Tattoo artist brings Japanese hand-crafted tattoo technique to the Valley

PHOENIX (KSAZ) -- Artists in Japan have been creating permanent body art, well before the tattoo machine was invented. They did (and still do) create tattoos by hand, and there's a local artist who uses the ancient tattooing technique.

"Knowing there are some specifics, I stayed away from it for the younger part of the career, but I grew a little hungry for something more interesting, a little deeper, more historical," said Alex "Empty" Goldstein with Copper State Tattoo.

Goldstein, or "Alex Empty", as he's known in the tattoo community, has been perfecting American traditional tattoos for many years, and he's one of only a few artists in the Valley who can also give customers some ink, Tebori style.

Tebori, a Japanese style of tattooing, has been around since the 1600's. The folklore ink is carved on the skin by hand, using a rod either made of wood or metal, with an array of needles at the end of it to insert ink into the skin.

"We're just taking the machine out, and using the kinetics of the arm and wrist and the needle to physically insert into the skin the pigment," said Goldstein.

"It's like folky almost," said tattoo enthusiast Kristen Ziegenbein. "Someone did this by hand for you. It's not perfect, no one drew it on an iPad first. He usually draws them on first by hand, not a stencil, like most of the time."

"Tattooing by hand is slower, and in some ways, it's a little bit less technically accurate," said Goldstein. "In some ways it gives us softer amounts of shading, but the designs themselves are maybe a little more simple."

Ziegenbein got her first Tebori-style tattoo about two years ago, and she chose a cat design.

"Then I got another one and another one and another one and another one, and it turned into a full sleeve," said Ziegenbein.

Since that first one, Ziegenbein has been hesitant to go back to the traditional machine tattoo.

"My Tebori tattoos heal much faster than my tattoos that were done with a machine," said Ziegenbein. "They usually scab up with a thinner scab, and then it sluffs off. It doesn't peel, crack or crust as much. It's a much different sensation. It's kind of calming and soothing while it happens. The machine goes back and forth on your skin, and you can feel it tearing through your skin almost, but with Tebori, it just pokes and shakes a little against your skin, and it's much more calming."

Goldstein traveled to Japan several times to learn the technique from a master Tebori artist. That same artist has since visited Goldstein in the Valley, at his shop near Downtown Phoenix.