Tag Archives: tattoo

How tattoos are removed: everything you need to know

Reformed skinhead Bryon Widner underwent 25 surgeries to remove tattoos on his face, neck, and hands. Credit: AP/CBS News.

There is perhaps no better embodiment of the feeling of regret than a bad tattoo. ‘Bad’ in this instance can mean a lot of things. Maybe the artist failed miserably; what was supposed to be a majestic lion turned out to be a mutant kitty cat looking cross-eyed from your shoulder. Or perhaps your supposed soulmate’s name etched on your forearm is no longer relevant since you parted ways. There are, in fact, many reasons why people may have a change of heart and would like to reverse a decision they thought was permanent.

Luckily, that’s where tattoo removal procedures come in. However, it will cost you a lot of money, time, and a great deal of pain. In some instances, the procedure can leave scars.

Why tattoos are ‘permanent’

Green tattoo pigment is taken up by dermal macrophages (left). The pigment is released when these cells are killed (center) but, 90 days later, is taken back up into new macrophages that have replaced the old ones (right). Credit: Baranska et al., 2018.

The same biology that allows tattoos to stay on your skin indefinitely also explains why they’re so cumbersome to remove, even with modern laser technology.

When a tattoo needle punctures the skin, it rips through the epidermis (the outer layer of skin), and spills ink into the dermis (the inner layer of skin) which is flooded with blood vessels and nerves. As a tattoo gun pushes a needle into the skin up to 150 times per second, it activates pain receptors while delivering a tiny amount of ink into the dermis. The immune system, sensing a wound that lets in foreign invaders, is instantly primed, which sends immune cells called macrophages to clean up the mess.

True to their name, which means ‘big eater’ in Greek, the macrophages flock to the site of injury, devour the ink and remain suspended in the dermis. After they die, the macrophages pass the ink to their replacements. It is this successive cycle of capture-release-capture that keeps tattoos from vanishing rather than stains to skin cells, wrote French researchers in a study published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine. You wouldn’t be wrong in saying that a tattoo is a permanent infection. Just don’t use this line on a first date.

How tattoos are removed

Since ink-noshing macrophages are what make tattoos, scientists have proposed removing unwanted tattoos by activating some other immune cells to grab the ink and take it off to lymph nodes, to be carried off in lymph fluid. But this is just an idea for now.

Momentarily, the most widely used tattoo removal procedures involve firing ultra-short laser pulses onto ink particles to break them up. The lasers fire a pulse every trillionth of a second, delivering a lot of energy to the particles in a very short amount of time. This procedure is known as photothermolysis, and is exactly the same process used in laser hair removal.

Once the ink particles — which may be made of titanium dioxide, lead, chromium, nickel, iron oxides, ash, carbon black, and other ingredients — are broken apart by the laser, the remnants are transported by white blood cells to the liver. Even without the laser breaking apart the ink, armadas of white blood cells are always moving small quantities of ink particles away from the tattoo site. However, they’re much too small to gobble up ink particles whole, so their impact is minimal. They nevertheless cause the tattoo to fade over time and lose its luster.

Black-colored tattoos are the easiest to remove since the dark ink absorbs virtually all laser wavelengths. Color pigments need to be treated by lasers firing at certain frequencies, typically requiring more lengthy sessions to remove.

Before and after a single session of laser removal of a tattoo. More to go. Credit: ChronicInkTattoo.

Depending on the size and pigments used in the ink, a tattoo can take anywhere between two to a dozen sessions to fully remove from the skin. The laser removes some particles, then the skin needs to heal before the laser can break down new particles of skin. Between each session, the skin needs to heal for a couple of weeks, so this can take a lot of time. In fact, a complete tattoo removal can require up to two years.

Laser tattoo removal is not the only option on the table, but it sure beats the alternatives. Alternatively, you can try dermabrasion, which involves sanding off the epidermis, or surgically removing the tattooed skin and stitching the remaining skin back together.

How painful is tattoo removal

While laser tattoo removal is a painful experience, chances are it won’t hurt nearly as much as getting the tattoo. The laser pulses feel like a rubber band snapping against the skin, and the aftermath feels like a bad sunburn. All deeply annoying, but tolerable.

People don’t experience pain the same way though, so the experience may vary wildly. It pays to work with a trained dermatologist who can adjust the treatment to your comfort level or apply a local anesthetic to numb the pain.

And just like getting the tattoo in the first place, placement matters when it comes to pain tolerance because the sensitive pain receptors are not evenly distributed throughout the skin. The ribcage area, forehead, ankles, wrists, and armpits are some of the most painful places both to have a tattoo placed and have it removed.

In order to remove as much pain as possible from the experience, topical numbing creams or even applying ice to the tattoo before the appointment can help. After the procedure, sunscreen is needed to prevent damage to the treated site on the skin, which will be vulnerable for the next four weeks. On this note, you should use sunscreen often regardless of whether or not you’re considering a tattoo removed. Some clinics will refuse to remove tattoos that have been very exposed to the sun.

Bleeding may occur during laser removal, however, it’s only small pinpricks that clear up within a few days. This is nothing to worry about as long as you take precautions and keep the area protected from infection.

The skin left behind after tattoo laser removal is not exactly flawless. When laser tattoo removal is performed using top-of-the-line equipment by a trained dermatologist (as opposed to going to a spa), the likelihood of scarring is relatively low — but it can happen. However, bear in mind that the tattooing process itself is extremely traumatic to the skin and can leave scars if the tattoo artist is not very experienced and punctures too deep into the skin. You should see no scarring if both the laser removal and the initial tattooing were done flawlessly.

In the week or so following laser removal of ink pigments, it’s common to see a little whitening that professionals in the tattoo industry call ‘frosting’. Once the skin heals, the skin returns to its normal color.

Until not too long ago, tattoos were truly permanent. However, this doesn’t mean the decision should be taken lightly. Tattoo removal can cost from a few hundred dollars to thousands and the process is a lengthy and painful one. So better be sure before you get that dragon inked on your back.

Getting a tattoo without the needle? Scientists got you covered

For all the world’s technological progress, tattooing has remained largely unchanged: you use a needle to puncture the skin and inject ink, creating the desired design and color in the process. Now, Dutch researchers have developed a micro-injection tattoo machine that doesn’t require any needles at all. It’s clean, non-painful, and produces less waste than traditional methods.

Futuristic tattoos

Humanity’s desire for tattoos goes back a long time. Ötzi the Iceman, who’s over 5000 years old, had dozens of simple tattoos on his body. More than a third of the global population (38%) has at least one tattoo — and 3/4 of those who do, have more than one. However, tattooing is still insufficiently regulated. The ink can produce dangerous reactions, many parlors don’t provide proper hygiene, and needles damage the skin, producing pain and potentially localized injuries. Scientists’ interest in tattoos also follows a different avenue: in the not-too-distant future, tattoos might be used for medical purposes.

With all this in mind, researchers of the University of Twente have developed a micro-jet injection technology that doesn’t use needles at all. Instead, an ultrafast liquid jet the thickness of a human hair is used to penetrate the skin. In a new paper, David Fernández Rivas and his colleagues compare this new approach with classic needle technology, using high-speed imagery.

The technique starts with a laser that rapidly heats a fluid inside a microchannel on a glass chip. This fluid is heated above its boiling point, causing a vapor bubble to forms and grows, pushing the liquid out at speeds of up to 100 meters per second (360 km/h). The jet is capable of going through the human skin, and yet it produces almost no pain.

“You don’t feel much of it, no more than a mosquito bite”, say Fernandez Rivas. A short video interview with him can be found here.

Painless and eco-friendly

The researchers worked with a number of commercially available inks, finding that their method minimizes skin damage. Not only was the device relatively painless, but it also used less energy than conventional needles, and produced less waste, as there is no loss of fluids. The risk of contaminated needles is also eliminated.

Of course, this is still the early stages. The volume of the delivered jet needs to be increased, and so far, the technique can only deliver a single color. However, the results are quite promising. Researchers are confident they can produce a reliable and useful needle-free tattoo machine in a reasonable period of time.

In addition to aesthetic purposes, researchers also want to use tattoos for medical applications. The ink could serve as a sort of sensor, responding to substances or stimuli, indicating health hazards. In a separate study, researchers have also suggested that tattoos could be used in vaccination.

The study ‘High speed imaging of solid needle and liquid micro-jet injections’, by Loreto Oyarte Gálvez, Maria Brió Péreze en David Fernández Rivas, was published in Journal of Applied Physics

Ancient tool pushes history of tattooing in the western US by over a thousand years

Archaeologists from the Washington State University (WSU) report finding the oldest tattooing tool in western North America.

Tattoo tool.

Yucca leaf strips on the Turkey Pen tattoo artifact and on the replica.
Image credits Andrew Gillreath-Brown et al., 2019, JASR.

The Ancestral Pueblo people living in Utah around 2,000 years ago were big on tattoos, new research suggests. A team from the WSU led by Andrew Gillreath-Brown, an anthropology Ph.D. candidate, discovered a pen-sized instrument used to apply tattoos — the tool has been sitting in storage at the WSU Museum of Anthropology for 40 years.

Ancient ouch

Andrew found the item by chance while reviewing archaeological materials from the Turkey Pen site in southeastern Utah. This tool was made around 2,000 years ago by the Ancestral Pueblo people of the Basketmaker II period in what is now southeastern Utah, they report, pushing back the history of tattooing in western North America by more than a millennium.

“Tattooing by prehistoric people in the Southwest is not talked about much because there has not ever been any direct evidence to substantiate it,” says Gillreath-Brown.

“This tattoo tool provides us information about past Southwestern culture we did not know before.”

Tattooing is an art, a form of cultural expression, and practical skill with ancient roots that many people worldwide enjoy even today. However, we don’t know a lot about how, when, and where this practice began. Its history is especially-muddy in areas like the southwestern US, the team adds, where written accounts are lacking and no tattoos have been preserved on human remains.

In such cases, researchers rely almost fully on ancient artwork for depictions of tattoos and the implements used to create them. As far as archaeological evidence goes, we’ve found bundled and hafted (or handled) cactus spine tattoo tools in Arizona and New Mexico that were used to apply tattoos sometime between AD 1100-1280.

The tool Gillreath-Brown found was very similar in structure to these previously-uncovered tattooing tools. It consists of a 3.5 inch (roughly 9 cm) wooden handle — made from skunkbush wood — and two parallel cactus spines stained black at their tips.

“When I first pulled it out of the museum box and realized what it might have been I got really excited,” he said.

“The residue staining from tattoo pigments on the tip was what immediately piqued my interest as being possibly a tattoo tool.”

Scanning electron microscopy and X-ray fluorescence analysis showed that the crystalline structure of the black pigment showed that the inks likely contained carbon — a common element in body and tattoo paints around the world. Gillreath-Brown also created a few test tattoos using a replica of the tool on pig skin using ink “made using wood charcoal, ground using a mortar and pestle and mixed with water to a slurry-like consistency.” The tool performed quite well, he reports, inserting pigment deep enough into the skin to create tattoos (about 2 mm deep, corresponding to the epidermis).

“[The discovery] has a great significance for understanding how people managed relationships and how status may have been marked on people in the past during a time when population densities were increasing in the Southwest,” Gillreath-Brown reports.

The paper “Redefining the age of tattooing in western North America: A 2000-year-old artifact from Utah” has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.


Traditional zebra-like tattoos protect tribes-people from insect bites

Zebra-like striped body paint patterns can reduce the number of horsefly bites a person receives by up to 10 times, new research revealed. While this isn’t their explicit purpose in indigenous communities, such tattoos can be seen as an “adaptation to the environment,” says the study’s first author.


A selection of typical body painting styles from different African tribes.
Image credits Horvath et al., 2019, RSOS.

Indigenous tribes from Africa, Australia, and southeast Asia have old and rich bodypainting traditions. Such traditions have been enshrined as central cultural components in their respective communities for generations. White, gray, bright yellow, or beige paints — customarily mixed from materials such as clay, ash, chalk, or cattle dung — are applied during specific ceremonies on the bodies of tribesmen and women.

Such patterns serve individuals “as body decoration, for emotional expression, or as marks to signify personal identity and/or group affiliation,” the team writes. It’s also possible that the bright pigments — which reflect incoming light — help with temperature regulation in the blistering sun of the savanna and other similar areas. However, it may also help protect them from biting insects.

Previous research with zebras has shown that horseflies (family Tabanidae), potentially-dangerous blood-sucking insects, tend to avoid the stripe-patterned animals. The team wanted to check if similar tribal tattoo patterns would have a similar effect.

For the study, the team worked with three mannequins, just like the ones you’d see in a clothing store. One of the mannequins had dark skin, another light skin, and the third one was painted in a dark color with white stripes. Each mannequin received a coat of adhesive and was then deployed in a meadow in Hungary for eight weeks of summer. The team chose this location because ‘numerous horsefly species’ buzz around in Hungary during the summer.


The mannequins used in the study seen in reflected/normal light (top row) and polarized light (middle, bottom row).
Image credits Horvath et al., 2019, RSOS.

After the study period, the team counted how many horseflies and other biting insects each mannequin collected. All in all, the team reports, the dark-skinned one had 10 times more horseflies stuck to it than the striped one, and twice as many as the light-skinned dummy. This likely comes down to how the horseflies (and other insects) perceive the patterns. The stripes may disrupt the polarisation of light reflected from the tribespeople’s bodies, making insects believe they’re not looking at a person at all.

“Traditional bodypaintings with their typical white-striped patterns on a brown body surface have the advantage of deterring blood-sucking horseflies as these patterns are unattractive to these parasitic insects,” the study reads.

Horsefly bites are not only irritating, they’re also very dangerous. The insects can transmit a host of potentially-deadly diseases as they suck on a host’s blood.

Because horseflies lay their larvae in ponds and lakes, indigenous people often come into contact with them when retrieving water. Gabor Horvath from the Department of Biological Physics at Hungary’s Eotvos Lorand University, and paper lead-author, told AFP that the patterns aren’t meant to repel the insects. Such tattoos carry cultural significance, but, luckily, they also happen to be good at confusing insects such as horseflies.

“We are however convinced that these people know well the horsefly-repelling characteristic of their bodypaintings,” he added. “Essentially, the use of white-striped bodypaintings can be considered as an example for behavioural evolution/ecology and an adaptation to the environment.”

The paper “Striped bodypainting protects against horseflies” has been published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.


New insight into what makes tattoos last forever could improve laser removal techniques

Once you get inked, you’re in it for life. Behind the scenes, however, to have a tattoo last forever, the cells that carry the pigment die and pass on their ink, in a continuous cycle. New findings could lead to better tattoo removal techniques that leave the skin more natural looking.


Credit: Pixabay.

Until not too long ago, scientists used to think that tattoos lingered on the skin by staining fibroblast cells, which are the most common cells of connective tissue in the dermal layers of animals. However, we now know that it’s not only skin cells that get inked but also macrophages — specialized immune cells that are called to the wound site and then engulf the tattoo pigment like they would normally do with any invading foreign organism or dying cell. Most of the fibroblasts, and macrophages alike, become suspended in the dermis where they’re locked permanently. The dye in both cells shows through the dermis which is how you can see your tattoo.

Sandrine Henri and Bernard Malissen, both researchers at the Centre d’Immunologie de Marseille-Luminy, have found that the full picture is even more complex. It was always assumed that the macrophages carrying pigments live forever, which is what allows the tattoo to be permanent. What the French researchers found, however, was that the macrophages do die eventually, only to pass on their pigment to other cells that keep carrying the torch.

We  were quite surprised to see that only very limited infos were available on the skin cells that are responsible for tattoo persistence and that  account for their strenuous removal. Therefore the knowledge we recently gained on the immunobiology of skin macrophages, their dynamics and the possibility to ablate them ‘à la carte’ explain why we are getting a greater understanding of their permanence,” Malissen said.

In one experiment, the researchers genetically engineered a mouse in which they were able to kill the macrophages circulating in the dermis and other tissues. Over weeks, new macrophages derived from monocytes (precursor cells) moved into the area. Only the dermal macrophages could gobble up the pigment, the researcher found in a trial when they tattooed the tail of the mouse.

Because tattoo pigment can be recaptured by new macrophages, a tattoo appears the same before (left) and after (right) dermal macrophages are killed. Credit: Baranska et al., 2018.

Because tattoo pigment can be recaptured by new macrophages, a tattoo appears the same before (left) and after (right) dermal macrophages are killed. Credit: Baranska et al., 2018.

The tattoo’s appearance did not change when the macrophages were destroyed en masse. Upon closer investigation, the scientists found that the dead macrophages release their pigment into the surroundings, which is eventually absorbed by the monocyte-derived macrophages before the pigment has a chance to disperse.

This pigment capture, release, and recapture cycle occurs over and over again in tattooed skin, whether or not macrophages are killed off in one single burst. When researchers transferred a piece of tattooed skin from one mouse to another, the pigment-carrying macrophages were sourced from the recipient, rather than the donor animal, over several weeks.

Green tattoo pigment is absorbed by macrophages (left). Pigments is released when macrophages die (center). About 90 days later, the pigment is gobbled up by new macrophages (right). Credit: Baranska et al., 2018.

Green tattoo pigment is absorbed by macrophages (left). Pigments is released when macrophages die (center). About 90 days later, the pigment is gobbled up by new macrophages (right). Credit: Baranska et al., 2018.

The findings could one day lead to tattoo removal procedures that are more efficient and less painful. When a tattoo is no longer desired, people typically turn to laser removal. Laser pulses fragment the tattoo pigments, flushing them into the body’s lymphatic system. The procedure isn’t perfect, though, as several cycles of treatment are required and some parts of tattoos remain immune to the procedure. We now know this happens because a fraction of the fragmented pigments remain on site and get recaptured by neighboring macrophages.

“Tattoo removal can be likely improved by combining laser surgery with the transient ablation of the macrophages present in the tattoo area,” Malissen told ZME Science. “As a result, the fragmented pigment particles generated using laser pulses will not be immediately recaptured, a condition increasing the probability of having them drained away via the lymphatic vessels.”

Malissen says that, unfortunately, the study’s findings won’t do anything to stop tattoo fading, which is “likely due to the fact that during the successive capture-release-capture cycles, minute amounts of released pigments are drained away from the skin.” Beyond tattoos, the study aids people with hyperpigmentation conditions in which patches of skin become darker in color than the normal surrounding skin.

Findings appeared in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.


Living Tattoo.

3D-printed “living tattoo” turns bacteria into sensors and computers you can wear

MIT researchers have developed “living” tattoos. They rely on a novel 3D printing technique based on ink made from genetically-programed cells.

Living Tattoo.

Image credits Xinyue Liu et al., 2017, Advanced Materials.

There seems to be a growing interest in living, 3D-printable inks these days. Just a few days ago, we’ve seen how scientists in Zurich plan to use them to create microfactories that can scrub, produce, and sense different chemical compounds. Now, MIT researchers led by Xuanhe Zhao and Timothy Lu, two professors at the institute, are taking that concept, and putting it in your skin.

The technique is based on cells programmed to respond to a wide range of stimuli. After mixing in some hydrogel to keep everything together and nutrients to keep all the inhabitants happy and fed, the inks can be printed, layer by layer, to form interactive 3D devices.

The team demonstrated their efficacy by printing a “living” tattoo, a thin transparent patch of live bacteria in the shape of a tree. Each branch is designed to respond to a different chemical or molecular input. Applying such compounds to areas of the skin causes the ‘tree’ to light up in response. The team says the technique can be sued to manufacture active materials for wearable tech, such as sensors or interactive displays. Different cell patterns can be used to make these devices responsive to environmental changes, from chemicals, pollutants, or pH shifts to more common-day concerns such as temperature.

The researchers also developed a model to predict the interactions between different cells in any structure under a wide range of conditions. Future work with the printing technique can draw on this model to tailor the responsive living materials to various needs.

Why bacteria?

Previous attempts to 3D print genetically-engineered cells that can respond to certain stimuli have had little success, says co-author Hyunwoo Yuk.

“It turns out those cells were dying during the printing process, because mammalian cells are basically lipid bilayer balloons,” he explains. “They are too weak, and they easily rupture.”

So they went with bacteria and their hardier cellular wall structure. Bacteria don’t usually clump together into organisms, so they have very beefy walls (compared to the cells in our body, for example) meant to protect them in harsh conditions. They come in very handy when the ink is forced through the printer’s nozzle. Again, unlike mammalian cells, bacteria are compatible with most hydrogels — mixes of water and some polymer. The team found that a hydrogel based on pluronic acid was the best home for their bacteria while keeping an ideal consistency for 3D printing.

“This hydrogel has ideal flow characteristics for printing through a nozzle,” Zhao says. “It’s like squeezing out toothpaste. You need [the ink] to flow out of a nozzle like toothpaste, and it can maintain its shape after it’s printed.”

“We found this new ink formula works very well and can print at a high resolution of about 30 micrometers per feature. That means each line we print contains only a few cells. We can also print relatively large-scale structures, measuring several centimeters.”

Gettin’ inked

The team printed the ink using a custom 3D printer they built — its based largely on standard elements and a few fixtures the team machined themselves.

A pattern of hydrogel mixed with cells was printed in the shape of a tree on an elastomer base. After printing, they cured the patch by exposing it to ultraviolet radiation. They then put the transparent elastomer layer onto a test subject’s hand after smearing several chemical samples on his skin. Over several hours, branches of the patch’s tree lit up when bacteria sensed their corresponding stimuli.

Logic gates with ink.

Logic gates created with the bacteria-laden ink. Such structure form the basis of computer hardware today.
Image credits Xinyue Liu et al., 2017, Advanced Materials.

The team also designed certain bacterial strains to work only in tandem with other elements. For instance, some cells will only light up when they receive a signal from another cell or group of cells. To test this system, scientists printed a thin sheet of hydrogel filaments with input (signal-producing) bacteria and chemicals, and overlaid that with another layer of filaments of output (signal-receiving) bacteria. The output filaments only lit up when they overlapped with the input layer and received a signal from them.

Yuk says in the future, their tech may form the basis for “living computers”, structures with multiple types of cells that communicate back and forth like transistors on a microchip. Even better, such computers should be perfectly wearable, Yuk believes.

Until then, they plan to create custom sensors in the form of flexible patches and stickers, aimed at detecting to a wide variety of chemical and biochemical compounds. MIT scientists also want to expand the living tattoo’s uses in a direction similar to that developed at ETH Zurich, manufacturing patches that can produce compounds such as glucose and releasing them in the bloodstream over time. And, “as long as the fabrication method and approach are viable” applications such as implants and ingestibles aren’t off the table either, the authors conclude.

The paper “3D Printing of Living Responsive Materials and Devices” has been published in the journal Advanced Materials.

Tattoo ink

A woman’s reaction to a 15-year-old tattoo nearly fooled doctors it was cancer

Tattoo ink

Credit: Pixabay.

An unnamed Australian woman sought medical attention after she complained small lumps unexpectedly surfaced under her arms. Upon examination, doctors had harrowing news: it was lymphoma, a type of cancer that attacks the lymphatic system.

“Ninety-nine times out of 100, [this] will be lymphoma,” one of the woman’s doctors, Christian Bryant, said. However, when surgeons removed one of the enlarged nodes, they found clusters of immune cells covered in ink. No, this wasn’t cancer, it was a bodily reaction to the woman’s tattoo that had covered the 30-year-old woman’s back for the past 15 years.

Doctors believe the tattoo pigment eventually traveled from the skin to the lymph nodes over many years. Of course, this doesn’t make the matter any less perplexing, especially considering the horrible fright the initial diagnosis must have instilled in the poor patient.

At the end of the day, all’s well that ends well but this story, which went viral on social media, brings to light an important, often ignored issue — that of tattoo ink. Previously, researchers found pigments in tattoo ink can contain the same substances found in printer toner or car paint and can be contaminated by mold or bacteria. Red inks used for permanent tattoos contain mercury, while other reds may contain different heavy metals like cadmium or iron oxide. While red causes the most problems — allergic reactions, eczema or scarring — other colored inks may contain lead, antimony, beryllium, chromium, cobalt nickel and arsenic, which also cause skin reactions.

In the United States there is no FDA-approved ink and the safety of people wanting to get a tattoo depends entirely on the parlor’s or artist’s supplier. It’s basically a gamble. An influx of cheap tattoo ink from China is also a huge concern.  New Zealand banned the sale of some tattoo kits with after the Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma) found some samples contained a metal that was prohibited by New Zealand’s Cosmetic Group Standards. Chinese Manufacturers have created fake versions of Intenze, MOM’s, Starbrite, Immortal, Kuro Sumi, Skin Candy and many other popular tattoo ink brands.

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) warned that some tattoo inks could be toxic, and has called for the banning of the potentially-deadly substances. According to the ECHA, some problematic inks can cause serious allergic reactions and can even increase the risk of cancer.

Beyond the health risks associated with toxic metals in tattoo ink, there also the issue of parlor needles and other equipment. Improperly sterilized needles can expose customers to hepatitis B or C, tuberculosis, mycobacterium, syphilis, malaria or HIV.

Of course, there are millions of people who have a tattoo for years and years and have not suffered any serious side effects. As outlined earlier, however, there are certainly risks. To keep yourself safe, always choose a respectable parlor that uses quality ink from a reliable source and whose artists follow a strict sterilization protocol.

Artist uses plants as stencils for beautiful, delicate tattoos

It’s the perfect tattoo for people who forget to water their plants: Ukrainian illustrator and tattoo artist Rita Zolotukhina creates “botanical fingerprints”, using actual plants for designs.

To create the tattoos, she dips the plants in ink, then presses them on the customer’s body, basing the tattoo on this imprint – much like a stencil.

“We don’t know the definitive look when we start, just the colors, the mood and basic shape,” she told Illusion. “It’s my favorite way to make tattoos, and I think the most natural.”

The idea, of course, came from nature. It’s a great way to draw inspiration from nature and make the tattoos as authentic as possible.

“I’m a nature lover,” the artist told Illusion Magazine. “So most of my sketches are related to flora. But the more I drew, the more I wanted something fresh and native, to feel the plants without any steps in between.”

This is really one of the simplest and most creative ideas I’ve seen when it comes to tattoos, and the results look really great – I think I want one.

[Instagram / rit.kit]

Why getting a tattoo hurts — the science behind inking

Your leather jacket and motorcycle aren’t enough for you anymore; they fall woefully short of conveying just how much of a badass you really are. This will not do — everyone must see you in all your glory, the world must know. With a spring in your step, you walk into the best tattoo parlor in town, pick out a design that has a dragon with a skull over explosions and roses and chainswords and… OW! Why do tattoos hurt so much!?


Well, it’s because tattoos have to get that ink deep enough that it won’t get washed away but not too deep so it remains visible — the ideal location ends up being right next to your skin’s pain receptors. Given that most modern tattoo artists do this with mechanical tools that push a needle into the skin from 80 to 150 times a second, it’s easy to see how tattooing gets its painful reputation. However, people have endured excruciating pain throughout history to adorn their bodies with ink. So why do we do it? How do we do it? And can we make it hurt less? The short answer to the last question is yes. Here’s the longer answer:

Not just ink

Tattooing is a controversial subject — some are all for it, others consider it an art form to be perfected and some think it’s repulsive. To each his own, but the fact remains that throughout history, tattoos have had (and in some cases still have) deep running cultural and social implications. People around the globe have long marked their bodies to express cultural identity and community status; it is one method to connect to one’s ancestors or gods, to mark rites of passage, or even “wear” a permanent amulet.

The term “tattoo” is believed to originate from the Polynesian “tatau”, meaning “to mark,” and Dictionary.com defines it as being “the act or practice of marking the skin with indelible patterns, pictures, legends, etc., by making punctures in it and inserting pigments.” It’s a simple enough process, but the tattoo’s shapes, colors, and position on the body, taken together often hold an incredibly deep meaning throughout time.

In New Guinea, the swirly tattoos on a Tofi woman’s face detail her family lineage, while in Cambodia monks display religious beliefs etched in ink on their chests. The Japanese Yakuza’s spectacular patterns or the US gang member’s sprawling tattoos can show affiliation, rank, or if the wearer has committed murder. The “Iceman” discovered in the Alps in 1991 was covered in tattoos, 85% of which line up with acupuncture points, says Dr. Lars Kurtak, world-renowned tattoo expert and anthropologist with the Repatriation Office of the National Museum of Natural History.

“He appeared to have terrible arthritis. [The tattoos were] so dark, they seemed to be repeated applications and some of them he could not reach on his own,” he notes.

In some cultures, successfully enduring the excruciating pain and the blood loss of tattooing with primitive tools marks the transition from infancy to manhood and is considered deeply sacred rites, notes Joseph Campbell in his book Primitive Mythology: The Masks of God. So in the end, there are as many meanings to tattoos as there have been human cultures throughout history.

How are they made — and why do they hurt?

Early tattooing involved cutting the skin and rubbing ink in the wound or using needles made of bone or wood to push ink into the tissue; Western civilization’s first recorded encounter with the Polynesian practice of tattooing dates from 1769, when naturalist Joseph Banks traveling the world aboard the British Endeavour witnessed the “extensive adorning” of a 12-year-old girl.

“It was done with a large instrument about 2 inches long containing about 30 teeth,” Banks wrote in his journal. “Every stroke […] drew blood.”

Banks also recounts how the girl wailed and writhed but two women held her down, occasionally beating her, for more than an hour until the tattoo was complete.

Thankfully, tattooing changed since then. Modern tattoo artists use clean, precise units to deposit dye by mechanically driving one or several needles soldered together in and out of the skin, usually from 80 to 150 times a second, like this:


With each prick of the needle, dye gets injected into the skin, and the body’s immune system responds by deploying white cells called macrophages to deal with the threat. Some of the ink gets lost this way, but most don’t — dead macrophages and the ink they didn’t consume is fixed in skin cells named fibroblasts and remains visible through the thin layers of tissue that cover them.

But we know we can get a scratch and not feel any pain or cut our fingers on paper without so much as a blink. So why is tattooing so notoriously painful? Well, it’s all because of where the pigment needs to go to make a tattoo permanent. Let’s look at your skin’s structure to find out why.

Show me some skin!

The skin is the largest and one of the most complex organs in (on?) the body, serving as the soft outer layer of vertebrates; it’s there to protect and delimitate the juicy, fragile “inside” of the organism from the harsh outside.

There are two distinct parts that make up mammalian skin: the epidermis (this is the outer layer of dead keratinocytes that “flakes” off of to be renewed pretty often) together with the more stable dermis (the layer under it that houses all kinds of glands, hair follicles, blood vessels, lymph vessels and sensory cells) forms the cutis. Directly under the cutis lies the subcutis or subcutaneous tissue, where fatty cells are clumped together to protect you from the cold.

The layer where ink needs to be deposited, the dermis, unfortunately also contains receptor cells that send pain signals to the brain to let us know our body is being hurt; it’s not that bad when you prick your toe on a particularly sharp rock, but when your body is being hurt 80 to 150 times a second, they send out a panicked flurry of signals to the brain, making the experience of getting a tattoo rather unpleasant.

On the bright side, since the dermis doesn’t flake off to be renewed like the epidermis, the dye remains embedded in your skin for life.

The inks or dyes themselves have also evolved over time; as a rule of thumb, tattoo ink is made up of two parts: a pigment and a carrier. The pigment is the substance that gives the ink its color, while the carrier is a solvent that ensures the pigment is evenly mixed, protects against pathogens and aids application. Throughout time, water or alcohol have been the most widely used carriers, while glycerine and denatured alcohols have started being used in modern tattooing.

Pigments have been made from, well, mostly anything colorful; traditional colors were made with materials like simple dirt, pen ink (yay, prisons), soot, even blood. Modern pigments are derived from heavy metals, metal oxides, liquid hydrocarbons, or carbon. But be warned: red dyes, in particular, are known to cause allergies and swelling for a few months after getting a tattoo.

One of the most spectacular (read: insane) pigment recipes I’ve come across hails from ancient Rome and calls for Egyptian pine bark, corroded bronze ground in vinegar, and iron sulfate to be mixed with insect eggs, then soaked in water and leek juice. The concoction would be rubbed energetically on fresh wounds made with needles or blades to create the tattoo. It bugged me.

It really bugged me.

Some tattoos hurt and some tattoos really hurt. Here are some tips

Now, getting a tattoo is going to hurt, there’s no way around that. But there are some areas that are more sensitive to pain than others; as an empirical rule, if you’re extremely ticklish in an area, getting tattooed there is probably going to hurt pretty bad. While keeping in mind that everyone has a different threshold for pain, Tattoos-Hurt.com has put together a chart showing how sensitive different areas of the skin are to pain:

I like how they grade things.
Image via tattoos-hurt

Secondly, a lot of people think that getting a tattoo while hammered or after taking painkillers will make it easier to handle the pain; don’t be one of those people. Alcohol is a blood thinner, meaning you will bleed more and the ink won’t take as easily. Your constant drunken movements will also make the process take longer and the end result will be lackluster. Also try to avoid Tylenol, Advil, coffee, and energy drinks before your tattoo session, as they have similar effects.

Drinking water is a good idea, as well-hydrated skin accepts the ink more readily, so start drinking as much water as you need a day or two before. Taking breaks also helps, but try to take them sparingly, as the skin will begin to swell a lot more during your breaks and constant starting and stopping will interrupt a lot of the tattoo process and adrenaline build-up.

So if you’re looking to get a tattoo, either to celebrate your religion or to show off your lineage, or to simply some cool new artwork on your skin, now you know why it has to hurt and how you can make it hurt less; you can also pass the time being thankful you’re not getting crushed bug eggs rubbed into your wounds. Happy inking!

Tattoos can cause severe adverse reactions in the skin 1 out of 10 times

One in four people in the US has a tattoo, and if you’re part of this statistic you know how painful getting one can be. The problem is that, like the tattoo itself, that pain lasts and in some cases the adverse reactions caused by the foreign body, i.e. the dye, can endure for months and months at a time. This isn’t something new per se, but what’s surprising is how frequent this happens. Researchers at New York University asked 300 or so people in Central Park if they had a tattoo and whether they experienced anything out of the ordinary following the procedure, like redness and scarring. Almost 10% confirmed they had developed abnormal reactions. Of these 6% had  itching, scaly skin and swelling , and 4% claimed they went through pain, itching and infection and these didn’t stop for at least four months.

Tattoo allergic reaction

Image: TQN

“I’m not anti-tattoo at all; I happen to think tattoos are beautiful,” said study co-author Dr. Marie Leger, a dermatologist at the New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City. But people should know that “there are certain risks,” Leger added.

Leger regularly receives patients who report itching and raised, scaly skin around their tattoos. One patient in particular who showed adverse reactions around the red parts of her tattoo only prompted Leger to investigate, so she and colleagues embarked on this study. Though not the best sample size, the study did uncover some interesting facts (of course, replication with a larger base sample is warranted).  Allergic reactions to the dyes, especially red dye, are responsible for some of the nasty chronic pain and skin perturbances that can last for months at a time. The more varied the colouring of the tattoos, the more trouble the people surveyed seemed to report. Again, especially the reds.

Leger recons that these painful reactions aren’t due to the artist’s touch or any germs around the parlor. Instead, it seems to be an one on one thing between the tattoo dyes and the body. In those cases where  warmth, swelling and drainage appears at the tattoo, people should go to an urgent care clinic or get some other medical help immediately, Leger said. Things like these seem to happen.

The findings, however, raise an important issue surrounding materials for tattoos and their regulation, or lack thereof.

“Tattoo inks aren’t very closely regulated in the United States,” Leger told ZME Science.

“Some of the skin reactions may be very subtle and require a dermatologist to diagnose exactly what it is,” said Dr. Jared Jagdeo, assistant professor of dermatology at UC Davis, who was not involved in the current research.

“The findings [of the current study] highlight the importance of educating the general public prior to tattooing,” Jagdeo said. “Anytime you introduce a foreign substance into the body, in this case the skin, there is the potential for adverse events [such as] infection or something more serious like an allergic reaction,” he said.

So, according to the paper published in Contact Dermatitis if you’re pain adverse, you might consider having a black-inked tattoo, or keep that red to a minimum if you really have to. Of note is that this isn’t something confined to permanent tattoos. In 2013, the FDA issued a a warning that temporary tattoos,  popular and commonly applied by small retail outlets, may be putting customers as risk of serious dermatological complications. Serious and long-lasting reactions were reported that consumers had not bargained for after getting temporary tattoos. Reported problems include redness, blisters, raised red weeping lesions, loss of pigmentation, increased sensitivity to sunlight, and even permanent scarring.

While we’re at it, check out this previous post I wrote about what makes tattoos permanent (hint: it’s not the ink itself). And if you really want to get rid of that embarrassing 9th grade tattoo, you’ll be happy to hear some scientists are working on a tattoo removal cream which doesn’t leave any scars  (better than blasting lasers on your dermis right?).

A Norwegian teen named Stian Ytterdah got a McDonald's receipt tattooed on his arm and became Internet famous for his bad decision. Credit: VG TV

Tattoo removal could be as easy and painless as putting on a cream

Alec Falkenham, a 27-year-old PhD student  at Dalhousie University in Halifax, has invented a special cream that will wipe out tattoos for good, without the pain and scaring expected today following laser surgery. Time to erase your ex-lover’s name off that shoulder… or keep it! Good or bad memories are what make you the person you are today, you shouldn’t be ashamed of that. Either way, soon enough you might have the means to make your own choice – one that doesn’t involve burning you skin.

Wiping regrets

A Norwegian teen named Stian Ytterdah got a McDonald's receipt tattooed on his arm and became Internet famous for his bad decision. Credit: VG TV

A Norwegian teen named Stian Ytterdah got a McDonald’s receipt tattooed on his arm and became Internet famous for his bad decision. Credit: VG TV

Tattoos are permanent not because they’re inked too deep in the skin. The ink stays there because your immune system and the molecules that make the tattoo ink are constantly locked in a tug. As such, tattoos are actually permanent inflammations!

When a tattoo needle punctures the skin, it rips through the epidermis, the outer layer of skin, and spills ink in the dermis, the inner layer of skin which is flooded with blood vessels and nerves. With each penetration, the immune system is alerted there’s a wound going on and immune system cells are sent to the site. Some of these are  macrophages which gobble up the ink in an attempt to clean the area. What’s left of the ink becomes absorbed by skin cells called fibroblasts. Most of the fibroblasts and macrophages alike become suspended in the dermis where they’re locked permanently. The dye in both cells show through the body which is why you can see your tattoo in the first place.

Falkenham’s works its magic by targeting those macrophages that stayed put and are embedded in the skin. New macrophages move in to consume the previously pigment-filled macrophages and then migrate to the lymph nodes, eventually taking all the dye with them. Eventually, these make it to the liver where they’re readied for excretion.

The student is not yet certain how many applications of the cream are necessary for a complete fade away. In fact, we’ve yet to see any pictures or demonstrations for that matter, but allegedly the cream has been tested on tattooed pig’s ears with success. It might sound too good to be true, but it might just work.

Currently, the best way to get rid of a tattoo is through laser surgery. Basically, lasers producing short pulses of intense light every 0.000000000001 seconds pass harmlessly through the top layers of the skin to be selectively absorbed by the tattoo pigment. This laser energy causes the tattoo pigment to fragment into smaller particles that are then removed by the body’s immune system. It is very painful, however. Those who have gone through it described the experience akin to hot specks of bacon grease on your skin or being snapped by a thin rubber band – constantly! Of course, not all pigments will be removed, far from it. What you get instead is a “nice” scar.

“When comparing it to laser-based tattoo removal, in which you see the burns, the scarring, the blisters, in this case, we’ve designed a drug that doesn’t really have much off-target effect,” Falknham said.

“We’re not targeting any of the normal skin cells, so you won’t see a lot of inflammation. In fact, based on the process that we’re actually using, we don’t think there will be any inflammation at all and it would actually be anti-inflammatory.”

Falknham is currently working with his University’s Industry Liaison and Innovation office to patent his technology and ready it for market production.

“Alec is a trail blazer in tattoo removal. He came to ILI with an idea, tangentially related to his graduate research, that had real-life applicability,” said Andrea McCormick, manager, health and life sciences at ILI in a news release.

“His initial research has shown great results and his next stage of research will build on those results, developing his technology into a product that can eventually be brought to market.”

Falkenham estimates a tattoo removal treatment will cost four cents per square centimetre, so a typical a 10-by-10-centimetre area would cost approximately $4.50 per treatment.

source: CBS


Woman tattoos facebook friends on her arm

How do you feel about your facebook friends ? I like them; some are my good friends in real life, some are just people I know, and I have only a vague idea who some of my facebook friends are. But this woman loves them all; she loves them so much that she permanently inked them onto her arm.

But things are entirely different for YouTuber Suzyj87, who videoed the whole process of tattooing her facebook friends – all 152 of them.

“Of course I gave it a lot of thought. These are not all my friends. Just the people I care most about. I got their permission and they were very proud to be on it. To me it represents who I am right now and the time we live in. And of course I love the looks of it.”

Well ok, so there’s not a huge amount of pain, and it arguably looks decent, but, then again, there’s the thought that you will bear the thumbnail pictures of those 152 people for all your life, with no possibility of erasing them, and a small posibility of modifying it… that’s not for me, thanks.

UPDATE: Seems like the whole deal was simply a publicity stunt – the tattoo isn’t for real. Props to Iceman for letting us know.