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To be honest, when I started doing some research into tattoo pigments and their safety, my mind willed me to just drop it and write some more Teen Vogue styles choose your tattoo article. It raced as I pulled up peer reviewed articles and contacted authorities who held the answers to questions I was asking. Images of Hollywood’s mobsters, gangsters and derelicts sitting outside my house and putting me on the run were fantasies that popped into my head a couple times because, in this industry, asking questions, or questioning any part/person associated, is, or will be, a suicide mission.

As I ventured deeper into the research, my mind stopped wandering along the shit path of retribution by large company interests and moved into a more objective viewpoint. Questions rose naturally after gaining a little knowledge and I slowly started to understand what was really happening to the industry I currently reside in.

I am lucky enough to have training in more than one field of work so if this does end up bombing my career, I’ll just go back to corporate work and die slowly inside.

To make it less dramatic and script like:

Currently, there are two opposing sides deciding the future of our industry. One side is the producers of products we use in the industry. These producers are actively fighting against new regulations. They feel that self-regulation is a successful business model and the government should stay out of business.

On the other side, there are questions being presented by the regulatory powers that be. Questions centered around the products being released and how safe they really are. These efforts have been progressing slowly but as we develop more advanced ways to analyze and inspect the world around us, we become better able to determine what is dangerous and what is dangerous about tattoo pigments.

I have a little road map in the back of my mind of what to expect in the industry, in the near future. I have an idea of what may happen when moving forward, what is happening due to past regulations in different industries and an inkling as to what tactics the industry distributors will take to fight off the regulations for as long as possible.

There will be pushes to delay any regulations because – money.

(That was just an awesome sentence fragment to write!)

Money is the driving force of just about everything on our screwy planet. We are becoming slowly more adept at understanding this business-centric model and ideology as we evolve out of the dark ages that lay behind us. The last vestiges of our society being a self-serving ideocracy are slowly fading as people grow the fuck up.

Now, onto the article.

Tattoo Pigments Safety – Preface

Tattoo pigments are just paint for your inside your skin. They are a product that is readily available in most supply stores globally and are a necessity to accomplish a tattoo safely. Modern pigments sold are vegan, sterile and come in a variety of mind-bending colors.

There are only a few distributors that mix the pigments we use.

Yes, that is correct, the companies that sell our pigments do not produce them. The production is left to massive conglomerates that source and sell the raw products. Suppliers in the tattoo industry buy raw pigments from these manufacturers, blend them with whatever they use to make the pigments we know and use. They then bottle, label and ship the product to wanting artists all over the globe.

There is zero regulation about what these distributors put in the bottles they sell and no in-house testing of the raw products before the mixing process starts.

Preface expanded

Historically, the onus has been on those distributors to release safe and effective products. They have been trusted implicitly and, so far as we have witnessed, have lived up to their responsibilities. It isn’t until recently that protocols for testing the pigments released have been developed.

We (tattoo industry) believed the claims made by these large companies. They have spent millions on marketing these products. The idea of quality has evolved and the people involved in the industry have evolved as well. We see REAL artist joining the ranks of industry insiders. Children go to school wanting to become a tattooist and study art in college in hopes of joining the reckless, self-expressive industry we reside in.

Everything for the past 50-100 years led us here. Cultural acceptance and a renewed renaissance as we depicted tattooing as art.

That was so, until the EU started sticking their nose into the operations of pigment distributors and testing their products.

A little validation for myself

It seemed simple from the start, but as I dug deeper into pigments, the companies that produce the raw ingredients, the tattoo industry as a whole and the distributors making money off these products, this article became a bit of a monster.

To write this fucker I have spent many hours on research, sent hundreds of emails and time spent away from my family to find the answers I knew were out there. In any event, the information listed in the reference section is not congruent with what was released to me by the manufacturers themselves

Tattoo Pigments – Industry – An Overview

The truth is:

We, as a industry, have little control over the safety and health of of clients. Most of us are trained in infectious controls, safe operations, yet, we are unable to contain the largest threat to our clientele; what we put into their skin and what becomes a permanent part of them.


There is a core group of distributors who maintain an oligopoly over products released to the industry globally. These products have little regulations inside the US and may be unstable/unsafe enough to cause harm to an individual who receives a tattoo.

Along with the few that choose to distribute mixed colors, there are few companies that produce raw pigments used in tattooing currently. These manufactured raw products are sold to distributors that mix and distribute to the industry worldwide. We use them every day and are fundamental to the operations of our businesses.

These distributors control total control over our supplies inside the industry. It seems truly “American” to see so few in control of so much, which may be a bit depressing to those who claim to be progressive in our modern political world.

What tattoo pigment distributors are doing

Facing the threat of new regulations, distributing companies have been quick to offer an outpouring of effort to “gather the troops!”. The troops are not scientists, nor educated individuals who offer an objective view on the situation. Rather, they offer up paid employees as expert witnesses. Their expertise is subjective and centered on a final artistic product.

That idea pervades the industry currently – artistic product – and holds a specific gravitas’ that I consider wholly egocentric.

Sadly, regarding the products we utilize, there is little to no relevant information about safety. There is no regulations for any products released in the USA. If you decide to be diligent and reach out to these companies, they have no obligation to release any information to you. They know this fact and they do just that when questioned.

What they do release when questioned is, at most times, incorrect or misleading.

It seems that to find relevant facts and formulate an informed opinion about what you are using, is against the rules. (insert mobster scene)

Article questions

Through the efforts of my research I ran into questions at the inception that are mostly philosophical in nature. While most look to the humanities with an upturned nose as they seem to staunchly advise against progress, I feel happy to find a ground footing in slowly developing a thesis and testing it before making revenue.

A simple list of questions started my journey:

  • Why is so much effort being put forth by these companies to combat critique in the face of public safety?
  • Are we supposed to follow the giants of industry when they have so much to gain from us following blindly?
  • What choices do we have in the products that are a necessary part of our jobs?

Ideally, I wanted to have an answer to this question:

What is safe and what is dangerous?

The tattoo industry currently. 

According to online sources, the tattoo industry currently is valued at nearly 3-billion-dollars/year. There is a reported nearly 20000 tattoo parlors open and in operation, as of 2018. 

Making assumptions -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 shops within the United States. I have no idea how many people are working privately or illegally in the US alone but, I imagine these numbers would multiply the total we assumed.

All tattoo artists, professional or otherwise, are required to purchase pigments and tattooing supplies from a select number of companies that produce them. These companies release products through a select number of approved suppliers worldwide which sell to “professionals only”, as well as vendors via an online portal. There is little difference between the products listed by legitimate distributors or those released to the general public through unsanctioned vendors, even if the big distributors want you to think there is.

How Artists Make Choices

We, as artists (tattooists, tattooers), are without relevant critiques or examination by educated professionals for the products we use daily, even though these products are essential to the operations of our trade. In the US currently, there is no required proof that products being used by tattoo professionals are safe.

It is not essential for these products to have passed any testing that ensures their safety and efficacy. The only testing one is a trial by fire.

Trial by fire, as in: we put our clients in the fire and see what happens.

Trial by fire

This trial by fire is comparable to most electronic devices that we handle in our day to day lives. The general public are bombarded by updates and security patches that are intended to keep us, and our data, safe from those who mean us harm. With tattoo pigments, there is no updates to ensure your survivability. Once it is in your skin, you have little choice as to what happens to that pigment in the future.

Here pops up another question that begs to be answered: Is it wise to base choices made on advertising or personal recommendations?

I think not.

We, as a society, have become more entrenched in the recommendations of our digital devices. Google tells us the best things to buy. Whatever places high in the search results has to be good, right?

Amazon has a review system that ensures quality through a peer reviewed star rating. Those reviews can’t be manufactured, can they?

The media

There is a media marketing machine pushing supposed high-quality products by showcasing the best in an industry using said product or giving us peer reviewed sources that instill a sense of safety in our choices.

What is shown to the industry is considered a normal example of what is possible with a product. The slogans and imagery attached to products emanate a sense of elitism into the artists who select these products for daily use.

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

If you, dear reader, 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 skill alone.

Evolution of marketing and tattoo pigments

In earlier times, societies were prone to act in hesitation when introduced to these forms of advertising. Not everything in technicolor should be taken as gospel. We took the time to critically analyze new ideas and products, waited a while until a neighbor bought on, then picked one up ourselves.

Then, around came ideas like evolutionary psychology in marketing and, well you probably guessed it, our brains fell into the piles of mush that now exist in our skulls. Billions of dollars are spent yearly marketing products that we don’t need to increase sales. There is no limit to what a company will do to get your hard-earned cash.

In response to this, we should be asking more questions and demanding answers. Our worry should not be focused on finding a product that is at the forefront, marketed with supreme skill. We should know the efficacy of a product and not wonder if it is suitable to finish the job.

Tattoo pigments – Skill Versus Product

If you had no choice, dear reader, in choosing a professional, would you utilize that service you search for? What if your choices laid between a professional whose skills superseded the need to be picky about supplies versus someone mediocre who had the best supplies available?

We in tattooing have seen a miasma of new work that seems unbelievable. We have had our clients come in with suggestions and needs that are far beyond the possibility of a true tattooer. We have fought, screamed at the top of our lungs and turned away business because the internet has offered up a product that is impossible. Regardless of the supplies we utilize, there is sometimes no way to accomplish what has been rendered with a computer. But, we are forced to make a living so, being stuck between two worlds can be difficult.

Our choices, as professionals, are: Fight it, succumb to the trappings of a failed attempt to make something better or, just turn a cheek and give a helpless, undereducated client what they want to ensure our bills are paid.

Tattoo Pigments – The Choices We Make

New and established artists alike are unable to make decisions based on empirical evidence when choosing a type of tattoo pigments/inks. Instead of having proof that something works well and is safe, they are left with recommendations from trusted, fellow artists. These recommendations are traced back to some origin where I imagine a free sample was given out, tested and didn’t kill a person.

There’s a badge of proof that it works!

Sadly, some of these trusted fellow artists are sponsored by the companies that are producing low quality or dangerous products (these are unsubstantiated claims because we have no tests results showing quality or safety on any pigments or products produced currently in the US). How can we judge what is safe and what is garbage?

To start, we need to understand that our fellow artists are not basing their claims on scientific evidence. They base their claims of superiority on the results they see marketed to them via social media or from personal experience. They (tattooists) see something that they determine as quality, they see a happy client and they choose to use the same product. This all boils down to something so simple: We want happy clientele so as to build our business but what about future repercussions? What are we doing to increase our collective knowledge?

Experience or proof

We know as a population that experience is not a valid identifier of quality. These two terms are mutually exclusive. The problem is that we as artists are quick to pick up the latest, trendy item. The long-term effects of these “trendy” products have not been tested. Knowing this, there could be future potential that any new product could have negative consequences for clients. The list includes:

  1. Infection
  2. Lifelong complications
    1. Itchiness
    1. Redness
    1. Raised skin or bruising
    1. Photosensitivity
  3. Cancer
  4. Anaphylaxis or massive allergic response

This must change.

Tattoo Pigment Safety – Asking Questions

Th suppliers of goods that we use in the industry offer us little in the way of hard evidence about the safety and efficacy of their products. Those companies are supposedly subject to federal regulation from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). What you should know is, they are not.

The FDA is an organization that controls the safety of all products released to the public. The fact of the matter is that the products being tested are only given a single review before being released to the public. The products released have to comply with regulations before they are sold, not after.

Pigment recipes can change

Regardless of what the public believes, there are not stringent testing protocol that is being followed for every bottle of tattoo pigment being produced by these distributors for us.

At any time, the distributors/producers of a product can modify the products without any additional testing and hide behind the idea of a proprietary formula. These formulas are considered trade secrets, or proprietary formulas and shelter the producers from liability when issues arise resulting from use.

In Closing

In the next article we will investigate the chemistry behind the pigments produced currently and determine what is potentially harmful to us.

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