I had been wanting a tattoo for years but never really decided on what to get or where. I had several ideas in my head, and those ideas have always been reoccurring whenever I thought about getting a tattoo, so for my 28th birthday I finally decided to go ahead with it.
My girl friend had been wanting a new tattoo as well so we decided to go check out a well reviewed place on my birthday with high hopes… and that’s when it all went to shits.
As it turns out, I’m not sure why that tattoo shop was so highly rated. The front door girl was rude and I scoffed at the $80 minimum price tag. What I had wanted to get was a tiny 1cm x 1cm Taurus symbol on the top side of my thumb webbing. Like this:
Seriously? $80? I understand there is a minimum because of the artist’s skill and time but c’mon. This tattoo couldn’t have possibly taken more than 5 min in the hands of a skilled artist. At $160 per hour the $80 minimum is just atrocious.
So I didn’t end up getting a tattoo on my birthday like I had planned. But, like anything that costs me way too much for something way too simple, I started looking at DIY methods. That’s usually how I start learning something new: when people want to charge me FAR too much for something I can “easily” do myself for FAR less money.
I am not responsible for anything you read here and attempt to do on your own! Proceed ENTIRELY at your own risk. Tattoo artists are professionals and take years of practice to perfect their craft. If you have zero common sense, and have no idea what you’re doing. DON’T DO IT! Seek professional help. Risk can be serious infection leading to amputation.
I’m sharing what I did, my method. These are by NO MEANS professional techniques. I am an amateur at best. Chances are everything I have done is wrong and I can lose a finger. Do your own research.
And before you whine and complain about how stupid I am and how I’m doing it wrong, realize that I am in no way claiming that this is the correct method, nor that I’m doing it correctly. For all I know a week later I will be without a hand and foot. If you think it is stupid then just don’t do it yourself. For me, it was a personal choice that I’d like to think was based on some educated guesses. Your opinion literally have zero effect on my life so unless you have something nice to say, you can keep it to yourself.
Now that’s out of the way… onward!
I have always been intrigued by the traditional Hawaiian method of tattooing since I saw it once on TV. Where the guy literally taps a row of inked needles into the skin repeatedly. Frankly, that’s all modern tattooing is but with a mechanical needle, but this traditional method seemed a lot more artistic, genuine and authentic. If that makes any sense at all. That thought had been in my mind for a long time and I did some research years ago and found that many different countries/cultures have their own tattooing methods. This gave me the thought that if I ever travelled to those areas I would get a tattoo in the traditional method as a memorial.
After my attempt of getting a birthday tattoo failed, I started researching some DIY methods. Surprisingly (or not), this lead me straight back to traditional tattooing methods. There aren’t a lot of DIY information out there for these traditional methods and most DIY tattooing involves the “Stick and Poke” method. Which essentially involves drunken teenagers poking themselves with a needle and some ink. After looking at some pictures and watching some videos I vetoed this method. Stick and Poke may be fine and dandy if I had been 12 and really drunk. What I was looking for was more or less a semi professional result (fake it till you make it) and the Stick and Poke method didn’t deliver. Not only did the ink not stay very well (faint inking of the design), it seemed like most people couldn’t achieve a straight line this way.
After a bit more research, I found that the Japanese method of Tebori was very similar to Stick and Poke but a bit more advanced. Tebori techniques use a tool that is essentially a row (or several rows) of needles dipped in ink. The ink is then applied manually by repeatedly stabbing the area to be inked. Since professional artists use this method (as opposed to a bunch of drunken teens) I tentatively voted yes for this method. The trick of course, was can I do this myself. Japanese tattoo artists who are proficient at Tebori usually have years of apprenticing so I wasn’t sure if an amateur like me can pull it off. So off to a lot of reading and research…
Tebori techniques like I said use a row, or rows of needles depending on if lines or shading is being done. The more needles, the larger surface area it covers. Pretty self explanatory. However, there aren’t a ton of information on how the tool is made so I resorted to looking at a ton of picture:
(I believe the last one is someone’s homemade version but I could be wrong)
And here is someone’s setup on how to make these. Notice the clip (presumably to hold the needles in a flat row to be assembled), I think some glue? (to old the needles temporarily in place) and a soldering iron (likely to permanently fix the needles in place).
Given all these references, I started making my own Tebori tool. I don’t have hand sewing needles (because hand sewing is for people with patience), so used sewing pins. I used a pair of pliers and snipped off the butt of the the pin so they could lay flat against each other. I also tried soldering the pins together but whatever coating was on the pins didn’t take to the solder so they wouldn’t stick. I used a row of 8 pins because I figured it was wide enough to give me good coverage yet still slim enough to work on the details. In hind sight, I’d make one smaller for the size of the tattoo I was doing. Likely a 3 or 4 pin.
Here they are all lined up. Notice I lined up the tip of the needles with a slight curve. There was no special reason for this except for to make it look like the references. I’m not sure why the professionals do it this way but there must be a reason. Again, the “secrets” of Tebori seems to be very closely guarded and most of these things aren’t explained very well. Or at least I can’t find online. Screw books…
Here they are all wrapped up. When and IF you do this, make sure your needles are still flat on a line. If you’re doing several rows of this, I would recommend the soldering method. Find something that will solder nicely. Or, use light layers of masking tape so you don’t have too much gap between your rows of needles. I only had one row so I didn’t really care. All I wanted was for the needles to stay as flat in a row as possible. If these are curved you’ll end up with messed up lines. (Think about it, this flatness is what you will be using to create straight lines in your design. If your needles line up like a little bow, then your lines will be really messy or too fat to compensate).
To more closely imitate the traditional Tebori tool I tapped my row of needle to a fondu stick. Any stick will do but again, make sure your needles are still flat in a row after you do this. The stick is just something easier for you to hold on to and manipulate. Since I was going to do this on myself, I held this more like a pen rather than how the professionals do it. Which is to rest the needled end against your thumb to guide the movement and do the poking with the other hand while holding the handle of the stick.
Here’s a close up of the tip. I wrapped thread on it because the thread was suppose to act like a wick for the ink. If you have cotton threads they will probably work the best. In the end, my thread was useless and I will explain why: the row of needles actually has a capillary effect in the slight space between them. This wicks the ink up the needles and holds the ink. Surprisingly well too. So the needles themselves are the ink well.
Speaking of ink, don’t use just any ink. After doing some reading, it appears most ink teens use are toxic. (think the permanent crap in a Sharpie). Real Tabori uses Sumi-e ink. Sumi-e ink (from my limited Japanese language skills) is used for ink wash painting and usually made by grinding a ink stick with water. This allows the artist to achieve the right consistency and colour of ink they need. I didn’t have access to Sumi-e ink, but read that India and Chinese ink will work as well. From what I read, all 3 ink types use the main ingredient of soot (black charcoal essentially) and water. Chinese ink is a bit thicker than Sumi-e ink but can easily be diluted with just plain water. I used Chinese ink as a child to do calligraphy (the undiluted version) and Chinese painting (diluted version for shading) so I more or less knew that Chinese ink will work. I live close to Chinatown so this is what I opted to go with. A large bottle of this stuff is only like $3. Super cheap and affordable.
When you have all your tools and supplies ready, you’re ready to tattoo!
1. Clean and disinfect the area well. Wash the area with warm soapy water. Wash your hands with warm soapy water. Clearn with rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, it doesn’t matter. If you have surgical gloves, wear them. These are like $5 for a box of 100 so don’t be THAT cheap.
2. Get a tiny container for your ink. I used a 1 teaspoon measuring cup. Depending on the size of your tattoo you will need more or less of this. Of course, if you’re wanting a coloured tattoo, go get coloured Sumi-e ink. You can buy this at Japanese/Asian office stores or eBay and they’re not expensive. Regular tattoo ink should work too (obvious) but I’m not sure how much they would cost. Dilute the ink if you wish. I used mine straight up.
3. Draw the design (or use a tattoo stencil if you’re fancy) with a regular ball point pen. Tattoo transfer paper are just carbon transfer paper. You should be able to get these in Asian office supply stores. I used these a lot as a child but they don’t seem to be widely available in western office supply stores. You may be lucky to find some at your local Office Depot. I’ve never tried looking because my design is simple.
Video: how to apply tattoo transfer paper Link: Tattoo transfer paper
4. Clean and disinfect the area again. Just some gentle swipes with alcohol or peroxide. Don’t wipe too hard or you’ll remove your design/stencil.
5. Get a cotton swab or cloth ready and wet it with Saline solution. I used saline because it is sterile. If you have a sterile wipe you can use that. Alcohol pads. Or if you have none of the above, a cotton makeup remover pad and lightly salted water. In a squeeze bottle is the best because I didn’t want to keep dipping the pad or cloth back in to a bowl of water. I personally recommend makeup remover pads. They’re small, cheap and easily disposable when you need a new one (and you will need a new one very quickly).
6. Once you get your pattern drawn, double check and make sure you like the positioning and such. Because after this there is no going back. Wipe off and redraw if needed.
7. Disinfect your tool. You can do this however you want. I dipped mine in peroxide and then burned the tip on a flame. Because fire kills everything right? lol
8. Dip the tip into your ink. You should notice the space between the needles act like a capillary and hold the ink.
* wear protective clothing if you tend to make a mess. Protect the floor and any other work surface as chances are you will make a mess.
9. Commence the poking! This is the hardest part for me to get used to for many reasons. one, I am poking myself and it will hurt, depending on your pain tolerance. two, you need to poke hard enough for the needles to pierce the skin and inject the ink but not so hard that you bleed. If you’re bleeding, lighten up. You’re poking too hard. When done properly, you should hear and feel faint popping noises from your skin and you should fee a bit of a tug as you pull the needles back out. All this “feeling” is very faint and pay attention to it. After a few moments your body’s natural endorphin should kick in and the pain should subside. If it doesn’t and you can’t take it, then this is likely not for you. Work on a little part of the line at a time. Wipe of the excess ink when you can’t see what you’re doing. You’ll go through cotton pads very quickly this way. Remember to wet your cotton pad with saline, you’ll see much better wiping results and it won’t be such a mess. Just keep poking and working your design in till you get the desired darkness in your design. It will take a bit of time. The first few times you’ll just end up with little black dots on your skin. Keep going till the line is filled as desired. This is where I wish I used a smaller tool. Something with 3 or 4 pins instead of 8. As this will allow you to make much tighter turns in your design. So obviously, your size tool depends on your design. More pins in your tool will help you create much straighter lines over a large area.
10. When you’re done. Wipe off any excess ink. I washed the area gently again with soapy water (this will sting a little, but just a little) and then wiped gently with peroxide. Do everything gentle. 1, your skin will sting and 2, you don’t want to scrub or scratch at your design.
11. Keep the area clean and disinfected for the next few days till it heals. Keeping the infection out is the most important part when you attempt to do this yourself.
Here is a look of the two I did right after. Notice the area is slightly red. Yes, I realize the lines on the star are a bit crooked. Like I said, I am by no means a professional. But I quite like how they turned out, especially given that it’s my first time and all.
At the time of this post, my tattoos are on day two. The redness has already disappeared and the design is still holding fairly well. My hand is slightly tender if my sleeves rub against the design but that’s to be expected. I am in no pain and there is no sign of infection. If you read here, Tebori methods are suppose to heal a lot quicker than machine tattoos. For the reason that you’re not damaging the area nearly as much. So far, that seems to be true. Still, I will keep the area clean and disinfected and wait a week before I post another update and see how it holds up.
I am not using any ointment on the tattoos. My hand one is not bandaged because I keep reading mixed opinions about bandages and how they raise your skin temperature and hold in moisture. My foot one has a regular bandaid on it because I don’t want my socks or shoes rubbing against it. So far I’m not feeling any pain or discomfort. I will try to clean the area, disinfect and re-bandaid the area at night.
I really enjoyed the learning and experiment experience. For sure for sure I am no expert and have a LONG ways to go before I am at all proficient a this art form. That being said, it wasn’t an overly difficult process to accomplish on an amateur level. If you couldn’t tell, I did my foot first and my hand after. I think by the time I got to my hand I already did much better.
To be able to do this myself, as a birthday present, was something really special to me personally. Given that I had always wanted a tattoo done by the traditional hand techniques. The process was very organic and hurt much less than I imagined it would. Personally I have fairly decent pain tolerance level.
Tebori (especially DIY) is not for everyone. Again, I am not responsible for anything you decide to do on yourself or what happens to you if you should decide to do anything to yourself. Seek professional help and be smart. Do not do anything that you can’t live with in the future. Tattooing is a commitment (however small you may think) and any commitment should take careful planning and consideration.
I do have another tattoo planned with some Chinese characters. That is a more complicated piece that I will more than likely get a professional tattoo artist to perform.
Do I think the $80 price tag is worth it after I did this myself? Ummm… yes and no. Yes, if you’re paying for the artist’s skill. Like any professional, you’re paying them for their knowledge and experience. No, because it really was a simple tattoo. Think about it, if a complete noob like me pulled it off, how much knowledge is really required? All the material as mostly free. My ink (which is about 300 times more than what I actual need) was $3. Could I easily rack up a $3000 hospital bill because I’m an idiot? Very likely. But that chance is also there at any tattoo shop. You don’t know how they maintain their equipment or what the guy has been doing with his hands/gloves. At least, this way, I know exactly what has been done and hasn’t. Time wise, from making the tool from scratch to the tattoo being done was less than 2 hours. Again, this includes making the tool from individual pins and prepping all the material. So, again, make your own judgement. The actual tattooing probably look less than 10 min each.
I hope this has been helpful and insightful to you. Should you do try this (this by no means imply I endorse you doing this), I would love to see what you come up with.