The complete beginner's guide to tattoos

We are going back to basics. What exactly are tattoos and how are they created?


Tattoos have become a global phenomenon, and if you have a tattoo (even a micro-sized cross or infinity sign), you are part of this growing trend. It is still hard for some people to grasp the full depth of what tattooing entails. What really happens to the skin when that pretty design is etched into you?


A drawing in time

A design is the first step of having a tattoo done, but it’s getting it into the skin that makes it so exceptional (and painful).

In order for a tattoo to be permanent, the ink has to get into the dermis, which is the tissue just underneath the outer layer of your skin. In the dermis, the ink could potentially stick there until after your body decays, but it is not a given.

Certain parts of the body do not heal as well as other parts heal. For example, the soles of the feet and the hands are parts of the body that regenerate skin much quicker and this creates an easy way out for the ink sitting in the dermis layer. The less movement (and sweat) an area on the body experiences, the better the ink will hold for a long, long period of time.



How to get it in there

Many tools are used to get the tattoo ‘in there’. A tattoo machine, power supply, a cable to connect the two, tattooing pigments, grips and tips, gloves, stencil paper, petroleum jelly, ink cups, tongue depressors, stencil applicant, electricity, actual skills and training… and the list goes on. Quality tattoos do not come cheap, because there are so many more facets than just a tattoo artist.

A stencil is drawn up beforehand to make sure the tattoo design and placement satisfies the client. Once the skin is shaved and prepped, the tattooing can start.

Getting tattoos may be a painful affair, but why is it so painful? In order for the artist to get the ink into the dermis layer, a needle is used. The needle makes thousands of tiny pricks in the skin. The modern tattoo machines pierce the skin at a frequency of 50 to 3,000 times per minute.

The tattoo artist uses a handheld machine (rotary or coil, but we’ll get to that) that has a needle affixed to it. The needle is dipped in the tattoo pigments or ‘ink’ while the motor moves the needle at a quick, vibration speed, which is then applied to the skin. The sharp needle pricks the skin quickly and repeatedly, applying the ink down into the dermis.

The tattoo needle is actually one piece of metal that has several ends to it. Different needles are used for different techniques. There are ones specifically made for lining, shading and colour-packing If you hear the artist say “3 round liner”, you will be fine, just beware when you hear them say “23 magnum”...


Machine lives matter

The two most common machines are the rotary and the coil. These machines work differently but in essence they do the same thing — move the needle.

The rotary machine's motor moves a rotating circular bar, which moves the needle up and down (in and out). That’s basically it for a rotary… but now for the coil machine.

The coil machine uses a direct electrical current to move the needle. As the tattoo artists steps on the foot pedal a current is produced into the coil which turns it into an electromagnet. The magnetized coil pulls down the metal arm that's attached to the needle, which pushes the needle out. But as the metal arm touches the coil, another thin piece of metal loses contact with a circuit screw, which breaks the current and causes the coil to lose its electromagnetic force.

The return spring pulls the metal arm back to its original place, and pulls the thin piece of metal back into contact with the circuit screw and reconnecting the current that magnetizes the coil. This process happens over and over again as the tattoo artist holds the foot pedal down.

It sounds much more complicated than it actually is. The rotary machine has a motor that does the work, and with the coil a current is created that is activated and deactivated at a very quick speed, moving the needle in and out.

The LACEnano rotary machine - the lightest rotary machine in the world.


It’s in, now what?

If you haven’t figured it out quite yet, getting a tattoo done is basically making thousands of tiny wounds in the skin. Once complete. It is a big open wound that should be treated as such.

The body's immune system will definitely go into overdrive, sending special blood cells called macrophages to the site of the tattoo to try and sort out the foreign ink particles. This is part of the body's attempt to clean up what it thinks shouldn’t be there, and it's also the reason tattoos fade over time, but it also plays a part in making tattoos permanent.

Once a macrophage consumes an ink particle, it goes back through the lymphatic highway and brings the consumed particles to the liver for excretion. But other macrophages don't make it back to the lymph nodes. Instead, these blood cells stay in the dermis, and the ink particles they've eaten continue to remain visible.

You will probably notice that lymph nodes close to the tattoo are swollen while healing, it is those macrophages trying to carry all of the ink away. But don’t worry, it won’t carry away all of the ink particles.

That does not mean you cannot help preserve the tattoo yourself. Correct aftercare is an essential part of getting a tattoo. We are sure your artist will give you the a to z of aftercare, but the basics include keeping the tattoo clean, not soaking it in dirty water, not picking at scabs, and most important of all, to keep it moisturised with tattoo aftercare. We recommend Tattoo Addict Aftercare, which is a beeswax-based formula that is gentle on the skin.


Tattoos aren’t drawings on skin, and entail so much more. Many tattoo artists work with the best equipment and have years of experience which is used to create their art. Permanent body art cannot be done by just anyone, because it is just that - permanent. Respect your artists and pay their fees, because at the end of the day quality tattoos are always preferred.

Be sure to choose the right artist for your needs. Have a look at the artists in your area and check out their styles and their studios to see who you would prefer doing the tattoo. This will ensure that you are comfortable with the amount of experience the artist has and whether the studio looks clean and professional or not.

Go ahead, get that tattoo, you are now ready to venture into the tattoo world!