Hand Poke Tattoo a brief summary of the  Origin and History.

A Hand-poked tattoo is made by pricking the skin with a thin and small needle, firstly dipped in ink or colour. The ink was “inserted” under the skin with a series of rapid injections using needles, fragments of bone or wood shaped into needles were used before the invention of the tattoo machine.
The “Stick and Poke” technique was used to tattoo simple and stylized designs.

The Hand-poke style of tattoo can be defined as dot-work, a hand-poked tattoo is made by a significant accumulation of dots, close to each other, that creates designs, shapes and lines. Depth, details and Shadows are achieved through the density and size of the dots.

This was the beginning of tattooing, based on basic lines and shapes only using the colour black.

In one of our previous article “Ancient Tattoo Mysteries” we describe how people were using tattoos as a medical remedy, a symbol of ritual of passage, a religious or devotional symbol.

Hand Poke Tattoo Origin and History

Tebori Cats by Monmon Cats

Hand Poke Tattoo Origin and History

Hand-Poke Tattoo Techniques

The Italian Friars created religious tattoos by creating the design on the skin with metal sharp object tied together with a wooden handle and by applying, only after the dots were made, a mixture of indigo ink.

The traditional tribal tattoos from Oceania, are considered a sacred rite. The tattoo artist used tools created from bones or fangs without the use of metal. Usually a long prick was used as a needle and the ink was injected in the skin by percussion of the bone tied to the prick with another bone, a kind of hammer.

Native Americans and Inuit

The techniques used to inject colour under the first layer of the epidermis varied from tribe to tribe. Generally, sharp stones or porcupine quills were used, which dipped in a colouring pigment and beaten with the hammering technique.

Native Americans imprinted magical symbols on their bodies to protect the body and soul, and the colours of the pigments were black, green and blue that they created from specific plants.

The Arctic Inuit people practised tattooing especially among women.
Older women tattoo artists used needles made of bone or ivory threaded onto a stick, blackened with soot, or literally sewed a thread through the skin that released the color.
Both men and women had tattoos made of dots on their joints to protect themselves from disease. The positions of the tattoos on the joints corresponded exactly to the same points of Chinese acupuncture and they closed the entrances to evil spirits.

Holly Nordlum Hand Stitching Tattoo

Holly Nordlum Hand Stitching a Tattoo

Hand Poke Tattoo Origin and History

Sak Yan or Sak Yant Tattoos

Sak Yant literally means “to tap” in Thai and Yant means “Yantra” in Sanskrit, which means instrument. The subjects of this kind of tattoo technique are sacred geometrical designs and shapes, even chants that have a magical and spiritual meaning.

The drawings are the symbols that, according to tradition, favor concentration during meditation or amulets that affect the life of the person who gets them tattooed. Thai tattoos are worthless if you don’t believe in their power.
Tradition has it that they are made only by monks who use a bamboo rod called Sak Mai, now replaced by a metal rod.

Sak Yant Tattoo Designs
Sak Yant Sacred Geometric Tattoos - Hand Poke Tattoo Origin and History

Sak Yant Sacred Tattoos

Hand Poke Tattoo Origin and History

Dayak Man with Traditional Tattoos

Dayak Man with Traditional Tattoos by Chris Rainier

Hand Poke Tattoo Origin and History

Borneo Hand-Tapping Tattoos

It is a traditional technique typical of the Dayak (Borneo) and Mentawai (Sumatra) tribes. It seems to have been introduced in Borneo by the “kayan”, who emigrated from the mountains of Burma about eight hundred years ago.

According to the Kayan, tattoos acted as “torches” in the world of the dead without which the spirits would wander in total darkness.

Women were always being tattooed by other women, and women tattoo artists, highly respected by society, were richly compensated for their performance.

The technique is complex and requires a lot of experience. The design is first carved into a block of wood then smeared with ink or a soot compound. It is then pressed on the area to be tattooed, like a stencil. The design is pierced into the skin with a series of needles or pegs fixed with the resin into wooden sticks, and dipped in a bluish pigment, consisting of a mixture of sugar cane juice, water and soot of scorched resin.


In order to avoid infections, the inflamed part is then smeared with rice.
This process is very painful and in many cases the completion of the drawing takes up to four years to be compleated.

The figures and motifs reproduced vary from one group to another and from one social caste to another.

The designs were and still are associated with the various parts of the body: the circular ones are reproduced on the shoulders, chest and on the outer side of the wrists, while the more elaborate designs are reserved for the inner and outer surfaces of the thigh.
This practice tends to be passed down from parents to children, but any village member who shows some interest is free to attend the process, to undertake this activity himself in the future.

Handpoke Filipino Batok Tattoos of Kalinga

The technique used is still the traditional one of “tapping”, or tattooing by hammering the ink in the skin.

The tool is nothing more than a branch of the lime tree attached to a bamboo stick immersed in wet charcoal. The designs are simple and evoke scenes from nature or symbols which, according to tradition, serve as protection from hostile spirits.

The method is extremely slow and very painful to the point that it can only be endured for short periods of time. It can take months before a tattoo is completed.
The tradition of the Kalinga people provides that skills can only be passed on to a family member.

Japanese Hand-Poke: Tebori

The word Tebori, literally meaning “hand-sculpting“, is the Japanese equivalent of the handpoke teqniques. The Irezumi is characterized by very bright colors and very large designs that can cover most of the body.

In modern Japan, Irezumi have become very well known for its use by members of the mafia world such as the Yakuza, who use it as a distinctive sign and pride. Refining the art of tebori requires a very long process and specific skills to learn the various styles of shading and techniques for tattooing.
From the Japanese tradition the Irezumi are made using the so-called tebori technique. It consists in making the tattoo by hand by means of a bamboo stick (Sashibo) which has needles arranged in rows at its end that are made enter the skin at an angle.

The artists with one hand pull the skin and with the other they push the needles in and out of the skin. With this technique it is possible to obtain subtle gradations of colour that become even smoother with each passing year.
While the subjects are commonly transferred on the skin using stencils, the decorations are drawn freehand especially wind-bars.

Hand Poke Tattoo Origin and History

Traditional Tebori Tattoo by Sousyu Hayashi

Hand Poke Tattoo Origin and History

There are terms by which artists call the different elements of the tradition, including:
Bokashi: is a black gradient shade that is often used to make clouds and decorative trails;
Kakushi-bori: is a term that refers to drawings near the armpit or hidden points on the body. It is also used to indicate numbers or words hidden among the flower petals;
Kebori: word used to indicate very fine lines, such as those of hair;
Keshow-bori: secondary images to support the main drawing;
Suji-bori: is the outline, that is, the edges or outlines of the design;
Nuki-bori: a main drawing without secondary drawings (Keshow-bori);
Nijuw-bori: when an artist has to tattoo a character from the Tebori tradition who is also tattooed, the character’s tattoos must be faithfully reproduced by the artist on the client’s body.

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