Think! - 200: Blur the Technicolour

Published: 22 June, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 200, June, 2011

With so many of us (on both sides of the studio door) investing our time and money in the glorious art, and only the foolish flaunting strict health and safety laws, we’ve started to take a lot for granted – then, a few weeks back, somebody asked us what tattooing ink actually consists of. Good question. Here’s the answer – and some observations.

It’s a scene so commonplace it’s practically been rendered ritualistic – country to country, city to city, on an any given day of the week we can find them – tattoo studios filled with anxious customers. Some customers have made appointments weeks, months, even years in advance, putting no small amount of time and effort into the decision of what exactly their body art will be...

Others are walk-ins who converse with friends as they flip through books of flash, looking for that perfect image to sum up what exactly it is that they feel works for them.  Rebellion, self-expression, curiosity – they’re all reasons for this step into the world of skin art and each is its own commitment, each is its own understanding of what and why. The days of shady tattoo parlours – the sort of places that your mother warned you about – are almost certainly gone for good, wiped off the mainstream map by boutique style studios both big and small.  

For good or ill, tattoo is no longer relegated to the ports and darkened alleyways of the city.  The rules of the game have changed.  Ask any artist in a reputable tattoo studio today if they sterilize all their equipment after each use or if in fact they use a new needle for each new tattoo and the tattooist is likely to take offense that such a ridiculously obvious question even need be asked. Today hygiene is priority number one at any good studio and there certainly is no longer any shortage of good studios to choose from. Unfettered from any concerns over sterilization of equipment and basic hygiene, clients are now free to settle into the last and most common remaining concern of the process: is this going to hurt?

While there’s still the odd case in which some rather unsavory and unprofessional tattooists are caught not properly sanitizing their equipment or ignoring the general safety standards for their customers, these types of incidents are few and far between and don’t compare in terms of prevalence to the all too real threat that is currently quietly plaguing the entire tattoo industry: ink.  

It probably seems silly to concern ourselves with tattoo ink. Why should anyone care to think about a product that has been legally produced and sold to reliable tattooists the world over for years? If anything were wrong with it, our governments and health regulations would tirelessly work in the consumer’s favour until the colours injected into our flesh during a tattoo session were guaranteed 100% safe. Unfortunately, that’s not the case and the current state of tattoo ink wobbles into some rather precarious territory that even the cleanest, most reputable tattoo studio or artist is relatively helpless to prevent.

Back when Captain James Cook set the first pair of Western eyes on the tattoo work of indigenous peoples, the inks were entirely made from natural substances. Today however, the high capital gains of the tattoo industry have created a boom for companies specialising in a variety of tattoo inks. The more colours a company can offer and the lower their overhead for doing as much, the better. Ingredients are often shrouded in secrecy and loosely defined as “trade secrets”. In short, inorganic materials are in and for the most part, organic materials are out.  

Perhaps the actual ingredients of the inks themselves wouldn’t be such a big deal if the powers that be: i.e. governing bodies and their health related branches, spent time studying and regulating the general composition of tattoo inks. This sort of investigation has yet to happen on any type of mass scale and in the meantime, tattoo clients and artists alike are left in the cold regarding what is and isn’t being employed as satisfactory tattooing products. Presently, there are no regulating bodies to take up the task of either informing the public on the state of tattoo ink or to commit to the passing of laws on the ink’s ingredients. In America, these particular tasks should rest with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an organization that presides over numerous health related concerns and issues that affect the American public. Oddly enough, the FDA does regulate the ingredients that can be found in various cosmetics used on the skin, yet when it comes to what’s going beneath the skin, there seems to be no clear objections. The FDA attributes this dragging of the feet to a previous lack of evidence regarding the health or safety concerns of tattoo ink. This has begun to change, however, with numerous complaints to the FDA in the past few years from tattooed people who have experienced adverse reactions as a result of their tattoos. For the first time, the FDA now seems to be actually making the effort to do some much needed research into the chemical makeup of tattoo inks.

The main avenues for both concern and study are how the inks break down in the body, the short term and long-term effects of the pigments used in tattoo ink and how light effects the breakdown of these inks within the body. Some of the FDA’s research on this matter has turned up some concerning results. For example, a study from 2009 at the Arkansas based National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR) has determined that certain types of inks, particularly a pigment used in yellow inks known as Pigment Yellow 74, breaks down upon contact with light. Scientists are uncertain as to whether or not these colourless components remain in the body and if they do, whether or not they are toxic to the system. What they do know is that some ink pigments break down and separate from the tattoo, migrating into the body’s lymph nodes. The lymph nodes are a vital method by which the human body fights infections and disease, filtering out harmful germs and doing their part to generally keep our bodies on the up and up. Whether or not this migration to the lymph nodes is harmful remains to be seen.

Although these investigations have yet to reveal any definite proof of detrimental effects to our bodies as brought on by tattoo ink, more studies continue to pop up and their results are not encouraging. This past February, the Chemical and Veterinarian Medicine Investigation (CVUA), a department branch of the health ministry office in Karslruhe, Germany, released a study. After studying samples of various tattoo inks, their efforts revealed that two thirds of the inks tested showed traces of cancer causing substances that while not illegal, were far from suitable for injection beneath the skin. These materials consisted of carbon blacks that are used in the production of things like car tyres, industrial strength paints and printer toner. Judging by these types of studies alone, it’s safe to say that very little is known about the makeup of our inks and that the more we learn, the more frightening and concerning these realities become. 

In 2003, a European Commission report on the health risks of tattooing found that 17% of the 52 colorants available on the marketplace at that time contained a carcinogenic aromatic amine and that 39% of the 28 organic colorants/dyes used in permanent makeup weren’t even permitted as an ingredient for use on the skin. As is the case with other contaminants found in ink, the biochemical reactions to these inks could take years to appear in the body and when they do, there remains to be any conclusive evidence or understanding of what exactly the results will be.  

As encouraging as it is to see organizations like the FDA take the initial steps toward looking into the problems associated with tattoo
inks, this can surely only be described as baby steps. Furthermore, the FDA has yet to approve any tattoo ink as safe to inject into the skin. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t any safe tattoo inks out there – there very well could be, but the FDA’s role in determining this has thus far been so minimal as to render it incapable of offering a definite conclusion either way. 

Despite this uncertainty, the state of California, through a law created in the mid 1980s called Proposition 65, has taken some initiative in warning consumers of the possible health risks involved with tattoo inks. Proposition 65 was created as a method by which to minimize the exposure that Californians faced to toxins in everything from the air they breath to the water they drink.  It soon expanded to include household products and eventually, tattoo ink. In fact Californian tattoo studios are legally required to warn customers prior to tattooing that the inks being used contain heavy metals that are capable of causing reproductive harm such as birth defects and even cancer. All tattoo inks used in the state of California must also have the ingredients clearly marked on the bottles. It might all sound productive, but these laws are ultimately full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. Prop 65 doesn’t make any effort to remove toxic chemicals from the ink, nor does it make any effort to study the effects of such ingredients. The entire process amounts to a mere complacent shrugging of the shoulders on the part of government over ingredients that shouldn’t exist in these products to begin with. After all, what good does it do to warn someone that they’re about to be injected with cancer causing heavy metals if there is no alternative? In this respect, California’s Proposition 65 merely acknowledges what many of us already know – that our inks aren’t safe, yet it refuses to properly explore these issues and provide more than a simple blanket warning on the toxins injected into our bodies with each tattoo. Examples such as these are exactly why Prop 65 has had its share of opponents who claim that the law merely removes government from the burden of conducting proper, thorough investigations into potentially health threatening elements. Without conclusive study into how these ingredients can effect the human body and a definite, strong stance on what long and short term risks they offer the body, or laws that prohibit the inclusion of these ingredients and their chemical makeup, the manufacturers of these inks can add what they want, when they want to their products and not have to deal directly in any way with the health risks these products pose. 

So what does this all mean for ink companies in general? Are they all putting out products that can’t be trusted? Are they going for the easy bucks while playing us all for fools?  It’s hard to say. There are numerous ink companies currently marketing ink that they claim is non-toxic. Yet this claim is dubious at best, given that there is no current conclusive evidence to determine exactly what is and what isn’t toxic in terms of a product’s direct effect on the body. As I write this, none of the more popular non-toxic tattoo ink manufacturers have responded to my inquiries regarding their inks and the manner by which they can confirm their safety level.

One of my initial hopes for a safer alternative to the tattoo ink dilemma was vegan ink. What I quickly discovered is that vegan ink’s sole advantage is that it contains no animal products. Standard inks, particularly blacks, are often made from burnt animal bones and resin from shellac bugs. While vegans can be glad that there’s an option out there for them that remains consistent with their cruelty free beliefs, the real truth is that animal cruelty free ingredients don’t necessarily add up to human
friendly ingredients.

None of this provides a positive or hopeful outlook for the current state of tattoo ink. However, it’s not all hopeless. While American governmental regulating bodies flirt with the concept of studying inks and their effects, European countries are arguably leading the way. After all, without the 2003 European Commission’s meeting in Ispra, Italy, even more questions would be left unanswered in this arena. That’s not to say that the commission’s conclusions changed the methods by which ink is produced across Europe, nor did European governments jump into the regulating and governing of the manufacture of ink, but change has begun to take place and at the very least, it certainly has provided an excellent catalyst and reference point for the ongoing issue of what’s going on with the ingredients of our inks. 

One entirely beneficial aspect of the European Commission’s report was that it helped to lay the basis for a European based organization known as the Tattoo Ink Manufacturers of Europe (TIME). TIME works together with the European Commission, the European Council and research groups of various European governments to create a database of ink manufacturers who are willing and devoted to abide by a strict code of conduct in producing inks that are void of carcinogens, mutagens and reprotoxins. Despite working with these groups, TIME remains completely independent and is not an offshoot of any government body. TIME’s requirements for inclusion among their ranks is an insistence that the inks produced are aromatic amine free, the ingredients, conditions of use and any other relevant warnings are fully declared on the packaging, no preservatives are used and perhaps most importantly, all inks must remain faithful to a strict rule of ingredient pureness. By these methods, TIME compiles a safe list in which only member ink manufacturers are given a seal of approval in creating inks that are free from allergens.

While efforts such as these still aren’t fool-proof, they do make the best of a less than perfect situation. Regardless of our knowledge on what is and isn’t safe either now or in the years to come, one thing that is blatantly obvious is that tattooing isn’t going to stop – nor should it. If the relevant governing bodies and health organizations are in no rush to protect the tattoo community, then it is first and foremost the tattoo community that must take the bull by the horns and do its best to protect itself. Refusing to acknowledge that there is a problem is not an option. It is time to do what we can to force the proper government branches to listen, to demand responsible regulations and whenever possible, to form manufacturer organizations in the vein of TIME.  If there’s one thing that’s been proven time and time again, it’s that the tattoo community has always worked hard and functioned independently of its detractors. Though the latest detraction comes from the very inks that this art form requires, it too can be overcome.  It’s all just a matter of changing the rules.


Text: Mike Jones