Tattoo Blog

Art that adorns the flesh…

Bet That Hurt.

February 3rd, 2009 by

Perhaps one of the most common questions that a tattoo artist will hear from someone who is looking for their first tattoo is, “Will it hurt?” A close second is, “Where does it hurt more?” I use to pass the answer off as honestly as possible by letting the prospective collector know that, yes, it hurts, but not as bad as most people seem to think. Which is true from my own perspective. Getting a tattoo is uncomfortable, but compared to some other forms of pain that life handed to me in almost fifty years it barley rates a yawn. The modern techniques and instruments used have done much to make tattooing less painful than it was in the old days.

When you consider the methods of tattooing before Samuel O’Reilly modified Thomas Edison’s Stencil Pen into the first viable tattoo machine back in 1891, some of the early tattoo methods were positively brutal. It is a small wonder that early tattoos were, more often than not, a rite of passage. This is especially true among the Polynesian tribes of the Pacific Ocean.

The original Maori Moko was literally chiseled into the face. The Moko, or more accurately Ta Moko, had the design chiseled into the face by dipping a small wood chisel into pigment that was either made by drying and burning caterpillars into a powder, or by burning a special tree resin into soot and mixing it with plant sap, or animal fat. Then the chisel was tapped along a sacred pattern producing a deeply engraved tattoo.

In other Polynesian tribes the method used was the one that gave us our modern word tattoo. Using two separate instruments, one a rake like device tipped with either sharpened bone, or shark’s teeth dipped in a soot mixture, a tapping stick was struck along the rake. Following the geometric pattern while several assistants held the skin taunt. The art was called tatau, which the fascinated Europeans pronounced tattoo.

Neither the Ta Moko, nor any of the sacred markings of the Polynesian tribes were a one-time affair, but a continuing process that often lasted for years. Each addition marked a new success, or defining moment in life demanding a new tattoo.

In North America Eskimos used a whalebone needle and a length of animal sinew thread, covered in soot, to literally sew the design into the skin. Think about getting a wound sutured for a few hours instead of a few minutes and you’ll have the idea. All of this was done without the benefit of Novocain.

The Aztec and Mayan cultures made do with good old fashioned hand poking, a lot like they do in prison when they can’t get hold of a homemade machine, using fresh thorns and cactus quills for needles. Soot and colors from wild berries served as ink.

The United States tribes made do with flint rocks. Sharpened and attached to wooden handles, much in the same way arrows were made, they were poked, or in some cases sliced into the skin after being dipped into the old faithful soot and water mixture.

In Japan, and Thailand the Hari, a instrument that looks a lot like an artist’s paint brush, was tipped with steel needles and pushed into the skin, sometimes with a twisting motion. The thumb is used as a rest for the Hari, and the artist must be extremely skilled to exert the same amount of pressure with each stroke as this determines the beautiful shading effect the method is famous for.

Does getting a modern tattoo hurt? Yes, it does, but nowhere near as bad as it use to before the machine. If you would like to make a comparison there are a few people out there who still practice the old ways. While even the Maori no longer do the traditional Ta Moko, (And no, if you’re not a Maori you shouldn’t even try to get a modern one. It‘s considered an insult.), you can get a traditional tatau in Hawaii, or a traditional Japanese tattoo to compare with the modern method. Somehow I don’t think you will think a modern tattoo is all that painful once you do, though.

Pain is relative and an integral part of the tattoo experience. It all depends on how bad you want it.

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