How a tattoo is applied

So, you have decided to get a tattoo. You have picked out the artwork and you know where you want to put it. You talked to the artist, settled on a price and filled out the standard release form. Now what happens?

Before going further, you must understand that this is a general description of the tattooing process and should not be taken as a definitive procedure. All tattooist have their own way of working and their own procedures for setup, sterilization, clean up, etc. This article will, however, give you an understanding of the basic steps in the tattooing process, allowing you to recognize and understand what the artist is doing at the time of your tattoo. If at any point you see your artist doing something you don’t understand, ask. DON’T TAKE ANYTHING FOR GRANTED! Like my grade school teacher used to say, “The only dumb question is the question you didn’t ask.

Setting Up

Before the artist can begin tattooing he will need to set up his work area. The work area should be free of everything but the things needed for your tattoo. This includes but is not limited to the following items; (see figure 1)

  • Work table paper: Protective drop cloth where artist places the items needed for the tattoo. Usually a paper towel or similar item.
  • Paper towels: A roll should be handy, but sufficient sheets should be torn off the roll prior to your tattoo. If the artist runs out during your tattoo, the soiled gloves should be removed first, the needed sheets torn off, and new gloves put back on. The artist should never tear off a sheet from the roll while wearing soiled gloves.
  • Spray bottles: These bottles contain alcohol, to prep the skin, and ‘green soap’, a hospital grade germicidal soap used during the tattoo process to clean up the excess ink and blood. Some tattooists believe that a final spray of alcohol at the completion of the tattoo helps re-close the pores opened during the tattoo process. I have found no scientific evidence that this practice accomplishes that. To me it is a sadist act and unnecessary pain on the client.
  • Ink cups: Small plastic thimble sized containers that hold the ink needed for your tattoo. Inks are poured into these cups from a larger container prior to your tattoo. Any unused ink must be properly disposed of after your tattoo in an approved waste container. Inks should never be re-used on anyone else.
  • Razor: Disposable safety razor used to prepare the skin surface. This must be properly disposed of after your tattoo in an approved waste container or sharps container.
  • Petroleum Jelly: Used to lubricate the skin and keep the tattooed area moist during the tattooing process. A tongue depressor is usually used to scoop out the amount needed and any unused portion is disposed of after the tattoo is completed.
  • Washout cup: Small paper or plastic cup with clear water used to clean ink out of the needle tubes during the tattoo process. This must be properly disposed of after your tattoo in an approved waste container. Soiled water should never be disposed of into a public sink or toilet. Splashed liquids will contaminate these areas.
  • Tattoo machines: These are the actual machines that allow the needles to introduce pigments into your skin. There will also be a power unit, a footswitch connected to the power unit and a ‘clip cord’ wire that brings power to the machines.
  • Needle tubes: Small tubes that fit onto the tattoo machines that help guide the needles. These are reusable items that get autoclaved and must be in sterilized pouches. These pouches should be opened in front of you.
  • Needles: Groups of needles are soldered onto bars in different configurations, depending on the type of artwork and the artist’s style. These are then autoclaved and must be in sterilized pouches. These pouches should be opened in front of you.

Other items that may be present on or near the work area are a light, reference pictures/photos, an ultrasonic, a stencil of your artwork and any items the artist feels is needed for your tattoo.

Pre Tattooing Preparation

Before the artist can begin to put needle to skin the area where the tattoo goes must be prepared. This is usually done by spraying the skin down with rubbing alcohol to disinfect the area and shaving any body hair off the skin. Shaving is important as the tattoo needles may push hair into the skin, increasing the chance of infection.

The tattoo artist then needs guidelines to follow in order to make the tattoo come out looking right. This is usually accomplished by use of a stencil or by drawing with a non-toxic pen directly on your skin. Due to the skin’s elasticity, it is not recommended that a tattoo be done without these guides. Even veteran professionals know not to try this. The most common stencil used is the spirit master transfer, sometimes also called mimeograph stencil. This is a three part sheet that has a backing sheet, a carbon carrier sheet and a carbon master sheet. The image to be tattooed is placed between the backing and carrier sheets and passed through a machine and the carbon from the carrier gets transferred onto the carbon master sheet. This is then transferred onto your skin by using a deodorant stick or moistening the area with alcohol or green soap.

Once you are settled in the artist’s booth, he should open up the needle and needle tube pouches in front of you. If he doesn’t show you, ask to see the sterilization indicators on the pouches before opening them. Most common sterilization pouches have pink, blue or green indicators that turn a dark color when autoclaved. The tattoo artist will now assemble the machines, turn on the power and begin the tattoo.

The Tattoo Process

The first step in the development of a tattoo is the outlining. This is usually where the most amount of pain is encountered. The first few strokes will be the worst until your body has a chance to adjust to the pain. How much pain and how it feels is dependent on your tolerance. I have had varying reactions ranging from, “it don’t really hurt”, to descriptions such as, “it feels like a [sunburn, cat scratch, cigarette burn, bee sting]”. Once the outlining is completed, the tattoo artist will then use shading and/or colors to complete the tattoo. This usually hurts less and at times will feel more annoying than painful. This is when the tattoo begins to take shape and begins looking like a tattoo. During this process, the artist must at all times maintain what is called a sterile field. This is an imaginary boundary where contamination due to material handling is contained to the work area only.

Imagine an invisible circle around you, the artist and the materials on the work counter. Any time the artist’s hands or the artist must break this circle, the gloves must come off and thrown out. For example; if the artist must answer a phone or add more ink, the contaminated gloves must come off, the task accomplished and new gloves put back on.

Any items that are not disposable (spray bottles, power unit, tattoo machine) must be covered with some form of barrier, usually plastic film such as plastic wrap or sandwich bags. If you don’t see this practice being performed by your artist, question it. It’s your health that is at risk.

The Technical Stuff

So how do tattoos really stay in the skin for a lifetime? Here it is in layman’s terms. The human skin is made up of two principal parts; the epidermis and the dermis layer (figure on left). The outer, thinner layer called the epidermis consists of about four or five cell layers. This is the layer that is constantly shedding and replacing itself. The inner layer, called the dermis, consists of two portions; the upper papillary region and the reticular region.

Tattoos are made by the tattoo needles pushing ink into the deeper dermis layer of the skin as shown in the illustration on the right. As you can see, the needle (A) pushes ink into the skin (B) depositing ink into the various layers of skin (C). Most of the ink residing in the dermal layer is flushed out (D) leaving a layer of ink between the two layers of skin.

This layer sheds cells at a much slower rate than the epidermis thereby allowing the tattoo to last your lifetime. The tattoo remains visible due to the translucent nature of the epidermis. For this reason you must understand that people with darker skin will have an effect on how the tattoo is seen through this layer. The darker you are, the more pigment that is in your skin, causing them to change the way tattoo colors are seen through this layer.

After The Tattooing Process

When the tattoo is completed, the artist will bandage the tattoo to cut down on the chances of infection and to keep blood from getting all over your clothing. The artist will then instruct you on how to properly care for your new tattoo.

See – Aftercare for your new tattoo

Now it’s time for clean-up. Most often the artist will clean up after you have left his booth. For your peace of mind, you should ask to see the disposal of the inks and the destruction of the needle. Most shops make it a point to destroy their needles and dispose of them in an approved biohazard disposal unit otherwise called a ‘sharps’ container. Although the chances of getting an infection from a re-used and sterilized needle is nil, for most people it is the thought of a shared needle that creates an uneasy feeling of distrust between client and artist. The cost of the needles is minimal, so do ask to have the needle destroyed in front of you.

Most ‘sharps’ containers have a sealed lid or cover that prevents the contents from being removed and a clamping system that facilitates the breaking of the needles. If the container does not have this clamp and the artist used pliers or something similar, make sure that the tool is not used for any other purpose.

See also – Tips for a Better Tattoo Experience