-Tattoos: How Do They Work?-

Despite that the acceptance of tattoos is on the rise (and, subsequently, the rise of people that are choosing to get them) there is still a lot of misinformation regarding how tattoos work. Just how is it, exactly, that someone can use a needle, some ink, and vibrations to make a permanent picture on your body?

-Just the Basics: Equipment-

There are some basic tools needed for tattooing to take place: a needle, ink, and a way of getting that needle into the skin. Typically, this is either with a tattoo machine or by the hand-poking method—where an artist hand pokes an image into the skin without the use of a machine.

With tattoo machines, the basics are that a vibration is created that makes the solid needle move up and down between 50 to 3000 times per minute. A hand-poked tattoo is as simple as it sounds: the tattoo artist will hand-poke a needle into your skin and add ink without the use of anything electric. This is typically done in traditional tribal settings, however, it isn’t unheard for a regular tattoo artist to offer that service (Our own Mathew Clarke offers hand-poke tattoos).

Tattoo machines have not changed too much since their creation by Samuel O’Reilly in the late 1800s. As mentioned in our tattoo history blog post, the original tattoo machine was based on Thomas Edison’s electric printing pen and tweaked ever so slightly to allow it to work with the skin.

Tattoo ink comes in a variety of forms, with the most common being known as pre-dispersed ink. Pre-dispersed ink is a premixed and ready-to-go ink that requires little to no effort. While there are some tattoo studios that get dry pigments and mix them with carriers to create their own inks, it can be kind of rare. In the United States, all tattoo inks are subject to regulation by the Food and Drug Administration in the same category as cosmetics and color additives.

-How Does the Image Stay in the Skin?-

When the tattoo artist uses their tattoo machine, the needle penetrates a millimeter into the skin’s dermis, which is the second, deeper layer of the skin (as opposed to the Epidermis, the outermost layer of skin) and no ink is deposited into the Epidermis. The Epidermis is the layer you scrub every day in the shower and sheds 40,000 cells per hour. The cells of the dermis are far more stable than the cells of the epidermis, so the tattoo’s ink will stay in place, with minor fading and dispersion, for your entire life.

-Tattoo Healing-

Not only does the tattoo’s placement make it permanently locked beneath the skin’s layer, but it also inflicts damage into the dermis, which includes collagen, pigment, glands, and of course, nerves. The body reacts to the perceived pain by sending immune system cells to the wound site to begin repair and decrease inflammation.

Specialized cells called macrophages eat the ink in order to clean up and decrease the inflammation, and the cells travel back into the lymph nodes, which act as filters or traps in the body for foreign particles. Not all of the ink is removed, and those left behind remain in the dermis cells, known as fibroblasts, and remain visible on the skin. They’re cyclically absorbed by newer fibroblasts, which is why tattoos fade naturally over time.


Knowledge is power! Hopefully, with this new knowledge of just how simple tattooing really is, you can make informed and educated decisions regarding your next piece of body art!