It used to be the case that a tattoo symbolised rebellion and individuality – from the Hell’s Angels to the Navy, tattoos were a type of branding, a way of differentiating yourself from others. Now though, tattoos are about as commonplace as a man-bun on a barista, and you need only take a stroll down any well populated thoroughfare to see that their popularity is far from waning. But despite our leanings towards the ink-game, have you ever wondered just what’s in tattoo ink?
It’s a question scientists are beginning to raise, after tattoo artists in Europe are fighting a new ban on two commonly-used green and blue pigments. In Europe, individual countries have been required to label tattoo ink ingredients in an effort to limit certain chemicals that are thought to cause cancer, damage DNA, or trigger allergic reactions.
In an effort to harmonise tattoo ink rules across the continent, the European Union has called for a ban on pigments Blue 15:3 and Green 7, but artists are now disputing it, saying it doesn’t make any sense. Speaking to National Public Radio, Matt Knopp, owner of Tattoo Paradise in Washington, D.C., said, “It’s strange. You almost feel that, how are you only allowed to use certain inks? You can’t tell me that all these other inks are bad, especially when I’m using them in the States.”
In the United States, tattoo ink is almost completely unregulated and little is known about what’s actually in it. And if you read that with a typical roll of the eyes and a smug, “typical America” smile, unfortunately it doesn’t get much better here on home soil. Tattoo ink is unregulated here in Australia too, with the Therapeutic Goods Administration believing it’s not required to do so as taboo inks aren’t seen as therapeutic substances.
Many dermatologists and cancer researchers are in favour of regulating tattoo inks, particularly given the cost spent towards treating reactions to tattoos. But even so, the move to ban certain inks in Europe has been seen as erring on the very cautious side.
According to a survey of 300 tattooed people in New York’s Central Park, just 6 per cent reported having a chronic reaction – such as itchiness, swelling, scaliness, or raised skin – in relation to a specific colour such as black or red, that lasted for more than four months.
Red seems to be the colour most associated with reactions, but not surprisingly it’s also the ink that requires a lot of compounds to be made. Dermatologists and epidemiologists also suggest that it’s hard to investigate whether or not tattoo pigments in the body lead to any long-term increased risk of diseases like cancer, as to do so would involve testing all manner of different inks used, differing amount of skin covered, different amounts of time people had their tattoos and an exhaustive list of other variables.
It seems the study of tattoo inks is a problematic field for a number of reasons. And as one researcher explained, even those working on the studies have tattoos – or if they don’t, they know someone who does.