Thanks to Tatowier Magazin and Dirk-Boris for featuring my work with Experimental Archaeology and Indigenous tattooing tools and practices in their November issue which focuses on tattoo tools and techniques from around the world.
And for the Germanically impaired... this is the entire interview, which was greatly reduced in length
You're practicing tattoos of different cultures like those of the Inuit, the Haida and early medieval european tribes like vikings – can you describe the different tools and techniques?
The oldest and most common form of tattooing is just a grouping of sharp needles fastened to a stick. Some cultures developed techniques from materials they were more familiar with like the Polynesian tatau or the Inuit sewing but all of these designs were monochromatic lines or blackwork. You see a lot of people today doing dotwork mandalas and calling it traditional, however as far as we know mandalas were not a tattooing motif and dotwork has never been a traditional technique. While these designs may have a New Age spirituality they don’t have a lot in common with the Sak Yant tradition from which they are inspired.
The sewing / stitching technique of the Inuit is quite unique; is there any other culture in the world who does tattoos like this? Why did the Inuit invent this peculiar technique?
The sewing technique is very specific to the Arctic regions and can be found in Russia, Greenland, Canada and Alaska as well as down the North West Coast in North America. Craftsmen/women will generally use the tools that they are familiar with to express themselves creatively. In Polynesia they adapted their wood working tools for the purpose of tattooing. Survival in the Arctic depended on ones clothing… the quality of the materials combined with the talent of the seamstress. The women’s craft was sewing and eventually they began using these same techniques to embroider their own skin and it was seldom that the men were tattooed. However sewing wasn’t the only form of tattooing in the Arctic, as they also handpoked designs.
Can you compare the pain when getting tattooed in this different techniques?
Generally hand tattooing is less painful and invasive than machine. The machine is much faster and harder on the skin, but hand tattooing on the other hand takes more time.
What materials did these cultures use to produce there tattoo tools?
Tools were usually just a wooden handle onto which a grouping of needles is attached and then either pushed or struck into the skin. Before the introduction of metal needles other sharp objects were used or created. Boars tooth was sharpened into combs in Polynesia, Thorns were used in Indonesia, Quills in North America, Bone needle and sinew in the Arctic, in parts of Africa they would tattoo by cutting and rubbing soot into the wound. People are very creative.
Do you see a difference in the healing process when tattooed by hand or by machine?
The healing process tends to be quicker with less bleeding and scarring. You still find many Japanese who outline by machine but still colour using tebori because less bleeding and quicker healing results in more vibrant colours.
There are relatively good sources about the tattoo culture of Haida and Inuit (as far as I know?) but with the vikings, celts, germanic tribes or picts, only little is known. So how do you approach a tattoo culture that probably once existed, but of which only very little is known?
Most designs from tribal tattooing are based on the arts and crafts the culture surrounds themselves with on a daily basis. The more advanced the art… the more advanced the tattooing. The Celts, Picts and Vikings were master craftsmen with wood, stone, metal and fabric and are known to have tattooed as well. I’m certain that their tattooing would have been is a similar style as their other handcrafts with even more care taken to its execusion.
Do you think the tattoos shown in the TV-series »Viking« might be somehow authentic? Or is that just fantasy-stuff?
Your guess is as good as mine… lucky will be the man who finds a well preserved Viking. I’m really am happy that they chose to represent tattooing in the Viking series, unfortunately they took their inspiration from modern Nordic tattoos and inadvertently used designs made by myself and other friends. I’m find it strange (and at the same time flattering) when people mistake my work for historical pieces. Just as clients, producers will most often google “Viking Tattoos” instead of googling “Viking Art” for inspiration.
It is said that the Haida might have been the only indigenous people who also used red as a tattoo pigment and not just black like everyone else - can you say something about it?
There is one historical reference to the Haida tattooing in polychrome, black and red. However this was post contact, so they might have had access to Chinese vermilion at this time. I’ve experimented using red ochre as a tattooing pigment on several occasions… on myself, Lars Krutak and other museum personal with good results. However it isn’t something I wish to do on a larger scale until I can see the long term results.
As you are an expert in the tattoo traditions of different cultures; when you compare these traditions, in how far are there similarities, where are the differences?
The similarity is that we are all human… the difference is that we are all individuals.
Why did you chose to research and also practice hand-tattooing instead of tattooing with a machine?
My mother and grandmother were seamstresses and quilt makers so I was brought up with traditional crafts and always enjoyed making things by hand. I was raised with many native kids and studied native art in University where tattoo designs would often surface. I’ve always had an interest in archaeology and particularly mummies… When Tutankhamun toured North America in the 70’s I begged my parents to order the museum catalogue (which I still have). When I was in University in the 80s I read about the Qilakitsoq mummies from Greenland and later worked as a clinical illustrator at the same department that they were autopsied in. I move to Denmark the same month that Ötzi the Iceman was discovered. When I started tattooing I could have gravitated towards cultural forms of tattooing which are still practiced such as Tebori from Japan or Tatau from Polynesia… but there were many others already keeping those traditions alive. My roots are Scandinavian… my upbringing is Canadian and my interest is in pre-history and trying to revive some of the lost traditions from the past.
As an added bonus Charles Boday's book "Handpoke Tattoo" also got a rave review