Last year, before Coronavirus pissed over any travel plans you had, Emily and I spent a few weeks in Japan. For one of those weeks, we stayed in the beautiful city of Kyoto, and it was here we decided it would be amazing to get tattooed by a local artist, like the cliché white travellers we are.

Through Instagram we found Kyoi, at Kitsuneya Tattoo Studio. It wasn’t really our intention to specifically find a tebori artist, but his Instagram made it clear most of his work was done utilising the traditional Japanese methods.

What’s tebori?

For centuries before tattoo machines existed, Irezumi (tattoo) artists have been doing their work using the tebori technique, where needles are fixed to the end of a stick, and then applied to the skin utilising a variety of hand motions. There is none of the depth settings you get on machines, tebori masters instead must rely on feeling and instinct alone. It is an incredibly difficult and complex skill, and a joy to witness.

Kyoi is one of a relatively small number of artists who have carried through tebori to the modern day.

Me, virtually having a snooze.

Em, ready for her whole hand to fall off.

Our experience

With our booking organised quickly over DM for the following evening (Kyoi likes to work through the night), I wasn’t actually too sure if he’d tattoo small flash using tebori techniques, or just opt for a machine instead. Once there, it turned out there he almost works exclusively using tebori when it comes to colour and shading (he does use his machine for outlines). We both picked out some flash, while Kyoi got set up.

I opted for a Nekomata flash piece (a two tailed, human eating cat) on the back of my shoulder. Emily picked out some smaller cherry blossom for her wrist. Two equally classy choices.

As always, the tattoo experience and pain level was entirely different for each of us. I’d actually say Emily’s pain tolerance is sturdier than mine these days (I seem to get worse with each tattoo I get!). However, when it came to tebori, I definitely had all the luck. Placement may have been super relevant (the wrist is a notoriously stingy area), but either way, Em very much “felt” every jab of the needles. Swelling also appeared almost straight away. For me, the slower, manual needle work lacked sting and felt super smooth apart from the last hour or so (the session wasn’t quick, I do think you’ll struggle to find a tebori artist who can work at the same speed as a machine). I’ve always enjoyed hand poke tattoos in the past, and while tebori is very different, I think there is something about manual needlework that I do find more comfortable.

Em's cherry blossom, orange edition.

My Nekomata. That white!

Why tebori is so good

Other than witnessing an incredibly impressive skill in action, tebori tattoos also have the benefit of allowing some of the brightest, intense colours you’ll see. Some inks and colours you can only utilise using tebori, in fact Emily’s cherry blossom was instantly recognised as tebori by another artist back in the UK, simply because of the intense “tebori” orange. My Nekomata kitty also has block white colouring that would never last or clearly show with a machine tattoo.

I’ll finish with two bits of advice. Visit Kyoto, and get tattooed by Kyoi!