View Full Version : Tattooing

09-20-2010, 03:04 AM
I'm writing in a story set in a pre-modern period, in a culture based on some different Southeast Asian kingdoms. A couple of my characters get (and possibly give) tattoos. Does anyone familiar with tattooing know (or have an educated guess) how this would be done? How long would it take, what would it feel like, how would it be cared for after? What would the ink would be made of and what tools would be used?

Neither I nor anyone close to me has ever gotten a tattoo (either in a modern tattoo parlor or on a time travel trip to Ayutthaya :P), so this is a world of mystery to me. :) Thank you very much to anyone who can help.

09-20-2010, 03:14 AM
Without researching it, I believe it was done with two sticks. One had a sharpened pin which was dipped in the ink and the other was used to tap the pinned stick into the skin. The sound made was somewhat like the name--tattoo--because it was done in rapid succession.

that's as much as I know


09-20-2010, 03:27 AM
Here's a good list of early ingredients:


I'd researched a lot of natural pigments for art and was surprised to see so many of them used in tattoos!

I have a tattoo, too. The modern equipment-version felt exactly like a dullish scalpel scraping/cutting my skin. It didn't feel nearly as needle-y as I expected. It was on the thin skin over my ankle bone and that area.

Kenra Daniels
09-20-2010, 04:02 AM
You could go as simple as cutting the skin and rubbing charcoal into the wounds.

The Japanese tabori method consists of a bamboo piece with the needles attached. The needles can often be heard puncturing the skin. It's much more painful and time consuming than using a machine.

The tools of the Polynesian tattooist are often called a comb, chisel, or rake. The needles, usually made of bird bone, turtle shell, bamboo, pigs teeth, and occasionally shark teeth, are attached to wooden handle in shape of a rake. The needles are dipped in ink; applying the ink is done in a series of taps against the top of the rake, with the use of another wooden tool pushing the needles into the skin. Unlike the Western or Japanese methods an assistant is needed to stretch the skin since both hands of the artist are holding tools.

The chisel is an older way common to the Maori, New Zealand, which was used to cut incisions into the skin. Ink would then be rubbed over the incisions or gone over again by a serrated chisel that was dipped in ink.

ETA caring for a fresh tattoo would likely have been the same care given to any superficial wound. My guess would be that it might have been treated with an oil or fat at first, and left alone after that. Tattoos were often given at a transition period to prove one's adulthood or worthiness, so while i've never had a tattoo done by ancient methods, I'd suspect it would be pretty painful. Added to the pain would be the need to lie perfectly still for a matter of hours, depending on the size of the work, sweat seeping into the wounds, the ink may have stung quite a bit when it was introduced to the wound. while it was healing there would likely be very uncomfortable itching.

Hope this helps a bit.

09-20-2010, 04:19 AM
How much it hurts depends on where it is. Areas without a layer of fat to cushion it hurt more. It isn't that bad, though. About the same as getting a shot.

After you've gotten the tattoo, you want to keep the area clean. The skin will scab a little, but you want to be really gentle with it. No picking, scratching, etc.

Giant Baby
09-20-2010, 05:28 AM
How much it hurts depends on where it is. Areas without a layer of fat to cushion it hurt more...

Also, the color. Lighter colors have to go deeper (or, they did when I got my band of yellow suns abound my upper arm--I can't imagine that's changed in 10 years). And sensitive skin, as well (underneath of the upper arm, privates, inner thigh, arches of the feet, breasts close to or on the aureole, etc). I've heard the face is quite painful from both a *close to the bone* perspective and a sensitive skin perspective, but I can't say I know anyone personally who's tatooed their face.

Have you considered contacting a tattoo artist? The few artists I've known have been extremely passionate about their work and quite knowledgable about any number of things that feed it. I wouldn't be surprised if you found someone who knew about practices in the time and place you're describing, or who knew of someone who did. If not, they might illuminate you about what is and isn't safe to invent. Couldn't hurt.

09-20-2010, 05:47 AM
Tribal tattoos would generally be black. Lighter colors aren't put in the skin any deeper- but it sometimes takes more work to get them into the skin. Dragon Lady's info is good.

In Tribal cultures giving a a tattoo would be a big deal- they would be a shaman or an elder.

Tattooing feels hot and sharp. Don't believe anyone who tells you it feels like a "bee sting"

Natural antiseptics would be used after, depending on what is native (tea tree, clove, lavender.) along with an oil to keep it moist. Healing would not be as easy as with a modern tattoo-- it would scab up, swell, and be very unhappy for at least 2 weeks while it healed.

**Hope this helps. My husband has been tattooing for over 20 years, owns a shop.**

09-20-2010, 01:00 PM
I just wanted to add that there's loads of different methods. I have a friend who is into traditional tattoo styles and has the kit of several different types. He's done a couple using traditional Thai "rakes". Considering how his look, I'm extremely impressed that anybody can use them and create anything remotely aesthetically pleasing. It's obviously extremely hard.

09-20-2010, 05:16 PM
I came across this terrific on-line article by Lars Krutak while researching tattoos among the Mentawai people, Siberut, Indonesia. The Mentawai would also be considered "pre-modern."


Tremendous photos as you scroll down. Krutak also mentions, in terms of instruments, that:

"Traditionally, Mentawai tattoo artists sometimes used a sharpened piece of bark taken from the karai tree as their skin-plying tool. Others used a lemon thorn set into a small bamboo stick which was hand-tapped into the skin with a wooden mallet. Among the indigenous Atayal and Paiwan of Taiwan, and the Kalinga of the Philippines, thorns of the mountain orange tree were used in this capacity. However, the coastal peoples of Papua New Guinea, who are essentially Polynesian, also used the lemon thorn as a tattooing tool."

09-20-2010, 08:22 PM
There is a show-- I want to say it was on national geographic channel or maybe Discovery- called Taboo. They did an episode on tribal tattooing, including showing a young girl getting her face tattooed with a lemon thorn. Very interesting.

09-20-2010, 10:04 PM
WOW, this is way more information than I hoped for! Thank you so much everyone; it's very helpful. :) (Also: all these descriptions? OW OW OW. Fun topic.)

09-22-2010, 12:18 PM
In terms of modern tattooing, as has been mentioned, the pain and sensation varies from place to place. for instance, i have one on my spine which was fine, and another a couple of inches to the left, right over my kidney, and I cried like i was being tortured when getting it.

But the general sensation is a sort of hot itching, and afterwards it can sting a little.

Aftercare advice has changed alot since I got my first one, back then we were generally told to leave it alone, now the advice - better advice - is to put a nappy rash cream, like bepanthen, on it to help stop the scabbing and reduce the itch.

09-23-2010, 02:45 AM
There's only one technique I haven't seen mentioned yet. Saturate a thread with liquid ink and thread a needle with it (traditional ink is charcoal and needle is bone). The needle is run under the skin in the chosen pattern. Short lines and dots make up most of the designs.