Short history of a tattoo

Deep body carvings and drawings were already present around the prehistoric times (Neolithic era) and then in the ancient times. Initially these were cuts or carvings, where different substances were introduced, e.g. ash. Various types of tattoos may be found in the different cultures around the globe, starting from Japan, through Africa, Middle East and ending in Europe. Bushmen also covered their bodies in tattoos, usually making cuts and introducing crushed charcoal from bonfires, especially during the wedding ceremony. The word tattoo originates from the Samoan word tatau. The first Europeans, who came in contact with tattoos were explorers, travelers and sailors. They brought not only skins but also living tattooed persons with them to European courts. Later on they also started tattoing their bodies. Tattoos played many roles around the world, not only decorational but primarily functional, religious and initiational. Some took weeks to complete.

In the last century tattoos were sometimes a type of compulsory "souvenirs" (e.g. some organisations/squads during the II World War) and other times horrific markings (e.g. prisoner numbers in concentration camps).

Currently, in the western culture, tattoos are mostly considered decorational and sometimes also a type of identification mark or symbol of a given group or subculture. Some of these may point to the fact that the tattooed person belongs to some outlaw or criminal group or may even state that he did time, hence in some cultures it's considered negative and/or undesirable. One may find many websites and films devoted not only to making tattoos but also their removal or masking with make-up. Therefore placement or choosing a tattoo site should be a wise decision. Figure below shows many amateur prison tattoos.


Preparation for tattoo

Tattooing is an invasive procedure. One has to remember that each one of us is different. We react differently to substances, incl. ink, we understand hygiene differently (there are persons who shower every day, others do it e.g. once a week), we suffer from different medical conditions (incl. allergies, skin diseases, etc.). Therefore each tattooing process is not identical, also the final result may sometimes dissapoint. Similarly to medical procedures, the person getting the tattoo should be informed of the possible risks and complications, e.g. infectious or cosmetic and the way the tattoo should be cared for.

We should remember that on and inside our bodies we have more microbial cells than human cells. One could ask a question - Are we really human or are we just huge bags of bacteria? In fact, most of these microbes are essential for our survival, they aid defensive mechanisms of our body, production of vitamins and digestive processes. But there are also the "bad" bacteria, which may be responsible for complications related to tattooing.

Potential sources of infection may be:
(i) the tattooing procedure itself and
(ii) errors in the aftercare.

(i) Tattooing procedure should be safe nowadays. There is no place for situations where the artists don't use single-use equipment. The times of hepatitis, HIV and other pathogens transmitted by non-sterile needles should never return. In addtion, accessory equipment may also be single use type, but still many artists are using metal parts and they sterilize them. Everything if fine if those artists stick to the sterilization procedure and check the validity of the process. Unfortunately, in reality those procedures are very often ignored.

Despite being so invasive, tattooing is not fully sterile. How come? For example, when the design is transferred onto the skin (often the same deodorant is used for many persons), the tracing/holographic paper is not sterile. Furthermore-gloves are just diagnostic not surgical (sterile) gloves. The person doing the tattoo is constantly touching the injured skin, either with the glove or paper towel-which is not sterile either. We could point to more such examples. But it's possible to significantly limit transmission of microbes. Here are a few hints:
  1. The tattooed person should take a shower shortly before the procedure.
  2. The person doing the tattoo should wash their hands using a medical handwash procedure (incl. disinfectant solution rubbed-in) before installation of the tattoo equipment and doing the tattoo.
  3. Shaving, if necessary, should be very gentle and using a single use shaver for each client.
  4. It's very important to cleanse the tattoo site with a disinfectant before the procedure.
  5. Preparation of the tattoo kit right before the procedure, not during.
  6. It's very important to limit environmental exposure during tattooing, esp. avoid smoking (oral cavity is a site where tremendous numbers of bacteria dwell), mobile phone conversations, etc.
  7. Never contaminate needles during tattooing, by accidental touching of surfaces others than the tattooed skin.
  8. Minimalise tissue trauma by employing a proper tattooing technique.
(ii) Tattoo aftercare may be a risky business resulting in a nasty tattoo wound infection (a tattoo should be understood as nothing less than penetrating trauma to tissues). Figure below shows basic tattooing equipment.

tattoo kit

Tattoo aftercare

Print instructions [click here]...
  1. Dry the tattoo by delicate patting with paper towel.
  2. Use a sterile dressing to cover the site, never plastic foil, for at least 1 day! Obviously, if you want to convert the tattoo wound to a bacterial medium - you may cover it with foil! BUT HONESTLY - ONE SHOULD NEVER WRAP TATTOOS LIKE THAT! This method originated with biker conventions around 1970's, where it was too irritating for tattooed bikers to remove the dressing to show the tattoo to other bikers. Unfortunately it's still done by artists not only in Poland but around the globe. The Alliance of Professional Tattooists has for a long time now considered this practice not only as outdated but also dangerous! It's actually forbidden during serious tattoo conventions and conferences. They recommend sterile dressings which should be changed regularly, 2-3 times/day for 1-2 days.
  3. There are many aftercare schools, personally I use the best method that works for me, which may be considered kind of "oldschool":
    (a) for the first 3-4 days don't put any ointments or lotions over the tattoo and let the wound heal;
    (b) begin to cover the tattoo with e.g. Bepanthen ointment by the first signs of skin shedding (which occur almost always and look almost like skin peeling off after sunburn. Again, this is normal) 3 times a day. There is no need to use antibacterial creams, not only there are no indications, these may also irritate the skin.
  4. The tattoo is initially healed after 1-2 weeks, and completely healed after as long as 6-8 weeks. One should avoid long submersion and baths, tanning, sauna and also sports which may put stress on the skin site, stretching the tattoo. One should also avoid substance abuse... It's good to take showers and wash the tattoo with lukewarm or cold water with antibacterial (liquid) soap.
  5. Never pinch, scratch, rub, peel the skin over the tattoo! Let it come off naturally, and the effect will be most rewarding!
  6. Some disturbing symptoms such as: very strong erythema; formation of yellow fluid, blisters; crepitations (gas accumulation); puss draining; intensive pain; extensive oedema and/or fever require urgent medical attention.
Figure below shows a 20 year-old tattoo. It's very important to use appropriate equipment and right needles since tattoos evolve and may become less intense with time.


Video showing the making of a simple tattoo.

Video showing tracing the design to skin.

Video showing more complex self-tattooing.

Video showing more complex self-tattooing, too.

Video showing making of a black tattoo.

Video showing making of a colour tattoo.

Video showing how to stop bleeding.

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