Non-Machine Tattooing (from December Pain Magazine)

Most artists these days have heard of and respect Horiyoshi III, the world renowned tattoo artist, but how much do you know about the art he creates?  Many other artists work by hand and there are many ways to mark without a machine.

Tebori is the traditional Japanese hand tattooing method, practiced by Horiyoshi III and the select few who possess the skill required. It is said that this method can create finer lines and more gradual shading than a machine.

There is a lot involved in becoming a true Tebori artist. The long road starts with a formal apprenticeship living with and learning from the master. There aren’t very many Tebori artists in the United States, but we tracked down Horisuzu out of Black Rabbit Tattoo in Bend, OR. Horisuzu started as a Western tattoo artist, but wanted to learn traditional Japanese tattooing, including Tebori. He sought out an apprenticeship, saying “After over a year of consideration and close observation I think perhaps Ryugen Sensei saw something in me, in my heart maybe that he felt was worth taking in. This is how I found my way into the Japanese tattoo culture. I am very grateful to my master Ryugen Sensei of Tokyo Japan for bestowing upon me the honor of my title Horisuzu”.

His advice to an artist looking to learn traditional Japanese Tebori is to “seek out a master to study under; it is not something to attempt without guidance from a master. The Japanese tattoo encompasses all aspects of Japanese culture therefore great care should be taken in study of Japanese culture and arts.”

The tradition of Japanese tattoo is vast, making it a daunting field to enter.  Horisuzu said, “It is hard to become a practitioner of the Japanese tattoo in a traditional sense if they have not grown up in Japanese culture. The Japanese tattoo is actually very cryptic. Each motif is a hidden language based on culture, history, religion and oral mythology. This is something that books and research alone can not translate. Immersion in Japanese culture and a traditional Japanese apprenticeship is necessary.”

Japanese tattoo is rooted in tradition and the spirit is contagious. Horisuzu says, “I feel deeply connected and proud of the traditions. My genuine love for the Japanese tattoo coupled with the lessons learned with my master make me very respectful of the history and people that came before me. I believe that we should all honor traditions and the people that paved the way for us. Tattooing with no connection is very unwise. The tattoo will have no value to that person, it has no spirit. A tattoo with no spirit looks poor in my eyes.”

Getting the tattoo is also a long process. Once a design is agreed upon, the artist will do the outline, often freehand, in one session. Steel needles are used, tied in rows, stacked or alone to a long handle, traditionally of bamboo, but with the rise of sterilization practices, now of steel or titanium so it can be autoclaved. The needles are dipped in ink and pressed rapidly into the skin to create some of the finest lines and most gradual shading.

You can find more about Horisuzu’s work at

There are many types of hand poking and hand tapping besides Tebori. Cory Ferguson out of Good Point Tattoos near Toronto uses a method called handpicking that uses a single needle to insert ink one dot at a time. While this is much more tedious, he says, “Without having a machine to contend with, there are far less variables. There are so many fewer obstacles between your finger tips and the skin, so the ink does exactly what you intended it to do.”

This method seems easier to try than others, even machine tattooing. Cory said, “Once you put it out there, it’s so much more accessible for someone to try their hand at, so you find that many people around you will give it a shot, especially people who’ve never tattooed at all before.  I get asked how to do it a lot, and get people coming in showing me the hand poking they’ve done on their own foot.” Even though it is easy to try, it isn’t the easiest thing to make money at. “I’ve seen some people try to work only by hand, some have succeeded and some have failed.  It’s a difficult way to go, that’s for sure.  Finding people who want to sit through the extra time and pay for it can be very tricky.  Hand work is like 1% of what I do.”

Despite the cost and time, many customers are more than willing to sit for the experience of a hand worked tattoo. Cory says, “People who choose the lengthier handwork seem to do it because they are curious to see what it will be like to have a tattoo done in such in unusual and primitive manner.  And some times people choose it because they’ve had it done before and prefer the quiet, chilled out atmosphere that hand poking provides.  Clients are much more likely to fall asleep during handwork.  This is why I sometimes prefer the handwork, it’s nice just to switch it up once in a while and have a really mellow, relaxed tattoo session – it’s almost meditative.”

Cory isn’t worried about the method being lost to history. He says, “I don’t think it’s going anywhere, and that’s probably most of what the appeal is.  It’s the same way of putting ink into skin that was done thousands of years ago. The whole point of it is a primitive, raw, tribal sort of experience.  The designs will get tighter and the quality of work might improve, but to me the feeling I get when hand poking is all about getting back to basics rather than pushing into the future.  It’s an homage to the absolute beginnings of what we call tattoo.”

To see more of Cory’s work check out

Even another method, out of Polynesia, uses a rake-like tool that is tapped with a stick.  The lines created are a little thicker than with a machine, but it isn’t a detriment because tribal designs rarely use fine lines. The designs are drawn on by hand and tapped in during the same sitting.
Sulu’ape Angela is the first known woman in history to learn the hand-tap technique. Her teacher is Su’a Sulu’ape Petelo, the top traditional Hand-Tap Tattoo Artist in the World. She became interested in hand tap as a child from looking at a National Geographic article. She saw tattoos being hand tapped at a conference in Tahiti and started working as an assistant, stretching the skin for the artist. She said watching the artists work she was awe-struck, “I sat and watched the patterns flow from his hands. He drew no patterns, just tapped the designs.”

After that experience she didn’t pursue becoming an artist herself, believing it was taboo. “I just wanted to watch. I was shocked when Petelo wanted to teach me.” She learned the language and ceremonies and served as a traditional apprentice. Her advice is to, “make sure you have gone through the respects, and find someone who has the blessing to teach. Pay your dues.”

People are intrigued by the history and tradition involved in getting a tattoo. Most clients choose hand tap tattoos for the experience. Sulu’ape Angela said, “They do it for the awe factor, or they went to a region where it was done or they want a more profound experience.” It doesn’t hurt that hand tap is said to bleed less and heal faster than machine work.

Aside from a hiccup converting to autoclavable tools, she says that she is getting more and more hand tap work as it gets more spotlight. “Tribal is becoming popular. People who go the tribal direction, tend to want to go further. People are becoming more interested in doing it the ancient way.”
To learn more, check out

~ by accordingtoleanne on November 24, 2009.

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