Tattoo Procedure from the Artists’ Perspective: The Inner Workings of Tattooing You Rarely Hear About


Although some tattoo artists hold degrees in visual or fine arts, there aren’t any academic institutions specialized in teaching tattooing as a course of study.

However, this doesn’t take away from the fact that tattooing is a lengthy process to learn and master. And as such, it has peculiarities and difficulties only apparent to those familiar with the profession.

While the experiences of tattoo parlor clients are often in the limelight, the process of a tattoo artist is rarely part of the conversation. There are many elements involved in the tattooing process that the general public is not aware of.

Before even being able to sit down and tattoo a client, a tattooist faces many decisions. Whether they be choosing the right tattoo machine and needles or learning proper safety measures, some of the crucial steps the client might have never thought about are:

Turning an Idea into a Reality

Creating a design is the obvious first step in the process of tattooing. An initial consultation where a client communicates their ideas and expectations is necessary for a tattoo artist to start working on a design; no matter how passionate or convinced of the quality of their design idea a client might be, the artist’s input is always essential

While some clients have a clearer idea of what they want than others, it’s the artist’s task to turn the abstract into a reality. First, a tattooist must identify the main graphic elements of the design, to later adapt them to suit the desired placement accordingly.

While getting to a point where both the client and tattoo artist are satisfied with the final design might take more than one consultation, honest communication is necessary to avoid future regrets on the client’s part.

Transferring the Design onto Skin: Hectograph vs. Thermographic Paper

Once the design is approved by the client, rather than directly drawing onto skin, modern tattoo artists recreate the final design on tattoo transfer paper. Tattoo transfer paper comes in two variations:

  • Hectograph
  • Thermographic

Hectograph transfer paper contains three sheets. Before starting to work, the artist removes the middle layer. This allows the hand-drawn design on the upper sheet to be transferred immediately onto the bottom layer.

A substance known as stencil stay is then applied on the skin, after which the tattooist positions the hectograph paper over the desired placement. After being set in place, the transfer process ends once the artist wipes the hectograph paper with a damp cloth or sponge, which imprints the design onto the client’s skin.

Another option is using thermographic paper. This type of tattoo transfer paper consists of four layers. It allows the artist to automatize the transfer process by placing a design made on a regular white sheet between two layers of thermal transfer paper.

Afterwards, the tattooist places the total amount of sheets within a thermogenic transfer maker. Once the transfer paper leaves the machine, a precise replica of the finished design is ready.

However, before proceeding with the application, the desired placement is prepared with soapy water. Shortly after, the transfer paper is pressed and smoothed over the skin, leaving an imprint of the design once removed.

Although certainly less cost-effective, not only does thermographic paper allow an artist to save time, it also creates more visible and precise outlines.

Moreover, unlike hectograph paper, which creates purple outlines, thermographic paper comes in a variety of colors. This poses an advantage when tattooing darker skin tones where the traditional purple is barely noticeable.

Tattoo Ink: A Chemistry of Color

Tattoo ink comprises a mixture of a carrier and a pigment. In simple terms, a carrier allows the ink to be sterilized and evenly distributed in fluid form. Some of the most commonly used carriers are purified water, ethyl alcohol, glycerin, and witch hazel.

Meanwhile, a pigment is what gives tattoo ink its color. Traditionally, these colorants are derived from minerals like iron oxide and cinnabar.

However, as technological advancements have modernized the tattooing process over the past decades, tattoo artists can now choose from a wide variety of ink to work with.

Coil, Rotary, And Pneumatic: Types of Tattoo Machines and Their Applications

Tattoo machines have come a long way since they first evolved from Thomas Edison’s electric pen, developed in 1875. From a technical standpoint, the most common types of tattoo machines are liners and shaders

Whereas liner machines are usually short-stroke devices that create solid lines with a single stroke, shaders are frequently long-stroke machines used to create gradients, sculpt lines, and add coloring. However, short-stroke shaders are also employed when creating subtle gradients.

On the other hand, depending on their mechanical characteristics, tattoo machines are classified as coil tattoo machines, rotary or linear tattoo machines, and pneumatic machines.

Coil Tattoo Machines

Coil tattoo machines were invented in 1891 by Sam O’Reilly, a tattooist who modified the electric pen so that it would introduce ink into the skin. The dual-coil configuration that’s still in use to this day was patented shortly after by Londoner Alfred Charles South.

The first coil tattoo machines were so heavy that they were often hung from ceilings to allow tattooists to easily operate them.

These tattoo machines are powered when an electromagnetic current passes through coils, which triggers the armature bar’s draw and release motion. They are easily identifiable by their characteristic buzzing sound. Furthermore, coil machines are many artists’ preferred choice when it comes to creating intricate line work.

However, as a disadvantage, coil machines pose a steep learning curve and require more maintenance when compared to other tattoo machines.

Moreover, their internal composition of two coils and iron rods makes them quite heavy to use. This leaves artists more vulnerable to developing cramps on their hands and fingers while working long hours, which could hinder the quality of their work.

Rotary Tattoo Machines

On the other hand, rotary tattoo machines get powered by a small electric motor. Furthermore, their simpler inner mechanisms make them quieter devices in contrast to the loudness of coil and pneumatic machines.

Unlike coil machines, the needle head moves in a smoother up-and-down motion, allowing the tattoo needles to distribute the ink in a more fluid and even matter. However, this also means they are less effective when working with larger needles.

All in all, perhaps the greatest advantage of rotary machines comes from their versatility. These machines offer the possibility to create both line work as well as shading by simply selecting different types of needles.

Pneumatic Tattoo Machines

Over a century after the first developments of coil and rotary machines, Carson Hill introduced the pneumatic tattoo machine in 2000. Unlike previous tattoo machines, Hill’s device uses air compressors to power its motor.

This means the tattoo needles are driven up and down by applying pressurized air. The tattoo artist is also in control of how fast the needles move by adjusting the air pressure.

Not only are pneumatic tattoo machines extremely light and easy to maneuver, which makes them ideal when working on large pieces, they are also entirely autoclavable.

As such, the device won’t sustain any damage if placed inside an autoclave (a container that kills all microorganisms by applying pressurized steam). There’s no need to disassemble pneumatic machines for their proper sterilization either.

Just like rotary models, pneumatic tattoo machines allow their user to exchange different types of round and flat needles for both lining and shading as they wish. Tattooists can also take the customization of this machine to the next level by adding gas or electric-powered air compressors to the device.

While this is the perfect choice for tattooists who want to set up shop in remote areas, as gas air compressors entirely remove the need for electricity, they also make the device bulkier, making them harder to operate.

Selecting the Right Needle for the Task At Hand

When it comes to purchasing tattoo needles, a traditional coding system is set in place to easily distinguish a needle’s characteristics in terms of diameter, count, and grouping format.

For instance, a code like 1309RL translates as follows:

  • The first two digits (13) indicate the needle’s diameter is .40 mm
  • A second set of digits (09), signal to the number of points/needles
  • Finally, the two last digits (RL), reference the type of needle, in this case, a round liner machine.

What do diameters determine? Simply put, they allow the artist to adjust the amount of ink that flows through the needles. For example, a needle of a narrower diameter allows the artist to achieve finer lines.

Similarly, needles come with different types of taper (the shape of the needle-point), which vary from the standard length of 1.5 mm to the extra-super-long taper of 8 mm. The finer the needle taper, the more it allows for precise work.

Furthermore, some of the best-known grouping formats are round needles, flat needles, magnum needles, and bugpin needles.

Round Needles

Round needles are a must for precision work. When closely packed together, they are ideal for technical work and details. If loosely packed, round liners are perfect for creating bold lines. On the other hand, and as their name suggests, round shaders are useful for color filling and basic shading.

Flat Shader Needles

Their flat shape allows for a higher flow of ink to the skin. Flat shader needles are great for shading geometric areas. These needles are also very popular for tattooing in the Trash Polka style, which combines realistic portraits with a chaotic touch of smears and smudges.

Magnum Shader Needles

They are, you guessed it, mainly used for shading. Their configuration makes them perfect for filling large areas of skin, blending, and shading.

Curved Magnum Needles

Although they achieve similar effects to those of the magnum shader, curved magnum needles cause less trauma to the skin. This makes them ideal for working in sensitive areas where clients may feel more pain.

Stacked Magnum Needles

These types of needles are configured by closely staking tattooing needles in two rows. This allows the tattooist to cover larger areas of skin at a faster pace.

Bugpin Needles

Bugpins are needles with a narrow diameter. This makes them a preferred choice of needles for artists who seek to create subtle gradients. Bugpins are ideal for working in realistic portraits

The Sterilization Process

Although the law might vary depending on geographical region, most tattoo shops located in developed countries fall under the regulation of their city’s health department. This means shops need to maintain records of their sterilization procedures lest they get their permits removed.

Nowadays, sterilization by steam is the go-to choice for most tattoo establishments. Autoclaves encase the tattooing tools within a machine that looks similar to a pressure cooker. Once turned on, the autoclave heats water until it vaporizes. As the pressure within the chamber builds up to a minimum of 12 pounds for half an hour, the device kills off harmful bacteria.

Other lesser-known sterilization methods include gas. This is a quicker alternative but far more expensive, as even cheaper models will set back a tattoo shop at least a couple of thousands of dollars.

On the other hand, sterilization through dry heat, one of the earliest sterilization methods, requires the equipment to go inside an oven-like machine with the temperature set to a few hundred degrees.

However, this is a more time-consuming procedure where over-exposure to heat can ultimately irreparably damage the equipment.

Other Health and Safety Measures

To get licensed as a tattoo artist in countries like the United States, tattooists have to take certain courses like cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), an essential emergency procedure to aid a person whose breathing and heart has stopped.

Moreover, artists need to go through bloodborne pathogens training courses. Since tattooists work in close contact with blood, this type of training teaches them methods on how to minimize the risk of being infected with illnesses like Hepatitis B and C, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis.

That is why, artists know the importance of washing their hands before starting to tattoo, as well as using gloves throughout the entire process (even when disposing of materials). To avoid contamination, the tattooists’ work area must also be separated from the service area of the tattoo shop.

Certain disposable materials like needles, ink-caps (needles should never directly be in contact with ink bottles), face masks, and gloves, are necessary to avoid contaminating the equipment and protecting both the artist and the client.

Spray bottles have to be placed inside plastic bags to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. Professionals recommend the client is present during the removal of the sterile packaging.

Furthermore, the desired tattooed area must be shaved and cleaned before starting the process. To further sanitize the work area, tattooists use virucide, a substance which inhibits the proliferation of viruses.

If more than one session is required to finish a piece, tattooists need to go through these safety measures all over again each time. Once everything is in place, a tattoo artist can finally get to work on turning their client’s design into a reality.

All in all, there’s no denying the complexities of tattooing as an art form. Not only do tattooists need to learn how to create stunning pieces, they also ought to get a hold on technical aspects, all the while keeping their clients and themselves safe. Perhaps it’s about time society starts giving the craft the respect it deserves. Wouldn’t you agree?

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