The Tradition of the Tebori Tattoo
Traced all the way back to the Edo period in Japan (1603-1868), the art of the tebori tattoo has lived on and is a practice that still goes on today.
This practice has been going on for hundreds of years.
The word tebori literally means ‘hand carving’ in Japanese, which sounds painful.
However, the word in fact comes from the ancient technique of woodblock carving, which is how much of traditional Japanese tattooing originates.
For the Japanese, there has always been a relationship between woodblock carving and tattoos and they constantly have inspired each other.
It is important to note that tattoos are still widely stigmatized in Japanese culture, so for the most part, in Japan, people cover their tattoos with their clothing when they are in public.
People from all walks of life in Japan still get tattoos, however, showing your tattoos in public could cause you to be ostracized from getting a job or judged in general.
What is a Tebori Tattoo?
One question you may ask first: does it hurt?
Like everyone who gets a tattoo, it’s up to personal opinion as to how much it hurts.
Also, as with every tattoo, it depends on what part of the body is being tattooed.
However, it does take 2-4 times longer to do a tebori tattoo than with a machine.
So, keep in mind whatever pain you are experiencing will be experienced for a lot longer of a time.
In general, the consensus is that they hurt less at first but the longer you keep getting tattooed by a tebori artist the more it will hurt.
If you choose to do the outline and coloring all in individual sessions, it shouldn’t hurt as much as when using a tattoo machine.
Tebori tattoos leave a much more rich color on the skin, so it’s worth your patience.
It is typical for tebori tattoos to get a large back, chest, arm, or leg piece.
It would not be typical to get a small tebori tattoo.
One of the large benefits of tebori tattoos is that they leave less trauma on the skin and therefore heal faster and with minimal scabbing.
Tebori Tattoo Tools
The interesting part of tebori tattoos is the tool themselves and how the tattoo artist actually tattoos their client.
The artist uses a set of needles attached to a long metal or wooden stick, or nomi, which is used as a tattoo instrument.
The tiny metal needles almost look like a paintbrush (but are very sharp).
From there, it is essentially a stick and poke tattoo, but not in the way we are used to in modern day.
The artist literally pushed the ink into the top layer of the skin, rather than flicking it.
It is almost a digging motion, which is repetitive and takes a lot of strength and effort on the artist’s part.
Tebori artists today still use centuries-old techniques and tools, however, they replace the tebori needles for obvious hygienic purposes.
They also now use stainless steel in order to keep the client’s skin sterile.
Tebori Tattoo History
The history of the Tebori tattoo style is also the history of Irezumi tattoos, because this is the blanket term for many Japanese tattoo styles.
The Japanese art of tattooing could possibly go as far back as 5000 BCE for both spiritual and decorative tattoos, though it is unknown how the tradition truly got started.
During the Yayoi period (300 BCE- 300 CE), there is evidence from visitors to Japan that the Japanese had tattoos that were believed to be either spiritual in meaning or a sort of status symbol.
There is more evidence in the 3rd century CE from the story of Wei Chih of people having tattoos all over their bodies and faces.
However, it is important to remember that there is contradictory evidence suggesting there were not tattoos at all in Japan until the Kofun Period (300-600 CE), where tattoos started to develop negative connotations.
It was around the 7th century CE that the Japanese people truly started to dismiss the idea of tattoos as a creative or spiritual marker and started to view them as the mark of a criminal.
This lasted for many centuries.
Tattoos were even used to mark criminals for their wrongdoings.
During the Edo period (1600-1868), more Japanese people started to get tattoos, typically those in lower classes such as laborers and those who worked the jobs no one wanted to work, as well as more famously the Yakuza.
This is when the practice of inspiration from wood blocking came to be.
Woodblockers performed tattoos themselves and the art of the modern decorative Japanese tattoo came to shape.
This is also when artists began to use nara ink, an ink that turns blue-green when placed under the skin.
It is well debated if during the Edo period rich merchants also were getting tattoos, and simply hiding them under their clothes.
Firemen, laborers, peasants, and criminals were getting tattoos, but it is quite possible that the tradition moved up a class.
Tattoos were illegal for a period in Japan until 1948, yet still had to be hidden underneath clothes because of the heavy stigma, which still exists today.
It is a challenge to find a tebori tattoo shop because tattoo shops are still largely underground in Japan.
You may be able to find one in your country of origin, but make sure they are a legitimate tebori artist.
Finding one may be difficult, but very worth it to receive a tattoo with such a rich history.
- Tebori Lotus Flower Tattoo
Mixed with intricate designs, tebori pieces often include lotus flowers.
Lotus flowers in Japan signify a highly spiritual meaning of the struggle to survive in life.
This is because the lotus flower slowly rises from the water each morning to survive another day in the air and continues this cycle daily.
This tattoo symbolizes rising from a struggle and to keep going each day.
- Tebori Samurai Tattoo
The samurai is a common Japanese tattoo that may depict the samurai shooting an arrow or in battle.
This tattoo symbolizes fighting another day and the power of being an ethical human being.
The samurais were noble warriors trained from birth to fight and be master warriors.
You should get a tebori samurai tattoo if you want to have a warrior-like mentality.
- Tebori Wind Tattoo
A common addition to a tebori bodysuit is an image of a strong wind.
It is meant to emphasize the meaning of the symbols around it and add depth to the design.
It symbolizes a positive or negative connotation depending on its placement in the bodysuit, but most certainly adds drama to the work.
- Tebori Dragon Tattoo
The dragon is possibly the most popular Japanese tattoo out there.
It is unknown who started the myth of the dragon first– the Chinese, Koreans, or Japanese.
They each believe their culture to be the true origin of the dragon.
Nonetheless, the Japanese dragon symbolizes the strength to improve human beings and the ability to be wise enough to make those efforts.
They also symbolize generosity towards mankind.
- Tebori Phoenix Tattoo
The tale of the Phoenix undoubtedly symbolizes rebirth and starting new.
A phoenix tattoo is an elaborate symbol to place at the center of a large piece of work with many colors and an elaborate background.
- Tebori Fu-Dog Tattoo
The Fu-Dog is the word used to describe a Japanese lion.
These ferocious images have huge sharp teeth and the lion is not done photo-realistically in the slightest– it often has a blue body with pointed whiskers and tightly curled hair that appears to be blowing in the wind.
Fu-Dog tattoo symbolizes protection from evil and great strength and courage.
- Tebori Snake Tattoo
Since snakes shed their skin and rejuvenate with new skin they are often associated in Japan with healing and independence from needing help from others.
Japanese snake tattoo is also believed to be a good luck charm, preventing disasters from occurring to you.
The snake in Japanese culture celebrates both wisdom and protection from evil.
- Tebori Oni Mask Tattoo
Last but not least, the Oni Mask is a highly popular addition to a tebori tattoo and looks very cool because it is a quite scary and dangerous-looking image.
Oni mask tattoo symbolizes the Japanese belief that punishment will come to those who deserve it in the afterlife.
The Oni also symbolize protection from evil and may ward off evil spirits with their menacing faces.
Tebori Tattoo Designs
If you’re getting a tebori tattoo, chances are you shouldn’t expect a tiny ankle tattoo.
Tebori tattoos are traditionally large pieces, around the leg, a back piece, chest piece, or even going all the way down your rear to your lower thigh.
Also expect a highly colorful tattoo with blues, yellows, greens, and reds.
Tebori tattoos are part of a tradition of irezumi tattoos dating back at least centuries if not more.
The key is finding a tattoo artist that practices the art of tebori today– you may have to take a trip to Japan.
It takes longer to use this method of tattooing than when using a machine, however, the colors come out brighter and the healing process is quicker.
Not to mention, you would be becoming part of a tradition that is truly unique to the Japanese culture.
Alyssa Renee Hardy is a writer, curator, and photographer who publishes articles on the topics of the arts, culture, and social justice. She graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology with a degree in fashion business and art history and museum professions. Her experience working with a variety of art institutions, her world travel, and her inquisitive nature provides her with a unique insight. Check out her about page, she would love to connect with you!