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How Tattoos Work

Creating a Tattoo: Outline, Shading and Color
The tattoo artist fills in a tattoo using a thicker needle. See the needle in action.
The tattoo artist fills in a tattoo using a thicker needle. See the needle in action.

Clients work with artists to create custom tattoo designs, or they chose images from flash, which are tattoo designs displayed in the shop. The artist draws or stencils the design onto the person's skin, since the skin can stretch while the artist uses the tattoo machine. The artist must also know how deeply the needles need to pierce the skin throughout the process. Punctures that are too deep cause excessive pain and bleeding, and ones that are too shallow cause uneven lines.

The tattoo itself involves several steps:

  • Outlining, or black work: Using a single-tipped needle and a thin ink, the artist creates a permanent line over the stencil. Most start at the bottom of the right side and work up (lefties generally start on the left side) so they don't smear the stencil when cleaning excess ink from the permanent line.
  • Shading: After cleaning the area with soap and water, the artist uses a thicker ink and a variety of needles to create an even, solid line. Improper technique during this step can cause shadowed lines, excessive pain and delayed healing.
  • Color: The artist cleans the tattoo and then overlaps each line of color to ensure solid, even hues with no holidays -- uneven areas where color has lifted out during healing or where the artist missed a section of skin.
  • Final cleaning and bandaging: After using a disposable towel to remove any blood and plasma, the artist covers the tattoo with a sterile bandage. Some bleeding always occurs during tattooing, but most stops within a few minutes.