Tattoos

How Tattoos Work

How Tattoos Work

Tattoos can be found everywhere, the grocery store, your local park, schools, workplaces, and many other places in between. Tattooing has a rich background in history dating back to (at least) Neolithic times, which has been documented through the excavation of mummified preserved skin and in ancient art. There is a vast archaeological record showing just how strong this skin art tradition really is in our past and present.

But, when people stop to think about tattoos, one rarely stops to think about the mechanics of tattooing. While they know that needles are used to inject ink into the skin, when you go beyond the skin's visual aspect and dig a little deeper, there’s a fascinating process happening in the body when you get tattooed.  

If you’re anything like me, you’re interested in understanding the entire process of tattooing, the history of tattoos, and why they are permanently etched on our skin and can tell the story of our lives in tattoos.


Artist: Walt Watts[/caption]

Tattoos are applied using an electrically powered machine (or manual needles in traditional “tap”). The machines work the needle grouping up and down between 50 and 3,000 times per minute, depending on the speed the power source is set at. The needle is set to penetrate a millimeter into the skin’s dermis layer (the second, deeper skin layer). No ink should be deposited beneath this layer of skin if done by a reputable tattoo artist.

If ink makes it past the dermis, it can interrupt the process that is necessary for the body to “take” the ink, just as if it is deposited in the outer layer of skin (the epidermis), the tattoo would be shed along with the 40,000 skin cells you lose per hour. During the tattoo process, the needles cause the body to send immune system cells to the wound-site to start the repair and decrease inflammation due to the damage caused to pigment, collagen, glands, and nerves. Some of these cells include macrophages, which eat the ink to clean the wound and start relieving inflammation.

When these cells travel back to their home in the lymph nodes, the remaining ink is left behind in the dermis cells (fibroblasts), making the ink visible on the skin. As the body creates new fibroblasts, the ink particles are continuously absorbed by the new cells; this is why your new tattoo will begin to fade over time and why you may require some touch-ups throughout the life of the tattoo.


Artist: Miss Amanda[/caption]

Of course, when you are heading to the shop to get your tattoo work done, you may not have the conversion process of cells to artwork, but you will more than likely be thinking about how much enjoyment the tattoo industry brings the world. You will wander in, meet up with some amazing people, and will be brought into a world of unparalleled art and expression. When you go to your local shop to get tattooed, there are a few things you will expect to see on hand. You’ll definitely see:

  • Ink (and ink cups)

  • Tattoo machine (and a power source)

  • Tubes and grips (All of the tubes and grips will be pre-packaged in sterile packaging)

  • Needles (All needles will be packaged in sterile packaging)

  • Green Soap

  • Petroleum or Bacitracin

  • Cups

  • Ultrasonic

  • Spray Bottles

  • Plastic Wrap


Artist: Jared Preslar[/caption]

All of these things play an important role in the tattoo process, but the most important piece of the puzzle that contributes the most to the overall process of tattooing is your tattoo artist. While they may not be taught from day 1 about the exact underlying biological causes of tattoos, it takes a rigorous tattoo apprentice to learn the tattoo process's ins and outs.