For part 3 of the Pigment Safety Article, we look at the current state of the tattoo industry and how artists make decisions about the products the use.

Part 1 of the Pigment Safety Article is Here.

Part 2 of the Pigment Safety Article is Here.

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The Tattoo Industry Currently 

According to online sources, the tattoo industry is currently valued at nearly 3-billion-dollars/year in the U.S. There are reportedly nearly 20,000 tattoo parlors open and in operation in the U.S. as of 2018. 

If each one of those tattoo parlors has 1 to 3 people working inside of it, we could assume that there are nearly 45000 active tattoo artists at legitimate, licensed shops, within the United States. I have no idea how many people are working privately as a licensed shop or not in the US alone but I imagine these numbers would add many thousand to the total assumed.

All tattoo artists, professional, licensed or otherwise, are mostly forced to purchase pigments and tattooing supplies from a select number of companies that either distribute or produce them, directly or indirectly.

There has been murmurings that the safety issues we see result from suppliers who refuse to take the stance of  “for professionals only”. This idea seems logically inept and possess the power of secluding products that would otherwise be available in an open market. I believe this strategy (making the products exclusive), places a barrier between our understanding of how safe products are.

Photo by Brett Sayles on

If tattoo suppliers removed the ability of researchers to purchase something on demand, these products would be less easily obtained for testing and give suppliers easy ways to obfuscate products. If a product is “leaked” onto the market, meaning it wasn’t sold through an approved seller, suppliers are given a way to shift blame. This practice works against the assumption that regulations, when utilized in a responsible and proactive way, increase the value of products and lead to an increased profitability.

To clarify a point made above – I am not making the assumption that all fake goods on the market are released by the companies that produce them. I could argue that some are but there is no way to accurately depict the operations of all businesses globally. I only bring this up because, utilizing a profit maximising model, it would make sense to recoup lost expenses for unsold goods by releasing them to 3rd party distributors that purchase them for a discounted rate.

You will decrease losses and waste by offering discounted products on an open, unregulated market. Look at “dollar stores” in the U.S. as a successful representation of this practice.

To continue with these logical failures I see, selling to “professionals only” will not result in safer products. By removing a product from open scrutiny you remove the ability of educated people providing feedback as to how to improve a product. You also lose a large market that can report unsafe consequences from outside industry use.

Short term revenue gains do not offset ethical responsibility. Sadly, when given the choice to make profit or operate ethically, tattoo suppliers and distributors have shown us time and again that they prefer to make a profit. 

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How Artists Make Choices

Tattoo artists in the U.S. are without relevant critiques or examination by scientists for the products they use on the job. For tattoo product sales in the U.S. it is not essential to have passed any testing that ensures the safety and efficacy. The only testing, is a trial by fire. Trial by fire, as in: we put our clients in the fire and see what happens.

This trial by fire with safety is of serious concern to scientists, especially those from countries with socialized medicine. In countries where the government picks up the bill for health care, they focus not only on immediate care but also what will affect a population in the future.

Practicing ethical thinking is of benefit to society. When businesses focus on safety before innovation, public health is taken into consideration before profits. This argument seems logical to most consumers but is derided among businesses as they claim it slows innovation. I agree that there must be a balance but, if ethics supercede the focus on profits, business and clientele can coexist in a way that is mutually beneficial.

On the consumer side of products, especially when dealing with a product that has heath consequences that are unknown, we require the ability to research and choose what is right without succumbing to influences from marketing, or recommendations from less than educated individuals. This is even more important when faced with sourcing goods that impact others health.

Herein occurs another question: Is it wise for consumers to base choices on advertising materials or personal recommendations when they are apart from scientific evidence?

We have become entrenched in the recommendations of our digital devices. Google tells us the best things to buy. Whatever places high in the search results has an intrinsic value and, regardless of how much proof can be given, reviews are bought and sold to elevate product listings.

We have written an article about labels, the value of social media and how mass media influences your choices. It can be found here – How the Tattoo Shop Became God

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Lifting the veil

In earlier times, society rarely acts with hesitation when introduced to new products but, not everything in technicolor was taken as gospel. Some in society took the time to critically analyze new ideas and products and waited a while until a a trusted confidant bought something and offered a verbal critique. If we were convinced a purchase held some utility, we ventured out and bought one ourselves.

Since the dawn of modern advertising, companies have focused much effort in developing techniques to make their products stand apart from their competition. Currently, there is a marketing machine pushing supposed high-quality products by showcasing the best in an industry, or people of fame,  vouching for their products. Suppliers worldwide utilize product endorsements as a way to boost sales and product recognition.While we see this as a pervasive method of marketing globally, the slogans and imagery attached to products emanate a sense of elitism into the tattoo industry. Examples of such statements are:

  • “**** Ink Supports Quality Artists”
  • “**** Ink. For Tattoo Professionals Only”
  • “**** Ink. The ORIGINAL Grey Wash”
  • “By Professionals for Professionals”

Normally, these slogans are attached to visual media with a well known artist. Some of these artists receive forms of funding from the brand they support. They are considered “sponsored artists” who receive products for use (either for a reduced fee or free of charge) so long as they push these products to fans. While this practice is not illegal, the products safety is tied to the artists who represent it.

Photo by Tim Savage on

False representation

When work is displayed with a well known name attached to it, the product becomes humanized and appeals to the masses by shifting the focus from the product’s efficacy and safety to the person’s skill who recommends it. This misleading attempt to create brand recognition hides the fact that through manipulation of an industry, where no alternatives for sourcing products exist,  a lack of concern for the people who utilize them is expressed by the companies who produce these campaigns..

If you take the time to go to a tattoo shop, a convention, or walk into a supply shop, you will see such advertisements emblazoning the walls. Inside the industry, it is the product that makes the professional, not the skill of the artist alone. Artist inside tattooing are led to believe there are no alternatives. To be the best, you must use a single product.

Beyond sponsorships, the review process of a product has not been vetted for publishing on a website, regardless of what verifications process they claim to use. By seeing a star value, consumers are given a sense of security that the product they are purchasing is of a specific quality, not that it is safe. If artists venture past the faceless application of reviews and sponsorship they are left with few ways to receive confirmation of a product’s safety or efficacy. More often than not, artists turn to each other for validation of a product’s abilities.

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The Choices We Make

If there is a need to find something new, how are artists going to make a decision? 

Tattoo artists are in a difficult position when it comes to choosing which supplies to use. Most product use is wholly subjective and is viewed as an extension of the person who uses it. The application of art is an extension of their person as is the interpretation of those who view it. Because these aspects of creation are so personal, those who face a choice that may impact the ability they have in creating something useful are easily influenced by those who they feel know more, are better at or have greater social value than themselves.

Most of the time, an artist will see something that they determine as quality; they see a happy client and they choose to use the same product that produced those results. This all boils down to something so simple: Artists want happy clientele. This helps them build their business and extend their influence. 

But, what about future repercussions if the products being used are not safe? There may be an ethical subtext to everything that is being done inside the tattoo industry, especially when tattoo pigments may not be safe. This is an existential crisis for many people.

Those who chose to tattoo and call it their life’s passion or calling must make a decision to learn more about the products that they use. The industry needs to move forward regardless how negatively the knowledge may impact the industry.

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Choosing your supplies and offering critiques

New and established artists alike are unable to make decisions based on empirical evidence when choosing a company to source their products from. Instead of having proof that something works well and is safe, they are left with recommendations from the media, professional sponsorship or their trusted, fellow artists.

What we are unaware of, when asking our fellow industry insiders, is if they have any proof as to how safe or how well a product works. Their recommendation is purely subjective, and if we decide to use their recommendation when purchasing a new product, we are left feeling awkward if we do not agree with them after using it. 

By creating a system that places the subjective experience above scientific evidence, we preload bias into our choices. One one hand, we can express our negative experience by telling our coworkers, fellow artists locally, or the sponsored artists who recommend these products as the best quality, that we disagree with their critique of a product. In some cases this may result in a friendly discussion about how or why we came to this result, but the industry has shifted away from the idea of craftsmanship towards artistic ability.

If the person choosing to speak up does not have the same skill set, or social media influence; or if they are judged by the populations inside tattooing to be lesser an artist, or not as “good” as the people they are questioning, it is easy to dismiss their claims. The adoring fans or close friends to the person who is placed in a position of defending their recommendation, will defend the product by defending the person. The focus of any discussion is shifted and made personal. If a person makes an attack on a product, you make an attack on all of the professionals who support it.

With all the burden of proof being placed on artistic skill, and the quickly devolving possibility of critique, how can a person stand a chance in expressing their opinion? 

To start, we need to understand that our fellow artists are not basing their claims on scientific evidence. Those who rush to the defense and shift the focus on a product to a person have no value in the discussion. It is a smoke screen and I imagine that this same tactic will take place when scrutiny falls upon these companies to provide proof their products are safe.

Experience or proof

We know as a population that experience is not a valid identifier of quality. These two terms are mutually exclusive. Problems arise when artists are quick to pick up the latest, trendy item. This includes whatever has been elevated to prominence by those they idolize.

Let me be clear: I do not have any issue with the purchase of items that are supported by industry giants. I only want those products to be verified as safe by scientists who are better trained at identifying potential dangers.

The Manufacture and Sale

Tattoo pigments are just paint for your skin… right?

Tattoo pigments are a product that is readily available in supply stores or via online marketplaces globally. They are a necessity for tattoo artist operations. Most pigments sold commercially are labelled as “vegan” or  “sterile” and come in a variety of mind-boggling colors. The chain of production is easily followed for companies who release products on a global level:

Manufacturers globally produce the raw materials used in mixing tattoo pigments. These manufacturers sell raw materials to the companies that mix and bottle pigments that are then sold to distributors. These distributors sell tattoo artists the bottles via online marketplaces or local supply shops. The companies that “mix” tattoo colors are not the same people you meet at conventions or in local supply shops.

Please remember, suppliers do not produce raw pigments, but only purchase them from large companies who do the production in bulk for all industries globally. The final product is distilled down through many channels until you purchase a bottle from an endpoint.

Suppliers in the tattoo industry buy raw pigments from these manufacturers, blend them with whatever they use to make the pigments. This is where regulators have begun their analysis into the safety of production.  In the US currently, there is zero regulation for tattoo pigments and cosmetic tattoo pigments. There is no law requiring companies to verify what is put into the bottles they sell. There is no in-house testing or out of house testing of the raw products before the mixing process starts. This is the same for the products that are lining your shelves/drawers right now. The only testing is completed before the product is initially released to the public, in which companies that do testing check to make sure the labels and ingredients match. There is no testing to ensure safety.

Once a product has passed the initial acceptance by the FDA (in the U.S.), companies can begin selling their product. After this initial inspection, companies can make changes to pigment mixes without additional approval. What has been shown by researchers recently is that what has been listed on the label of bottles of tattoo pigment is not all that is in a bottle.

Historically, the onus has been on distributors to release safe and effective products while the suppliers have evaded scrutiny. They (suppliers) have been trusted implicitly and, we assume, have lived up to their responsibilities. With unfettered freedom, these companies have gone forward mixing and selling pigments, as well as other supplies, while avoiding any outside critique or question as to how safe the product is. Tattooing as an industry has operated under the assumption that everything they use is considered safe because there have been no reports openly released stating otherwise. 

And as we stated before – There are no enforceable regulations on tattoo pigments in the US currently.

Thank you for reading. Part 4 can be located here.

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