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The origin of the word “tattoo” has been traced back to the noun tatau, which is a Polynesian word that means “puncture mark made on skin”.
As a person who has tattoos, I often find myself wondering how do tattoos work? When you think about tattoos, you think about how they stay on your body forever. Why are they permanent? And how does the tattooing process work?
When a tattoo artist 'inks' a person's skin, what they are doing is injecting ink, which contains heavy metals, into the skin. Said metals are what give the inks their colour. A few examples of those heavy metals are nickel, which is used for black shading; mercury – red, and lead – which gives yellow, green and white tints. Tattoo artists create their works of art with the help of professional tattoo machines or sometimes using more traditional techniques.
Origins of tattooing
Throughout time, tattooing has been used by many different cultures spanning throughout various regions, which have each developed their specialized techniques that add art to the human body. They do so for a wide variety of reasons, from religious beliefs to cultural identification. Some tattoo artists still practice traditional techniques, and people will pay large amounts of money to have the artist do a custom design using these old-fashioned methods. One example of these techniques is traditional Japanese tattooing.
The history of tattoos stretches back around 8 thousand years. Tattooed mummies have been found all around the world, from the Egyptian mummies to an ice mummy identified as Otzi, that was discovered embedded in glacial ice in the Alps. He is the oldest known example dating back to 3,250 BC. His remains were well preserved, with the artwork still identifiable – found with 61 tattoos in total. And although many mummies like Otzi have been found, tattoos don't have one single origin place that we can currently name.
Tattooing has had a chequered history also in western cultures. Sailors use to get tattoos to note their journeys and mark the places they had visited. Anchors were to indicate they had crossed the Atlantic, and turtle tattoos symbolised the equator. As for the British Isles, even Queen Victoria had a tattoo of a tiger fighting a python, which strangely enough became a craze in Victorian society!
As popular as tattoos are, they have also been used for more unsavoury reasons over the years. The most notable are the tattoos that were given to prisoners of Nazi concentration camps to identify corpses. However, these tattoos have now become a symbol used by survivors of these atrocities, to ensure we never forget the horrors that took place.
How tattoos work
So what exactly is happening when you're sat in a tattoo studio, and you're getting tattooed by the artist? To answer this, we must first understand how our skin works and the process of injecting the ink into our skin. We will also take a look at the methods and tools used to create these pieces of art.
What layer of the skin is tattoo ink injected into?
Our skin comprises of several layers, but to understand the tattooing process we only need to look at two primary layers of skin, the epidermis, and the dermis.
The Epidermis - it is the top layer of skin, and it comprises of fast regenerating cells and a layer of dead skin cells.
The Dermis - it is the innermost layer, which is between 1mm and 2mm deep into the skin, the cells here, although fully capable, don't regenerate nearly as quickly as the cells in the epidermis and are far more stable, partly because the epidermis protects them. This is the layer in which the pigment will sit.
How do tattoos stay in your skin?
When damage is caused to the dermis, this can result in scaring which is why when you get a deep cut you get a scar - which is the damage to the dermis through the epidermis. This is where tattooing comes in. What the artist is doing is inserting the needle (or needles) into the dermis and dragging the ink along with it.
Because the process involves damaging the skin, the body responds with white blood cells in an attempt to absorb the pigments of ink and fight against any other invaders. When white blood cells encounter a foreign body, they absorb the invader and carry them away to be disposed of. This is a crucial factor in what makes it all work. The pigment of ink too large to be absorbed by the white blood cells; hence the ink remains there permanently.
How do tattoo machines work?
Tattoo guns or tattoo machines, which is the preferred terminology used by artists, are used in modern tattooing, their essential components comprise of:
A sterilized needle.
An electric motor/electromagnet.
A foot pedal used to control the machine.
A tubular system used to draw ink into the machine.
There are two main types of tattoo guns. The first one uses magnets that turn on and off in quick succession to drive the needle into the skin. The second has an electric motor rotary system that is used to drive the needle down into the skin between 50 and 3,000 pokes per minute.
Take a look at the video below if you want to see this process in action. I warn you though seeing it in slow motion is slightly disturbing.
Coil tattoo machines
Coil tattoo machines are the variation of the machine that instantly springs to mind when you think of getting a tattoo. They are the machines that are most commonly used in a tattoo studio and are a favourite amongst artists. These devices produce the distinctive buzz that you associate with a tattoo studio.
Coil tattoo machines utilise electromagnetic currents to create and break a circuit to drive a needle down into the skin. The circuit is repeatedly established and broken to make the needle rapidly extend and retract, and this is controlled by the use of a foot pedal.
Rotary tattoo machines
Rotary tattoo machines use an electric motor to drive a small rotary wheel with a needle attached to it. This is translated into the needle being driven upward and downwards in rapid succession. These types of tattoo machines are beginning to become more widely used, mainly because they are much quieter than their predecessors - the coil tattoo machines.
The video below explains in more detail how tattoo machines work and the mechanics behind them.
Stick 'n' poke
Stick 'n' poke is the non-mechanical traditional way of tattooing. It is done by simply dipping a needle into ink and inserting it into your skin. Many different methods and tools are used in stick 'n' poke, but the basic idea remains the same.
Below I have found a video that you may find interesting on a professional stick 'n' poke tattoo artist showing us exactly how stick'n'poke works.
Traditional Japanese tattooing (irezumi)
Traditionally practised by criminals, particularly the Yakuza, Japanese hand poked tattoos are created by repeatedly stabbing a sort of brush of needles, some with more or fewer needles than others, into the skin to create fantastic artwork. However, this technique can take a long time and has been known to be a painful process for the client.
How do tattoos heal?
So what happens after you've been inked? What is the tattoo aftercare procedure? It is imperative to look after your tattoo after you had it done. After all, it is an open wound, and failure to provide appropriate aftercare practices may result in an infection or unsatisfactory outcomes after the tattoo has completely healed.
Immediately after you have received a tattoo, it will be wiped down with anti-bacterial soap. The tattoo artist will then cover the tattoo with cling film for your journey home, this is where you step in, and the aftercare process begins.
Tattoo healing process
First week – During the first week, you will experience oozing, swelling and scabbing. However, it gets better each day that goes by.
Because the tattoo is an open wound, the body's natural defences begin to kick in. The body immediately begins to produce a plasma which starts the clotting and scabbing process. During this time it is essential to keep the area clean. Anti-bacterial soap would be a good option here; however, many people recommend using products intended for babies, which are designed to be kind to your skin, and are generally free from substances that could be harmful to the tattoo. You should always ensure that you clean the area very carefully, as you don't want to cause further damage by accidentally pulling any of the scabs off prematurely. Never rub the tattooed area.
It is recommended to keep the area covered during this time to minimise the chance of infection, so this means you should continue to replace the wrapping or film multiple times during the day, a significant amount of plasma can ooze from the area throughout the day.
Second week – The second week is regarded as the worst period of the healing process. During this week the tattoo will be fully scabbed over, and parts will be starting to flake off, this is also where the itching begins. If you've ever had a tattoo done or even if you had chicken pox when you were younger, then you can understand why this is the worst stage, there is nothing worse than needing to scratch an itch and having to restrain yourself.
You should never scratch your tattoo during this stage, this is very important, as scratching could damage your tattoo. The tattooed area will be very dry while it's scabbing and peeling, and it is recommended that you keep it moisturised. Throughout this stage, your tattoo will resemble a snake shedding its skin, and it will probably look horrible, but it's normal, and a lot of patience here is required! The skin will naturally fall off within a matter of days. It is important not to pull off any skin prematurely because this could result in the ink being pulled out with it.
Third week – Nearly there! This is the final stage of the healing process; your tattoo will look slightly cloudy during this time, due to the last fine layer of skin slowly shedding. But don't worry, this isn't permanent, over the few months the clarity of your tattoo will return.
Once the final layer of skin has gone, it's the perfect time to examine your tattoo for any problems, like any patchy areas or fading that may have occurred. If you notice any issues, just contact your tattooist, and they will be more than happy to schedule you in for an appointment for any touch-ups. After all, you are a walking advertisement for their artwork, and they wouldn't want anything to affect their reputation and prestige.
Why do tattoos fade over time?
Tattoos fade over time for various reasons, from the skin ageing and sagging causing the tattoo to distort, to fading caused by exposure to the sun throughout a lifetime. Fun fact, this is the fundamental principle behind laser tattoo removal. The light penetrates the epidermis and breaks apart the pigment into smaller pieces that can be absorbed by white blood cells and carried away into the bloodstream. The reason why tattoos work and are permanent is that the ink is injected into the skin and our bodies cannot remove it because the pigment is too large, but if broken into smaller pieces the bodies natural defences get to work removing the smaller pieces of the pigment. For more information on how tattoo removal works, click the link.
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- Tattoos- https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/tattoos-144038580/