Part 5: Tattoo Needles 101
Returning to the paintbrush analogy, many painters use a variety of brushes to get the look they’re going for. The various types of needles available are like this, each one facilitating a particular type or part of tattoo making. Needles are differentiated from each other by taper and grouping, and what you’ll use in any particular situation, as a tattoo artist, will depend on your own personal style and skill.
Needle grouping is the primary way in which needles are differentiated…
For lining, generally a tight formation is used. This usually going to be a round formation, although they are called liners rather than rounds. The tight formation allows for a large, concentrated amount of ink to be put into the skin with each movement of the tattoo machine. This is because, when lining, it is generally best to make only one pass. Multiple passes risk making your lines less clean. It does, however, require a great deal of precision, since screwing up one of the lines using such a tight formation means that any correction will do undue damage to the skin. Tight needles are bad for any situation where you need to stay, or pass over, any particular area, as they will chew up the skin you’re working on.
Shaders have more variety, and different tattoo artists use different ones both for different types of shading, and according to individual preference…
They are indeed used with black and other dark colors for shading, but these are the most common needle groupings for color fills as well. The common trait of all shaders is that they are wider-spaced than liners. There are three major arrangements of liners. The straight shader is just a single row of needles. The round is like the liner, arranged in a circle, just with wider spacing. The last type is called a magnum it is like a straight, but with two rows, usually with a different number of needles in each, such as five and seven.
The wider spacing of shader arrangements allows for less damage to the skin if you go over an area more than once. For filling and shading, obviously, this can be important. The type of work you are doing, lining, shading, or fill, can also vary by depth. This is largely controlled by settings in your machine, but it also can be changed by using different tapers. A shorter taper means the needle is, essentially, less sharp, and the skin will be pushed down more, and penetrated less. Conversely, longer-tapered needles are sharper, and will penetrate the skin more deeply. Generally, fills are done the deepest, then shading, then lining, although this varies from artist to artist.
For a complete overview of tattoo needles, configurations for shading, lining and bold coloring, and more in FULLY ILLUSTRATED detail, I recommend checking out Elite Tattoo Pro. I will give you even more in-depth information on needles and insider tattoo tips on using them. Read more about it here.
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Now, back to more info on needles…
Needles don’t work by injecting ink like a hypodermic needle…
They are not hollow. Rather, ink flows over the needle and is, essentially, shoved beneath the skin. The needles are pre-sterilized and disposable. Generally, tattoo artists will solder a new set of needles into their machines prior to each client. Some tattoo machines, particularly coil types, are made to only accept liner or shader arrangements. Others, which can be either rotary or coil, can accept both groupings of needles. No machine is restricted in the sort of tapers it can accept, and these will generally vary according to the depth of skin you’re working with and previous factors mentioned.
With the proper machine, inks, and needles, together with an intense attention to safety and plenty of practice, you have all the tools you need to start tattooing…
But, of course, nobody is likely to take you on in a tattoo studio, or let you tattoo on them yourself, without some idea of what you can do. The next part of this series will cover the importance of the portfolio, a collection of images that could be used as models for actual tattoos for clients.
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.