How Is A Tattoo Done?

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Before taking the plunge and getting a tattoo, it’s essential to have an understanding of what goes into creating one. From learning about ink components to researching which equipment is used, this article provides all the facts you need before heading off for your appointment. Whether already ready to get inked or still considering it, having background knowledge on tattoos will ensure that everything runs smoothly.

As a permanent form of self-expression, tattoos have long been used to commemorate special moments and memories. But do you ever wonder how the skin renews itself without altering your carefully chosen design? The answer lies in understanding what goes into each tattoo – from pigment insertion all the way through aftercare maintenance.

Key Takeaways

  • What Is Skin?
  • Epidermis vs. Dermis
  • The Entire Tattoo Process
  • Make It Quick
  • Not All Tattoo Ink Is Permanent
  • What You See During A Tattoo
  • Health Risks
  • Two Kinds of Infection
  • Pigments and Reactions
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
Tattooing Close-up
Tattooing Close-up (Photo by Collins Lesulie on Unsplash)

What Is Skin Anyway?

Our skin is an amazing feat of engineering, measuring six pounds and covering some twenty square feet on average. It’s a remarkable organ that functions as our first line of defense against harmful substances like microorganisms, chemicals and radiation – plus it can repair itself.

Maintaining body temperature and enabling a variety of sensory inputs, the skin is also critical for ensuring internal organs are kept in place and bodily fluids remain balanced.

Tattooing in Progress
Tattooing in Progress (Photo by Maxim Hopman on Unsplash)

The skin has an amazing ability to constantly renew itself. Every three to four weeks, the outer layer of dead skin cells is shed and replaced with a new layer. Over the course of a lifetime, it is estimated that approximately 40 pounds of dead skin will be lost in this manner.

The skin is constantly renewing itself, so how can a tattoo be permanent? Cuts, scrapes and even minor burns generally heal over time, although they may leave a scar. But is a tattoo just another type of scar? Not really.

Epidermis vs. Dermis

The real answer to that question involves knowing that epidermis is the outermost layer of human skin, and the dermis is just beneath it. The average thickness of human skin is between 1-2mm, but the epidermis itself is only 0.1 mm thick.

The epidermis contains pigment cells which cause tanning and give skin its color. The dermis, which lies beneath the epidermis, is more complex. It contains receptors that sense heat, cold, pressure and pain. These receptors protrude slightly into the epidermis to detect changes in the environment.

Cross-section of Skin
Cross-section of Skin

The dermis layer of the skin contains collagen fibers, sweat glands, hair follicles, nerve cells, lymph vessels and blood vessels. It provides structure and elasticity to the skin through its collagen and elastin fibers.

A tattoo is an image made up of ink that is injected into the dermis. In other words, when you look at a tattoo, the epidermis layer of skin is transparent–you are looking through it.

Process of Tattooing

Using modern tattoo machines, a professional tattoo is a precise and fast process of injecting pigment particles into the dermis layer of the skin.

But it is possible to tattoo too deeply. When this happens, the pigment may not be visible clearly and could lead to scarring or even fade away quickly.

Pigment that is too shallow and only in the epidermis will eventually be shed. So is important to find the right balance between shallow and deep pigment application. A bit like Goldilocks, the depth needs to be “just right”.

Tattoo In Progress
Tattoo In Progress (Photo by Tá Focando on Unsplash)

Make It Quick

When you get a tattoo from a professional studio, the modern tattoo machine has needles that move up and down very quickly over a very small distance.

You know why the distance is so short. It ensures that the pigment is delivered effectively to its desired location, the dermis.

The tattoo artist holds the hollow tube containing the needles like a pencil. By dipping this device into an ink container, the needles become coated with ink and the tube also functions as a small reservoir for additional pigment.

Tattoo In Progress
Tattoo In Progress (Photo by Julia Giacomini on Unsplash)

The needles on the tattoo gun move up and down a tiny distance, entering the skin and traveling through the epidermis and dermis, depositing ink as they go.

Not All Tattoo Ink Is Permanent

Not all of the ink used for a tattoo remains in the skin. This is why tattoos are only considered complete after they have healed.

For example, in the epidermis skin cells are constantly regenerating. Some of the ink from a tattoo will be left at this outer layer of your skin. As the old cells on the outermost layer slough off, so too does any pigment that was deposited in them. This process will repeat until all of the ink in the epidermis has been removed.

Dragon Tattoo
Dragon Tattoo (Photo by Jasmin Chew on Unsplash)

The dermis, or the deeper layer of skin, will also have ink deposited in it. But the dermis will then try to remove the ink particles by using your body’s immune system to capture them. This process usually starts right away after getting a tattoo.

Researchers have discovered that the ink used in tattoos is not permanently embedded in skin cells as was once thought. Instead, immune system cells called macrophages consume the ink and then pass it along to other macrophages when they die. This process of transferring ink from one generation of macrophage to the next has been documented in a report published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.

Here’s a TED Talk that nicely demonstrates the whole process.

What You See During A Tattoo

When getting a tattoo, you can’t see the epidermis, dermis and ink particles. Frankly, you’d need a microscope. What is actually visible on the surface of the skin is a mixture of ink, Vaseline, lymph fluid and some blood.

That’s because the needles puncture both the epidermis and the dermis and release a small amount of fluid from the lymph and blood vessels. This causes redness and swelling around the tattooed area, which is completely normal.

Tattoo Outline in Progress
Tattoo Outline in Progress (Photo by benjamin lehman on Unsplash)

Of course, tattoo artists need to make sure that the ink is penetrating correctly into the dermis in order for the tattoo to be successful. The depth of needle penetration is adjusted by the tattoo artist when they set up their tattoo machine. The needles on a tattoo machine are very small and difficult to see, even when extended all the way and viewed up close.

The skill and experience of the artist are essential factors in creating a successful tattoo. They need to have seen plenty of healed tattoos and remember how they looked while being created, so that they can apply the same good technique over and over again.

Health Risks

Penetrating the skin can put us at risk of infection because it weakens the body’s best defense. However, getting a modern tattoo in a professional parlor under sterile conditions is much less likely to cause an infection than in the past.

Getting a tattoo does not require a special medical environment or extreme safety measures. All that’s required is some training in the use of sterile techniques.

Dreamcatcher Tattoo
Dreamcatcher Tattoo (Photo by Waldemar on Unsplash)

Two Kinds of Infection: Bacterial and Viral

Examples of viruses include Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), Hepatitis, measles, chickenpox and the common cold. Antibiotics are not effective in treating viruses, as they are only effective against bacteria.

Bacteria are present in the air, water, dirt, and inside people. Some bacteria are good while others can cause diseases such as the flu, tetanus, diphtheria, and pneumonia.

The good news is that transmission of diseases, particularly those spread through blood, can be easily prevented.

Pigments and Reactions

Tattooing is an ancient form of body art which, in many countries, remains largely unregulated – with no official standards or policies to ensure the safety and quality of materials used.

Tattoo artists have the choice to either mix their own ingredients or purchase pre-mixed inks for creating tattoos. While some may opt not to disclose what is contained in these customized pigments, those who create their own are typically knowledgeable about its components and can provide insight into this process.

Tattoo Work Area
Tattoo Work Area

The composition of pigments used for tattoos is not public information, meaning that the substances used to create a tattoo may remain unknown to the consumer. This is because manufacturers of pigments are not obligated to disclose their ingredients, and neither are the tattoo studios who use them. While these pigments must meet certain safety requirements laid out by governing agencies, their exact contents remain largely unknown.

For a consumer to really understand tattoo pigment and the liquid carrier with which it is combined in order to make it liquid, you pretty much need to be a chemist. But as a consumer who is interested in the safety of their tattoo experience, you mostly need to ask your tattoo artist about the pigment’s history.

Find out how long they have been using it and if there have ever been any safety concerns related to it. It is also beneficial to make sure that the ink has a good track record for providing quality tattoo results.

Allergic Reactions

Despite tattoo pigments having a long and successful history, it is still possible for an individual to have an allergic reaction to the ink. This means that although some people may not experience any negative effects, others may be sensitive and react adversely.

It’s also possible for someone who has had a tattoo for some time to suddenly become allergic to something in the ink. This kind of delayed reaction usually only occurs when there is repeated exposure to the foreign particle, like getting another tattoo with the same pigment that activates the body’s immune system and causes it to try and reject the particles.

Ink in Progress
Ink in Progress (Photo by Lucas Lenzi on Unsplash)

Red and yellow are the ink colors most likely to cause an allergic reaction in people who have tattoos. This is unfortunate, since red is a popular color used in tattooing after black.

Reactions to tattoos can range from mild irritation to constant itching. Treatments may include ointments, medications, or even tattoo removal in extreme cases. If you think you are having an allergic reaction related to your tattoo, it is important that you see a doctor for advice.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (By Ptrump16 / CC BY)

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans may cause a reaction in tattoos that use iron oxide-based pigments, such as black, brown, red, yellow and orange. It is important to note that not all tattoos with these colors necessarily contain iron oxide.

Iron is a ferromagnetic metal, meaning it can be affected by magnets. When passing through an MRI machine (a large magnet ring), the magnetic field induces a field in the iron, which may cause it to be attracted to the magnet and can generate electricity.

Tattoo artists don’t have you fill out a health form before they give you a tattoo. MRI technicians may not always know if you have a tattoo or not. However, if your tattoo could contain iron oxide, it is important to tell the technician and speak with your doctor before having an MRI. In most cases, tattoos will cause no issues when getting an MRI.


Getting a tattoo is no small decision. But knowing the anatomy of your skin, understanding the permanence of ink, and the potential health risks associated with the tattooing process, can only help decide what is best for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

What can I expect when getting a tattoo?

I go more into depth on exactly what to expect on the day of your tattoo appointment elsewhere. But in brief, there’ll be paperwork, a stencil, the tattooing itself, then bandaging, and aftercare instructions.

What can I do to make sure my tattoo is safe?

Be patient as the tattoo artist makes his work area and your skin ready. Then follow the appropriate aftercare instructions for your new tattoo.

Can you get AIDS from a tattoo?

It’s possible but, to date, there are no documented cases in the U.S.

March 26, 2023