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How Tattooing Is Done

To explain tattooing simply, it is the process of making an image on the skin by embedding pigments into the skin. Tattoos applied within the skin tissue (as opposed to surface-applied temporary tattoos like henna) are permanent. The permanency of tattoos is strikingly illustrated by Otzi, the famous 5,300-year-old Iceman recovered from the snows of the Austrian Alps in 1991. His body has over 50 tattoos on it that have survived on his mummified skin since the Copper Age.

Modern tattooing has carried on the ancient tradition of skin art and is aided by electric-powered tattoo machines. A tattoo is created by an artist with a tattoo machine that moves a needle up and down over the surface of the skin. The rate of needle movement varies significantly from 50 to 3,000 movements per minute depending on the machine. The tattooing needle injects a drop of ink about 1 mm deep into the skin.

Before the tattoo artist gets to the point of actually tattooing the skin, the skin area is first cleaned, usually with rubbing alcohol, and shaved if necessary. For the sake of sanitary conditions, shaving should be done with a new disposable razor that is used only by a single tattoo client. If shaving is done, the skin will be cleaned again.

Now that the skin has been cleaned, it is ready to have the tattoo image traced onto the surface. An artist might draw the design freehand or, at a well-equipped tattoo studio, use thermal paper from a thermal fax machine that scanned the desired tattoo image. The thermal paper transfers the image to the skin quickly.

At this point the tattoo machine and inks will be prepared and set up by the artist. With the client watching, the needles and tubes should be removed from their sterile packaging.

Just before the tattoo artist is ready to begin injecting ink into the skin, he or she will put some Vaseline-type ointment onto the skin area. This aids the process by helping the tattoo needle to move along the skin more easily.

The outline of the tattoo design will be inked first and then the artist will begin to fill in areas with color or shading as needed. The tattoo artist might switch to another machine at this point and use needles called "magnums" that are suited to coloring and shading.

Once the tattoo is completed, the artist will apply an ointment to prevent the infiltration of airborne bacteria into the open wound along with a bandage.

Tattooing is an admittedly painful process. People experience pain in individual ways so it is difficult for people to predict how much it will hurt. This aspect of tattooing, however, has not prevented this ancient practice from becoming popular. For many people the pain is part of the process of enhancing their physical appearances. 


"Body Piercing and Tattoos" edited by J.D. Lloyd, Greenhaven Press, 2003.

"How Tattoos Work" by Tracy V. Wilson, HowStuffWorks.com.

"Otzi curse a load of rubbish, says archaeologist" by Leigh Dayton, November 8, 2007, News.com.au.

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