tattoo

Warning Signs That a Tattoo Shop May Not Be Clean.

Warning Signs That a Tattoo Shop May Not Be Clean.

Most people venturing out for a new tattoo are focused on the process of getting a tattoo, not how clean the tattoo shop is. The pain, the possible bad mood of the artist, how much to tip… it can be a crisis for some people. On top of that, you are permanently marking your body and in doing so, opening yourself up to possible infectious agents that can cause discomfort, illness, possibly hospitalization and worse yet, death.

Take one stressor off your plate and make sure the tattoo shop you are going to is clean before committing to that new tattoo. Here are a few things to look for when walking into a tattoo shop to determine if it is clean or not.

  • The tattoo shop looks dirty –

Dirty Tattoo Shop

https://i.imgur.com/BI7JXfH.jpg

If you walk into a tattoo shop and you see visible dirt, dust on surfaces, unwashed floors or overflowing garbage cans, it’s time to leave.

  • Food in the tattooing area –

Food is not permitted in work areas, regardless how small the shop is. 

  • It stinks, and not the good, clean stink –

Overflowing garbage dump

If you walk into a shop and the smell of something foul overtakes your senses, there is a good chance that shop has not been cleaned well enough to ensure safe tattooing.

  • Handling products without gloves –

Image result for tattoo no gloves

The use of disposable gloves are ubiquitous in the body modification industry and should be changed regularly. If you see artists setup for your tattoo without wearing gloves, or handle products to be used in a tattoo without gloves, something is afoot. Handling objects without proper barriers increases the chances of cross contamination, which in turn points to a dirty tattoo shop.

  • Their setup should include barrier films and plastic covers – 

tattoo barriers

Creating a barrier from potentially infectious materials coming into contact with commonly used products or tools are a minimum safe practice for tattooers. These barriers need to be new and freshly applied to all surfaces, machines, bottles, clipcords and other things during the tattoo process. If the shop you walk into doesn’t seem to use barrier films, chances are that it can be considered less clean than other tattoo shops.

  • Staff that are visibly ill – 

sick person

You don’t want to work with an artist who has diarrhea, is vomiting or is coughing all over the place. Healthcare can cost a lot so don’t put yourself in a position that costs you time and money. Stay away from shops that have fallen ill. It should go without saying that you should stay away from tattoo shops if you feel sick.

  • The shop should give you a full tour –

All tattoo shops should be appreciative of the discerning clients want to explore the shop. If they process items onsite (onsite sterilization), have them show you their machine, sterilization logs and explain their practices. If they refuse to do so, be wary of how clean the shop may be. 

  • Single use means single use – 

Image result for single use tattoo supplies

Most of the products that come into contact with your skin during a tattoo procedure are single-use. Ask to check the expiration dates on single-use items like needles, disposable supplies and ink. If a shop is willing to use products that are expired, or attempts to reuse single-use items, they may not take your health seriously.

  • Does your state have health code or licensing requirements?

If your state has licensing requirements for the shop or artist, make sure they are up to date. (Most cities/states/provinces require a business license at minimum. Check with your local authorities to see how they keep the public safe from unlicensed tattoo shops) 

  • Has your artist gone through Blood Borne Pathogens (BBP) training?

blood borne pathogens certificate

A certificate of completion in BBP is a requirement in most places for an artist to practice tattooing. This course trains people in the fundamentals of safe practices when biological contaminants are in play.

  • The rates are far below what industry standard for the area- 

Good tattoos aren’t cheap and cheap tattoos aren’t good. If a deal looks to good to be true, it most likely is and you can wonder how they save money to make the product so cheap. Most likely from skimping on a cleaning budget. Be safe and never sacrifice your safety for a cheap tattoo.

  • Do they have sharps containers – 

sharps containers

Look for red containers with a biohazard symbol on them. These containers are where used needles and other sharp instruments are placed after use for safe disposal.  If a shop doesn’t have any,or if the sharps containers are overflowing, something may be seriously dangerous about getting a tattoo at that location.

  • The shop is difficult to find information about – 

We live in a digital world and most established shops have a digital footprint. If you can’t find any information on social media, or with a search online, chances are the shop may not be legit. If it is not legit, chances are it may not know how to operate in a sterile fashion.

  • Is the shop dark – 

How bright and light is the shop? By having light colored walls and floors, you are better able to see if blood or other substances have splashed out of the work area and are in need of cleaning. Light walls, accompanied with enough light to properly see what the artist is doing, ensure artists are able to keep you safe before, during and after the procedure.

  • When in doubt,  trust yourself – 

Never let yourself be pushed around when you are spending money. This is even more true when you are spending money on body modification. Trust your judgement and walk away from any place that doesn’t treat you as well as you deserve.

Thumbs Up!

Photo by Donald Tong on Pexels.com

 

Choosing Your Tattoos – Client Version

So many articles about choosing your tattoo to be found online. These fanciful jaunts into airy, photo laden websites give you a one-sided perspective that you, the client, need to treat your artist a certain way to enjoy you experience. This is an incorrect, albeit flattering, method of interaction.

I was honestly amazed at how pervasive the ideas about being careful with your words,  respectful with your actions and bringing treats to your artist are being thrown around. I mean, who doesn’t love that but… it’s kind of creepy getting treats before performing a tattoo. Plus, you should not be placed in a position where you, the paying client, are in an inferior position of power when first walking into a tattoo shop.

My take, as a professional tattoo artist, is a little different than what you find online and is stated below. Take it as a starting point for those of you who haven’t been introduced to shop life, those of you who have had a negative experience or those of you who want to know how another artist may expect out of you when coming in for work. Choosing your tattoo can be difficult but, if you are prepared and vocal, it can be a fun experience.

What Do You Want!?

Choosing a design.

When starting the process of choosing a tattoo, ask yourself a few questions:

What style do you like?

Are you into hair metal band logos? Do you enjoy simple geometric designs? Find something that you are believe you will enjoy through your life, not just today. I can guarantee your love of something trendy (getting Yeet or YOLO tattooed dropped out of fashion just like Kanji) won’t have the staying power you expect it will, unless you are a very special case. Who likes seeing Motley Crue logos on your uncle’s outer arm, surrounded by barbed wire armbands? No one. Don’t be like that uncle. 

Your Uncles tattoos aren't that cool. Here is an example of some bad band tattoos.
Click to follow to RateMyInk.com : The worst tattoos we have found.

Once you have taken the time to figure out what style you enjoy and think has the staying power to be impressive for your lifetime, look at the most common themes or images you see in that style. The most commonly tattooed images are the ones that will have small variations or nuances that you may not notice unless you look really closely. Being able to describe small nuances is a thing tattoo artists enjoy when critiquing tattoos. If you can spot small variations that you do not want to see in your tattoo, your tattoo artist will thank you and be better able to craft the tattoo that you want.

Think of other styles you enjoy

There are so many styles to choose from! Don’t limit yourself by thinking inside the box. Be open to both options of blackwork or color if you don’t have an image theme already picked out. Let your imagination roam free, you are working towards designing a work of art that will be on you for the rest of your life.

Take any combination of ideas and write them down. Bring those ideas in with you when you have a consultation. If what you want is not possible, the artist you will be working with will be quick to tell you it is not a good idea. Make sure that you ask why it won’t work! There has to be a good explanation for any dismissed idea. Just not liking the tattoo is not an option for a tattoo artist and if they give you this option, you know better than to get it done with that artist.

Are there any examples of artwork that you enjoy?

Having some form of visual reference to show your artist can help them understand your style wants much quicker than using descriptive words. For example, showing someone a picture of the Hulk is better than describing something “Big and Green”.

Use your words well and bring high quality photos that explain for you what you like to see. Be brave and have a simple hand drawn example to show. You would be surprised how much this helps when translating your idea. Don’t worry, we know that you are not a tattoo artist. If you were, you wouldn’t be having a consultation.

Finding an Artist

Once you have decided on a design, follow up by checking out artists near you. If there isn’t anyone close by, find one you are willing to travel to. Do some research before making the trek. Make sure they are versatile enough, or practiced enough, in the style of artwork you want to adorn your body with.

There are misconceptions about us tattooers and how invested we are in what you mark your body with. While tattoo bros worldwide enjoy the idea that they are marking you with their specific brand, most of us really don’t care how you choose to adorn your body. The lack of caring and detached persona you walk into when getting a consultation shouldn’t be taken personally as tattoo artists do this as a job

We seriously do this all day, every day. There is a good chance that the idea you found while surfing social media has been done before and it isn’t being done the way that we would prefer to do it. That doesn’t matter.

It is your body and your choice how you want to adorn it. If you get a negative reception from the artist when you share your idea, they may not be the best fit for your tattoo. All tattoo artists need to treat you with respect. You are paying them to mark you. They should be willing to treat you and your idea with respect.

If you walk into a tattoo shop and the artist you have been excited to meet is rolling their eyes and trying to change what you want to mark your body with, take a chance and walk out. This practice should be applied to any situation where you are planning on altering your body, as well as in everyday life.

Tattoo artists should approach your tattoo completely ambivalent about what you are getting. We should only be invested in the process and making it perfect.

What do they like to do?

Checking to see what “style” the artist puts up on social media is a good indicator as to what they enjoy doing. While I have a harsh critique as to why artists choose styles, it is still in your best interest to pick someone who has practiced a style when choosing your tattoo. If the artist enjoys what they are doing, or has a lot of experience in a specific style, there is less chance the final product will be opposite what you may ask for.

Work with the artist, if you feel comfortable. Ask questions. When choosing your tattoo, be involved in the process from start to finish.

During the design process, it’s your job to be available. Answer emails or text messages, and give input as they work up a design that you will be wearing permanently. If the artist has any issues with you working over their shoulder, give them some space and offer up critiques that are constructive, if needed. 

The artist should take the time and ensure all critiques are heard and understood. If any part of the process results in the tattoo artist acting in a way that is disrespectful, walk away from the tattoo.

Shadowy figure walking away.

Baggage. Do you have any?

Walking into a tattoo shop can be an experience that brings joy or, to some, terror. Needles, blood, crazy moustaches… It can be intense! If you have gotten any tattoo work before and have chosen a new artist, don’t walk in thinking all tattoo artists are a uniform breed. They are humans, just a bit more colorful.

Take the time to have a consultation and get a feeling for the artist. Your experience will be that much better and ensure you’re not strapped to a chair for 60 hours with a person you can’t stand. Suss out the artist’s vibe, energy and tact. If they don’t align with you, regardless of the final product, you should move on and find someone who you will mesh with better.

Also, when meeting with your artist, be very plain and direct about why you are getting the tattoo. If the tattoo is just rad and you have no deeper meaning attached to it, let them know. If this is a memorial for the sister you lost to cancer 2 weeks ago and the family would like to be there during the tattoo process, let the artist know.

Where do you want to get your tattoo?

The placement of the tattoo will influence how the design is made. Have at least 2 spaces prepared for the tattoo that you want to be. The process of getting tattooed is collaborative so take the ideas for you tattoo, and the placement, to your chosen artist. Talk to them about where the design is going to be placed and listen to their explanations about what is the best option for you. Also, bring up how it may connect with other/future tattoos will help create a congruent theme (if that is what you want).

How big should you go when choosing your tattoo?

In tattoos, size means everything.

Back tattoo of a ship and lighthouse.

Size will determine price, time to complete and limitations on location. Knowing how big you are willing to go (as well as how small) is essential when planning ahead. Most tattoo artists are going to want to make your tattoo as big as possible. Be prepared to stand your ground if you are set on a specific size. Leading with what your budget is, when choosing sizes, ensures the tattoo artist won’t push too hard to cover your entire thigh.

Do you want more tattoos?

If you are going for your first tattoo, try and put it in a place that isn’t at the high end of the pain spectrum. There is no reason to take an enjoyable process and mark it with a painful experience. If you have plans for multiple tattoos, you may adjust your ideas for the future due to the pain you may experience. To keep the process as quick as possible, which will decrease the total discomfort you experience, keep the first designs you get palm sized or smaller.

If you do want to plan ahead and really commit to the process, talk to your artist about how the tattoos you want to get are going to work together. Also discuss tactics for planning multiple sittings. If you have a theme or some ideas that may work well together, create a plan to make the final product cohesive.

How much time was spent choosing your tattoo?

A sick A F Lower back tatty. A butterfly T S with purple and black.

Is this a spur of the moment idea, or have you really put some thought into what you are planning to get? Regardless of the scenario, don’t go carrying bias into the tattoo shop when choosing your tattoo.

Leave that ego in check and be ready to actively collaborate with an artist. They have the training and expertise to get what you want on your skin.

Some additional points to consider

What local options are there for you?

Do you live in a major metropolis, or the middle of BF nowhere? Seeing what options are available near you may influence your decision if you are locked into a specific region with little ability to commute out.

Your buddy knows a guy named Dale at the 5 & Dime who shoots tattoos in his basement. Dale only spits out trad angel wings so it’s a good bet that you don’t want to go to him for that photo realistic tiger on your thigh.

Plan to venture out of your comfort zone if it ensures quality work. If you are truly unable to, keep the most sentimental tattoos on the backburner until you can get exactly what you want, from who you want.

What is your budget?

Pricing is usually non-negotiable.

Seriously, nothing good has ever come out of those arrangements where the artist is starving and sacrifices on price. When this does happen, people rush. The final quality will never be as great when compared to a properly paid for and prepared tattoo.

If you have a budget, and the work that you want to get is outside what that amount is, start saving. If you are not a person who enjoys the build up the anticipation, get something smaller that is inside your budget. Taking you time and not price shopping will give you want you deserve. Remember, you are in a place of business. Be respectable inside this person’s place of employment.

Artist Interaction

When choosing a tattoo, please, please, please… Don’t try and design the tattoo yourself. This is ultimately important if you are unsure about what you want the final product to be. There is a greater chance that your chosen artist will make something better than what you can imagine. Give them room to surprise you.

This above statement doesn’t stand if you know precisely what you want. Do you want your baby’s name in Scriptina font across your wrist?

Cool.

Choose that.

After that has been expressed, listen to your artists recommendations about how this chosen tattoo may age, tie in with future work and how much it might hurt. There is far more to the tattoo than the final design.

In closing

Hopefully you are in a better place now and have confidence about choosing your tattoo. You control the fate of what is put on your body.

But please… Do not tattoo your partner’s name on your arm.

PEACE OUT!
Not the author

Choosing Your Tattoos

So many articles about choosing your tattoo to be found online. These fanciful jaunts into airy, photo laden websites give you a one-sided perspective that you, the client, need to treat your artist a certain way to enjoy you experience. This is an incorrect, albeit flattering, method of interaction.

I was honestly amazed at how pervasive the ideas about being careful with your words,  respectful with your actions and bringing treats to your artist are being thrown around. I mean, who doesn’t love that but… it’s kind of creepy getting treats before performing a tattoo. Plus, you should not be placed in a position where you, the paying client, are in an inferior position of power when first walking into a tattoo shop.

My take, as a professional tattoo artist, is a little different than what you find online and is stated below. Take it as a starting point for those of you who haven’t been introduced to shop life, those of you who have had a negative experience or those of you who want to know how another artist may expect out of you when coming in for work. Choosing your tattoo can be difficult but, if you are prepared and vocal, it can be a fun experience.

What Do You Want!?

Choosing a design.

When starting the process of choosing a tattoo, ask yourself a few questions:

What style do you like?

Are you into hair metal band logos? Do you enjoy simple geometric designs? Find something that you are believe you will enjoy through your life, not just today. I can guarantee your love of something trendy (getting Yeet or YOLO tattooed dropped out of fashion just like Kanji) won’t have the staying power you expect it will, unless you are a very special case. Who likes seeing Motley Crue logos on your uncle’s outer arm, surrounded by barbed wire armbands? No one. Don’t be like that uncle. 

Your Uncles tattoos aren't that cool. Here is an example of some bad band tattoos.
Click to follow to RateMyInk.com : The worst tattoos we have found.

Once you have taken the time to figure out what style you enjoy and think has the staying power to be impressive for your lifetime, look at the most common themes or images you see in that style. The most commonly tattooed images are the ones that will have small variations or nuances that you may not notice unless you look really closely. Being able to describe small nuances is a thing tattoo artists enjoy when critiquing tattoos. If you can spot small variations that you do not want to see in your tattoo, your tattoo artist will thank you and be better able to craft the tattoo that you want.

Think of other styles you enjoy

There are so many styles to choose from! Don’t limit yourself by thinking inside the box. Be open to both options of blackwork or color if you don’t have an image theme already picked out. Let your imagination roam free, you are working towards designing a work of art that will be on you for the rest of your life.

Take any combination of ideas and write them down. Bring those ideas in with you when you have a consultation. If what you want is not possible, the artist you will be working with will be quick to tell you it is not a good idea. Make sure that you ask why it won’t work! There has to be a good explanation for any dismissed idea. Just not liking the tattoo is not an option for a tattoo artist and if they give you this option, you know better than to get it done with that artist.

Are there any examples of artwork that you enjoy?

Having some form of visual reference to show your artist can help them understand your style wants much quicker than using descriptive words. For example, showing someone a picture of the Hulk is better than describing something “Big and Green”.

Use your words well and bring high quality photos that explain for you what you like to see. Be brave and have a simple hand drawn example to show. You would be surprised how much this helps when translating your idea. Don’t worry, we know that you are not a tattoo artist. If you were, you wouldn’t be having a consultation.

Finding an Artist

Once you have decided on a design, follow up by checking out artists near you. If there isn’t anyone close by, find one you are willing to travel to. Do some research before making the trek. Make sure they are versatile enough, or practiced enough, in the style of artwork you want to adorn your body with.

There are misconceptions about us tattooers and how invested we are in what you mark your body with. While tattoo bros worldwide enjoy the idea that they are marking you with their specific brand, most of us really don’t care how you choose to adorn your body. The lack of caring and detached persona you walk into when getting a consultation shouldn’t be taken personally as tattoo artists do this as a job

We seriously do this all day, every day. There is a good chance that the idea you found while surfing social media has been done before and it isn’t being done the way that we would prefer to do it. That doesn’t matter.

It is your body and your choice how you want to adorn it. If you get a negative reception from the artist when you share your idea, they may not be the best fit for your tattoo. All tattoo artists need to treat you with respect. You are paying them to mark you. They should be willing to treat you and your idea with respect.

If you walk into a tattoo shop and the artist you have been excited to meet is rolling their eyes and trying to change what you want to mark your body with, take a chance and walk out. This practice should be applied to any situation where you are planning on altering your body, as well as in everyday life.

Tattoo artists should approach your tattoo completely ambivalent about what you are getting. We should only be invested in the process and making it perfect.

What do they like to do?

Checking to see what “style” the artist puts up on social media is a good indicator as to what they enjoy doing. While I have a harsh critique as to why artists choose styles, it is still in your best interest to pick someone who has practiced a style when choosing your tattoo. If the artist enjoys what they are doing, or has a lot of experience in a specific style, there is less chance the final product will be opposite what you may ask for.

Work with the artist, if you feel comfortable. Ask questions. When choosing your tattoo, be involved in the process from start to finish.

During the design process, it’s your job to be available. Answer emails or text messages, and give input as they work up a design that you will be wearing permanently. If the artist has any issues with you working over their shoulder, give them some space and offer up critiques that are constructive, if needed. 

The artist should take the time and ensure all critiques are heard and understood. If any part of the process results in the tattoo artist acting in a way that is disrespectful, walk away from the tattoo.

Shadowy figure walking away.

Baggage. Do you have any?

Walking into a tattoo shop can be an experience that brings joy or, to some, terror. Needles, blood, crazy moustaches… It can be intense! If you have gotten any tattoo work before and have chosen a new artist, don’t walk in thinking all tattoo artists are a uniform breed. They are humans, just a bit more colorful.

Take the time to have a consultation and get a feeling for the artist. Your experience will be that much better and ensure you’re not strapped to a chair for 60 hours with a person you can’t stand. Suss out the artist’s vibe, energy and tact. If they don’t align with you, regardless of the final product, you should move on and find someone who you will mesh with better.

Also, when meeting with your artist, be very plain and direct about why you are getting the tattoo. If the tattoo is just rad and you have no deeper meaning attached to it, let them know. If this is a memorial for the sister you lost to cancer 2 weeks ago and the family would like to be there during the tattoo process, let the artist know.

Where do you want to get your tattoo?

The placement of the tattoo will influence how the design is made. Have at least 2 spaces prepared for the tattoo that you want to be. The process of getting tattooed is collaborative so take the ideas for you tattoo, and the placement, to your chosen artist. Talk to them about where the design is going to be placed and listen to their explanations about what is the best option for you. Also, bring up how it may connect with other/future tattoos will help create a congruent theme (if that is what you want).

How big should you go when choosing your tattoo?

In tattoos, size means everything.

Back tattoo of a ship and lighthouse.

Size will determine price, time to complete and limitations on location. Knowing how big you are willing to go (as well as how small) is essential when planning ahead. Most tattoo artists are going to want to make your tattoo as big as possible. Be prepared to stand your ground if you are set on a specific size. Leading with what your budget is, when choosing sizes, ensures the tattoo artist won’t push too hard to cover your entire thigh.

Do you want more tattoos?

If you are going for your first tattoo, try and put it in a place that isn’t at the high end of the pain spectrum. There is no reason to take an enjoyable process and mark it with a painful experience. If you have plans for multiple tattoos, you may adjust your ideas for the future due to the pain you may experience. To keep the process as quick as possible, which will decrease the total discomfort you experience, keep the first designs you get palm sized or smaller.

If you do want to plan ahead and really commit to the process, talk to your artist about how the tattoos you want to get are going to work together. Also discuss tactics for planning multiple sittings. If you have a theme or some ideas that may work well together, create a plan to make the final product cohesive.

How much time was spent choosing your tattoo?

A sick A F Lower back tatty. A butterfly T S with purple and black.

Is this a spur of the moment idea, or have you really put some thought into what you are planning to get? Regardless of the scenario, don’t go carrying bias into the tattoo shop when choosing your tattoo.

Leave that ego in check and be ready to actively collaborate with an artist. They have the training and expertise to get what you want on your skin.

Some additional points to consider

What local options are there for you?

Do you live in a major metropolis, or the middle of BF nowhere? Seeing what options are available near you may influence your decision if you are locked into a specific region with little ability to commute out.

Your buddy knows a guy named Dale at the 5 & Dime who shoots tattoos in his basement. Dale only spits out trad angel wings so it’s a good bet that you don’t want to go to him for that photo realistic tiger on your thigh.

Plan to venture out of your comfort zone if it ensures quality work. If you are truly unable to, keep the most sentimental tattoos on the backburner until you can get exactly what you want, from who you want.

What is your budget?

Pricing is usually non-negotiable.

Seriously, nothing good has ever come out of those arrangements where the artist is starving and sacrifices on price. When this does happen, people rush. The final quality will never be as great when compared to a properly paid for and prepared tattoo.

If you have a budget, and the work that you want to get is outside what that amount is, start saving. If you are not a person who enjoys the build up the anticipation, get something smaller that is inside your budget. Taking you time and not price shopping will give you want you deserve. Remember, you are in a place of business. Be respectable inside this person’s place of employment.

Artist Interaction

When choosing a tattoo, please, please, please… Don’t try and design the tattoo yourself. This is ultimately important if you are unsure about what you want the final product to be. There is a greater chance that your chosen artist will make something better than what you can imagine. Give them room to surprise you.

This above statement doesn’t stand if you know precisely what you want. Do you want your baby’s name in Scriptina font across your wrist?

Cool.

Choose that.

After that has been expressed, listen to your artists recommendations about how this chosen tattoo may age, tie in with future work and how much it might hurt. There is far more to the tattoo than the final design.

In closing

Hopefully you are in a better place now and have confidence about choosing your tattoo. You control the fate of what is put on your body.

But please… Do not tattoo your partner’s name on your arm.

PEACE OUT!
Not the author

 



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rian Othus got his initial break into the tattooing industry in the early 2000’s. He worked in many locations throughout the United States and Canada. The opinions expressed on this site are based on his experiences and time spent in the industry. Some are also from amateur scientific study.

The journey to increase his knowledge began on the road. At times Rian had to travel far from home. Others, he had to beg to get any information. It was an amazing journey and it paved the way for Rian to start analyzing the tattoo industry to figure out where he fit into it.

These articles are written to engage and educate those who are out in the wild world of tattooing, working in a shop or just enjoying the culture. He admits that some of the articles may be very specific regarding who they are written for, but hopes that anyone who reads them is able to take things from a different angle or better understand what someone else may be experiencing.

Rian Othus
Website: https://tattooartistsblog.com
https://www.instagram.com/rian_othus


 

How long do hand tattoos last and can you do them?

Well, here is the persistently asked question from clients to us tattooers: Do you do hand and foot tattoos. And, do they last?

I am in a bit of a goofy mood while writing this post so the tone may be different than usual. I apologize if it makes the reading difficult.

Sweet Jesus, there is a plethora of misinformation out there as to how and why we do/don’t do finger tattoos. Today, I hope to put this to rest!

Hand tattoos – What Gives?

So you have a client that walks in and says,

               Client: Hey. Do y’all do hand tattoos?

You: **Nonsensical garbled answer because you really don’t want to do one but.. damn, you gotta pay them bills**

To dissect this problem, let’s dig right into the fucking dirt of what your skin looks like and how it’s different on the hands and feet. Then we will jump into why finger tattoos may or may not heal up, what to look for in your fingers/feet that help make a good choice about placement and how the healing is different for these areas of the body.

“Boom”

God

That means, let’s get onto the science!

Skin Composition – What’s the skinny on them layers?

I was am going to skip all the technical mumbo-jumbo about skin layers and what not but I ended up writing all about it.

Here is what people who are not tattoo artists thinks their hands look like. It may also be what we all assume every person’s hands will look like when they come in to get a tattoo blasted on the digits:

probably younger hands

In all reality, here is what we tattooers deal with on the daily:

old ass hands

If you look at your hands (just do it) and compare the skin on them to the rest of your body, you will notice a few things that are different.

  1. The backs of your hands have very little fat (adipose tissue)
  2. The palms of your hands are thick (Like…what if your whole body was like that?)
  3. There are transitional areas that line the sides of your fingers and palms.
  4. The skin takes a ton of abuse and you may have some rad scars.

What does that have to do with the tattooing procedure and how can I accurately assess the possible healed tattoo from people who want their hands/feet tattooed?

It’s easy young padawan. You just must understand the why’s before getting to the how’s.

Skin Construction

So, let’s have a short primer for all those out there who may not have taken an A&P class in college.

Here are the layers of your skin, broken down Scooby style for ease of reading.

  • Epidermis – about 0.1 mm in thickness.
    • Water proofing and barrier for the body. Made up of basal cells and keratinocytes.
      • Keratinocytes – a bunch of different proteins, enzymes, lipids and defense peptides that protect the body. They absorb water and don’t divide like normal cells do after they have been “selected” during a maturation stage. (more information found by following this link)
      • Basal Cells – Keratinocytes that are found in the basal layer of the epidermis.
  • Dermis – on average about 2 mm in thickness
    • The living part of your skin in that it supplies all the cells for the epidermis. It also contains vascular bodies, structural cells that give skin its physical properties, immune cells and specific fat cells called adipocytes.
  • Subcutaneous tissues – anywhere from 2 mm in thickness up to greater than 18 mm (> 18 mm)
    • This is fat. The subcutaneous tissues give structure like your dermis but is made up of loose connective tissues to underlying structures. Its like the dermis but is like…loose.

Here is a table that breaks down the layers in a more scientific way –

Skin LayerStructureRole in Viscoelasticity
Stratum corneum—outermost layer of epidermisStructure of up to 25–30 rows of corneocytes; includes fibrous keratin; “brick and mortar” arrangement, in conjunction with other stratified layers in the epidermis, increases tensile strength (resistance to longitudinal stress), and resistance to damage ()
Water content is 15–30% ()
Supports pliability (ease in change of shape from baseline)
Promotes strength, elastic behavior, and resistance to loss of skin integrity with movement, stretching, and application of force
Basement membrane zone (BMZ)Collection of three cell layers between the epidermis and the dermis (lamina lucida, lamina densa, and lamina propria; ; ); comprised of proteins (primarily laminins, proteoglycans, and types IV and VII collagens; )
Desmosomes (cells responsible for adhesion) serve as binding cells between basal layer of skin and upper lamina lucida (; )
Anchoring fibrils and a matrix of fibers at varying stages of maturity connect thicker lamina densa layer to upper layer of dermis (; )
BMZ semipermeable to water; limits water passage to maintain skin hydration and support viscoelasticity
Lamina layers extremely flexible due to construction of multiple-microfibrillar subdensa and protein-based supra-lamina desmosomes (; )
Supports epidermis and provides strong adhesion between the epidermal and dermal layers to protect against shearing forces (); when force applied on parallel plane to skin, it has a viscoelastic response of expanding and then contracting fiber matrix and associated fluids
Serves as an anchor to surrounding layers; disruption of BMZ leads to amorphous structure within epidermis and dermis causing skin structure breakage and reduced viscoelastic response
Dermis—layer between the epidermis and subcutaneous tissuesWithin papillary region (uppermost layer of dermis), a networking of thin elastin protein fibers (oxytalan fibers and the elaunin fibers cross-linked via desmosomes) is in loose matrix with procollagen (a precursor to collagen that originates within ground substance) and ground substance (; ; ; )
Reticular region (below papillary region and above hypodermis) is comprised of ground substance and a thicker mesh of collagen fibers wound among thicker elastic fibers assembled from elastin and microfibrils (; ; )
With force, elastin molecules stretch in linear pattern, cross links maintain structure; quick elastic reaction provides immediate response to force, followed by slower viscous response and then full return to baseline
Elastic fibers are thinner in papillary region and used for quick response but break more easily; elastic fibers in reticular region thicker, more bundled with collagen, and provide slower, viscoelastic behavior and greater tensile strength (; )
Hypodermis—innermost and thickest layer of skin; connects dermis to bone or connective tissueAdipose tissue is present in the hypodermis, but thickness of this layer may vary (; ; )Thickness of adipose deposits maintains shape of skin, protects it from underlying (bony) structures, and is positively correlated with skin strength and elasticity (; ); positive and protective effects may negated in obesity ()
Problems with obesity include impaired skin barrier repair, decreased lymphatic flow, decreased strength of collagen structures, impaired circulation, decreased wound healing, and skin disorders that change the structure and impair the function of the skin ()

Borrowed from source: Everett, J. S., & Sommers, M. S. (2013). Skin viscoelasticity: physiologic mechanisms, measurement issues, and application to nursing science. Biological research for nursing15(3), 338–346. doi:10.1177/1099800411434151

Let’s move on with a look at the subcutaneous tissues and why this layer of skin is so thin on your hands.

No fat, What up with dat?

The back of your hands and the tops of the feet are what every 80’s-90’s supermodels hoped their entire body could be like. Nearly fat free! (that was awful)

(I am going to stop putting in a separator and use hands as interchangeable with feet for now. That repetitive explanation is getting tiring)

The back of your hands look like crêpe paper stretched over a turkey skeleton. There is little to no fat on the hands of most people and, as anyone who has had their hands tattooed, the shock and vibrations you get from a tattoo make the hands hurt a lot. They tend to blow out, heal hard and take more of a beating through your normal day, in comparison with other parts of the body.

All over your body, the fatty layer (also known as the hypodermis or subcutaneous layer) exists to absorb blows and gives easy-access pathways for blood vessels to connect through your body. It also stores/releases energy, insulates your body and connects the tissue (skin) to underlying fascia which connects the skin to muscles, tendon and other stuffs.

One additional part of this amazing part of the skin is that it contains fibroblasts and macrophages, which if you had read the skin article (out soon), are key in getting the pigment to become “permanent” .

Fancy scientific mechanisms aside, the fatty tissue (in tattooing) keeps the skin supple and helps absorb some of the force that is emitted by the tattoo machine (via a needle). It also helps smooth out the dermis when you pull a stretch, making the layers under the epidermis more consistent thickness wise.

Imagination time!

Place a dish outside on a concrete slab and hit it with a hammer… what happens? It explodes!

Now take another plate and place it on a pillow and smack it with a hammer… what happens? …It still blows up, but the shock you feel from swinging a hammer is greatly decreased.

Hand and foot tattoos for thick skin – Yes everyone has thick skin

This may seem like a weird idea that we all have thick skin but, in essence, we do. That thick skin is on the palms of our hands and soles of our feet. Its there because we need additional protection from our environment with the feelers that we utilize to interact with our world.

Our hands and feet are what we use to interact with our environment. It is what gets us to work and allows us to do the jobs we choose to do. Our feet go through an immense amount of stress every day. Each step you take is an opera of stress distribution and pressure. Your weight, with what speed you are going, is absorbed by a complex network of bones, muscles, connective tissues… and a bunch of magic! (not really) Those stressors increase the pressures to a value that can be multiple factors higher than what your physical weight is. 

nasty feet

Why are the fatty parts so important for tattooing?

The fat helps create a less volatile surface for you to tattoo. The needles that are being driven by a tattoo machine will have a little cushion when they strike the bottom of the machine stroke. This is supremely important as the cushion not only helps the client feel less pain (initially) but also enables the skin to settle evenly when stretched.

What’s that you say? Stretching is influenced by the amount of fatty tissue underlying the skin?!

skin layers

It’s super important to get the stretch down right!

(Upcoming article on stretching will be linked HERE when it is completed)

SubQ – Skin on the hands and feet

The subcutaneous layer (SubQ or fatty layer, like stated before) that all but missing in the hands and feet make things difficult to tattoo but serve a function that is unique to these parts of the body.

Due to the lack of fatty tissue, there is less connection to the underlying structures in the hands and feet. This makes it easy for the fingers and feet to bend and move with less restriction but it also has an effect when getting the hands and feet tattooed.

Yes, your magnificent biceps can take a tattoo and look amazing when oiled up! But, could you imagine how it would feel if the skin on your hands were attached to the muscles the same way your arms or thighs? That would be weird and restrictive.

Walking or grasping something would become very difficult, in the beginning, but as your muscles developed those movements would be even further restricted. Larger muscles needed to move the resticed joints would cramp the area that they occupy and the idea of dexterity would be absent from the species.

Next up on the block for tattooing hands and feet is the uppermost layer of your skin, the horny layer.

The Horny Layer – Not what you think

Image result for stretched skin diagram hand and foot tattoos - Austin powers style. oh behave!

Another aspect that is unique to the hands and feet on a body is the excessively developed horny layer of skin. No, your hands don’t want to get down ya dirty, or maybe they do? The horney layer is another name for the uppermost layer of your epidermis, the stratum corneum.

The stratum corneum (which will be called the horney layer from here out because…I am like a teenager at heart) is made up of all those dead skin cells that are slowly sloughing off when new ones are made. The skin all over your body is always dying but there is a greater sloughing that happens on your hands and feet because they are constantly in use.

One other aspect of these areas on your body is an additional layer of skin called the stratum lucidum.

Ahhhh, the circle of life!

The upper most layer of skin is comprised of mostly dead cells, they had to get there somehow. These dying or dead cells are migrated up through the skin by newly formed cells further down and once they reach the top, they fall off.

Working our way into the skin, and looking at something that is totally unique to these body parts we end up at the stratum lucidum. It is located between your epidermis and dermis on the hands and feet. It’s a collection of specialized cells that give your hands and feet a waterproof, protective layer. Much like a rain slicker in inclimate weather, this layer adds additional protection to these parts of your body and help to keep pathogens out of the parts of your body that interact with your world.

You may have noticed this specialized layer of skin if, like myself, you have gone for a long walk and come home to some swollen, soaked socks. You can also see this layer in action when you take a nice hot bath and get all pruney!

The keratin cells in your hands absorb water and swell, but only the dead/dying layers on your hands above the stratum lucidum! neat eh! This specialized layer is great at protecting your most precious digits and, to be honest, aren’t we glad that our backs don’t wrinkle like that in the tub!

Next, onto the dermis!

The dermis. The real target of hand and foot tattoos

Ok. This article has become more about the skin rather than focusing on tattooing. I understand if you need to go but, I promise, after this section we will move onto the real meat and potatoes you came for!

The dermis is what lies between the epidermis and the subcutaneous tissues of the skin. It is made up mostly of collagen and elastin. These two proteins are what gives your skin it’s bouncy resilience. Your nerves, blood vessels, lymph vessels and sweat glands are also crammed into this space!

We are not ignoring the blood and lymph vessels, which help with thermoregulation and supply oxygen and nutrients to surrounding cells. We are moving past them quickly to talk about more specialized cells.

Another type of cell that makes up the dermis is a mast cell. These specialized cells are a part of the inflammatory response that helps the body deal with intruders (infectious materials like viruses or other things that shouldn’t be there). I’ll leave you a link that explains it all in a much better fashion than I can.

Dermis Explained

Why is the dermis important?

The dermis is where the pigment stays and becomes “permanent”. Your epidermis is constantly sloughing off and is composed of dead/dying cells (mostly keratinocytes). These cells that are being pushed out are not capable of “holding” pigment. The pigment holding cells are the macrophages that are summoned up from the lower layers of the dermis.

These specialized cells deal with infections and foreign particles (like ink). The macrophages consume/engulf the pigment particles that have been injected into the skin and hold it in place. These cells, like all others in our bodies, slowly die off and dump their contents (tattoo pigment) back into the skin before being transferred up to be sloughed off.

What happens to the pigment when that occurs, you ask?

ink life cycle after tattooing

The body sends more macrophages in response the the released foreign particle. The newly formed macrophages come forth, engulf the pigment and lay in wait until they meet their inevitable end.

This process continues during your livable existence and ensure that your tattoo is going to last a lifetime. (for now… mwahahahaha SCIENCE! – more on this later)

What’s up with hand and foot tattoos?

How about you, dear reader take this one. I know you can probably answer this question pretty well after all that typing that occurred above! (at least I hope so…)

hand structure
  • With a layer of subcutaneous tissue that is less evident, the body can experience greater trauma when being tattooed. Higher degree of trauma = lower chance of healing cleanly.
  • Lower levels of subcutaneous tissue create a more difficult stretch which creates a more uneven dermal layer. This makes it nearly impossible to place the pigment consistent into the skin so it shows an even tone and doesn’t “blow out”.

(A blow out is where the pigment is placed in a way that causes it to spread in an unpredictable way under the skin. The pigment placed into the body can roll along the capillary pathways, along soft spots of less dense skin or be carried into less dense areas by the inflammatory/immune response that occurs during a tattoo.)

  • Higher levels of stress from normal daily use increase the amount of shedding that needs to occur as more cells are destroyed from use.
  • Being constantly in use, the environmental stresses are greater than other parts of the body so an increase in healing time may occur.
  • The thicker horny layer creates a longer pathway for ink and needles to travel. this travel will dislodge pigment at different depths that can create an illusion of a well done tattoo. When the tattoo heals, and the misplaced pigment is shed (not absorbed) the finished product could be much lighter than anticipated.

So this list is going to left and added to at another time. I have shit to do and I am running out of time!

How can we tell who would be a better candidate for a hand or foot tattoo

This one is simple. You do a consult and touch their hands/feet after washing your hands and putting on a set of gloves.

Look at the skin. Is it very thin looking? If so, you will need to adjust your machine speed to ensure quality injection of pigment.

Give the skin a little push and pull. Does it feel tight or strongly attached to the underlying structure? If it does, there is a better chance that the SubQ layer is thicker than average and should be easier to tattoo. If the skin is very loose, there is a better chance that the tattoo will fall out or blow out if your needle depth is not set shallow and run on a slower machine setting.

WHen doing a consultation, ask the person who wants the tattoo what they do for a living. If you are going to tattoo a bakers hand, or a mechanics hand, there is a greater than average chance the tattoo will heal like total crap. Why you ask? BECAUSE THEY WORK WITH THEIR HANDS!

The type of work and what the skin is introduced to in a daily grind are what we consider environmental stresses. If you were to apply those same stresses to any other part of the body, what would you expect? (This wasn’t rhetorical)

How evident is the vascularization of the hand? If it seems very prominent, located near the surface, the epidermis will be thinner than normal (maybe they don’t use their hands for work or have a light duty job). If this is the case, you will have to adjust your hand and machine speed to ensure good saturation and less trauma.

In closing for now…

There is more information that needs to be added to this so let’s leave this article as a primer for those of you who need more.

Thanks for reading.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rian Othus got his initial break into the tattooing industry in the early 2000’s. He worked in many locations throughout the United States and Canada. The opinions expressed on this site are based on his experiences and time spent in the industry. Some are also from amateur scientific study.

The journey to increase his knowledge began on the road. At times Rian had to travel far from home. Others, he had to beg to get any information. It was an amazing journey and it paved the way for Rian to start analyzing the tattoo industry to figure out where he fit into it.

These articles are written to engage and educate those who are out in the wild world of tattooing, working in a shop or just enjoying the culture. He admits that some of the articles may be very specific regarding who they are written for, but hopes that anyone who reads them is able to take things from a different angle or better understand what someone else may be experiencing.

Rian Othus
Website: https://tattooartistsblog.com
https://www.instagram.com/rian_othus

How long do hand tattoos last and can you do them?

Well, here is the persistently asked question from clients to us tattooers: Do you do hand and foot tattoos. And, do they last?

I am in a bit of a goofy mood while writing this post so the tone may be different than usual. I apologize if it makes the reading difficult.

Sweet Jesus, there is a plethora of misinformation out there as to how and why we do/don’t do finger tattoos. Today, I hope to put this to rest!

Hand tattoos – What Gives?

So you have a client that walks in and says,

               Client: Hey. Do y’all do hand tattoos?

You: **Nonsensical garbled answer because you really don’t want to do one but.. damn, you gotta pay them bills**

To dissect this problem, let’s dig right into the fucking dirt of what your skin looks like and how it’s different on the hands and feet. Then we will jump into why finger tattoos may or may not heal up, what to look for in your fingers/feet that help make a good choice about placement and how the healing is different for these areas of the body.

“Boom”

God

That means, let’s get onto the science!

Skin Composition – What’s the skinny on them layers?

I was am going to skip all the technical mumbo-jumbo about skin layers and what not but I ended up writing all about it.

Here is what people who are not tattoo artists thinks their hands look like. It may also be what we all assume every person’s hands will look like when they come in to get a tattoo blasted on the digits:

probably younger hands

In all reality, here is what we tattooers deal with on the daily:

old ass hands

If you look at your hands (just do it) and compare the skin on them to the rest of your body, you will notice a few things that are different.

  1. The backs of your hands have very little fat (adipose tissue)
  2. The palms of your hands are thick (Like…what if your whole body was like that?)
  3. There are transitional areas that line the sides of your fingers and palms.
  4. The skin takes a ton of abuse and you may have some rad scars.

What does that have to do with the tattooing procedure and how can I accurately assess the possible healed tattoo from people who want their hands/feet tattooed?

It’s easy young padawan. You just must understand the why’s before getting to the how’s.

Skin Construction

So, let’s have a short primer for all those out there who may not have taken an A&P class in college.

Here are the layers of your skin, broken down Scooby style for ease of reading.

  • Epidermis – about 0.1 mm in thickness.
    • Water proofing and barrier for the body. Made up of basal cells and keratinocytes.
      • Keratinocytes – a bunch of different proteins, enzymes, lipids and defense peptides that protect the body. They absorb water and don’t divide like normal cells do after they have been “selected” during a maturation stage. (more information found by following this link)
      • Basal Cells – Keratinocytes that are found in the basal layer of the epidermis.
  • Dermis – on average about 2 mm in thickness
    • The living part of your skin in that it supplies all the cells for the epidermis. It also contains vascular bodies, structural cells that give skin its physical properties, immune cells and specific fat cells called adipocytes.
  • Subcutaneous tissues – anywhere from 2 mm in thickness up to greater than 18 mm (> 18 mm)
    • This is fat. The subcutaneous tissues give structure like your dermis but is made up of loose connective tissues to underlying structures. Its like the dermis but is like…loose.

Here is a table that breaks down the layers in a more scientific way –

Skin LayerStructureRole in Viscoelasticity
Stratum corneum—outermost layer of epidermisStructure of up to 25–30 rows of corneocytes; includes fibrous keratin; “brick and mortar” arrangement, in conjunction with other stratified layers in the epidermis, increases tensile strength (resistance to longitudinal stress), and resistance to damage ()
Water content is 15–30% ()
Supports pliability (ease in change of shape from baseline)
Promotes strength, elastic behavior, and resistance to loss of skin integrity with movement, stretching, and application of force
Basement membrane zone (BMZ)Collection of three cell layers between the epidermis and the dermis (lamina lucida, lamina densa, and lamina propria; ; ); comprised of proteins (primarily laminins, proteoglycans, and types IV and VII collagens; )
Desmosomes (cells responsible for adhesion) serve as binding cells between basal layer of skin and upper lamina lucida (; )
Anchoring fibrils and a matrix of fibers at varying stages of maturity connect thicker lamina densa layer to upper layer of dermis (; )
BMZ semipermeable to water; limits water passage to maintain skin hydration and support viscoelasticity
Lamina layers extremely flexible due to construction of multiple-microfibrillar subdensa and protein-based supra-lamina desmosomes (; )
Supports epidermis and provides strong adhesion between the epidermal and dermal layers to protect against shearing forces (); when force applied on parallel plane to skin, it has a viscoelastic response of expanding and then contracting fiber matrix and associated fluids
Serves as an anchor to surrounding layers; disruption of BMZ leads to amorphous structure within epidermis and dermis causing skin structure breakage and reduced viscoelastic response
Dermis—layer between the epidermis and subcutaneous tissuesWithin papillary region (uppermost layer of dermis), a networking of thin elastin protein fibers (oxytalan fibers and the elaunin fibers cross-linked via desmosomes) is in loose matrix with procollagen (a precursor to collagen that originates within ground substance) and ground substance (; ; ; )
Reticular region (below papillary region and above hypodermis) is comprised of ground substance and a thicker mesh of collagen fibers wound among thicker elastic fibers assembled from elastin and microfibrils (; ; )
With force, elastin molecules stretch in linear pattern, cross links maintain structure; quick elastic reaction provides immediate response to force, followed by slower viscous response and then full return to baseline
Elastic fibers are thinner in papillary region and used for quick response but break more easily; elastic fibers in reticular region thicker, more bundled with collagen, and provide slower, viscoelastic behavior and greater tensile strength (; )
Hypodermis—innermost and thickest layer of skin; connects dermis to bone or connective tissueAdipose tissue is present in the hypodermis, but thickness of this layer may vary (; ; )Thickness of adipose deposits maintains shape of skin, protects it from underlying (bony) structures, and is positively correlated with skin strength and elasticity (; ); positive and protective effects may negated in obesity ()
Problems with obesity include impaired skin barrier repair, decreased lymphatic flow, decreased strength of collagen structures, impaired circulation, decreased wound healing, and skin disorders that change the structure and impair the function of the skin ()

Borrowed from source: Everett, J. S., & Sommers, M. S. (2013). Skin viscoelasticity: physiologic mechanisms, measurement issues, and application to nursing science. Biological research for nursing15(3), 338–346. doi:10.1177/1099800411434151

Let’s move on with a look at the subcutaneous tissues and why this layer of skin is so thin on your hands.

No fat, What up with dat?

The back of your hands and the tops of the feet are what every 80’s-90’s supermodels hoped their entire body could be like. Nearly fat free! (that was awful)

(I am going to stop putting in a separator and use hands as interchangeable with feet for now. That repetitive explanation is getting tiring)

The back of your hands look like crêpe paper stretched over a turkey skeleton. There is little to no fat on the hands of most people and, as anyone who has had their hands tattooed, the shock and vibrations you get from a tattoo make the hands hurt a lot. They tend to blow out, heal hard and take more of a beating through your normal day, in comparison with other parts of the body.

All over your body, the fatty layer (also known as the hypodermis or subcutaneous layer) exists to absorb blows and gives easy-access pathways for blood vessels to connect through your body. It also stores/releases energy, insulates your body and connects the tissue (skin) to underlying fascia which connects the skin to muscles, tendon and other stuffs.

One additional part of this amazing part of the skin is that it contains fibroblasts and macrophages, which if you had read the skin article (out soon), are key in getting the pigment to become “permanent” .

Fancy scientific mechanisms aside, the fatty tissue (in tattooing) keeps the skin supple and helps absorb some of the force that is emitted by the tattoo machine (via a needle). It also helps smooth out the dermis when you pull a stretch, making the layers under the epidermis more consistent thickness wise.

Imagination time!

Place a dish outside on a concrete slab and hit it with a hammer… what happens? It explodes!

Now take another plate and place it on a pillow and smack it with a hammer… what happens? …It still blows up, but the shock you feel from swinging a hammer is greatly decreased.

Hand and foot tattoos for thick skin – Yes everyone has thick skin

This may seem like a weird idea that we all have thick skin but, in essence, we do. That thick skin is on the palms of our hands and soles of our feet. Its there because we need additional protection from our environment with the feelers that we utilize to interact with our world.

Our hands and feet are what we use to interact with our environment. It is what gets us to work and allows us to do the jobs we choose to do. Our feet go through an immense amount of stress every day. Each step you take is an opera of stress distribution and pressure. Your weight, with what speed you are going, is absorbed by a complex network of bones, muscles, connective tissues… and a bunch of magic! (not really) Those stressors increase the pressures to a value that can be multiple factors higher than what your physical weight is. 

nasty feet

Why are the fatty parts so important for tattooing?

The fat helps create a less volatile surface for you to tattoo. The needles that are being driven by a tattoo machine will have a little cushion when they strike the bottom of the machine stroke. This is supremely important as the cushion not only helps the client feel less pain (initially) but also enables the skin to settle evenly when stretched.

What’s that you say? Stretching is influenced by the amount of fatty tissue underlying the skin?!

skin layers

It’s super important to get the stretch down right!

(Upcoming article on stretching will be linked HERE when it is completed)

SubQ – Skin on the hands and feet

The subcutaneous layer (SubQ or fatty layer, like stated before) that all but missing in the hands and feet make things difficult to tattoo but serve a function that is unique to these parts of the body.

Due to the lack of fatty tissue, there is less connection to the underlying structures in the hands and feet. This makes it easy for the fingers and feet to bend and move with less restriction but it also has an effect when getting the hands and feet tattooed.

Yes, your magnificent biceps can take a tattoo and look amazing when oiled up! But, could you imagine how it would feel if the skin on your hands were attached to the muscles the same way your arms or thighs? That would be weird and restrictive.

Walking or grasping something would become very difficult, in the beginning, but as your muscles developed those movements would be even further restricted. Larger muscles needed to move the resticed joints would cramp the area that they occupy and the idea of dexterity would be absent from the species.

Next up on the block for tattooing hands and feet is the uppermost layer of your skin, the horny layer.

The Horny Layer – Not what you think

Image result for stretched skin diagram hand and foot tattoos - Austin powers style. oh behave!

Another aspect that is unique to the hands and feet on a body is the excessively developed horny layer of skin. No, your hands don’t want to get down ya dirty, or maybe they do? The horney layer is another name for the uppermost layer of your epidermis, the stratum corneum.

The stratum corneum (which will be called the horney layer from here out because…I am like a teenager at heart) is made up of all those dead skin cells that are slowly sloughing off when new ones are made. The skin all over your body is always dying but there is a greater sloughing that happens on your hands and feet because they are constantly in use.

One other aspect of these areas on your body is an additional layer of skin called the stratum lucidum.

Ahhhh, the circle of life!

The upper most layer of skin is comprised of mostly dead cells, they had to get there somehow. These dying or dead cells are migrated up through the skin by newly formed cells further down and once they reach the top, they fall off.

Working our way into the skin, and looking at something that is totally unique to these body parts we end up at the stratum lucidum. It is located between your epidermis and dermis on the hands and feet. It’s a collection of specialized cells that give your hands and feet a waterproof, protective layer. Much like a rain slicker in inclimate weather, this layer adds additional protection to these parts of your body and help to keep pathogens out of the parts of your body that interact with your world.

You may have noticed this specialized layer of skin if, like myself, you have gone for a long walk and come home to some swollen, soaked socks. You can also see this layer in action when you take a nice hot bath and get all pruney!

The keratin cells in your hands absorb water and swell, but only the dead/dying layers on your hands above the stratum lucidum! neat eh! This specialized layer is great at protecting your most precious digits and, to be honest, aren’t we glad that our backs don’t wrinkle like that in the tub!

Next, onto the dermis!

The dermis. The real target of hand and foot tattoos

Ok. This article has become more about the skin rather than focusing on tattooing. I understand if you need to go but, I promise, after this section we will move onto the real meat and potatoes you came for!

The dermis is what lies between the epidermis and the subcutaneous tissues of the skin. It is made up mostly of collagen and elastin. These two proteins are what gives your skin it’s bouncy resilience. Your nerves, blood vessels, lymph vessels and sweat glands are also crammed into this space!

We are not ignoring the blood and lymph vessels, which help with thermoregulation and supply oxygen and nutrients to surrounding cells. We are moving past them quickly to talk about more specialized cells.

Another type of cell that makes up the dermis is a mast cell. These specialized cells are a part of the inflammatory response that helps the body deal with intruders (infectious materials like viruses or other things that shouldn’t be there). I’ll leave you a link that explains it all in a much better fashion than I can.

Dermis Explained

Why is the dermis important?

The dermis is where the pigment stays and becomes “permanent”. Your epidermis is constantly sloughing off and is composed of dead/dying cells (mostly keratinocytes). These cells that are being pushed out are not capable of “holding” pigment. The pigment holding cells are the macrophages that are summoned up from the lower layers of the dermis.

These specialized cells deal with infections and foreign particles (like ink). The macrophages consume/engulf the pigment particles that have been injected into the skin and hold it in place. These cells, like all others in our bodies, slowly die off and dump their contents (tattoo pigment) back into the skin before being transferred up to be sloughed off.

What happens to the pigment when that occurs, you ask?

ink life cycle after tattooing

The body sends more macrophages in response the the released foreign particle. The newly formed macrophages come forth, engulf the pigment and lay in wait until they meet their inevitable end.

This process continues during your livable existence and ensure that your tattoo is going to last a lifetime. (for now… mwahahahaha SCIENCE! – more on this later)

What’s up with hand and foot tattoos?

How about you, dear reader take this one. I know you can probably answer this question pretty well after all that typing that occurred above! (at least I hope so…)

hand structure
  • With a layer of subcutaneous tissue that is less evident, the body can experience greater trauma when being tattooed. Higher degree of trauma = lower chance of healing cleanly.
  • Lower levels of subcutaneous tissue create a more difficult stretch which creates a more uneven dermal layer. This makes it nearly impossible to place the pigment consistent into the skin so it shows an even tone and doesn’t “blow out”.

(A blow out is where the pigment is placed in a way that causes it to spread in an unpredictable way under the skin. The pigment placed into the body can roll along the capillary pathways, along soft spots of less dense skin or be carried into less dense areas by the inflammatory/immune response that occurs during a tattoo.)

  • Higher levels of stress from normal daily use increase the amount of shedding that needs to occur as more cells are destroyed from use.
  • Being constantly in use, the environmental stresses are greater than other parts of the body so an increase in healing time may occur.
  • The thicker horny layer creates a longer pathway for ink and needles to travel. this travel will dislodge pigment at different depths that can create an illusion of a well done tattoo. When the tattoo heals, and the misplaced pigment is shed (not absorbed) the finished product could be much lighter than anticipated.

So this list is going to left and added to at another time. I have shit to do and I am running out of time!

How can we tell who would be a better candidate for a hand or foot tattoo

This one is simple. You do a consult and touch their hands/feet after washing your hands and putting on a set of gloves.

Look at the skin. Is it very thin looking? If so, you will need to adjust your machine speed to ensure quality injection of pigment.

Give the skin a little push and pull. Does it feel tight or strongly attached to the underlying structure? If it does, there is a better chance that the SubQ layer is thicker than average and should be easier to tattoo. If the skin is very loose, there is a better chance that the tattoo will fall out or blow out if your needle depth is not set shallow and run on a slower machine setting.

WHen doing a consultation, ask the person who wants the tattoo what they do for a living. If you are going to tattoo a bakers hand, or a mechanics hand, there is a greater than average chance the tattoo will heal like total crap. Why you ask? BECAUSE THEY WORK WITH THEIR HANDS!

The type of work and what the skin is introduced to in a daily grind are what we consider environmental stresses. If you were to apply those same stresses to any other part of the body, what would you expect? (This wasn’t rhetorical)

How evident is the vascularization of the hand? If it seems very prominent, located near the surface, the epidermis will be thinner than normal (maybe they don’t use their hands for work or have a light duty job). If this is the case, you will have to adjust your hand and machine speed to ensure good saturation and less trauma.

In closing for now…

There is more information that needs to be added to this so let’s leave this article as a primer for those of you who need more.

Thanks for reading.

Titanium Dioxide – Pigment Chemistry

The role of titanium dioxide in tattoo pigments

Have you taken a look at the labels of your tattoo pigment lately? One thing you may notice is that there is almost always titanium dioxide in your pigments. Why is that?

Titanium dioxide ( TiO2 ) is something that is ubiquitous in our society. You may not have heard of it before but, trust me, it is everywhere. We find TiO2 in sunscreens, food as an additive and commercial products like paint and steel. It gets spread on our faces, doughnuts and spaceships. When I said ubiquitous… I meant it.

TiO2 is sourced from raw minerals and is defined for specific uses by the size and dimension of the individual particles. The particles have a high refractive index, are photostabile in high UV applications and, although costly to manufacture, are in high demand globally.

So why oh why do we put this into our tattoo pigments? Is it safe? What should we know so that we can be a better educated client/tattooer in the world?

 

Titanium dioxide in our pigments

TiO2 manufacturing is kind of complicated and, since this is a tattoo blog, we won’t get into what goes into the sourcing and processing. If you want to learn more, Google is your friend.

TiO2 is used in our tattoo pigments because its use makes our pigments look brighter. This particle refracts light and disperses wavelengths that are enhancing to colors. The refractive ability is determined by the particulate size and can be tailor made by manufacturers to most sizes… even nano-particle sized.

Titanium dioxide health concerns

While TiO2 may be a food-safe product there are questions about the safety of this product when injected into the body. Here is a paper that discusses the health effects of TiO2!

Titanium dioxide nanoparticles induce DNA damage and genetic instability in vivo in mice

Evidence that ultrafine titanium dioxide induces micronuclei and apoptosis in Syrian hamster embryo fibroblasts.

Human safety review of “nano” titanium dioxide and zinc oxide

and a couple of papers for whomever wants to read them:

Chemistry Handbook- TiO2

Titanium Dioxide white paper from DuPont

 



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rian Othus got his initial break into the tattooing industry in the early 2000’s. He worked in many locations throughout the United States and Canada. The opinions expressed on this site are based on his experiences and time spent in the industry. Some are also from amateur scientific study.

The journey to increase his knowledge began on the road. At times Rian had to travel far from home. Others, he had to beg to get any information. It was an amazing journey and it paved the way for Rian to start analyzing the tattoo industry to figure out where he fit into it.

These articles are written to engage and educate those who are out in the wild world of tattooing, working in a shop or just enjoying the culture. He admits that some of the articles may be very specific regarding who they are written for, but hopes that anyone who reads them is able to take things from a different angle or better understand what someone else may be experiencing.

Rian Othus
Website: https://tattooartistsblog.com
https://www.instagram.com/rian_othus


 

Titanium Dioxide – Pigment Chemistry

The role of titanium dioxide in tattoo pigments

Have you taken a look at the labels of your tattoo pigment lately? On thing you may notice is that there is almost always titanium dioxide in your pigments. Why is that?

Titanium dioxide ( TiO2 ) is something that is ubiquitous in our society. You may not have heard of it before but, trust me, it is everywhere. We find TiO2 in sunscreens, food as an additive and commercial products like paint and steel. It gets spread on our faces, doughnuts and spaceships. When I said ubiquitous… I meant it.

TiO2 is sourced from raw minerals and is defined for specific uses by the size and dimension of the individual particles. The particles have a high refractive index, are photostabile in high UV applications and, although costly to manufacture, are in high demand globally.

So why oh why do we put this into our tattoo pigments? Is it safe? What should we know so that we can be a better educated client/tattooer in the world?

Titanium dioxide in our pigments

TiO2 manufacturing is kind of complicated and, since this is a tattoo blog, we won’t get into what goes into the sourcing and processing. If you want to learn more, Google is your friend.

TiO2 is used in our tattoo pigments because its use makes our pigments look brighter. This particle refracts light and disperses wavelengths that are enhancing to colors. The refractive ability is determined by the particulate size and can be tailor made by manufacturers to most sizes… even nano-particle sized.

Titanium dioxide health concerns

While TiO2 may be a food-safe product there are questions about the safety of this product when injected into the body. Here is a paper that discusses the health effects of TiO2!

Titanium dioxide nanoparticles induce DNA damage and genetic instability in vivo in mice

Evidence that ultrafine titanium dioxide induces micronuclei and apoptosis in Syrian hamster embryo fibroblasts.

Human safety review of “nano” titanium dioxide and zinc oxide

and a couple of papers for whomever wants to read them:

Chemistry Handbook- TiO2

Titanium Dioxide white paper from DuPont

The Apprentice- What's Missing in the Industry – Part 1

Part 2 of the Apprentice can be found here.

Part 2 – The Apprentice

Today’s article focuses on the history of apprenticeship training. It then moves into a critique of the current apprenticeship system inside the current body art industry. I may throw a little ethics inside the opinions below, so hold tight!

Apprenticeships, the backbone of dropout education in the USA! You got your GED and your family thinks you are lazy as fuck, go get an apprenticeship!

That is harsh, and I apologize if my first few words offended anyone. My view on this topic doesn’t really align with disgust towards the trades in this fine county.

My issue with apprenticeships is that we have moved away from the idea of mastery in a whole to the income-seeking on-the-job training that leaves huge gaps in the knowledge of those who undertake one.

So, let’s back it up a little and peek at what apprenticeships were like oh so long ago. Maybe this will give you, dear reader, an inside peek as to why my disgust lays not with the apprentice but with the system.

The Apprentice.

The idea of on the job training has been around for millennia. I am not going to go back as far as Mesopotamia to get to the point I am trying to express. I know that we have been working together since the cradle of civilization was a current place to be.

In our more modern time, I always look towards Japan with fondness when thinking of apprenticeships. The Japanese have a philosophical belief that the self must always grow and learn, to always improve. It’s rooted in the Zen ideology of kaizen, which explains that one must continually grow through one’s own efforts. This simple break-down in our lazy, native language, does not do the word kaizen justice. This word evokes such deep feelings when uttered in its native tongue that we would have to write a freaking book to get anywhere near its depth.

Deep eh!

The apprentice, a brief history.

In the Western world we think of apprenticeships as merely being able to produce work after enough technical knowledge obtained through work labor ensures you make few mistakes. In Japan, things are different. When you go into an apprenticeship, as an accepted apprentice, your master takes your burden on, full tilt. You were accepted at a young age and lived with the master as a lower stationed member of the family. You would do menial tasks around the house like cooking and cleaning, sweeping and tidying the master’s workspace and, for some, take a good beating daily. The matron of the house would educate you in your basic school studies (thing reading, writing and arithmetic). All along you would watch from a safe distance as the master worked.

Stealing Knowledge

From an early stage of your apprenticeship, you were offered a simple theory on how to grow your knowledge, Nusumi-chishiki. This theory gave the apprentice a chance to steal knowledge in order to learn. You used your eyes and learned through your own interpretation.

This process of Nusumi-chishiki would carry on for a long enough time as to when you could show your competency and then be released into society to carry on your own workings business.

To further explain that last bit:

You were not allowed to go forth until the master, who is attached to your success in the trade, was confident in your mastery of the trade. Your failure was the master’s failure. In the society that Japan still holds today, this was considered a disgrace. The master did not their job well enough that you, their ward, could make a living off their tutelage.

Now, the standard model of apprenticeships that mirrors some of the western schools of thought leaves out a major philosophy in Japan where stealing knowledge is only a single aspect of becoming a master. Hopeful masters must apply the concept of Shuhari to obtain what most would consider a true mastery of a craft.

Shu-Ha-Ri

Shu-Ha-Ri is a belief system which, loosely translated breaks down the process for obtaining mastery. In tattooing you can see specific milestones that are achieved by someone willing to undertake this journey.

Shu (Obey – Look)

10 years stealing knowledge and mirroring the master. A single master. This is where you gain the fundamentals and copy the master to obtain a working knowledge of your craft. In tattooing, the apprentice must earn the trust of their master before any attempt to mark another person in their name is attempted. Although, look at the thighs of those lucky enough to have made it through this stage. This stage is all about the how and why techniques are used.

Ha (Detach – Feel)-

10 years actively improving on your own. In this phase you step away from the master and seek your own understanding of the craft. You break apart and dissect the practices learned from the master to advance the teachings you were given. This is the stage where you innovate. With their master’s name and blessing, the newly released tattooer goes forth and define their own personal understanding.

This stage is about making the how and why of their process. The make their own and understanding their place inside the craft/trade.

Ri (Leave – Think)

10 years developing your own style and mastery. This is where everything has moved beyond practiced and becomes a pat of you. Your own style emerges and becomes a natural extension of yourself. The tattooer has come full circle and has become a tattoo master. Their work is unique and wholly their own, although it carries with it the images/themes given by the master. They are answering the questions that have been developed by the work of this generation and give knowledge to those actively seeking the future.

Connection to Martial Arts

This ideology is practiced in many ways but is very evident in martial arts.

Think of Bruce Lee and his water analogy,

“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

What Bruce Lee describes is the final process of mastery. A formless reaction of one’s self. Read a book on Jeet Kun Do sometime and you can get a feel as to how the concept of Shuhari influenced his martial arts and philosophy.

Anyways, back to the topic at hand,

Apprenticeships and the less than modern tattoo industry.

The tattooing we know in the western world, in my opinion, lacks a complete understanding of the tattooing process. But it’s not our fault. We can trace the separation of knowledge back to the early 1900’s and the burst of tattooers that stemmed from these original badasses. While our efforts over the past few decades opened the industry and offered unfettered access to all those who wished to join, the western history is fraught with trial and error applications that built a separate knowledge base, completely absent of the knowledge our Japanese cousins utilize.

America – The apprentice’s journey: A history

Back when tattooing became a (somewhat) rational option of employment for carnies and societal outcasts, us in the USA relied on second hand knowledge to understand what it was that we are doing.

Yes, I know there were greats and some people who everyone looks up to, but I am looking through some frosted glasses with this critique. I am talking about an apprentice so don’t toss out Paul Rogers, Sam O’Reilly or Bob Shaw to me and think you can shoot me down, ok!

The problem was that, since the early 1900’s, there was no one actually offering up any knowledge. There were no real masters. To get into tattooing you had to know someone to get in or beg and compensate someone to get a meager education. Worse yet, you could just manufacture your own machine and start stabbing. You learned through error and, if you were lucky enough, had a career that spanned enough time to get a good hook on how to get pigment into skin.

Japan adds influence

The idea of ceremony that the Japanese brought to their teachings, which was part of their culture, was replaced with the motivations of the industrial revolution and progressive national politics (ya, that is a reach, I know). People were out to make money, gain some fame and focus on what trends were popular (especially in the 50’s-60’s). These efforts focused on exploiting the eager public’s want of what was in fashion. While they did enhance the quality and expand the repertoire inside the industry, there was a further separation from educating the next wave of professionals that were carrying the torch into the future.

We found a cool article from a personal perspective from Kotaku.

You can read it here

The Tattooing Families – Apprentice validity through naming

Legitimacy among tattooers was gained by working with someone or doing some sort of training underneath them. Tattoo Families were born of this practice and it ensured professionals a preceding sense of respect, if they were lucky enough to carry the name of someone who was respected. We can assume that this practice also lent itself to people abusing the respect associated with the labels attached to a family. I can imagine a young kid, gear in tow, moving across the country stating his association with Bert Grimm or other famous big-names in the industry, failing and having to run away or deal with the repercussions.

Some non essential stories

I remember hearing stories from a few old time tattooers about their apprenticeships. While I cannot claim that any of this is factual, let alone not a figment of their imagination, their telling’s did show me what may have been commonplace during the years preceding what we now call the age of enlightenment.

  • There was a story about a guy being given a machine when walking into a tattoo parlor, inquiring about a job, and just starting to hammer clients for nickels. No training for the apprentice.
  • I believe I had read a story about people joining the circus to hone their skills and have an easy escape when they fucked up.
  • I read about a guy who tattooed drunk people he dragged in off the streets. He practiced on their sometimes-unconscious bodies.

It’s crazy to us now but some people may have gotten their start by sheer dumb luck.

Families and growth

Once these families started to grow, they expanded out and connections were established from the coasts inward, in the USA. Yes, the Navy sure helped tattooing get a foothold inside this country but the people who guess-worked their way to an understanding of the industry used capitalistic ideas and means to spread that shit like fire! A mass-produced product that was easily transported to the masses countrywide.

Suddenly you had some guy in Kansas moving to Where-Eversville, USA to open a shop with a name like Maud Wagner attached to his pedigree.

The expansion created a consistent environment where American tattooing became more normalized, even if it wasn’t accepted societally.

A More Modern, American Tattoo Apprenticeship

I am going to depart from any additional history and move forward as I think I have introduced bias into the argument I am intending to make. I also laid in unconfirmed stories that lay waste to any legitimacy this article may carry. The stories and ideas about the US and tattooing are amazing and should be some TV series carried by Netflix into some super docudrama.

I really feel the story of tattooing inside the US has all the earmarks of what it is to be an American. As an industry we took the efforts of those who came before us and created our own style of apprenticeship that we see today, albeit today’s standards and practices are losing the things that made them truly American.

Let us look at what the common practice is today when you are an apprentice.

In the beginning

You, an aspiring tattoo god, walk into a shop and start asking about training. You get turned away from multiple shops but find one that is local, willing and seems to be able to offer you a break into the wonderful world you love from the outside. After a few meetings and discussions, they offer you an apprenticeship. They say it isn’t going to be easy.

Shu-

For the first bit you awkwardly haunt around the shop, learning people’s names and some of the terminology. There is little to no interaction on a professional level coming from the artists there. You mop and clean and maybe get a few questions but your attempts to fit in are failure.

After a while the artists start letting you watch them tattoo, if you have finished your chores and do not interfere with their work. If you are lucky (I can’t tell if I am writing sarcasm or not at the moment) you can get into skin shortly after you start your apprenticeship.

This is where I feel the system starts to break down. Let me explain before we move on.

Japan versus USA – Apprentices

Japan

Compare the ideas applied to understanding tattooing from a Japanese master and this poor sap we are talking about above. How the apprenticeship started may have same style of initiation but that is where both worlds separate. The “master” isn’t a single person in the US version. The shop as a whole is attempting to move this person through their education. I can see the argument here as there are more hands, it should take less time. The issue is that the person taking the apprenticeship is still an individual. There isn’t a way to tailor an education that is to be crammed down a person’s throat if you have their best wishes in mind. What you are doing, in this case, is rushing the results.

USA (The West)

Contrasting the ideas above, it may take years for the hopeful apprentice in Japan to prove themselves. The must impress upon the master a level of competence before they can start marking people permanently.

Back to our scenario, our new apprentice above has little understanding as to the why or how any of the techniques are used. However they got here, they are now left to fend for themselves. The “masters” of the shop have given little in time and effort that will ensure the apprentice will succeed. That success should be the focus of those claiming to have the ability to train and further the willing apprentice.

The Next Step

Ha- You have made it past your first tattoo and have started learning how to draw simple designs. The shop has accepted you as one of their own. Yet here you are left to figure out what’s next. Your career has begun but you have little knowledge of what to do here. You actively seek out others to help you better understand they why’s and how’s of the industry. You’re doing your best but something is missing.

You have so many questions and little knowledge of where to find an answer. While you are getting confident on smaller designs there have been requests for larger scale work that you do not feel confident enough to take on. While this lack of confidence is not outwardly expressed, you attempt and fail at multiple complex designs, learning with each mistake.

Time for another break in our story. We will carry on in part 2.

The Apprentice- What’s Missing in the Industry – Part 1

Part 2 of the Apprentice can be found here.

Part 2 – The Apprentice

Today’s article focuses on the history of apprenticeship training. It then moves into a critique of the current apprenticeship system inside the current body art industry. I may throw a little ethics inside the opinions below, so hold tight!

Apprenticeships, the backbone of dropout education in the USA! You got your GED and your family thinks you are lazy as fuck, go get an apprenticeship!

That is harsh, and I apologize if my first few words offended anyone. My view on this topic doesn’t really align with disgust towards the trades in this fine county.

My issue with apprenticeships is that we have moved away from the idea of mastery in a whole to the income-seeking on-the-job training that leaves huge gaps in the knowledge of those who undertake one.

So, let’s back it up a little and peek at what apprenticeships were like oh so long ago. Maybe this will give you, dear reader, an inside peek as to why my disgust lays not with the apprentice but with the system.

The Apprentice.

The idea of on the job training has been around for millennia. I am not going to go back as far as Mesopotamia to get to the point I am trying to express. I know that we have been working together since the cradle of civilization was a current place to be.

In our more modern time, I always look towards Japan with fondness when thinking of apprenticeships. The Japanese have a philosophical belief that the self must always grow and learn, to always improve. It’s rooted in the Zen ideology of kaizen, which explains that one must continually grow through one’s own efforts. This simple break-down in our lazy, native language, does not do the word kaizen justice. This word evokes such deep feelings when uttered in its native tongue that we would have to write a freaking book to get anywhere near its depth.

Deep eh!

The apprentice, a brief history.

In the Western world we think of apprenticeships as merely being able to produce work after enough technical knowledge obtained through work labor ensures you make few mistakes. In Japan, things are different. When you go into an apprenticeship, as an accepted apprentice, your master takes your burden on, full tilt. You were accepted at a young age and lived with the master as a lower stationed member of the family. You would do menial tasks around the house like cooking and cleaning, sweeping and tidying the master’s workspace and, for some, take a good beating daily. The matron of the house would educate you in your basic school studies (thing reading, writing and arithmetic). All along you would watch from a safe distance as the master worked.

Stealing Knowledge

From an early stage of your apprenticeship, you were offered a simple theory on how to grow your knowledge, Nusumi-chishiki. This theory gave the apprentice a chance to steal knowledge in order to learn. You used your eyes and learned through your own interpretation.

This process of Nusumi-chishiki would carry on for a long enough time as to when you could show your competency and then be released into society to carry on your own workings business.

To further explain that last bit:

You were not allowed to go forth until the master, who is attached to your success in the trade, was confident in your mastery of the trade. Your failure was the master’s failure. In the society that Japan still holds today, this was considered a disgrace. The master did not their job well enough that you, their ward, could make a living off their tutelage.

Now, the standard model of apprenticeships that mirrors some of the western schools of thought leaves out a major philosophy in Japan where stealing knowledge is only a single aspect of becoming a master. Hopeful masters must apply the concept of Shuhari to obtain what most would consider a true mastery of a craft.

Shu-Ha-Ri

Shu-Ha-Ri is a belief system which, loosely translated breaks down the process for obtaining mastery. In tattooing you can see specific milestones that are achieved by someone willing to undertake this journey.

Shu (Obey – Look)

10 years stealing knowledge and mirroring the master. A single master. This is where you gain the fundamentals and copy the master to obtain a working knowledge of your craft. In tattooing, the apprentice must earn the trust of their master before any attempt to mark another person in their name is attempted. Although, look at the thighs of those lucky enough to have made it through this stage. This stage is all about the how and why techniques are used.

Ha (Detach – Feel)-

10 years actively improving on your own. In this phase you step away from the master and seek your own understanding of the craft. You break apart and dissect the practices learned from the master to advance the teachings you were given. This is the stage where you innovate. With their master’s name and blessing, the newly released tattooer goes forth and define their own personal understanding.

This stage is about making the how and why of their process. The make their own and understanding their place inside the craft/trade.

Ri (Leave – Think)

10 years developing your own style and mastery. This is where everything has moved beyond practiced and becomes a pat of you. Your own style emerges and becomes a natural extension of yourself. The tattooer has come full circle and has become a tattoo master. Their work is unique and wholly their own, although it carries with it the images/themes given by the master. They are answering the questions that have been developed by the work of this generation and give knowledge to those actively seeking the future.

Connection to Martial Arts

This ideology is practiced in many ways but is very evident in martial arts.

Think of Bruce Lee and his water analogy,

“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

What Bruce Lee describes is the final process of mastery. A formless reaction of one’s self. Read a book on Jeet Kun Do sometime and you can get a feel as to how the concept of Shuhari influenced his martial arts and philosophy.

Anyways, back to the topic at hand,

Apprenticeships and the less than modern tattoo industry.

The tattooing we know in the western world, in my opinion, lacks a complete understanding of the tattooing process. But it’s not our fault. We can trace the separation of knowledge back to the early 1900’s and the burst of tattooers that stemmed from these original badasses. While our efforts over the past few decades opened the industry and offered unfettered access to all those who wished to join, the western history is fraught with trial and error applications that built a separate knowledge base, completely absent of the knowledge our Japanese cousins utilize.

America – The apprentice’s journey: A history

Back when tattooing became a (somewhat) rational option of employment for carnies and societal outcasts, us in the USA relied on second hand knowledge to understand what it was that we are doing.

Yes, I know there were greats and some people who everyone looks up to, but I am looking through some frosted glasses with this critique. I am talking about an apprentice so don’t toss out Paul Rogers, Sam O’Reilly or Bob Shaw to me and think you can shoot me down, ok!

The problem was that, since the early 1900’s, there was no one actually offering up any knowledge. There were no real masters. To get into tattooing you had to know someone to get in or beg and compensate someone to get a meager education. Worse yet, you could just manufacture your own machine and start stabbing. You learned through error and, if you were lucky enough, had a career that spanned enough time to get a good hook on how to get pigment into skin.

Japan adds influence

The idea of ceremony that the Japanese brought to their teachings, which was part of their culture, was replaced with the motivations of the industrial revolution and progressive national politics (ya, that is a reach, I know). People were out to make money, gain some fame and focus on what trends were popular (especially in the 50’s-60’s). These efforts focused on exploiting the eager public’s want of what was in fashion. While they did enhance the quality and expand the repertoire inside the industry, there was a further separation from educating the next wave of professionals that were carrying the torch into the future.

We found a cool article from a personal perspective from Kotaku.

You can read it here

The Tattooing Families – Apprentice validity through naming

Legitimacy among tattooers was gained by working with someone or doing some sort of training underneath them. Tattoo Families were born of this practice and it ensured professionals a preceding sense of respect, if they were lucky enough to carry the name of someone who was respected. We can assume that this practice also lent itself to people abusing the respect associated with the labels attached to a family. I can imagine a young kid, gear in tow, moving across the country stating his association with Bert Grimm or other famous big-names in the industry, failing and having to run away or deal with the repercussions.

Some non essential stories

I remember hearing stories from a few old time tattooers about their apprenticeships. While I cannot claim that any of this is factual, let alone not a figment of their imagination, their telling’s did show me what may have been commonplace during the years preceding what we now call the age of enlightenment.

  • There was a story about a guy being given a machine when walking into a tattoo parlor, inquiring about a job, and just starting to hammer clients for nickels. No training for the apprentice.
  • I believe I had read a story about people joining the circus to hone their skills and have an easy escape when they fucked up.
  • I read about a guy who tattooed drunk people he dragged in off the streets. He practiced on their sometimes-unconscious bodies.

It’s crazy to us now but some people may have gotten their start by sheer dumb luck.

Families and growth

Once these families started to grow, they expanded out and connections were established from the coasts inward, in the USA. Yes, the Navy sure helped tattooing get a foothold inside this country but the people who guess-worked their way to an understanding of the industry used capitalistic ideas and means to spread that shit like fire! A mass-produced product that was easily transported to the masses countrywide.

Suddenly you had some guy in Kansas moving to Where-Eversville, USA to open a shop with a name like Maud Wagner attached to his pedigree.

The expansion created a consistent environment where American tattooing became more normalized, even if it wasn’t accepted societally.

A More Modern, American Tattoo Apprenticeship

I am going to depart from any additional history and move forward as I think I have introduced bias into the argument I am intending to make. I also laid in unconfirmed stories that lay waste to any legitimacy this article may carry. The stories and ideas about the US and tattooing are amazing and should be some TV series carried by Netflix into some super docudrama.

I really feel the story of tattooing inside the US has all the earmarks of what it is to be an American. As an industry we took the efforts of those who came before us and created our own style of apprenticeship that we see today, albeit today’s standards and practices are losing the things that made them truly American.

Let us look at what the common practice is today when you are an apprentice.

In the beginning

You, an aspiring tattoo god, walk into a shop and start asking about training. You get turned away from multiple shops but find one that is local, willing and seems to be able to offer you a break into the wonderful world you love from the outside. After a few meetings and discussions, they offer you an apprenticeship. They say it isn’t going to be easy.

Shu-

For the first bit you awkwardly haunt around the shop, learning people’s names and some of the terminology. There is little to no interaction on a professional level coming from the artists there. You mop and clean and maybe get a few questions but your attempts to fit in are failure.

After a while the artists start letting you watch them tattoo, if you have finished your chores and do not interfere with their work. If you are lucky (I can’t tell if I am writing sarcasm or not at the moment) you can get into skin shortly after you start your apprenticeship.

This is where I feel the system starts to break down. Let me explain before we move on.

Japan versus USA – Apprentices

Japan

Compare the ideas applied to understanding tattooing from a Japanese master and this poor sap we are talking about above. How the apprenticeship started may have same style of initiation but that is where both worlds separate. The “master” isn’t a single person in the US version. The shop as a whole is attempting to move this person through their education. I can see the argument here as there are more hands, it should take less time. The issue is that the person taking the apprenticeship is still an individual. There isn’t a way to tailor an education that is to be crammed down a person’s throat if you have their best wishes in mind. What you are doing, in this case, is rushing the results.

USA (The West)

Contrasting the ideas above, it may take years for the hopeful apprentice in Japan to prove themselves. The must impress upon the master a level of competence before they can start marking people permanently.

Back to our scenario, our new apprentice above has little understanding as to the why or how any of the techniques are used. However they got here, they are now left to fend for themselves. The “masters” of the shop have given little in time and effort that will ensure the apprentice will succeed. That success should be the focus of those claiming to have the ability to train and further the willing apprentice.

The Next Step

Ha- You have made it past your first tattoo and have started learning how to draw simple designs. The shop has accepted you as one of their own. Yet here you are left to figure out what’s next. Your career has begun but you have little knowledge of what to do here. You actively seek out others to help you better understand they why’s and how’s of the industry. You’re doing your best but something is missing.

You have so many questions and little knowledge of where to find an answer. While you are getting confident on smaller designs there have been requests for larger scale work that you do not feel confident enough to take on. While this lack of confidence is not outwardly expressed, you attempt and fail at multiple complex designs, learning with each mistake.

Time for another break in our story. We will carry on in part 2.

 



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rian Othus got his initial break into the tattooing industry in the early 2000’s. He worked in many locations throughout the United States and Canada. The opinions expressed on this site are based on his experiences and time spent in the industry. Some are also from amateur scientific study.

The journey to increase his knowledge began on the road. At times Rian had to travel far from home. Others, he had to beg to get any information. It was an amazing journey and it paved the way for Rian to start analyzing the tattoo industry to figure out where he fit into it.

These articles are written to engage and educate those who are out in the wild world of tattooing, working in a shop or just enjoying the culture. He admits that some of the articles may be very specific regarding who they are written for, but hopes that anyone who reads them is able to take things from a different angle or better understand what someone else may be experiencing.

Rian Othus
Website: https://tattooartistsblog.com
https://www.instagram.com/rian_othus


 

Tattoo Checklist – Artist Version

We present to you the tattooing checklist for you tattooers, tattoo artists, tat bros and kitchen magicians! As you may notice after reading this article, there is no Teen Vogue esq writing. This is straight to the point and not dressed up. There is also a printable version at the end of the document.

Today we will be going over a simple checklist for your upcoming tattoo appointments. Let us skip past the initial consultation stage and assume you already have your deposit, an agreed upon art piece and time booked for the appointment.

2 Days Before the Tattoo Appointment

  • Check in with your client. Has something come up where they cannot make the appointment? Are they sick? Are they nervous?
  • Do they have any changes that they want to see in the design? Find out and get to work when you have a chance.
  • Get all drawings done and sent off, if needed to the client for approval.
  • Amend any pricing at this time and come to an agreement as to what the final price is, if changed.

The Night Before the Tattoo Appointment

  • Get your client information setup. I use manila folders to keep all of the artwork, client contact information etc. on hand. If you utilize any cloud-based appointment applications, Google Calendar, OneDrive or if you store everything on your tablet.
  • Sterilize all equipment that you will need for the coming day.
  • If you are industrious, prepare the stencil and set it aside in a safe, clean location, for tomorrow’s work.

The Day of the Tattoo Appointment

  • Get ready. Clean your space, disinfect everything.
  • Get all positioning of furniture done and do a simple mockup of what you are going to use for the tattoo.
  • Throw down a dental bib, stack the pigments, machines, needles, tubes, wash bottles as well as whatever else you need for the tattoo.
  • Do not get setup yet.

The Client’s Arrival

  • Greet your client and go over everything that you plan to do for this session.
  • Ask if they have any questions about what is going to take place, if they have any concerns about the design, placing and pain.
  • Keep them occupied as you clean and prep the area to be tattooed.
  • Do a quick muscular mapping and get that stencil on their body.

The Setup

  • Setup all equipment in from of the client.
  • Break open needles and tubes so they can see that you are using clean gear.
  • Dispense pigments and break off some paper towels so you aren’t pulling from the roll.
  • Stay clean and wear gloves. Change them as needed to ensure sterility.

The Tattoo Procedure

  • Do what you do, when you tattoo.
  • Treat the encounter like an Uber ride. Let your client dictate the pace of conversation, topics to be discussed and when the breaks should be taken.
  • If you must answer phones, keep it to the shop line only and make sure to deglove when picking up the handset.
  • Keep your music to a level that doesn’t interfere with the ability to talk if needed. Better yet, let the client decide what you should listen to and how loud it should be.
  • Put your phone on silent and don’t check it while active in the procedure. If you need to check your phone, do so during a break.

Break Time

  • Take only necessary breaks during the tattoo.
  • 5 minutes or less every 1.5-2 hours, if needed.
  • 1 longer break at 3-4 hours in (30-45 minutes for a meal)
  • Stay off social media and your phone. You will lose track of time.
  • Make an effort to check in with your client during this time to see if everything is good with them. Ask questions and ensure they understand where you are in the process.

The Breakdown

  • Discuss your aftercare in detail with the client and answer any questions they may have regarding the care of their tattoo.
  • Clean hand. Dirty Hand.
  • Break down and don’t get a needle stick.
  • Clean and disinfect all surfaces.
  • Sweep and mop your area.
  • Take out the garbage if you utilize an open-top trash receptacle and replace trash bag.
  • File all relevant paperwork in the DONE pile.

Collecting Payment

  • Ask them how the experience was and anything they feel you could improve upon.
  • Give any media links, business cards and aftercare sheets.
  • Get your Google, Yelp or business reviews.
  • Collect payment. If you are a soloist, contracted artist who handles payments or at a convention, give the client time to offer a tip without any leading.
  • Setup any additional appointments as needed.
  • Take a picture of your work.

After They Leave

  • Start post work on any images collected, if you do such things.
  • Post to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter at your normal intervals with what you accomplished, if necessary.
  • Keep artwork and photos in relevant client folder / cloud location.
  • Send outreach email if needed to client 1-2 weeks after completion.
  • If needed, schedule a touch-up.

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