How Things Work: Tattoos

There are a few things in life that mothers don?t want you to return home with. Among them: bad grades, black eyes, and tattoos. Love them or hate them, tattoos are becoming more popular every year. A 2003 Harris poll found that about 16 percent of the U.S. population was tattooed, up from six percent in the 1930s.
Their popularity, however, is not new. Man has been tattooing himself for a long time. Tattoos have been found on Neolithic mummies, detailed in ancient Chinese literature, and discovered by European explorers among tribes in the South Pacific. The technology of tattooing has a similarly diverse history. The art has gone from a primitive process with sticks and ashes to a modern art form using inorganic pigments and sterilized needles. Let?s take a look at how the field of tattooing has progressed.
The first tattoos were very crude: A wound was cut and ashes from a fire were rubbed in, leaving a colored scar on the skin. It is likely that the process may have been discovered accidentally. Only simple designs were possible with this method because the design?s precision depended heavily on how deeply the pigment was deposited in the skin as well as the chemical make-up of the ink. The Neolithic mummies, for instance, had patterns of parallel lines marked on their legs and back.
Tattooing techniques developed quickly across the world, with early examples seen in Egyptian, Mongolian, and Native American cultures. On the Malaysian island of Borneo, traditional tattooing involved rapidly driving a tiny mallet into a stick holding ink-dipped bamboo splinters. Sound painful? Inking sessions lasted over six hours. Tattooists commonly added ?magical? ingredients to their pigments during this time, so try asking for eye of newt when you get that barbed wire done on your bicep.
When European trade was blossoming, sailors began returning home with exotic tattoos from island tribes. Tattoos became so prevalent that they were something of a maritime tradition and gained popularity in American ports.
In the early 1800s, New York City became renowned for its tattoo industry, catering to sailors looking to spend their pay. Tattoos were often stenciled on with sewing needles and ink in parlors or done by friends or shipmates. Although many artistic styles and methods were embraced from around the world, tattooing itself remained fairly primitive.
In 1891, all that changed. A clever tattoo artist named Samuel O?Reilly built the first electric tattoo gun, based on a battery-powered puncturing tool invented by Thomas Edison. The gun used two electromagnetic coils as a transducer to move a needle up and down. By varying the current to the device, the needle?s speed could be adjusted, and a reservoir above the needle contained ink for the tip. Tattoos that once took hours could now be done in 30 minutes. The design was so good that current guns are essentially upgrades of the same tool used 100 years ago.
The new tattoo gun was embraced worldwide. It gave rise to a class of tattoos known as flare: popular designs mass-distributed to many tattoo parlors. However, there was concern that the rise of the tattoo gun would destroy the traditional tattoo arts. For example, in Japan, many tattoo artists turned away from their traditional art of irezumi. Traditional Japanese tattooists would painstakingly hand-draw entire ?body suits? of mythical figures and symbols of Japanese culture. These suits might take as long as 30 years to complete. Today, this art is fading.
Modern times have brought modern worries. In the 1980s, tattoo guns were found to be potential carriers for blood-borne diseases. Hepatitis B in particular was a threat. It can survive outside the body under almost any conditions, including exposure to disinfectants. Today, all tattoo needles are sterilized in an autoclave, an oven-like device that heats objects to a temperature high enough to kill all bacteria and viruses.
The need for sterilization is readily apparent. In 2004, when Canadian prisons found that almost 25 percent of their inmates had contracted hepatitis B, they decided to open official tattoo parlors in several of their correctional facilities. Inmates had been using whatever was available to tattoo themselves and had consequently passed the virus among themselves.
Now, most tattoo artists take pains to ensure their customers are safe. A good customer, after all, is one that stays alive. If you?re thinking about getting a tattoo, ask about the safety policies of your tattooist. Make sure to pick a design you can live with the rest of your life, because removal techniques are more painful and expensive than getting the tattoo in the first place. And never, never get the name of your girlfriend or boyfriend on your arm.