Itís impossible to walk through a mall for more than a couple of minutes without spotting people of all ages with tattoos. Tattoos come in all shapes and sizes, and they can appear almost anywhere on someone's body. Permanent cosmetic studios also tattoo on eyebrows, eyeliner and lip liner for those who want their makeup to be permanent. In these cases, you may not even know that you are looking at a tattoo!
Tattoos have steadily gained popularity in the last decade -- a trend that shows little sign of slowing down. In this edition of HowStuffWorks, weíll look at all facets of tattooing -- its history and cultural significance, the technology of tattoo machines and how the tattooing process works, and the safety, artistic and legal issues surrounding the practice of tattooing.
One busy physician who specializes in tattoo removal estimates that 50 percent of people who get tattoos later regret them. We discuss the implications of getting tattooed as well as the tattoo removal process in the article How Tattoo Removal Works.
Believe it or not, some scientists say that certain marks on the skin of the Iceman, a mummified human body dating from about 3300 B.C., are tattoos. If thatís true, these markings represent the earliest known evidence of the practice. Tattoos found on Egyptian and Nubian mummies date from about 2000 B.C., and classical authors mention the use of tattoos in connection with Greeks, ancient Germans, Gauls, Thracians and ancient Britons.
Tattooing was rediscovered by Europeans when exploration brought them into contact with Polynesians and American Indians. The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word tattau, which means "to mark," and was first mentioned in explorer James Cookís records from his 1769 expedition to the South Pacific. Because tattoos were considered so exotic in European and U.S. societies, tattooed Indians and Polynesians drew crowds at circuses and fairs during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The practice of tattooing means different things in different cultures. In early practice, decoration appears to have been the most common motive for tattooing, and that still holds true today. In some cultures, tattoos served as identification of the wearerís rank or status in a group. For example, the early Romans tattooed slaves and criminals. Tahitian tattoos served as rites of passage, telling the history of the wearerís life. Boys reaching manhood received one tattoo to mark the occasion, while men had another style done when they married. Sailors traveling to exotic foreign lands began to collect tattoos as souvenirs of their journeys (a dragon showed that the seaman had served on a China station), and tattoo parlors sprang up in port cities around the globe.
This Tahitian tattoo tells about rights of passage in the wearer's life.
Thousands of tattoo designs, or "flash," are available.
Custom tattooing (like freehand drawing without a stencil) is increasingly popular with customers, especially those with multiple tattoos.
Tattoo artists enjoy creating custom designs like this one.
Tattoo artists say they like the custom work -- that itís more challenging and artistically satisfying to create something new rather than using a stencil to reproduce a time-worn image such as a rose or an eagle.
Early Tattooing Methods
An amazing variety of tattooing methods developed in different cultures. In North and South America, many Indian tribes routinely tattooed the body or the face by simple pricking, and some tribes in California introduced color into scratches. Many tribes of the Arctic and Subarctic, mostly Inuit, and some people in eastern Siberia, made needle punctures through which a thread coated with pigment (usually soot) was drawn underneath the skin. In Polynesia and Micronesia, pigment was pricked into the skin by tapping on a tool shaped like a small rake.
The Maori people of New Zealand, who are world famous for their tattooing, applied their wood carving technique to tattooing. In the moko style of Maori tattooing, shallow, colored grooves in distinctive, complex designs were produced on the face and buttocks by striking a small bone-cutting tool (used for shaping wood) into the skin. After the Europeans arrived in the 1700s, the Maori began using the metal that settlers brought for a more conventional style of puncture tattooing.
The Head Trade
The Maori had a custom of preserving the heads of their tattooed leaders after death as precious family possessions. Over time, they began to trade some of the heads to collectors for firearms and iron tools. This practice, which is why there are some of these heads in European museums, was short-lived because of the fighting and political turmoil it caused.|
Today, tattoos are created by injecting ink into the skin. Injection is done by a needle attached to a hand-held tool. The tool moves the needle up and down at a rate of several hundred vibrations per minute and penetrates the skin by about one millimeter.
Thanks to Sean Beck
HowStuffWorks would like to thank Sean Beck of the Naked Art tattoo parlor (located in Raleigh, NC) for his help in creating this article.|
What you see when you look at a tattoo is the ink that's left in the skin after the tattooing. The ink is not in the epidermis, which is the layer of skin that we see and the skin that gets replaced constantly, but instead intermingles with cells in the dermis and shows through the epidermis.
The tattoo needle inserts ink into the skin's dermal layer.
The cells of the dermis are remarkably stable, so the tattoo's ink will last, with minor fading and dispersion, for your entire life!
The Tattoo Machine
The basic idea of the electrically powered tattoo machine is that a needle moves up and down like in a sewing machine, carrying ink into your skin in the process.
The tattoo machine as we know it today has remained relatively unchanged since it was invented by Samuel OíReilly and patented in the United States in 1891. In 1876, Thomas Edison patented a tattooing device -- the autographic printer, which was intended as an engraving device for hard surfaces. OíReilly modified Edisonís machine by changing the tube system and using the cam conversion of a rotary-driven electromagnetic oscillating unit to enable the machine to drive the needle. OíReillyís patent was actually only for the tube assembly, since the rest of the machine was identical to Edisonís autographic printer.|
Today, a tattoo machine is an electrically powered, vertically vibrating steel instrument that resembles a dentistís drill (and sounds a little like it, too). It is fitted with solid needles that puncture the skin at the rate of 50 to 3,000 times a minute. The sterilized needles are installed in the machine and dipped in ink, which is sucked up through the machineís tube system. Then, powered by a foot switch much like that on a sewing machine, the tattoo machine uses an up-and-down motion to puncture the top layer of the skin and drive insoluble, micrometer-sized particles of ink into the second (dermal) layer of skin, about one-eighth inch deep.
A tattoo machine involves a magnetic vibrator driving the needle up and down. Click here to see how the machine is assembled.
Tattoo machines, some very fancy, are sold by specialty companies, which also sell the ink, ink cups, needles and other materials used by the artist. A beginnerís kit, priced at $199 on the Internet, includes one professional angle tattoo machine, one adjustable power supply, one foot switch, one clip cord, two tubes, tips and grips, six 1-ounce Millennium Tattoo Colors, five shader needles, five liner needles, 100 ink cups, one ink cup holder and one tube of Bacitracin.
Applying a Tattoo
Much of the tattoo application process focuses on safety, since any puncture wound -- and thatís what a tattoo machine is doing to your skin -- holds the potential for infection and disease transfer.
The only acceptable method of sterilization for killing every living microorganism is an autoclave, a heat/steam/pressure unit (used in hospitals) that achieves and maintains 250 degrees Fahrenheit (121 C) under 10 pounds of pressure for 30 minutes or up to 270 F (132 C) under 15 pounds of pressure for 15 minutes. (Most units run a 55-minute cycle from a cold start.) Most tattoo materials -- inks, ink cups, gloves and needles -- are used only once to eliminate the possibility of contamination of materials. All reusable materials, such as the needle bar and the tube, must be completely clean, put into special pouches and sterilized in the autoclave. Indicator strips on the packages change color when processing has occurred.
Other equipment includes razors (for shaving the skin, since hair clogs up the tubes and hinders application) and plastic barriers (bags) that are used on spray bottles, tattoo machines and clip cords to prevent cross-contamination.
The tattoo artist, who has washed and inspected hands for cuts or abrasions and disinfected the work area with an EPA-approved viricidal, dons fresh gloves and generally follows this procedure:
- Places plastic bags on spray bottles
- Explains the sterilization process to client
- Opens up single-service, autoclave sterilized equipment in front of client
- Shaves and disinfects (with a mixture of water and antiseptic green soap) the area to be tattooed
With the outline (stencil) of the tattoo in place -- or the outline of a custom tattoo drawn by hand onto the skin -- the actual tattooing begins.
Using one single-tipped needle, the artist starts at the bottom of the right-hand side and works up (lefties generally start on the left side), so the stencil wonít be lost when the artist cleans a permanent line. For single-needle work, a thinner black ink than that used for shading is used, because thinner ink can be easily wiped away from the skin without smearing.
As this happens, the tattoo machine is buzzing and smooth clear lines should be emerging as the needle pierces the skin, applies the ink and gradually lifts out of the skin in a steady motion. (Experts say this is where the professionals show their mettle: In order to create clear lines and proper depth, the tattoo artist must understand how deep the needles actually need to go to produce a permanent line. Not going deep enough will create scratchy lines after healing, and going too deep will cause excessive pain and bleeding.)
If you would like to see the artist using the tattoo machine to create this custom tattoo, click here.
Once the outline is complete, the area is thoroughly cleaned with antiseptic soap and water. Then, the outline is thickened and shading is added. The tattoo artist will use a combination of needles. If this isnít done correctly, shadowed lines, excessive pain and delayed healing will result. Again, everything must be autoclaved before use.
Using a thicker, blacker ink, the artist goes over the outline creating an even, solid line. Shading creates special effects. Each tattoo artist works differently, depending upon his or her training and preference.
After the shading is done, the tattoo is cleaned again and is now ready for color. When applying color, the artist overlaps each line of color to ensure solid, even hues with no ďholidaysĒ -- uneven areas where color has either lifted out during healing or where the tattoo artist simply missed a section of skin.
The tattoo is again sprayed and cleaned and pressure is applied using a disposable towel to remove any blood and plasma excreted during the tattooing process. According to medical experts, some bleeding always occurs in tattooing, but under normal conditions (no alcohol or illegal drugs in the system, no fatigue, no tattooing over scar tissue), most stops within a few minutes after the tattoo is completed. (Reputable tattoo artists wonít tattoo those who are sick, drunk, high or pregnant, and they wonít apply pornographic, racist or gang tattoos.)
How long the process takes depends on the individual style of the artist and the intricacy of the tattoo design. A custom piece can take multiple hours and require a number of visits to the tattoo parlor.
How much does a tattoo cost? A small one -- under 1 inch -- should cost from $50 to $100. As you might expect, custom tattoos are more expensive, as are bigger designs that cover large areas of the body. Prices for these more elaborate applications are whatever the market will bear, according to tattoo artists. (Tattoo removal is considerably more expensive -- $400 to $800 for a small tattoo; over $1,000 for a large one -- but weíll discuss that later.)
The Pain Issue!
Being snapped by a rubber band, a slight tickling, a bee sting, a sunburn, being pinched, ďpins Ďn needlesĒ like when your footís asleep, numb, pinpricks, tingling, like a drill going into your skin, uncomfortable -- all of these phrases have been used to describe what it feels like to get a tattoo. Your personal tolerance for pain, the size and type of your tattoo and the skill of the artist help determine the amount of pain involved. If you have difficulty with an injection at the doctorís office or if the sight of blood makes you queasy, you might want to think twice before visiting the tattoo parlor. (Try one of the massively popular temporary tattoos or henna tattoos, also temporary, that Madonna and other stars have made popular. They offer the "coolness" of a tattoo without the pain, risk and expense.)
Pain also depends on the location of your tattoo. The lower back and ankle are popular places for tattoos, but itís much less painful to get one on your chest or upper arm.
Getting a tattoo on your arm or chest is less painful than on an area like the ankle because skin right above your bones tends to be more sensitive to needles, while thereís extra body mass in the upper arm or chest to cushion the bones.
Caring for a New Tattoo
Taking care with a new tattoo can prevent health problems and also ensure that the quality of the image is protected. Hereís what you need to do:
- Remove bandage from tattoo one to two hours after completion.
- Wash gently with cool or luke warm water, using a mild antibacterial soap.
- Pat dry. (Donít rub!)
- Apply very thin coats of Bacitracin or A&D Ointment (not regular petroleum jelly) and work well into the skin. (If you can see the ointment on your skin, youíre using too much and it could pull color out of your skin, tattoo artists warn.)
- Donít soak the tattoo in water or let the shower pound directly on it.
- Avoid sun, sea and swimming pool until healed.
- Refrain from picking at any scab that may form -- it will fall off as it heals, usually in one to three weeks.
- Use ice packs if swelling or redness occurs.
- Call your doctor if you have even the slightest signs of infection!
Avoiding the Health Risks
Before you make a decision to get a tattoo, do yourself a favor and read about possible health hazards associated with the practice. These include transmission of diseases like hepatitis, tuberculosis and possibly HIV. The American Academy of Dermatology says that non-sterile tattooing practices have led to the transmission of syphilis, hepatitis B and other infectious organisms. (Just like health care workers, tattoo artists should be vaccinated for hepatitis B.)
The Alliance of Professional Tattooists, a non-profit, educational organization that helps establish and implement professional health standards within the tattoo industry, says that since the needles used in tattooing are solid (not hollow like a syringe), and HIV doesnít live outside the body for very long, transmission is unlikely. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there has not been a documented case of AIDS transmission from a tattoo.
Professional tattoo artists, who contend that the number of health problems is small compared with the number of people being tattooed, have taken steps to minimize these risks. However, such diseases can still be transmitted because needles are not always disposed of after each patient and methods of sterilization are sometimes inadequate.
In addition to the infections that can occur if proper care isnít taken after the tattooing session, allergic reactions to pigments are also a risk. Doctors say that none of the 50-plus colors and shades of pigment used in tattooing are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (Dispersion inks are traditionally used for tattooing, but because the inks contain resin, acrylic or glycol or all three, there is a trend toward use of natural pre-dispersed colors made with organic pigments.)
A list of rules known as Universal Precautions is part of the Bloodborne Pathogens Rule issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These apply in any health service setting in which exposure to bodily fluids and blood is a risk. This also applies to tattoo parlors!
Dr. Kris Sperry, a forensic pathologist and chief medical examiner for the state of Georgia, leads a group of physicians known as Tattoodocs, who teach infection control in the tattoo and piercing environment. They offer these guidelines to tattoo artists (you can help ensure your safety by making sure these guidelines are followed by your tattoo artist):
- During the procedure, check gloves regularly for small pinhole tears since ointment can actually erode latex.
- Refrain from touching eyes, mouth, ears or nose during application.
- Do no smoke with gloves on.
- Pour out ink in advance; when adding more palette, use a clean tissue to open the pigment bottle, being careful not to allow the nozzle to come into contact with contaminated trays.
- When rinsing tubes for color changes, rinse carefully and pat dry -- donít blow excess water from the tube.
- Spray liquid soap into a tissue and wipe away excess fluids from tattoo -- donít spray directly onto bleeding area because blood can become aerosolized.
- If a pen is used for freehand drawing on the skin, give it to the customer when completed (the pen should be medical grade and sterile).
- Bandage client with packaged, sterile, non-stick-variety bandage; use gauze to secure bandage and tape it to the site using hypoallergenic products.
- Remove gloves and wash hands.
- Give proper care instructions.
Safety measures taken by the tattoo artist include acute attention to the hands, which must be inspected for cuts, sores (these should be covered with a Band-Aid) and hangnails and should have short nails to prevent punctures to latex and vinyl gloves. (Medical studies have shown that impacted blood can remain for up to five days underneath the fingernail if hand washing and gloves arenít properly handled.) Unless chemicals, heat, cold or trauma have damaged the hands, infectious organisms have a hard time establishing themselves on the surface of the skin, experts say. Tattoo artists who have lesions, dermatitis or allergic reactions to gloves should refrain from tattooing until the condition clears up. Using gloves has increased the importance of frequent and proper hand washing since bacteria beneath gloves thrive in the damp, warm environment and may irritate the skin.
Now for an extremely important health safety point: Donít let a friend try to tattoo you! According to doctors at the Childrenís Medical Center, University of Massachusetts, studies show that most adolescents do not get their tattoos from professional parlors -- which require an over-18 ID or parental permission -- but from friends or amateurs who use makeshift tools such as pens, erasers and paper clips with little if any sanitary precautions. This is extremely dangerous! The measures taken by professionals protect you from disease and infection!
Identifying a Safe Tattoo Parlor
Other than the use of Universal Procedures and laws requiring that minors be tattooed only with parental permission, there are few regulations covering tattooing. Tattoo parlors must be licensed; this happens when artists qualify by completing a health department course on infectious disease transmission and passing an exam, but businesses arenít regularly inspected. (Legalization allows anyone to acquire a machine, get a license and start tattooing whether they have any artistic ability or not -- a situation that tattoo artists object to.) Here are some basic steps you can take to help ensure that youíre choosing a safe tattoo parlor:
- Look around to see if the studio is clean and professional. That says a lot!
- Ask questions: Is there an autoclave? Are the needles and other materials single-use? Are EPA-approved disinfectants used? Are gloves being worn? (Professional tattoo artists wonít mind the questions.)
- Play watchdog with the tattoo artist to be sure safety measures are being followed in the application of your tattoo.
- Make sure all needles are opened in front of you.
- Membership in professional organizations is not required, but artists who participate are probably better informed about trends, innovations and safety issues.
After youíve explored the tattoo process and learned about all the health/safety considerations, here are several more points to consider:
- Think long and hard about the fact that a tattoo is permanent. Whatís "cool" at 18 might not be very appealing on a 40-year-old you!
- Tattoo removal is considerably more painful and expensive than tattooing. The process usually takes several sessions and offers varying results. Doctors say tattoos can be lightened but not always completely removed. (You can learn more about tattoo removal in this article.)
- Consider your career interests and plans -- will sporting a highly visible tattoo hinder your success or effectiveness later on?
- Consider the ramifications. For example, you wonít be able to donate blood -- the American Red Cross will not accept blood donations from someone who has been tattooed in the past year.
For more information on tattoos and related topics, check out the links on the next page.
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