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Tebori Tattoo Technique

Tebori tattooing is an older technique used by Japanese tattoo artists. This technique is done completely by hand, as opposed to modern tattooing, which uses machinery. Although tebori tattooing takes longer, the technique allows for more creativity and attention to detail, within a certain set of standards for the practice.


During the late 1700s and early 1800s, tattoo artists developed the tattooing technique of tebori to create expressive images on the human body. Because the technique has such early origins, the method was developed without machinery. The word tebori comes from a combination of two Japanese words: “te,” which means hand, and “hori,” which means to sculpt or carve. Apprentices have been taught the technique by masters throughout the years. Tebori artists were found by word-of-mouth until after World War II because tattooing was illegal in Japan until then.


Tebori tattoo artists consider the shape and features of the body when designing the flowing images created in a tebori tattoo. The theme may be from Japanese history or mythology. Popular designs include plants, animals, lotus flowers and koi fish. Chromatic colors are introduced to create a harmonious color scheme that shows continuity and movement that flows over the body. Certain traditions are followed in tebori designs. For example, seasons cannot be mixed. Cherry blossoms and snakes should not appear in the same tattoo because snakes are hibernating when the blossoms bloom in early spring.


Sumi is the name of the vibrantly colored ink used to do tebori tattooing. Needles are attached to metal or wooden handles. The number of needles that are bundled together is an artists’ preference. Typically, six or seven needles may be soldered together for the creation of wide lines and two or three needles are bundled for a tool that creates fine lines. For shading, called bokashibori, as many as a dozen or more needles can be used in conjunction.


The tebori artist dips the sterilized needles into the sumi and then, resting the handle of the needle tool on the thumb of his left hand, he punctures the skin by forward motion of the right hand, working rhythmically, with movements that come in rapid succession. For full body tattoos, some tebori artists will work for two hours per session every third day. The outline is done first, and then the details and shading are filled in.

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