Tattoos: A Mini Intro into the World of Skin Art

Sep 20, 2011 by

Tattoos: a mini intro

What Are Tattoos?

Defining what a tattoo is seems straightforward: they’re artworks worn in the skin, and they don’t (easily) come out.

But the definition runs much deeper than this, and spans a rich history, skin structure and biology, psychology and society, and of course artistic creation… really, there are endless facets to the art of tattoo, but let’s begin with the basics:

How it works, what it’s like, where it came from, and just why do we do it?

Joy, Division!


How It Works

If you’re like me, you probably find yourself fascinated by the idea that you can wear pieces of art on your skin. Your skin, a part of you, a living organism that laid out would roughly cover 20 square feet – now that’s a lot of canvas potential!

But how on earth does it all work? How does the artwork stay there? And why doesn’t it come off, unlike when you write on your hand?

…it’s in the ink

Tattoo artists use a high-pigment ink to make tattoos; you can think of this like the ink in your pen, but it’s got a lot more colour (pigment) mixed into it. That’s why it looks really thick and heavy. Most tattoo inks are made from a mixture of minerals and

Skin occasionally vegetable dyes, combined with a liquid carrier. This carrier can be any mixture of water, alcohol, witch hazel, or glycerine, and it essentially makes the pigment into a liquid, just like regular paint or ink.

Now the reason it’s permanent is that the ink doesn’t actually sit on your skin, it sits under it – to be precise, underneath the epidermis. The epidermis is the skin we can see, and it contains melanin, which gives your skin it’s colour. This is why after a tattoo heals, it will look tinted by your skin colour or your tan (so your colour and the ink colour is an important consideration when choosing your tattoo design).

A tattooist will aim to get the ink into the dermis, where it’s less likely to move, as the cells here are pretty stable compared to that of the outer layer, which is always shedding. Should the ink end up in the epidermis, or the top tinted layer, it will eventually heal out as your top skin regenerates and you’ll get a faded design. On the other hand, if it goes too deep into the subcutaneous tissue below, you can end up with fuzzy areas in your tattoo, or even scar tissue.

…part of the (tattoo) machine

To get the ink into the dermis, a tattooist uses a machine that oscillates at between 50 and 3,000 times per minute, called a tattoo machine. One sure-fire way to get your tattooist offside is to call it a tattoo gun – it’s not a well-tolerated term in the industry! As I’ve heard it said, “guns kill people…” let’s just hope your artist isn’t using a gun on you.

The tattoo machine was invented originally as an engraving machine, by Thomas Edison. A smart fellow by the name of Samuel O’Reilly came along in the 1800’s and turned it into what we know as a tattoo machine by modifying it up a bit. These days, artists use a variety of different machines, some coil (magnet) or rotary, and pneumatic systems that run off air compression are becoming more popular. It’s really a matter of the artist’s preference, as all machines are able to produce quality tattoos.

Basic Tattoo Diagram Thingy

…the method in the madness

So the machine is what the tattooist uses to get the ink under your skin; but exactly how does it work?

Well, a sterilised needle is loaded into the tube, and attached via an eye hook to the armature bar; when the machine is going, this bar will push the needle back and forth. The length of the needle is often determined by the location when it’s placed into the tube by the artist, or the setting of the armature bar.

Holding the tube, the artist dips the needle tip into the ink, and presses a foot switch to make the machine run. They then carefully apply the moving needle to your skin, injecting millions of tiny drops of ink into your dermis to create your tattoo design.

…needing needles

Needles come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are similar in concept to paintbrushes; there’s flat ones, round ones and stacked ones, tight thin combinations to make sharp outlines and large (23+) groupings to cover bigger areas faster. It may sound horrifying, but trust me, you don’t want that huge tribal filled in with a tiny needle! The artist will select the type of needle grouping that is appropriate for the area of tattoo they are working on. Usually needle groupings are referred to as either ‘liners’ or ‘shaders’, based on what they are mostly used for.

That’s the basics of what a tattoo is, and what it entails. Tomorrow you can read a brief history of tattooing, and get an idea of what it’s like to actually get a tattoo!

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