What really happens to your body when you get tattooed?

May 08, 2020

What really happens to your body when you get tattooed?

Ah, tattooing. I have had a love affair with tattoos since the tender age of 16, when I got my first one as a high school graduation gift from my Dad. He had to sit in the shop with me while I got it because I was so young, and kept shaking his head while I grimaced and squirmed in the chair. What was it? The snakes from the Neurosis album cover Through Silver in Blood. I had become somewhat obsessed with female musicians and started playing drums that year and wanted to look like my idols who were heavily tattooed badasses. And so it began.

 Tattooing for me was a way to mark myself, to make myself significant, and to identify with my tribe- A raucous group of outlaws who didn’t give a fuck about what society had to say and lived life bold, wild, and without restraints. That was my image, and that was who I hung out with- my friends were crazy, intelligent, and masters of pushing boundaries.

 Over the years I progressed (thankfully), and while my friends and I still fit the category of being intelligent boundary pushers, we now do it with a lot more purpose and lot less alcohol. I became fascinated with the healing arts and began by studying ethnobotany under the tutelage of Karen Sherwood of Earthwalk Northwest who worked with Tom Brown Jr. for many years.

My training as an Āyurvedic Practitioner took me even deeper into the healing arts, and I started to wonder, “What the hell happens to our bodies when we get tattooed”?  Boy was I surprised to learn the truth of it, and it is truly a testament to the wild and wonderful world of our physical organisms!! Read on to uncover what lies beneath the surface of your tattoo….


 So what is happening when you get tattooed?

When you get tattooed, your tattooer physically inserts pigment into your dermis, or lower layer of skin, using a needle that is either mechanically or hand powered.

 How deep the needle goes is a really important part of the process, because if the needle entry is too shallow, your ink won’t stay. Why? If the needle entry is too shallow, the pigment will simply shed along with your outer layers of skin, and if it’s too deep, you’re basically just injecting your veins with ink.

 Wanna know something else crazy?

 It turns out that triggering your immune response is actually a really important part of the tattoo process!

 The dermis is the layer of skin your tattooer is aiming for, and in contrast to the epidermis, or top layer of skin, has a blood supply. This is why you bleed when you get tattooed, and why some amount of pigment will inevitably enter your body during the process.

 What happens when pigment is inserted into the dermis?

 Our immune response gets triggered! After all, we are literally getting stabbed repeatedly in order to put a foreign object in our bodies, and this sets your body’s immune alarm system off- “WTF is happening?! It’s time to investigate.”

 Now this is where things get really interesting. Macrophages race to the tattoo site, where they actually engulf pigment- and it is these same cells that then die and sit in place with pigment inside. Isn’t that wild?

 This means that when we look at tattoos, we are actually looking at dead immune cells that are trapped in place holding tattoo ink!! WHOA!!!

 Why does this happen? This happens because the enzymes contained within the vacuoles of the macrophage are unable to break the pigment down, so it is safer for your body to contain it by locking it away. That’s right! Over time some of these dead macrophages will continue to deteriorate, with this freed pigment being reabsorbed by new macrophages, and some pigment than escaping back into the body. This is the process that causes tattoos to fade over time.

This also means pigment enters the blood stream not only during tattooing but also post tattoo, where it is processed by the organs that filter blood and lymph.  Pigment has been discovered in the livers of mice who have been tattooed for research purposes as well as on human samples of lymph nodes from tattooed folks, and I myself ALWAYS get swollen lymph nodes post-tattoo. And this research shows this happens in part because they get filled with pigment. I recently met a woman who had a lymph node removed from her inguinal region and lo and behold- it was BLACK due to accumulation of pigment over the years of getting lots of black work tattoos. No joke!

Okay, I’m not trying to scare anyone, but shit, this stuff could be serious IF we IGNORE it. However, if we ADDRESS the issue, it can be far less detrimental to our bodies. It also means we need to be super careful about what’s in the pigments we are putting in our bodies! FOR REALS!! Damn, son, who knew? I certainly didn’t!!

Now I have probably 60 percent of my body tattooed- 2 arm sleeves, 1 leg sleeve, chest piece, and back piece, and some randos I’ve collected over the years. And I started to notice some problems after getting tattooed. It’s common knowledge that as we get older, getting tattooed sucks more and more. Maybe it’s waning enthusiasm, but I believe that our bodies are saying “I am OVERLOADED with processing pigment and other toxins, please stop!” At least that’s what mine said! I can no longer sit to get tattooed for very long, and my body is straight PISSED for days afterwards, a big contrast to my former self who would sit without a peep for 4 hours. Yeah, that doesn’t happen anymore.

According to my Āyurveda teacher (yes, I have one even though I am one! Never stop learning, people), I have a subtle degree of poisoning from all of this pigment. Kind of a bummer, but true. Now we poison ourselves subtly all the time- however, our bodies have been put under increasing strains due to the sheer volume of pollutants we know deal with on a daily basis, especially when living in a city.

Adding tattoo pigments to this can be hard for those of us who have already delicate constitutions-the reason that tattoos fade over the years can be in part environmental, but it’s also because your body is actually pulling pigment from the skin as old macrophages break down. And one of your bodies primary jobs is to get rid of that shit! This means that the more tattoos you have, the more pigment your body is constantly processing.

 Now, I don’t believe in making blanket statements like “tattooing is bad” or “tattooing is good” Because I really believe that depends on a number of factors. Like what pigments you are using,  how covered you are, and what your constitution type is.

If you have a more robust constitution you are going to be able to handle getting tattooed much better than someone such as myself who is more delicate. My best friend has a full body suit and also has an exceptionally strong liver and blood- We call him a rakta sāra in Ayurveda. Basically this means his body is able to handle more pigment than the average joe without it impacting him.

I’m also a lot less worried about those who have some tattoos here and there. Where I get worried is when you start to have real coverage. I’m not saying this to scare you, but this is the truth. And one that has caused some health issues for me. Fortunately for myself AND for others in the tattoo community, I have a unique skill set as an Āyurvedic Practitioner that has taught me how to manage this using herbs, and I highly recommend that anyone getting tattooed do the same. Plants are the medicine of the people and can provide an incredible boost to our body’s healing and recovery time.

If you are going for a large quantity of pigment, you should take some herbs to go along with it to help flush your liver and lymph and take some strain off of your body.  New Tattoo is an awesome herbal formula that boosts your body’s ability to heal post-tattoo through the power of plants by supporting your skin, lymph, and liver health. Even something as simple as turmeric can be very beneficial, and dandelion and nettle are also great choices.

It’s important to remember healing actually happens on the INSIDE of your body- so it makes sense that we want to support that through internal supplementation. Tattooing is also stressful on your nervous system- after all, when you continue to get tattooed even though your body is saying “Dude, what the fuck are you doing to me, stop!”and you ignore it, it causes stress and an increase in cortisol levels. So be kind to yourself and support your body through this process. When you do get tattooed, give your body some time to rest after, and eat clean while avoiding intoxicants while you heal.

Again, this information is not meant to scare you, it is meant to INFORM you.

Because when we are educated about the impacts our actions have on our health, we can make better decisions on how to manage them. I love tattoos, and getting them has been an amazing process and experience that was very valuable. I also didn’t fully understand the impacts on my body, and perhaps would have reconsidered the amount of coverage I have opted for. So get your tattoos, but be smart about how you care for your body during and after the process.

 But don’t take my word for it. Do your own research. Listen to your body and pay attention to how you feel post tattoo. Feel the lymph node clusters closest to your new tattoos after getting them and see for yourself if you notice swelling or otherwise! Because ultimately you need to be your own judge of how tattooing is impacting you, and no two people are the same.


copyright 2020 Sarah Otto-Combs/Siddha Labs 

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