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The History of Tattoos: Methods and Materials

Yesterday, you learned about the motivations that led our ancient ancestors to have tattoos put on their bodies. If you missed it, you can read about it here. Today, we're going to talk about the methods and materials used.

As you can imagine, tattoos from previous centuries did not entail a trip to a sterile tattoo parlour, where infection control measures and modern pigments were used by well-trained staff. These early tattoos were likely quite risky. Interested in finding out more? Keep reading!

Tattoo Pigments of Early Eras

You might be surprised to learn that the tattoo pigments used today are not FDA-approved for injection into the skin. In fact, whether today's tattoo inks are safe isn't something that's been settled by science. Still, when you go to a tattoo shop, the artists aren't grinding down materials to make their own pigments. They're buying them from companies that specialise in making them. While the ingredients might not be approved for internal use, there is at least going to be some consistency in what's being used and, more importantly, what is not being used.

Back in ancient times, however, inks used for tattoos were made from charcoal, ash, pine bark, insect eggs, acids, soot from burnt items, and metals. The tattoo artists at the time would use various ingredients to make the colours they wanted for the design, without much knowledge of the long-term effects of using metals or other substances in the body.

Tools and Methods of Early Tattoos

Today, when you walk into a tattoo shop, you sit down in a comfortable chair and a gloved tattoo artist uses a tattoo pen to carefully apply your art. Most of the time, the design is drawn or transferred to your skin ahead of time, so you know roughly what your tattoo will look like before you begin.

In the days of yore, however, this level of sanitation was not the rule. In ancient times, bronze needles were used to make small incisions where the pigments would be injected. Given the times, it is doubtful that they were disinfected between each use, and could have been a way for infections to spread.

The Samoans used bits of bone and a mallet to pierce the skin before dropping in soot, which permanently pigmented the skin. This method of tattooing was known to be extremely painful, particularly because large areas of the body were inked in this manner.

During the late 18th century, Eastern Polynesians brought a tattoo method called Ta Moko to New Zealand. In this practice, bits of albatross bone were used to cut the facial skin, then ink was dropped into the cuts. As they healed, the scars were bumpy and grooved, leaving a different type of tattoo than the smooth ones we see today.

Today's Tattoos

While the methods and materials used for tattoos today are unquestionably less painful and safer than those used hundreds of years ago, there are still some issues. The first is that tattoo inks are not FDA-approved and might or might not be safe to use in the skin. They often do contain metals, and allergic reactions are not uncommon, particularly to red and yellow pigments. They can also be broken down in part by the body and accumulate in the lymph nodes.

Another issue is that due to their permanency, many people who get tattoos later regret it and want to have them removed but find that there is not a great solution available. Laser tattoo removal does an incomplete job and can cause more nanoparticles to accumulate in the body's tissues. In many cases, tattoo removal creams are ineffective or cause burns.

We've formulated Tattoo Out, a safe and effective method to remove tattoos by extrusion (or pulling the pigment out of the skin). Visit the Tattoo Out website and sign up for our waiting list to learn more.

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