How Deep Does Tattoo Ink Go? Needle Depth, Explained.

As a tattoo artist, knowing how far into the skin tattoo ink should go can make or break your career. If you go too shallow, your tattoo will fade in just a few days. If you go too deep, you can cause scarring, blowouts, and extra pain for your client.

To help, we’re explaining where you should be putting ink - and how to tell you’re doing it right.

In this article, we’re breaking down:

  • How deep the tattoo needle should go into the skin
  • What happens when the ink goes too deep
  • How to set your tattoo machine to hit the right depth

Tattoo Needle Depth

How deep the ink goes in the skin depends on how deep the needle goes. To understand where you should be aiming with the needle, you need to know the different layers of the skin:

connective tissue, blood vessels, and sweat glands in the skin’s surface
  1. 1

The Epidermis - Too Shallow

This is the outer layer of the skin (what you can see). Tattoo needles should go past this layer. The epidermis is meant to shed cells continually. So, if you’re only putting ink in the epidermis, it will push the ink out and the tattoo will fade very quickly. 

  1. 2

The Dermis - Just Right

Ink is a liquid, but to make a crisp and bold tattoo, you need the ink to stay still. The dermis layer of the skin is full of a more fibrous, connective tissue than the other layers, making it the perfect place to trap tattoo ink particles.

So, How Deep is the Dermis?

A good rule of thumb is that tattoo ink should be deposited 16th of an inch (1-2mm) from the surface of the skin, trapping it in the dermal layer. 

However, there is no “one size fits all” depth. Your client and the placement of the tattoo will affect the depth of the dermis. For example, older clients have thinner skin. Additionally, areas of the body tightly stretched over a bone (like the shin, knee, or elbow) will have thinner skin.

Note
There is a membrane between the epidermis called the epidermal-dermal junction. It is punctured with the tattoo needle during the tattooing process. Once it is healed, the ink is trapped in the dermis.
  1. 3

Subcutaneous Tissue - Too Deep

tattoo needle putting tattoo inks in different skin layers

This is a deeper layer of the skin made up of fatty tissues. Because it’s a fat layer, it had a jelly-like consistency. Ink pigment particles can’t get “trapped” here as well, because the cells aren’t rigid like those in the dermis.

Ink in this layer will look like it’s pooling beneath the skin, often called a tattoo blowout.

Which is Worse - Going Too Shallow or Too Deep?

Going too deep. If you aren’t sure about your needle depth, always err on the side of going too shallow. A faded tattoo is easier to fix up later on. The only way to get rid of a tattoo blowout is to get it lasered or get it covered by a skilled tattoo artist.

Note
If a tattoo artist causes a blowout on a customer, they’ll usually offer to fix it for free. However, if you aren’t sure you can fix it up perfectly, it’s best to wait until your skills improve or refer the client to an artist that specializes in cover ups. The only thing harder to cover than a bad tattoo is a bad coverup.

What Happens to Ink in Each Layer of the Skin?

Ink in the epidermis is shed with old skin cells. (We lose 200 million skin cells an hour, so tattoos in the top layer of skin fade very fast.)

However, even if you deposit ink perfectly, about a third of it will bleed out or fade. This is normal. The human body sees ink injected into the skin as an “invader.” The skin has specialized immune cells, called macrophages, meant to get rid of these invaders. 

Macrophages will work to break down the ink particles and get rid of them through the lymph nodes. 

However, ink particles are too big to be broken down all the way, so they are only partially broken down. You can see this effect in tattoos as they age. The ink will get lighter and spread, but it won’t completely disappear. 

Ink that has made it to the lymph nodes does not get flushed out, it will stay there. This can actually change the color of the lymph nodes, but it has not been known to cause any health risks.

But what happens when the tattoo ink goes too deep?

tattoo ink entering blood vessels

We already discussed that going too deep can cause blowouts. Sometimes, this will look like a blue-green pool leaking beneath the skin. Other times, it might look like tattoo ink has gone into the bloodstream. Ink that is too deep in the skin can enter into tiny blood vessels (called capillaries). 

Like ink deposited in the dermis layer, blowouts are not dangerous to the client’s health. The main issue with a blowout is the way it looks

How to Hit the Right Needle Depth as a Tattoo Artist

Tattooing at the right depth requires you to think about the different layers of the skin, which voltage and needles you’re using, as well as which angle you’re tattooing at. In the video below, we cover all the problems new artists run into when it comes to tattooing at the correct depth:

How to “Hang” Your Needles Out to Hit the Right Depth (2 Options)

When you’re putting ink at the right depth in the skin, you’ll feel a slight vibration in your stretching hand. You can get this perfect depth in the skin by either “riding the tube” or “floating the needle.”

Riding the Tube

tattoo needle attachment passing the epidermal dermal junction and going into connective tissue
how tattoo artists make sure tattoo needles don’t go too far into the skin

“Riding the tube” means that you are pressing the tube of your needle cartridge against the skin as you move the machine. You only hang the needles out about a 16th of an inch, so that it is impossible for the tattoo needle to go too deep.

This is recommended for beginners. However, pressing the cartridge against the skin tends to cause ink to dump out onto the stencil and make it harder to see your work, which is why we recommend floating the needle as soon as you feel comfortable.

Floating the Needle

how tattoo artists adjust tattoo machines to go past epidermal cells
tattoo needle breaks the skin surface

“Floating the needle” means you are manually setting the depth with your fingers. You hang the needles out further, leaving a gap between the cartridge and the skin. This makes it much easier to see where you are going while tattooing. However, it also becomes much easier to accidentally go too deep and cause a blowout.

To float the needle, make sure the needle lines up right at the tip of the cartridge when the machine is off. 

If you’re new to floating the needle, remember that it is easier to cause blowouts with a smaller needle and to check keep an eye out for blowouts while you’re working:

It’s Easier to Cause Blowouts with a Smaller Needle Grouping

Bigger tattoo needles have to puncture a larger area of skin, which means they deal with more surface tension. However, smaller needles (3 round liner, 5 round liner, etc.) penetrate the skin more easily because there’s less surface tension to overcome. This makes it very easy to go too deep and cause a blowout.

How to Tell if You’re Causing a Blowout

If the needle accidentally injects ink too far into the skin, you should be able to tell immediately since blowouts show up as soon as they happen. If your lines look like they’re spreading, pull back

Note
If you’re practicing on fake skin, you can cut it and measure the depth with a ruler.

Prepare for a Tattooing Career with the Artist Accelerator Program

tattoo students working in contemporary tattoo shops

Learning how to control your needle depth is an important step in your journey, but it can also be pretty eye-opening to how detailed and difficult tattooing can be. Without the right knowledge, it’s impossible to level up your skills and become a professional tattoo artist. 

However, finding the straight-forward information you need to progress is difficult. And with so much out there online, it’s hard to avoid picking up bad habits from incorrect and outdated resources.

This is one of the biggest struggles new tattooers face, and too many talented artists have given up their goal of getting into tattooing because of the years it would take to unlearn their bad habits. 

That’s why aspiring artists are learning to tattoo with the Artist Accelerator Program’s structured course. As a student, you learn every step of the tattooing process from professional artists with the experience and advice you need to build your skills and create incredible tattoos. 

With the Artist Accelerator, you can stop wasting time searching through incorrect information. You just get the clear, easy-to-understand lessons you need to start improving fast… along with support and personalized feedback from professional artists in our online Mastermind group.

Over 2500 students have already gone through the course, with many of them opening up their own studios. If you want to join them and learn the skills you need to start tattooing full time faster…

Click here to learn more about the Artist Accelerator Program.

Looking for a tattoo apprenticeship?

Tattooing 101's Artist Accelerator 90 day program is the closest thing to a real apprenticeship

  • 500 video modules
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AUTHOR
Nathan Molenaar

Nathan is a licensed professional tattoo artist with over 8 years’ experience working at studios across the globe, including Celebrity Ink, the world's largest tattoo studio chain. When he's not tattooing, he spends his free time sharing his experience and knowledge with aspiring artists who dream of pursuing a career in the tattooing industry.

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