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June 15, 2010 > TechKnow Talk: Tattoos: Art for life

TechKnow Talk: Tattoos: Art for life

By Todd Griffin

When Captain Cook sailed to the South Pacific in the 1760s, he and his men were amazed to see the permanent body art of the Polynesian natives. In fact, their description of this phenomenon lead to the English word "tattoo," derived from the Tahitian "tatau."

But this was less remarkable than they thought. Indigenous people from many parts of the world had been practicing tattooing for thousands of years. In fact, had Cook traveled back in time two thousand years, he would have found the inhabitants of his beloved British Isles heavily tattooed.

Since that time tattooing has become less common. It is seen as crude or vulgar in some social circles, perhaps because of its historical association with the "savages" of Polynesia and elsewhere. The popularity of tattoos has also suffered from religious perspectives, including prohibitions against marking the body by Jewish and Muslim traditions.

However, acceptance of tattoos in Western society has been making a comeback in recent decades. Surveys indicate about 15% of adults in the U.S. have at least one tattoo, but more than 30% of those aged 18-40 bear tattoos, including almost as many women as men.

Why are more young people getting tattooed? What's involved in getting a tattoo? Finally, is a tattoo truly permanent, or is it possible to remove?

People get tattooed to memorialize a loved one, for sentimental or mystical reasons, or to identify their affiliation with a particular religious faith, ethnic group, street gang, or sport. But increasingly, tattoos are chosen primarily as adornment, with less symbolic significance. Tattoos are also being used more frequently as permanent cosmetics, particularly to enhance eyebrows and lips.

The most common tattoo design is probably the category known as tribal patterns, including Maori designs. Other very popular designs include stars, crosses, angels, wings, and animals such as lions, tigers, dragons, and butterflies.

Before the 20th century, tattoos were applied using a variety of primitive methods, including rubbing ash or ink into cuts, and inserting ink by hand into the skin with sharp instruments fashioned of wood or bone. Many of these methods were extremely painful and carried significant risk of infection.

Today, tattoos are applied with an electric tattoo machine. This simple device uses alternating electromagnetic coils to drive a bar up and down at about 100 cycles per second. A group of needles attached to the bar carries ink from a small tube into the skin with each cycle. The artist can utilize groupings of one to as many as fifteen needles, depending on the fineness of detail and depth of coloration required.

Generally referred to as ink, the broad range of colors available to a modern artist is produced with a variety of dyes and pigments. These include inorganic materials such as metal oxides, as well as various natural and synthetic carbon-based organic compounds.

Though the equipment for tattooing has advanced, the technique is much the same. The outer surface of the skin is pierced, the underlying epidermis penetrated and ink is deposited in the deepest layer of skin, the dermis. Ink is also left in the epidermis, but this damaged outer skin layer will ultimately slough off and be replaced with new, ink-free skin.

Depending on the size and complexity of a tattoo, the process may take from less than an hour up to several sessions of several hours each. To ensure proper sanitation and reduce the risk of infection or cross-contamination, tattoo artists are required by state and local laws to sterilize equipment and work areas, wear disposable surgical gloves, and utilize new needles and fresh ink for each customer.

As tattooing damages the skin, the wound must be treated appropriately if it is to heal properly and produce the ultimate color and clarity intended. A scab will form over the new tattoo. This must be left to heal naturally, though the area should be gently cleaned several times a day. It is also recommended that new tattoos not be exposed to sunlight.

The TechKnow Guy has some advice for anyone considering a tattoo. First, take some time to think about it, over a period of weeks at least, before deciding. Never get a tattoo on a whim or because your friends did. Do some research and find a true artist-someone whose work is respected by others. It will cost a little more to get the best, but you don't want to scrimp on something you will wear every day for the rest of your life.

In addition to "flash" designs available in the tattoo studio, there are thousands of designs on the Internet. Spend some time deciding what design is right for you, how large it should be, and where it will be located. The artist will be able to create an original stencil from a photo or drawing for an added cost. Finally, closely follow the advice of the artist in caring for your new tattoo for the first few weeks. This is critical to ensure a satisfactory result.

About 20% of people who get a tattoo regret it at some point in their lives, often because they were tattooed when too young or on the spur of the moment. This has created a growing industry in tattoo removal. By far the most effective removal technique is Q-switched laser treatment, developed in the 1990s and widely available only in recent years.

A Q-switched laser sends pulses of laser light into the tattoo, irradiating each ink material with packets of energy strong enough to break down the ink without scarring the skin. This interaction causes the ink to heat sufficiently to destroy the chemical bonds holding it together. The ink breaks into tiny pieces, which are then absorbed by the body over time.

The wavelength is adjustable to target each specific dye in the design. For example, a green laser beam is typically effective for red dye. Dark inks such as black and blue are somewhat easier to remove than lighter and brighter colors, as the latter require wavelengths that are more difficult to produce without causing unwanted side effects.

After initial treatment, the area may scab over, much as it did with the original tattoo. Following several weeks of healing, the tattoo should be considerably faded and may have changed in color as well. The next treatment will provide additional fading. Several treatments over many months are likely to be required for most tattoos. Laser removal is a medical treatment and should only be undertaken by qualified medical personnel. There are several reputable tattoo removal clinics in the Bay Area.

The ultimate success of the removal process varies depending on the location, color, and density of the tattoo and on the patient's skin type. However, there are some certainties: removing a tattoo is far more time-consuming, costly, and painful than applying one.

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