In Part 2 of the Pigment Article we take a brief critique of distributors efforts to conquer the marketplace.
How Industry Demand Influences Labels
With scientific innovation at the forefront of product development most tattooists are blessed with unbelievable color lines and new products that break from the clumsy production of the past. Throughout history new products were developed and tattoo artists trusted their release without question.
Regardless of labeling, new products were trusted because tattoo artists weren’t given a choice; because without these products, tattoo artists couldn’t do their jobs. As new products were released competitors were forced to develop something comparable to keep the sources of revenue they had established.
When new products weren’t available, or if rebranding of previously developed products wasn’t possible, new labels were applied to existing supplies to increase visibility to those that fell prey to newly established competition. These labels forced things of lesser value to the forefront of an evolving industry and were designed to grab the attention of all who sought to fill a shelf.
While this practice became more normalized, tattoo artists were held hostage as knowledge was slowly stripped away them. The knowledge of simple procedures from the industry became trade secrets and were held closely by the few who made a profit reselling old ideas.
As consolidation of knowledge takes place we are led to believe the future lies in innovation, not in mastery. When it comes to pigments, most artists had never learned about their manufacturing or mixing. Past that, they never knew questions could be asked to suppliers, like:
Are the pigments I use everyday safe?
What was responsible or what harm could come if they continued to use these untested products?
This overlooked aspect of operations created an imbalance, as trust in the producers outweighed the need for critical inquiry. Modern tattoo artists never understood they could make a product of greater quality if they were willing to put in the labor. Pigments and other supplies became foreign and mystical – like some form of technology. Through clever marketing, they were led to believe mastery could come from the utilization of modern products and media sources.
Ethics or Profits
Some (it may be a majority, I am unsure) tattoo artists do not know how to make pigment, build a needle or tune a tattoo machine. In more modern tattoo business operations, local distributors were essential once mastery shifted focus towards art. When this happened, at least to me, they knowingly capitalized on it.
While most suppliers or distributors may have started their business in an altruistic way, the money available inside sales globally has become obscene. This newly found growth in profits forced individuals to choose between ethical sales practices and potential fortunes.
Competition with these companies was the excuse to bend morality, as they had to evolve to take advantage of new markets. Whenever new growth opportunities present themselves in business, companies are forced to change their practices, cut costs and innovate to stay viable. They must produce products that could be labelled as unique, better and faster to stay ahead of their clientele’s demand. In creating innovation, companies are allowed a sense of freedom, if the products delivered increase total utility for those that utilize them.
Pigment companies have had nearly 2 decades of freedom. That freedom has created innovation and helped establish some companies as being at the forefront of product development. These new labels bring additional stress to continue innovation and there have been… well… problems.
Due to these “problems”, the European Union (EU) has started investigating the operations of pigment suppliers and distributors. They have also begun testing their products.
In the U.S., regulators have presented suppliers with a chance to change classifications on products used in tattooing. The idea is to reclassify tattoo pigments as a cosmetic supply. If regulators are successful in doing so, a list of banned substances will be given to producers that will no longer be allowed in the production, manufacture and mixing of pigments. This has brought pigment companies forward in an effort to stop regulations.
An industry that lost control
Most tattoo artists are trained in infectious controls, safe operations; yet, they are unable to explain what is potentially one of the greatest threats to their clientele – what is put into their skin. As tattooing evolved, the industry shifted its focus towards art and left the manufacture of products they utilize daily to suppliers. With the help of marketing and brand management, tattoo artists began to see these companies as a more trusted name in the field. The suppliers gained control of a product that was essential in the operations of tattooing.
Currently, operating a tattoo shop forces owners to apply old-fashioned business management tactics to an evolving field. Mainly, these areas of focus are on growing artistically as an individual (if they tattoo), increasing visibility among those inside and outside the market, and maximising profits.
Shops split total revenues with artists (percentile basis) and, with the influx of clientele recently, have made a business model that requires little effort to grow. All you require is decent work being produced and a mildly acceptable level of customer service. This model was adapted from previous generations and has not evolved much in the past 30 years. What has happened is society accepted tattoos as a form of expression. When that occurred, tattoo artists globally were forced to make accommodations with their time or adapt to new products that allowed them freedom.
Tattoo artists no longer make needles (which really was horrible), or mix pigments (which was so, so messy); there are now suppliers who are willing to sell to professionals. What they sold to artists has been considered quality items, and they were available for a low cost in comparison with time saved. This adaptation was a necessity for many people who had established themselves before modern supply companies had the selections they do currently.
In the past, tattoo artists were forced to spend twice as much time (compared to actual tattooing time) or more making the tools to be used for daily operations. When clientele increased, the total time for preparing the shop increased. Tattoo artists were desperate for an escape and were given it as the market adapted to meet these demands.
There is a core group of suppliers who maintain a sort of oligopoly over products released to the industry globally. This existence at the top of a market, with little competition, occurred as the tattoo shops globally demanded fast access to products necessary for operations. As the demand increased, and these businesses grew to support a global economy, distributors developed the local footprint needed to get the products to wanting artists.
In the modern market, connections between suppliers and distributors are codependent. There is no need for interpersonal connections with local artists and the suppliers; something that had been common practice in the past. With the development of the distributor as a middleman, suppliers were capable of keeping things intimate with their local clientele while growing to fit an expanding market. Their focus shifted to train distributors in their product benefits and sales tactics for new and existing clientele.
This practice continued until the suppliers elevated beyond the normal levels of competition to become a supplier of something essential. They became brands, recognized by their logos and labels, and controlled the flow of all products globally. Tattooers stopped making pigments and handed control over to the overlords who gladly took control of their daily business.
These products have little regulations inside the US, but do have regulations in other parts of the world. My worry, and it seems to be the worry of scientists across the globe, is that some of the products being manufactured may be unstable or unsafe.
In the past, we had more control over what we chose to utilize in our tattooing practices. We knew the people who sourced our pigment or we sourced them ourselves. When something went wrong, if a person got sick, the blame rested on our business. This operation seems more ideal to me. It’s like farm-to-table and more personal. This opinion may be sentimental and lacking a global ideology but, our work is personal. If we were in control of our products and developed them in tandem with people who source them, we could have better control over the quality of the products we choose to use on our clientele.
This idea should not be relegated to just the pigment producing/mixing companies that sell to artists in the industry, but to all who choose to sell products that have the potential to cause undue harm to unwitting populations.
My efforts in this article may seem to unfairly point to the people who choose to make pigments, but I only utilize this argument as I feel they have the easiest route to ensure quality production and the release of safer products.
My opinion is that suppliers have a greater responsibility to inform the industry, distributors and clientele as to what their practices are; what they are giving us to put into our bodies. Hiding behind the guise of “proprietary blends” is not a way to ensure trust, especially if that blend is potentially harmful to its recipients. We need open dialogue wherein all parties can freely discuss the safety and efficacy of the products they choose to use.
The Fight Against Regulations
Currently, distributors are facing new critique. They are facing the threat of new regulations and outside analysis of their products. In response to this, tattoo pigment producers have been quick to run to the industry for support. It almost seems like an outpouring of nationalistic sentiment, where these companies are gathering the “troops” to fight an offensive ruling party. These troops are artists and any outside regulator is treated like a sympathizer to the crown during the revolutionary war.
What I have an issue with is the “troops”. Most, if all, are not scientists, nor educated individuals who offer an objective view on the situation. These “troops” are considered experts and trotted in front of regulators to give an opinion about what is best for clientele. The opinions given are mostly centered on artistic benefit or some libertarian ideology. While I do enjoy the idea of responsible self critiques, these “troops” have a natural bias attached to their efforts.
While the previous paragraph may be centered on the “troops”, pigment producing companies are the ones that have brought them forward to speak on their behalf, and on behalf of the population at large. They offer up paid employees or sponsored artists to speak as experts.
This is akin to the efforts of cigarette companies when confronted with regulations and national exposure of possible health effects for using their products. These sponsored artists and employees may be masters of their field inside art or tattooing, but they are not scientists or doctors. There is no way for them to tell regulators what is best for the health of clients.
The tattoo industry needs to come out of the dark and focus on objective opinions. They need to stop the fight about who is right, or who can tell us what to do. Tattooing is not a shadow of the past reborn to give it to “the man”. The historical antisocial, misfit labels are no longer applicable. Moving forward, tattooists should be asking questions like:
“How will these products affect the clientele and the industry?” Or, on a more personal level, “Am I doing my best to ensure the level of education I have is adequate to make informed decisions about my business operations and my client’s safety?”
What questions I had regarding pigment safety
Through the efforts of my research I ran into questions that were mostly philosophical in nature. While some in society look to the humanities with distrust or apply ignorant labels, I feel happy to find a ground footing in slowly developing a thesis and testing it before making any assumption.
A simple list of questions started my journey:
- Why is so much effort being put forth by these companies to combat criticism in the face of public safety?
- Are we supposed to follow the giants of industry when they have so much to gain from us following them blindly?
- What choices do we have in the products that are a necessary part of our jobs?
Ideally, I wanted to have an answer to this question:
What is safe and what is dangerous?