Part 4: Tattoo Inks 101
Tattoos have existed for a long time, in many cultures, and the source of their pigments have been extremely varied. Whatever was available in the environments around tattoo-wearing cultures was used for their pigments. Sometimes, these were actually toxic materials, although isolated in the skin as tattoos are, the problems they caused were minimal.
Modern inks used by tattooists are far more varied in color, but still contain some toxic substances to be aware of.
These substances are generally the pigments which give inks their color, and they include several heavy metals and metal oxides. The most common pigments used in each major color are listed below:
- Red: Mercury, cadmium, iron, iron/cyanide compounds, and petroleum-based naptha-derived chemicals.
- Orange: Cadmium and azo-derived chemicals.
- Yellow: Lead, cadmium, iron/cyanide compounds, and azo-derived chemicals.
- Green: Lead, chromium, aluminum, copper, iron/cyanide compounds, and azo-derived chemicals.
- Blue: Cobalt, copper, and iron/cyanide compounds.
- Violet: Aluminum and azo-derived chemicals.
- Brown: Iron and azo-derived chemicals.
- Black: Iron, nickel, and carbon.
- White: Lead, zinc, titanium, and barium.
Some of these are highly toxic metals, long term, heavy exposure to which can be devastating. Cadmium has possible carcinogenic effects, and is implicated in factors for heart disease. Lead is a well-known toxic chemical, causing neurological damage and cancer. Cobalt can cause cardiomyopathy. Barium is a neurotoxin, with a stimulant effect at low levels. The iron/cyanide compounds, despite having the word “cyanide” in them, are much less toxic than what is commonly associated with such compounds. The rest of the compounds are generally non-toxic, or in the case of some, are processed well enough by the body that the amounts used in tattooing don’t present any threat.
Besides the pigment, there are also carriers in tattoo inks that evenly distribute the pigments and keep them free of infectious agents. These include water, various alcohols, propylene glycol, and glycerine. Different carriers have different properties, and it is important to note that alcohol carriers may increase the permeability of the skin to the inks, and therefore allow more of the metals in the pigments to leak into the bloodstream.
Fortunately, as dire as some of the toxins sound, tattoo clients don’t often go around suffering from heavy metal poisoning. Not only are the amounts relatively small, and only applied every great once in awhile, but the body forms scar tissues around the deposits of pigment that tends to seal them away from the rest of the body. Of course, in the case of needles going too deep, as happens with blowout, it can get to the bloodstream.
However, blowout is relatively common, and ill effects from the metals and compounds in tattoo inks. Don’t worry about it too much, and if you do, try to avoid using the inks with the most dangerous pigments in them. In every case, there is an ink with the same color, without the dangerous metals.
The blend of pigments and carriers varies by brand and color, and while they must be evaluated by the FDA, tattoo ink formulas are kept proprietary and hidden from the public. Many times more than one pigment, along with various fillers, will be used to refine the color and reduce costs. Which companies make the best pigments is a matter of some debate. Each tattooist will find that they prefer different colors from different companies, and the selection tends to be very individual. Some tattooists will swear by inks that others will say are worthless. It really depends on personal style, although it is still worth looking up the reviews of others, as there is some overlap with the best brands.
In The Elite Tattoo Pro, I go over not only my favorite brands of inks, but also machines, and of course the proper tattoo techniques and more. This includes coloring, shading and some great tips and tricks for getting the right colors to “pop”. There are also specific techniques on shading and color included in the 120+ professional instructional videos as well. Of course, these are exclusive and ONLY available to you.
Once you do have inks you feel good about, you’ll need a way to deliver them under the skin, and this is the job of the needles. There are many different types and configurations of needles commonly used during various types of tattooing. Each type is generally intended for a different task, although different tattoo artists use them in different ways these varieties of needles are the subject of the next part in this series. It’s coming soon!
Brendan Jackson is not only a fine tattoo artist, but is also a huge lover of everything to do with the art and history of tattoos. He is the founder of Tattooing101.com, and also the creator of the bestselling tattooing course, Elite Tattoo Pro.