In this episode, we discuss about the art of tattooing.

What is a tattoo?

  • Body modification where ink, dye or pigment is inserted into the dermis layer of the skin to change the colour.
  • Was considered uncivilised in the west until recently, tattoos carried symbolic meanings in many societies and culture since early ages.
  • By 20th century, tattooing became more popular art in the west.
  • The word tattoo, or tattow in the 18th century, from the Samoan word tatau, meaning “to strike”.


  • In Europe, tattooing is speculated to have been practised during the upper palaeolithic period (Old stone age, between 50,000 and 10,000 years).
  • From evidence gained from the mummified skin, tattoos have been practised since the Neolithic times (new stone age. Approx 10,200 BC - 2000 BC).
  • Direct evidence for the existence of tattoos exists only as far as 4000 years in history.
  • Earliest tattoed human body is that of Ötzi the iceman who lived between 3370 and 3100 BC and was found in the Ötztal Alps between Austria and Italy. Ötzi had a total of 61 tattoos in the form of groups of parallel lines.
  • Several other mummified bodies have been recovered from various parts of the world including Egypt, South America, Siberia and Alaska.
  • Chinese cemeteries in the Xinjiang region have been known to contain tattooed mummies dating back to 2100-550 BC.
  • It was considered to be a barbaric practice and often prisoners were forcefully tattood on face
  • Greeks use tattoos for spy communications and used distinctive markings on their bodies to identify the ranks.
  • Tattooing was introduced to Japan by the Ainu people of East Asia. They had smiling tattoos on the faces of women.
  • In Europe, Britons, Danes and Norse used tattoos to identify the family.
  • Emperor Constantine banned tattoo in AD 330
  • Pope Hadrian banned tattoo in the year 747 A.D. during the second council of Nicea and post Norman invasion in 1066, tattoos lost popularity from 12th to 16th centuries.
  • During this time tattoos were used to identify criminals in Japan. Lines were added during subsequent lines to eventually spell out the word dog. Later tattoo became an art form and popular among the middle and lower class as ornate full body clothing was restricted to the royalty.
  • William Dampier, a sailor and explorer was responsible for the revival of tattoos back in the west. He brought Polynesian Prince Giolo to London in 1691 who was completely tattooed.
  • James Cook has been credited with bringing the word tattoo back to Europe after his travels to New Zealand and Tahiti.
  • Nazis forcibly tattooed the prisoners for identification purposes.

Tattoo Ink

  • Created from compounds of heavy metals like Cadmium, Chromium or Lead with Manganese or Aluminium salts.
  • Multiple needles penetrate into the dermis and deposit ink.
  • Immune systems (white blood cells) tries to engulf the pigment granule. Since the pigment granule is larger in size, the blood cells cannot easily remove the ink particles.
  • Over times, tattoo fades as the pigments are carried to the liver through lymph nodes and removed from the body.


  • Tattoo machine uses needles, circular formation for lines and brush like formation for shading.
  • Types of machines:
    • Rotary: The rotary motion of a motor is converted into piston-like motion of the needle
    • Coil type: An electromagnetic current is used to power the needle
  • Ink passes from the needles to the dermis layer of the skin.


  • Lasers with frequencies in the range of picoseconds are used.
  • Laser shatters the pigments and reduces the size which makes it easier for the white blood cells to remove the particles from the body.
  • The shattering happens as the laser heats up one part of the ink particle resulting in a heat gradient and hence the particle rips apart.
  • Frosting happens on the skin results from the shock wave that forms on the surface.

unsplash-logoRomina Farias