What happens to the skin when someone gets a tattoo?

Scientists who have studied Ötzi, the man who was preserved for 3,500 years in the Alps, have identified 61 tattoos on his skin, which are the oldest known. However, experts believe that more than an aesthetic or symbolic function, these tattoos were applied in the belief that they had some healing or protective power. Organized in 19 groups of lines, dots, and crosses, they are found mostly on the back and joints where copper-age man had degenerative conditions. The bottom line is that the tattoos are at least 4,000 years old, as shown by ceramic figurines of women wearing them on their bodies.

Throughout history, tattoos have been equally considered magical amulets, signs of identity, declarations of love or expressions of admiration... sometimes obligation and cultural pride as in the case of the Maori and their facial tattoos for men and women , generically called 'ta moko', sometimes marks of infamy such as tattoos on slaves and prisoners in Nazi death camps... sometimes an indication of antisocial character, reserved for sailors, prisoners and other characters on the margins of their community. Tattoos as criminal identification have a long history, from the Japanese yakuza to the crudest prison tattoos of Central American gangs.

Ötzi's tattoos. /


From the middle of the 20th century, tattooing in Western cultures began to lose its negative image and to become, more and more, an entirely legitimate form of body decoration, along with 'piercings' and other forms of body alteration, which they can reach extreme limits like the sclera tattoo and some facial tattoos. But beyond these very minority cases, today it is estimated that 5% of all Europeans, 15% of Spaniards, 20% of Americans and 25% of Canadians have decorative tattoos.

how skin is inked

The name 'tatu' comes from the Tahitian 'tatau', a word that means to mark or hit, and which refers to some of the most traditional techniques for applying ink, in which a needle made of wood, bone, bamboo or another suitable material it is soaked in ink, applied to the skin and hit with a small stick or hammer so that it enters the skin and leaves the ink inside it.

The industrial revolution came to tattooing when Samuel F. O'Reilly of New York patented, in 1891, a tattoo machine based on the electric engraver pen that Thomas Alva Edison had patented in 1876. The machine used an electric motor. to quickly insert and extract tattoo needles and is the basis, with a more developed technology, of those used by tattoo artists today.

A tattoo machine has the basic function of quickly inserting and extracting the needles into the skin between 50 and 3,000 times per minute to create the drawing. The tip of the machine can have from one to more than a dozen needles, arranged in various formats to achieve the desired effects, from a simple line to complex shading and shading.

Human skin is made up of three layers. The epidermis, which is the one in contact with the environment; the dermis, a matrix of cells and gel where hair follicles are located; sweat and sebaceous glands and all kinds of nerve endings that sense temperature, different forms of touch and, of course, pain.

Activates an inflammatory process

To create a lasting tattoo, the needles must cross the epidermis and enter the dermis. But it is not hollow needles that inject ink, as some believe, but his body is soaked in ink. When the needle pulls forcefully out of the skin, it creates a vacuum in the hole it has created that sucks the ink into the dermis. This is precisely why tattoos hurt: they are done by injuring tissue that has many pain receptors.

The wound produced by the needle activates the body's inflammatory process and, therefore, the cells of the immune system, both from the blood and the lymphatic system, go to repair the damage. Cells called macrophages eat up the invading material, the ink. Some return to the lymph nodes, but others die and remain at the site of injury, filled with large ink globules that cannot be removed. Other ink particles become trapped in the gel matrix of the dermis, and others are engulfed by skin cells called fibroblasts. It is the ink-filled cells that can be seen through the translucent epidermis. And it is this process that makes tattoos permanent.

Although ink is also applied to the epidermis, as it is a layer that constantly renews itself by peeling (every day, on average, a human being leaves behind five billion dead skin cells), after between two and four weeks All the epidermal cells are detached with ink, leaving the final appearance of the design. 70% of the ink will remain in the dermis and 30% will be eliminated by the immune system or will be part of the constant shedding of the epidermis.

The unknown life in the depths of the ocean

Although enduring, the body's defenses, the passage of time and exposure to sunlight inevitably act to gradually fade any tattoo. Skin care and healthy living increase the duration of tattoos, which can always be renewed. But even if the tattoos last, sometimes the feeling that originated them does not last and you may want to remove the tattoo.

This is done using a laser that enters the skin and is absorbed by the ink, which heats up and breaks into smaller pieces that can now be killed by macrophages. Black ink is the easiest to remove because it absorbs all frequencies of laser light; colored inks are more problematic and require specialized lasers with wavelengths tuned for them.

Allergic reactions

Today's inks have come a long way from the original charcoal and ash. However, as they are not regulated, they can carry numerous risks. Some contain heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, or chromium, metal oxides such as ferrocyanides, and elements such as antimony, brilium, calcium, lithium, and sulfur, and can have long-term effects. All can also generate allergic reactions. Professional tattooists are the ones who can anticipate side effects and recommend the best options.

Still, there is never a guarantee that a tattoo can be completely removed, plus there are risks of inflammation and scarring of the skin as a result of the process. So it's always best to think twice before walking into a tattoo artist's shop and think long term.

At a term of up to 3,500 years.

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