoos.
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