Tattooing is a complex process that requires many environmental variables working in harmony to achieve amazing results. Today, let’s talk about how your skin interacts with light energy to produce the colors you see in your tattoo, how light affects pigments, and briefly touch on how colors are affected long-term in the skin.
Here is a video you should watch before reading further:
Table of Contents
What is a Tattoo?
A tattoo is the result of a mechanical process in which needles deposit pigments into the skin. Modern tattoos are accomplished with the use of simple (yet scientifically complex) machines, while primitive tattoo techniques do not. Both forms of tattooing are popular in today’s western culture but machine-based tattoo application is far more common.
The tattoo needle/machine combo cycle in an up/down motion depositing pigments as it runs across the skin, resulting in a product that (hopefully) is admired by the recipient.
We talk more about this process in our article:
What Is Tattoo Pigment?
Tattoo pigment is small particles of light refracting/reflecting/absorbing material that give the illusion of a visible light spectrum. These pigments are deposited into the skin and interact with light energy after it passes through the skin’s natural pigment – melanin.
Modern pigments are mixed into a solution called a carrier fluid. Carrier fluids are mainly comprised of distilled or sterile water, a biocidal agent, surfactants, and raw pigment.
We have another article that discusses this mixture in more detail. It can be found by clicking this link:
How Does Melanin Affect Tattoo Colors?
Melanin absorbs energy, and since light is visible energy, more melanin equates to less vibrant colors.
The mistake most people make is that darker skin doesn’t seem to have as much color in it when compared to lighter toned skin. This is an incorrect assumption as both color-types of skin can potentially hold as much pigment as the other. It comes down to how much light reaches and interacts with the pigment, and with darker skinned people less is able to make it to the pigment.
But there is another factor many people don’t realize happens when light energy interacts with deposited pigment – Light goes 2-ways.
How Melanin Affects Pigment Visibility.
First, light is produced from a source like electric lighting or a natural source like the sun. That energy moves forward until it comes in contact with a barrier – in this case, tattooed skin.
Light passes through the epidermis and comes into contact with the deposited pigment particles. But this is not a straight forward path.
Human skin normally has pigmentation (color) that acts as a protective layer from the harmful effects of the sun. Melanin.
What Does Melanin Do to Light?
Melanin absorbs light energy, protecting the skin from cellular damage which leads to long-term health complications. The darker your skin, the more effective the absorption. This is because there is more melanin in the skin.
Melanin is produced by “melanosomes” – small organelles that act like factories, producing globules of pigment called “melanin”. Melanin is located in abundance in the skin but can also be found in the eyes. As skin is hit with light energy, melanin is produced and carrier to keratinized calls neighboring the melanosome. This spreading effect creates skin tone.
Most pigment is located in the bottom layer of the epidermis – the protective outer layer of skin.
Why Does Skin Have Variations in Tone?
People from temperate climates ancestrally have a lighter skin tone. This is because there is a decreased amount of ultraviolet (UV) light that interacts with these climates. The skin is naturally lighter to absorb more infrared energy, increasing the heating effects expressed from light-energy interaction. People who have ancestry closer to the equator tend to have darker skin tones which protects them from the harmful effects of UV energy. People who hail from polar regions also have darker skin tones naturally as the reflective nature of ice and snow increases the quantity of UV energy the skin interacts with.
Back to the tattoo-related science…
The 2-Way Street of Melanin.
Once pigment is inserted into he skin, and light energy has passed through the absorbing layer of melanin, light will refract or reflect off the surface of that pigment.
It then has to pass BACK THROUGH the melanized layer of skin to been seen. This energy also has to pass through small amounts of blood, cell contents, immune cells and a host of other things that can absorb or modify how it travels.
As energy makes its way back through the melanized skin cells, even more energy is lost, decreasing the quality of light that is able to be interpreted by the viewer. This is why tattoos seem less “vibrant” in darker skinned individuals.
To test this theory, take a high lumen flashlight and shine it directly towards a tattoo on both light and dark skin. With the increased amount of energy that is produced and directed at the tattoo, the darker skinned tattoo will appear more vibrant while the lighter skinned tattoo will become less legible.
Science is amazing!
Clients and artists need to understand how the skin works before critiquing work that is finished. Having this understanding will also increase the quality of work being produced on darker skinned individuals.
Read more about dark skin and tattoos by following this link: