Rub Some Dirt On It: Show me your tats

September 16, 2010

I cannot understand why anyone would pay money to have someone puncture their skin with tiny needles that stab at the speed of 100 times per second using a machine that sounds like a dental drill and stabs like a sewing machine, and then fill the resulting wounds with ink. But for some reason, the tattoo industry is doing remarkably well for itself. But before you decide a row of flowers is the most tasteful decoration for your lower back, it’s important to understand how tattoos work as well as the health risks involved.

The difference between the tattoos you got in cereal boxes as a kid and the ones you can get at the parlor on M Street is vast. For temporary tattoos, the statement “beauty is only skin deep” applies pretty well. Temporary tattoos stay on the surface. Moisture transfers pigment to your epidermis, your outermost layer of skin, and lets it sit there. We all naturally shed surface-layer skin cells pretty quickly, and as soon as old ones slough off and new ones appear, stick-on tattoos start to fade.

The ink from real tattoos doesn’t slough off so easily, though, because it’s beneath the surface of your skin, in the dermis, and those cells aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. When the dermis gets injected with ink, the ink treats it as a foreign material. Your immune system realizes the new inhabitant isn’t a cell from your body and tells the dermis to sequester it. That means the ink gets lodged into place permanently and voila! You’ve got body art.

But if you are ready get inked and deal with gripes from you mom for the rest of your life, there are some serious health risks to consider. Although tattoos are generally safe, it is still possible to end up with infections, skin reactions, or even a blood-borne disease if you aren’t careful.  Your best bet is to shop around for a reputable, established tattoo parlor that uses sterilized equipment.

Ink can be a big problem for your immune system, too, even if you aren’t allergic to it. Sometimes, when your immune system removes attempts to sequester a foreign substance but isn’t able to get rid of it—and tattoo ink is designed so that it won’t be able to—you can develop build-ups of immune cells that result in inflammation and leaves unsightly, pink masses on your skin called granulomas. Your immune system may also go into overdrive and cause an excessive amount of scarring. If it does that, you’ll develop especially ugly skin lesions called keloids, which can look even worse than the pretentious literary tattoo you got your freshman year.

The biggest risks, though, are diseases like hepatitis B and C. Hepatitis gets into your body through blood and other bodily fluids. You can be exposed through contaminated needles, or contact with contaminated table surfaces and infected tattoo artists on the area you’re getting inked. Keloids and granulomas aren’t any fun, but if they didn’t scare you, hepatitis should. Once hepatitis is in your bloodstream, it can eventually shut down your liver.  Although rare, cases where people contracted hepatitis from tattoos are not unheard of. There is a good reason that the American Association of Blood Banks refuses to take donations from anyone who has a tattoo less than a full year old.

The best thing to do before getting your first tat is research. It’s up to you to be smart.  Make sure that the tattoo parlor you choose sterilizes all of their equipment and always uses fresh needles and ink.  A top tier spot may end up costing a little bit more, but even this has its advantages—you can use the extra time you spend saving up money to consider if you really, really need that tribal armband.

Show Sadaf your “secret” tattoo at squreshi@georgetownvoice.com


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