Several cultures around the world were tattooing long before there were electric tattoo machines.
Famous Polynesian tribal tattoo motifs are called Tatau, Thailand’s religious script tattoos go by Sak Yant and tattooing by hand in Japan is known as Tebori.
In Indonesia, tribal tattooing traditions come from the Dayak people in Kalimantan (Borneo) and Mentawaian shamans from that archipelago. The culture of tattooing in Indonesia historically symbolized achievements for warriors, hunters and artisans. Lars Krutak, Tattoo Anthropologist, is the Western expert on Borneo tattoos, Mentawai tattoos, and scarification body art in Papua New Guinea.
Although they are similar, each traditional technique is a distinct practice with different significance. As a group, these are called manual tattoo techniques. Yes, most use bamboo, so you can call them bamboo tattoos if you want to.
Bamboo tattoos made in Bali
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What are the differences between electric tattoos and manual tattoos?
Instead of using a modern electric tattoo machine, manual tattoos are made with a wood shaft which has a tattooing needle affixed to the end. Depending on which tattooing method is used, the end result will have some distinguishing characteristics, but most people can’t recognize the subtle differences.
Long ago, traditional tattooing instruments had sharp tips or rakes made of bamboo splinters or animal bones. Now most island-style tattoo tools also employ single-use disposable tattoo needles made of metal. Bamboo is not actually used to pierce the skin and deliver ink, so the unique aspects of getting “bamboo tattoos” are mostly mechanical and experiential.
- Speed settings and grip give the artist more control and precision
- High-speed needle movement is abrasive to skin’s surface
- Ink is deposited evenly into the lipid layer
- Loud electric buzzing
- Slower and less precise
- Inconsistent pressure can make a more organic appearance
- Poking is gentler than a high-speed tattoo machine
- Healing may be faster
- Ink is deposited closer to the skin’s surface
- Quieter, potentially more rhythmic and meditative
Both methods are safe in a hygienic environment with professional tattooing best practices. Some specific models of modern tattoo machines can potentially trap contaminated ink, but then again, archaic tools could harbor certain pathogens in the wood – both are very unlikely but possible causes of increased health risks. MORE ABOUT GETTING TATTOOS IN BALI
Traditional Indonesian tattooing: hand tapping and hand poking
These two traditional tattooing methods are completely different techniques. Cap Bagong Tatu in Ubud, Bali explains both ways on their website like this:
“Hand tapping is a method of tattooing originating from Borneo and the Mentawaii Islands. This is a style of tattoo that is completely unique in design, as it is created using wooden tapping sticks. This is done with the assistance of a stretcher, who stretches the skin for this technique. People will describe the hand tapping tattoo experience as a more gentle and meditative experience with only the sound of the tapping sticks.
“Hand poking, where the artist uses a stick and needle to create a design dot by dot […] gives a more subtle and delicate result from using a machine. Clients often say that hand poking is less painful and a very different feeling from the tattoo machine.”
How much does it cost to get a bamboo tattoo in Bali?
Right now a competitive price for hand tapping and hand poking in Ubud, Legian and Canggu is around IDR 1,500,000 per hour.
Tattooing by hand is charged at a premium rate for two main reasons:
- Tattooing with a stick takes much longer than tattooing with an electric machine
- The hourly price for bamboo tattooing is higher because it is a specialized skill
Meet the pros
Bamboo tattooing has never been a bigger part of Bali’s evolving tattoo scene. There are more tattoo artists offering hand-made tattoos in Bali now than ever before, but they are still a tiny minority in an industry dominated by electric tattooing. Here are some of the specialists:
Tattooing since 2005, Sono specializes in 100% unique custom tattoos made by hand tapping. He charges IDR 1,500,000 per hour for hand poking or hand tapping.
He favors dot work and line work to make geometric tattoos, mandalas and other original designs with Indonesian motifs – batik patterns, spiritual and religious symbolism and ancient Javanese script.
The talented, charismatic and entertaining Noenoe, resident artist and owner of Lovina Tattoo Gallery, is an experienced bamboo tattoo maker who will give you an authentic experience complete with traditional clothes and performance art if that’s what you’re after.
The price for bamboo tattoos at Lovina Tattoo Gallery in Kuta is IDR 1,500,000 per hour. He also goes by Bamboo Tattoo Kuta Bali on Facebook and regularly does tattoo demonstrations at body art expos around Southeast Asia and Australia.
Shop owner, professional tattoo artist, piercer and body modification aficionado, Albar Tikam was one of the first tattoo artists in Bali to give foreigners a chance to experience traditional Indonesian tattooing.
Although it’s no longer the only good place to get a bamboo tattoo in Bali, his studio Suku Suku Tatau is well established and Albar is respected as an expert authority on Indonesian body art history, culture and how-to. Hand tapping starts at IDR 2,500,000 per hour; hand poking starts at IDR 1,500,000 per hour.
Tattooing in Bali for two decades, no question Unyil is legit af. He is a Bali tattoo legend with hundreds (thousands?) of drawings and original tattoos of Balinese Hindu spirits on his Instagram (30K followers, no big deal).
But did you know he also does hand poking with handmade tools? Well, now you do. Don’t be intimidated – he’s just a (really talented) regular guy.
Get a bamboo tattoo in Bali
If you’re interested in getting a hand-made tattoo, choose an artist with training and experience. Don’t expect every tattoo studio in Bali to offer hand-made tattoos. They don’t. Many shops which offer bamboo tattooing actually don’t have a specialist manual tattooer on staff, and bring one in from another studio when there are interested customers.
Add your studio
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