How Tattoos Work: Everything You Need To Know

Posted by Josh Melvin on

Whether you're inked from head to toe or planning your first body art piece, you may still be curious about how tattoos work.

What are the needles doing to your skin? How does ink get deposited into your tissue? And what's the deal with those little medical warnings that come with every tattoo?

Here's everything you need to know about how tattoos function, from the initial needle poke to the lasting impression. Keep reading to learn more.

A Brief History Of Tattoos

Tarot card tattoos on calf done by Noe Franco

Though often seen as a modern phenomenon, the history of tattoos is long and varied. People believe tattoos originated with the ancient Egyptians, around 2000 BC, who used them as a form of body art and status symbol.

However, scientists have more recently, around 1991, discovered an Iceman that also had these markings on his skin, which pushed back the first tattoo to 5200 years ago. But, no matter where it began, it's more about where it ended up.

Throughout the years, the practice spread to other cultures, such as the Greeks and Romans. They used tattooing to mark their criminals and enslaved people, making it easier to identify an escapee.

It wasn't until the 18th century that tattoos became more than just a form of body art. Then, thanks to the work of Captain Cook and other explorers, who brought back tales (and tattooed skin) from their travels, tattoos became more popular in Western culture.

This popularity sparked an influx of more modern permanent tattoos. Artists like Martin Hildebrandt opened up some of the first parlors, mainly used to tattoo sailors.

Tattoos took off in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the younger generation saw them as a mark of rebellion. This was especially true in the US, where tattoos were associated with sailors, bikers, and gang members.

Cosmetic tattoos also gained popularity among females in this period. Today, tattoos have become more mainstream, with celebrities and everyday people sporting them.

So how do tattoos work? Read on to find out!

How Do Tattoos Work?

Watercolor tattoo artists

Getting a tattoo is a three (or four) step process:

  1. Your artist will outline the design on the skin.
  2. The tattoo artist uses a needle to insert ink into the skin.
  3. The artist shades the tattoo.
  4. They add color to your tattoo, if applicable.

However, before we can get into these juicy details, let's first look at the process before the tattoo.


Sterilization is crucial. Your artist must ensure that the needle and the ink are sterile before starting the tattoo. The last thing you want from this adventure is an infection.

The artist will usually open up new, sterilized needles in front of you, and they should also have sterilized the ink beforehand. If you're unsure, don't hesitate to ask.


A tattoo artist applying a stencil for a tattoo.

The next step is to transfer the design onto the skin. Artists do this by placing or drawing the tattoo's outline onto the skin with a stencil, sharpie, or other markers.

Once done, you can see the tattoo's appearance before the ink is applied. Here is where you need to be strict.

If you want the artist to adjust the angle, design, or placement, this is the time to speak up or forever hold your peace. And it will be forever.

Time To Tattoo

A person busy getting a tattoo.

Now for the fun part! The artist will dip the needle into the ink and start puncturing the skin. The needle quickly goes in and out of the skin, leaving a trail of ink. The artist repeats this process until the tattoo is complete.

The tattoo machine deposits the ink into the dermis, which is the second layer of skin. The dermis comprises collagen and elastin fibers, which help anchor the ink in place.

Shading And Color

A tattoo being shaded.

As mentioned, tattooing has four main steps: the outline, the tracing, the shading, and the color. We've covered the outline and tracing steps. So, let's look at shading and color.

Once the artist finishes the outline and tracing, they will start to add shading. They usually use gray ink to do shading, which helps to create depth and dimension in the tattoo.

The artist uses a thicker needle to add shadows and shading to the tattoo. Think of it as a way to bring your tattoo to life by making it look more realistic.

After shading is complete, the artist will start to add color. It's the final step; a good artist can do it with any color ink.

The artist will revert to his thinner needle to add color to your tattoo. They'll start with the lightest colors and then move on to the darker ones. They do this because it's easier to darken a light color than lighten a dark color.


A person applying moisturizer to their tattoo.

Once your artist completes your tattoo, it's time to take care of it. You'll be given aftercare instructions by your artist, which you must follow to the letter.

The most important things to remember are to keep the tattoo clean and dry and to avoid direct sunlight. You'll also need to apply a thin layer of healing ointment to the tattoo 3-5 times a day for the first week. After that, you can switch to a lotion.

Do not pick at your tattoo, as this can cause infection or scarring. Let it heal naturally.

You can find a more detailed guide here:


Now that we've looked at the process of getting a tattoo, let's take a closer look at the instruments used.


Tattoo guns and needles laying on a table.

As mentioned, artists use needles to insert ink into the skin. Manufacturers make these needles using surgical steel, which comes in various sizes. Therefore, the artist will use a different size needle, depending on the tattoo.

For example, a small tattoo will require a smaller needle, whereas a large tattoo will require a larger needle. The artist will also use different tattoo needles for outlines, shading, and color.

Tattoo Machine

An artist holding a tattoo machine.

The tattoo machine, or tattoo gun, is what the artist uses to apply the tattoo. It's a hand-held device that has a needle attached to it.

You may be wondering, how does a tattoo gun work? The machine quickly punctures the skin using the needle, leaving ink behind and sculpting your body art piece.

The machine also regulates the ink flow so that it's not too much or too little. Too much ink may cause problems, such as blurring, while too little ink can cause the tattoo to fade.

The tattoo gun's speed ranges from 50 to 3000 up-down rotations per minute, depending on the brand and type. The needle enters and exits the skin about 2-3 millimeters deep. 


A few different tattoo ink types on a shelf.

As you know, the ink is what creates the tattoo itself. Tattoo ink consists of pigments suspended in a carrier solution.

The pigments contain metals, and they can be either natural or synthetic. This means artists can use various inks, each with its own properties.

For example, some inks are more pigmented than others. Meaning they will show up better on the skin. Manufacturers also designed other inks to fade over time, which can be ideal for people who want a semi-permanent tattoo.

However, not all ink is equal in quality. That's why finding a reputable tattoo shop that only uses high-quality inks is essential.

The type of ink used will depend on the artist and the customer.

Potential Risks Of Tattoos

Now that we know how tattoos work let's talk about the potential risks. Tattoos are safe when done by a professional artist in a clean and sterile environment. However, there are still some risks involved.

The most common risk is infection. It can happen if the needles or ink are not sterile or the tattoo artist does not follow proper aftercare instructions.

Other risks include allergic reactions to the ink, scarring, and skin irritation.

  • Allergic reactions are rare, but they can happen if you're allergic to the ink or the materials used in the tattooing process.
  • Scarring and skin irritation are usually minor and will go away on their own.

Tattoos are a permanent decision, so do your research before you get one. Find a reputable artist who uses sterile needles and ink, and ensure that you follow all aftercare instructions. With proper care, your tattoo will last a lifetime.

Tattoo Removal

A professional busy removing a tattoo with a laser machine.

Lastly, let's talk about tattoo removal. If you decide that you no longer want your tattoo, a few options are available.

The most common method is laser removal. It involves using a high-powered laser to break down the ink pigment. The number of treatments depends on tattoo size, color, and depth. But be warned, if it hurts when you get your tattoo, laser removal has the potential to make grownups cry.

Other methods include surgically cutting out the tattoo or using a dermabrasion machine to sand off the top layer of skin. However, these methods are less common and can be more painful than laser removal.

There are also at-home removal kits available, but artists and health professionals usually don't recommend these as they can be dangerous.

So, the best way to avoid this is to make sure you are happy with your decision before getting the tattoo. An excellent way to test this is by drawing the tattoo on your skin or getting something temporary, such as a henna tattoo.

Furthermore, if you're considering tattoo removal, be sure to consult with a professional. They will help you decide which method suits you and answer any questions you may have.

Go Get Inked

Tattoos are beautiful, personal pieces of art you can cherish forever. However, it's important to remember that tattoos are a permanent form of body modification, and you should only get one after careful consideration.

If you want to get a tattoo, do your research and book a consultation at The Fall in Vancouver so we can help you choose the perfect design and placement for your new ink. Alternatively, check out the rest of our blog for more information about beautiful body art. 

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