How does a tattoo work?

Whilst recovering from my largest tattoo endeavor, my skin began peeling more than my others had. This prompted my interest in knowing exactly how a tattoo affects the skin and body.

First, an understanding of the tattoo gun is needed. There are many different components to a tattoo machine, but just a few are key to understand. First is the needle, which runs up from the tip to the motor. The needle is the actual part that inserts the ink into the skin. There can be 1 or many needles soldered together that rapidly move in and out of the skin between 80 and 150 times a second by the motor (located at the top of the machine). Lastly there is the tube, which holds the ink before insertion into the skin. As your artist dips his needle(s) into the pigment, they will step on a small pump on the floor, which draws the ink up and into the tube. All of this creates the art of inking.

The skin is the largest organ of the body. It is made of of layers: The upper epidermis, the largest dermis, and the bottom subcutaneous layer. All together the skin is 1.3 millimeters (0.05 inches) in total thickness. The tattoo needle(s) push through the epidermis and into the top portion of the dermis, where the ink is rapidly dispensed, flowing from the tube. On a diagram, it seems as though a lot of skin is being punctured, but remember the small scale of the actual skin and needle.

After a tattoo is complete, the skin swells and sometimes bleeds due to the obvious high amount of irritation. Different artists suggest different ways of caring for new tattoos, but be sure to always follow what your artist personally recommends. After a few days, the skin will begin to peel. This is because of the upper epidermis shedding it’s damaged layer. Because ink gets dispersed through the epidermis, the peeling skin will sometimes be colored from the pigment. This is normal (don’t worry, your tattoo isn’t peeling off). Keeping the skin well hydrated by drinking lots of water and applying lotion will help with itching and aid in healthy peeling of the skin.

After your tattoo is all healed up, the pigment is permanently settled in your upper dermis skin layer. The reason tattoos are not absorbed by the body is quite simple. The pigment is too large for the bodies immune system to get rid of. (I’m going to let your imagination take over here, the microscopic photos of pigment under the skin are not that fun to look at). When tattoos are removed, the pigment is broken up and then absorbed and disposed by the body.

If any of this is unclear or you wish to know more, your tattoo artist is your best resource. They will be more than happy to teach you exactly what’s going to happen throughout your story in ink.


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