In 1991, Ötzi saw the sky above the Austrian Central Alps for the first time in over 5000 years. This time around, the Neolithic hunter was reintroduced to the world as a mummified human remain, tremendously well-preserved by the natural environment following his unfortunate death. The discovery of Ötzi and his 61 tattoos revealed new information that pushed back the history of tattooing to Neolithic times. Ötzi’s tattoos were mainly composed of black lines that ran around his body, wrists, and legs, with further studies indicating that these markings were made using charcoal ashes.

Tattoos have since evolved from their archaic beginnings. Today, in the modern world, contemporary tattoo machines work by quickly and repeatedly penetrating the skin’s outermost layer, the epidermis, bringing ink into the skin with every puncture. Tattoo inks often derive their vibrant colours from heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, chromium, cobalt, cadmium, aluminum, and nickel. Other inks derive their colours from organic azo compounds, which are commonly used in industrial dyes. But, what keeps the pigment intact? The answer is a carrier solvent such as ethanol or water. The carrier solvent prevents the pigments from clumping and, once the tattoo needle punctures through the epidermis, allows the pigments to reach the dermis, a deeper layer of skin.

Tattoos are permanent for two main reasons. Firstly, the ink is injected into the dermis, which is comprised primarily of connective tissue and replaces cells at a significantly lower rate than the epidermis. Additionally, the pigment particles are too large to be directly absorbed and metabolized by the body. Macrophages, as part of our body’s immune response, will recognize the introduction of foreign materials and mobilize to the dermis. There, they attempt to “eat up” the pigments through phagocytosis; however, they are unable to leave the dermis after ingesting the large pigments and are thus unable to remove them from the body. The body’s inability to remove the foreign material introduced into our skin is the key to the permanence of tattoos.

Interestingly, laser tattoo removal takes away the pigments’ immunity to the macrophages. Different pigments require different wavelengths of light for the most optimal tattoo removal. Laser treatment heats up the pigments, causing them to shatter into smaller pieces, which allows the macrophages to finally bring the pigments into the lymphatic system. The pigment fragments, having now left the dermis, move to the liver to be metabolized. Tattoo removal often involves multiple sessions in order to break down as much of the pigment as possible.

Tattoo safety depends heavily on the ingredients involved and the sanitation practices of the tattoo venue. In Canada and the United States, the tattoo ink industry is not heavily regulated and there are no industry standards. In fact, tattoo ink manufacturers are not legally required to disclose the precise makeup of their products, as it is considered proprietary information. Consequently, individuals may develop allergic reactions to an ingredient in the ink but may never know what it is they specifically need to avoid in the future. Some allergic reactions can even arise years after the tattoo has been completed. The long-term effects of tattoos on health remain unclear, and can differ depending on the ingredients in the pigments.

The ambiguity of the ink’s contents is not the only safety concern, as the regulations surrounding tattoo parlours themselves can vary wildly by region. The City of Toronto has a Body Safe program that regularly inspects tattoo parlours for sanitation and safety, while states such as New York have no such system in place. As the needles of tattoo machines are reused, sterilization of the needles is tremendously important as dirty needles may lead to skin infections and transmission of blood-borne pathogens such as Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and HIV. Not surprisingly, there have been instances in Canada where tattoo parlours have been shut down by the government for unsanitary conditions. Thus, to minimize exposure to dangerous tattooing environments, it is recommended that one seeks out parlours with storefronts. Unlike home-based venues, these professional tattoo parlours will generally be more aware of safe practices. Again, discretion is strongly advised.

Tattoos have a rich history and derive their permanence from fascinating properties of the human body. While they can be visually appealing, sentimental, and tantalizing, the deep penetration into the skin opens up the risk of infection or disease, which is often overlooked. If you are (or someone you know) is thinking of getting a tattoo, it is important to find a trusted parlour with safe and transparent sanitation practices. Or else, a misspelled tattoo won’t be the only regret you’ll be carrying out of the shop.

By Jim Chen

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.