How are tattoos made permanent?

Artists inject ink into a person's skin to create tattoos. They use electrically powered tattoo machines that resemble (and sound like) dental drills. The machines move solid needles up and down to puncture skin between 50 and 3,000 times per minute. The skin is penetrated by the needle about a millimeter deep. With each puncture, the needle deposits a droplet of insoluble ink into the skin.

The machine used to make tattoos has remained relatively unchanged since it was invented by Samuel O'Reilly in the late 1800s. O'Reilly based the design on the autographic printer, an engraving machine created by Thomas Edison. Edison created the printer as a way to engrave hard surfaces. O'Reilly modified Edison's invention by changing the tube system and modifying the rotary-driven electromagnetic oscillating unit. This enabled the new machine to drive a needle.

Tattoo machines used today have several basic components:

  • A sterilized needle
  • An electric motor
  • A foot pedal, similar to the ones used on sewing machines. The pedal controls the needle's vertical movement.
  • A tube system to draw ink through the machine

When you see a person's tattoo, you're actually seeing the ink through the epidermis (or outer layer of skin). The ink itself is actually in the dermis (the second layer of skin). The cells of the dermis are much more stable than the cells of the epidermis. The tattoo's ink, therefore, will stay in place for a person's entire life, although it will have some minor fading and dispersion.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.