The Hand Tapping Tattoo Method

The history of tattoos is extensive and dates back over 5,000 years. The first evidence was from Ötzi the Iceman, who lived at some point between 3370 and 3100 BC.

In this article, we will cover the history of tattoos and traditional hand-tapped tattoos, including:

  • How tattoos were viewed and created in Ancient Egypt
  • Ancient Greek tattooing
  • Modern Thai Sak Yan and Western “hand poke” tattoos

Ötzi the Iceman

Ötzi is the name of the oldest tattooed body ever to be found (upper right in the above photo). 

He was discovered in the Ötztal Alps in September 1991 (hence the name Ötzi) and dated around 5200 years ago. He had been marked with a method known as ‘soot tattooing,’ where the skin is cut, and soot is used as ink by rubbing it into the open wounds with one’s hands.

Ancient Egyptian Body Art

The exact date that the Ancient Egyptians started cultural tattooing is a highly contested subject, but as far as we know, it wasn’t until after Ötzi’s time. There are figurines dating from 4000-3500 BC with markings on their legs and bodies.

Most styles found on mummies were dotted patterns of lines or diamonds, but two standard designs especially stood out, signifying that specific designs held a certain meaning or story for the Egyptians. 

As opposed to ink, natural dyes like soot were used, and small bronze instruments would make the incision.

Japanese Tebori

The history of Japanese body art dates back even further than the Egyptians.

Clay figurines dating to around 5,000 BC have been found with what seems to be hand-tap tattoos on their faces, outdating any of the figures found in Egypt.

Early tattoo designs were assumed to symbolize status and were highly revered. The needles were made by hand, held tentatively, and then poked into the skin by a tattoo artist. Japanese tattoo designs tend to cover large parts of the body and often take years to complete because of their size and cost. (This is still the case today, as artists who work in the traditional hand tap tattooing method will not use a tattoo machine to speed up the process.) 

These tattoos often feature stories from Japanese mythology as well as floral motifs.

Ancient Greece

In 700 BC, hand-tap tattooing became widely used in Greece as a form of punishment by permanently marking some citizens. This was used primarily in slavery, marking them as slaves for life and making escape impossible.

There are no reliable accounts of the method behind how the Ancient Greeks would permanently mark people, but it is likely similar to the Ancient Egyptians.

Polynesian Tatau Technique

The origins of this Polynesian tattooing technique is greatly disputed between countries but goes back to at least 1722 when three Dutch ships went to Polynesia.

Where it originates from, though, we’re still not exactly sure. The Fijians claim the technique came from Samoa, while the Samoans claim it originated from Fiji. ‘Tatau’ is where the Western word tattoo originates from, meaning to mark the skin permanently. 

The procedure is carried out with a set of handmade tools made of fragments of animal bones that are lashed to bits of turtle shells. 

In this ancient culture, buttock tattooing was common, as well as getting a chest tattoo.

Sak Yant

This hand-tapping method originated over 1,000 years ago in Kambuja, which today is known as Cambodia. The old method spread throughout Southeast Asia and is especially prominent in Thailand. Here it has become deeply ingrained in their culture.

The artist will be a Buddhist monk who pricks the skin with a steel needle attached to the end of a long piece of bamboo. Traditional black ink is used, and religious writing or tattoo designs are marked onto the skin by hitting the stick repeatedly into the skin.

Many different religious philosophies have influenced the Yant method, initiating many tattoo artists as spiritually charged figures in their societies. Still, they all bear the concept that the marking will act as an amulet, giving protection and good luck to those who have it.

The Kalinga Tribal Tattoo Tradition

While the origins of tattooing in the province of Kalinga in the Philippines are unknown, we know tattoos were popular starting in the 1500s. In particular, the women of Kalinga would be heavily tattooed - a tradition that is becoming less popular among the community’s youth.

Ta Moko

Ta Moko was brought to New Zealand from Eastern Polynesia in 1769. Since then, it has been popularly used to represent particular tribe membership in indigenous cultures. However, it also had other meanings, for example, to signify wealth, travels, or strength among tribal warriors.

Due to this and their belief that the head is the most sacred part of the body, this is the only place that gets inked. Within the Māori people having your face tattooed was a rite of passage, and there is a strong sense of ritual around the process, which tended to begin during adolescence.

Instead of needles, fragments of albatross bones are used to chisel into one’s face. Ink is rubbed into the new wound, and a full tattoo design is born.

Stick and Poke

The history of “stick and poke” is vast; all the previous methods we’ve covered in this brief history are a form of stick and poke, and as such, it dates back over 4,000 years.

More recently, since the 1960s, there has been a surge in popularity within the Western counterculture, especially with youths inking their friends as a form of expression and rebellion. 

With the popularity of stick-and-poke tattoos growing in modern tattooing, we see tattoo artists making six-figure careers by doing simple hand-tap tattooing designs, as people love the uniqueness of the process and the different design it gives.

Prepare for a Tattooing Career with the Artist Accelerator Program

Learning the history behind the art form of tattooing is an important step in your journey, but it can also be pretty eye-opening to how difficult tattooing can be. Without the right knowledge, it’s impossible to level up your skills and become a professional tattoo artist. 

However, finding the straight-forward information you need to progress is difficult. And with so much out there online, it’s hard to avoid picking up bad habits from incorrect and outdated resources.

This is one of the biggest struggles new tattooers face, and too many talented artists have given up their goal of getting into tattooing because of the years it would take to unlearn their bad habits. 

That’s why aspiring artists are learning to tattoo with the Artist Accelerator Program’s structured course. As a student, you learn every step of the tattooing process from professional artists with the experience and advice you need to build your skills and create incredible tattoos. 

With the Artist Accelerator, you can stop wasting time searching through incorrect information. You just get the clear, easy-to-understand lessons you need to start improving fast… along with support and personalized feedback from professional artists in our online Mastermind group.

Over 2500 students have already gone through the course, with many of them opening up their own studios. If you want to join them and learn the skills you need to start tattooing full time faster…

Click here to learn more about the Artist Accelerator Program.

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Nathan Molenaar

Nathan is a licensed professional tattoo artist with over 8 years’ experience working at studios across the globe, including Celebrity Ink, the world's largest tattoo studio chain.

When he's not tattooing, he spends his free time sharing his experience and knowledge with aspiring artists who dream of pursuing a career in the tattooing industry.

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