What is Tebori?

Tebori is the Japanese term for tattooing by hand. Te (手)meaning ‘hand’ and bori (彫り) meaning ‘to carve’. The word ‘carve’ might seem a little… aggressive.  However it is the same verb used to describe the woodcarving done by the ukiyo-e artisans that carved the woodblocks used to produce ukiyo-e prints.  ‘Horishi’ (彫師) is the term for both those carvers and tattoo artists. Ukiyo-e was an incredibly popular form of print art during the Edo period and was subsequently influential in the style development of the traditional Japanese tattoo – both historical and contemporary.

Tebori style tattooing traces its history back to the period before the advent of electric tattoo machines.  Which is the most prevalent form of tattooing in use by today’s tattooists, Japanese or otherwise.  And hand tattooing requires a great deal of experience and practice before it can be wielded confidently by the artist.  With each successive generation of artists there are fewer and fewer tattooists doing tebori to apply a traditional Japanese tattoo in Japan.

Tattoo artist Horishige is applying a tebori tattoo to a client's forearm while they are lying on their back.

Horishige Doing a Tebori Tattoo. Notice that he places the stick with the needles along his thumb. His thumb acts as the fulcrum providing stability and control for the driving motion.


How is Tebori Done?

The application of tebori is usually done with steel needles firmly attached at the end of a long wooden or metal stick. The shaft of the stick is rested along the thumb of the hand spreading the skin to be tattooed. This provides a stable fulcrum through which the artist will apply downwards force into the skin. The needles are dipped into ink before being applied to the skin. It’s important to note that most tebori artists do the tattoo outline by electric machine (coil or rotary) and reserve use of tebori for shading.

There are a variety of tebori styles specific to different regions throughout Japan. They vary slightly in their method – some use more levering motion while others might use a dragging or pushing-pulling motion. The type of tebori method an artist uses will largely depend on the master under which they apprenticed.

Tattoos done by hand (sometimes referred to as stick and poke in the West – which is not an appropriate description in this context) take a considerable amount of time, often taking up to twice as long as by machine alone. This is an important factor to consider before making plans around a tebori tattoo. You will need to account for the amount of time your tattoo will likely require. So if you’re traveling to Japan make sure you have enough days set aside!

Horimitsu is appllying a tebori tattoo to a client's arm.

Horimitsu is applying a tebori tattoo to a client’s arm.

Traditional Japanese Tattoo

Tebori is considered a cultural connection to traditional tattooing. not only for travellers to Japan, but for many Japanese as well. In the same vein as sak yant in Thailand, tatau in Polynesia, Borneo tattooing, and other forms of tattoo art distinct to specific cultures around the world. However it is important to keep in mind that the idea of cultural authenticity as applied to irezumi may not always be appropriate. An artist may choose tebori for any number of reasons: preservation of tradition, improved shading, healing times, etc.  And you can read more about that here. Some artists have in fact expressed that the rotary machine is similar in mimicking tebori.  And they have opted to leave hand tattooing behind in favour of the rotary machine.

This .gif shows an animation of how a rotary tattoo machine functions. The parts of the machine are labelled.

This .gif from Smarter Every Day illustrates how a rotary machine functions.

Tebori artists apply traditional methods to faithfully create Japanese style ink, but these tattooists are not only reproducing the past. They don’t want to copy whats already been done. Artists of any medium are always seeking to be creative.  And each tebori artist expresses their own unique style, this is visible in examples of their artwork.

Master artisans always forge their own way.

For more information about tebori or other Japanese tattoo-related techniques, motifs, and otherwise, check out these articles.