With tattoos tracing back to prehistoric times and Stone Age culture in many parts throughout the world, it’s natural to assume that the methods in which human skin has been marked over the centuries has changed drastically. While modern-day tattoo parlors pride themselves on antiseptic practices, strict rules of cleanliness, and clean, sterile machinery, our ancient ancestors used a variety of much simpler tools and practices to embed ink in the skin.

How did tattooing evolve?

Although it’s hard to say which culture first began tattooing, the oldest known example of a tattoo was discovered on the preserved body of the Iceman, Ötzi, who died around sometime around 3300 BCE. Little is known about how Ötzi was tattooed, but the location and style of his tattoos (and the condition of his body underneath the markings) suggest that the practice was largely therapeutic, rather than ornamental. If so, this example of therapeutic tattooing predates the oldest known example of acupuncture by over a thousand years (while seemingly targeting many of the same points on the body).

Photo credit: LYNZY BILLING

The first known evidence we have of tattoo methods stems from Southeast Asia and Austronesia, where various cultures practiced full-body tattooing and used thorns, fish bone, and oyster shells affixed to simple wooden mallets, and ink usually made from charcoal and water. In the Indo-Pacific, in cultures throughout Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, the practice of tattooing was linked to a raiding and headhunting culture, with the bravest warriors having the most tattoos. For women, tattoos were linked to beauty. The more intricate and numerous one’s tattoos, the higher one’s status.

Evidence of tattooing predating migration from Austronesia to places like Papua New Guinea suggest that the indigenous population there had its own tattoo culture. Further to the north, in Europe and North Africa, examples of tattooing can be found among the Welsh and the Picts, the Berber tribes of Africa, the Ainu of northern Japan, the Egyptians, various tribes of Nigeria, and ancient pre-Columbian Peruvians. Each culture had its own unique set of tools and practices, but the main technique was largely the same.

The stick and poke

While amateur stick and poke tattoos are making a strange comeback in the age of thrifty DIY and YouTube tutorials, the first tattoos ever made were stick and poke tattoos, make simply by dipping a sharp implement in some ink, and sticking said implement into the skin. Sometimes, markings are first made onto the skin with ink to create a stencil (usually with a string, or a bone, or a brush), before the ink is poked into the skin.

Photo credit: Sean Mathis

The process takes very long and is still practiced to this day by many different cultures. Irezumi artists in Japan traditionally only use stick and poke techniques, and machine gun tattooing is known as yobori (Western style). Tribal tattoos bestowed upon locals and visitors throughout Polynesia and Southeast Asia proudly continue the practice. And many tattoo artists in the West have spend years honing and perfecting the stick and poke art themselves, despite many advances in tattoo technique.

Is it easier? Healthier? Faster? No, no, and no. Stick and poke tattoos usually take more hours to complete and can thus actually be more expensive than their modern-day counterpart. But they are the way tattoos were made for thousands of years, and many insist that they are the way tattoos should be performed.

Tattoos: a ritual of pain, sacrifice, and accomplishment

Body modification and self-mutilation are as old as humanity, and tattoos are no different. While they are perhaps the only form of body modification to survive into the modern mainstream besides the piercing, tattoos share a common thread with other forms of ritual self-mutilation common among ancient cultures.

Anthropologist theorize that these practices grew in popularity and became common among distinctly disconnected cultures because surviving a tattoo, mentally and physically, was a sign of strength and maturity. Grown men and women in cultures where tattooing was a common practice would seek out a tattoo to prove their fortitude. Since stick and poke tattoos take much longer than modern day tattoos, and the risk of infection was much higher, surviving the ordeal would mark one as strong.

On the other hand, the tattoo was also a simple way to mark someone. In Chinese and Roman cultures, prisoners and slaves were marked permanently with ink to denote their owner or their crime. This practice also existed in Japan and continued for roughly a millennia.

Scars instead of tattoos

While the stick and poke method continued for thousands of years, some cultures practiced a particularly brutal form of tattooing rooted in scarification. Instead of poking the skin with a sharp element, scarification involves using a blade or hook to slice the skin, creating an open wound. In some cultures, ink or ash would be rubbed into the wound to produce a dark, painted scar, or to produce a more pronounced, raised scar.

The practice of scarification was particularly common in Africa, where it allowed for elaborate and more visible markings than black ink. Many tribes practiced ritual scarification, to the point where some are not considered members of a tribe without receiving their facial scars. This practice is becoming less common, as urbanized tribe members worry about the stigma their scars might bring.

The first tattoo machine

Regardless of where it was practiced, tattooing was always time consuming, and often expensive. Unless performed ritually, the tattoo would require an artist’s calm hand and several hours of their time. Stick and poke tattoos using a variety of different implements were the dominant method for centuries – until the invention of the first tattoo machine.

The first known tattoo machine was based on many previous inventions and discoveries, the most important of which was the discovery of electromagnetism. No, don’t leave. I’ll get to the point, don’t worry.

Electromagnetism, to go back to your high school physics class for a second, describes the phenomenon wherein an electrical charge can essentially influence the magnetic field between two objects – it’s the basis of any motor, and allowed us to move towards battery-powered electrical machinery. It is through electromagnetism that all modern-day technology functions. And for the first tattoo machine to exist, it was essential to first discover a way to efficiently and quickly power a handheld device that could move a pen.

Thus, we are led to Thomas Edison, who first invented an electric pen designed to help automate the making of copies. The way the pen would work involved a simple battery, rotary motor, and metal pen. It was part of a full document duplication system, which involved creating a stencil with the electric pen, and subsequently using an ink roller to print through the freshly made stencil. Battery would feed into the motor.

The unique element here was the battery powered pen. A motor attached to the metal pen, powered by a battery, would drive the pen down on the stencil at a rate of 3,000 punctures per minute. The invention was a success and represents the first patented and commercially available electric office appliance.

In 1891, Samuel O’Reilly realized that this motor-driven pen could be easily modified to puncture skin rather than create a stencil, with the main difference being the inclusion of a better tube for the pen and an ink reservoir. He wasn’t the only one with the same idea, however, as a similar invention was patented years later in 1904 by Charlie Wagner, and a modified design was patented by Percy Waters in 1929. Each iteration of the tattoo machine improved upon the last, with better designs, the use of Edison’s dual-coil electromagnet motor rather than the original rotary-type motor, spark shields, on-and-off switches, and more. Over several decades, tattoo machines were further improved to include depth and speed control, and even force, allowing for extreme precision.

How are people usually tattooed today?

Today’s tattoo machines are typically classified into several basic styles:

Rotary tattoo machines: These are arguably the oldest and rely on a rotary motor. Rotary motors are very simple. An encased tube with a metal shaft inside is fed energy through a connected cable, which causes the motor to spin. This spin translates into manual power, which attaches to a tattoo needle, moving in and out of a person’s skin. Rotary tattoo machines are characteristically quiet.

Coil tattoo machines: Coil tattoo machines are based on Edison’s later designs and employ two coils rather than a rotor. Modern coil machines have their own power supply, which feed energy into two metallic coils. These coils, when charged, create a magnetic field. This magnetic field pulls on a thin bar of metal, which, when in contact with the coils, breaks the field. This causes the bar to spring back, which allows the field to be generated again. This happens many times per second, causing the bar to vibrate quickly. The result is less consistent and much louder than a rotary machine, but coil machines can be calibrated to vibrate with a specific frequency.

Pneumatic tattoo machines: Far newer, pneumatic tattoo machines are a recent invention and utilize pressurized air to move the tattoo needle. Because they don’t use power, they’re extremely lightweight. To use one, feed pressurized air into it through an air compressor. Pneumatic tattoo machines are adjusted for speed and needle depth by adjusting the air pressure inside the machine. The pressure is what powers a motor, which causes the needle to start working.

There are many other designs, each of which employs a specific mechanic in order to produce a very distinct result, such as shader and liner machines, which use a combination of short-stroke and long-stroke machines in order to either produce thick, bold lines, or subtle shading. Both are essential when doing portrait work, and other forms of complex photorealism.

Tattoo machines are sterilized and cleaned regularly, which requires disassembly (except for pneumatic machines, which can be sterilized whole). Maintenance depends on the machine.

Can I still get an old-fashioned tattoo?

Yes, you can. Many artists today still specialize in stick-and-poke tattoos, and most tribal tattoos use the old stick-and-poke when tattooing visitors. While it isn’t more or less painful than using a tattoo machine, it does take longer. When creating complex designs that require shading and multiple colors, the process for a full-body tattoo can take years using the traditional method. This can be extremely expensive. A modern equivalent is less costly, because you’re taking up less of the artist’s time. However, it wouldn’t be ‘traditional’.