From the beginning, this article seemed like a simple way to introduce an argument about safety and fair practices. In reality, the companies that sell tattoo pigments, the industry that produces the raw ingredients, and the artists in industry combined, led me to formulate a critique that became a monster, much larger than I anticipated. This article grew to around 10,000 words and is only still just scratching the surface of a debate that needs to occur. Questions about the industry and its operations came more naturally after studying what was occurring and talking to insiders who manufacture pigments in the US. I slowly formed an opinion of what was happening to the industry and wanted to write this as a way to test these beliefs.
In writing this article, I have spent hours of research, sent hundreds of emails and travelled many hours away from my family to try and create a framework for what I hoped could be accomplished by releasing any information. It was also an attempt to find the answers I knew were out there. In any event, the information listed in the reference section is not comprehensive, but a starting point for many out there who may wish to learn more.
Also, this article is the broken up version of a the Pigment Article on this site. Once it is all posted and complete, a PDF version will be available for download.
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Part 1 – My Opinion and analysis of the tattoo pigment industry
Currently, there are two sides debating the future of pigment production in the tattoo industry. On one hand, the suppliers and distributors of the products tattoo artists use are confronted with questions about how safe their products are. They are confronted with the potential of regulations which will be handed down by governments which focus on the health and long term effects of products used in tattooing.
The suppliers and producers are actively fighting these potential new regulations. Their argument is that self-regulation has been successful and there is no need for any new laws concerning rules or regulations. Suppliers and distributors claim to have the client’s best-health-outcomes as their primary focus. They argue that government regulators should stay out of private business as self imposed regulations and self governance are the best course of action for any and all involved.
On the other hand, questions are being presented by scientific researchers and regulators across the globe. These questions are centered on the safety and efficacy of products being sold or used during procedures. All of the testing being done has the eventual fact of leading the powers that be to pass some regulations in the face of public safety – once enough data has been collected about the health effects of products commonly used – in this case, tattoo products.
To date, researchers who have been testing the safety of products released for tattooing have come up with many questions after initial rounds of testing. The results of this first-round testing are showing that suppliers and distributors have released products that have produced with known harmful chemicals and contain materials that may pose health risks to consumers. While it is yet unknown if there is prior knowledge or malice attached to the production of these products, researchers are working tirelessly to ensure more is known about how tattoo pigment affects the health of individuals. These are the same products that we see line the shelves globally.
As the industry evolves, the testing efforts by scientists are progressing slowly and have been delayed due to the lack of regulations (which are used as a guidepost when choosing what to test for) as well as a need for new testing protocols. This is the reason for this article – how can we know what is safe, how can we judge the safety of a product once it is released and what are companies doing to sway our opinion of what is safe, versus what is not.
The Health of The Public
For the past 20 years or so, companies producing new products for the market have been able to innovate. These “evolved” products have been pushed into public use without the regular testing for safety even if we assume testing is a part of their development. The innovations in pigment chemistry brought about more dynamic products for use in the industry but we know little of their long term health effects. Until recently, science was not interested in how products were being developed. People were happy with the results and no immediate health consequences were popping up that would alert regulators there may be a problem.
This reactionary aspect of health consciousness is slowly evolving into the past and testing is now focused on a healthy future for a large population of the planet. Products that are developed with the mindset of profits over safety are coming under scrutiny far more often, especially when large populations of the public may be at risk. One issue with the explosion in innovation is that scientists are constantly playing catch up and are almost always in an underfunded environment so testing new products takes longer than it could.
While new products are continually being developed, producers and distributors take in massive profits while the gap in scientific testing becomes more evident. New additives and ways of manufacturing change the landscape for the products tattoo artists use and while this happens scientists could be testing products that may have already had their mixture modified. They may also be testing products that are not in circulation anymore.
This gap in available knowledge when testing products has presented itself as something in need of innovation. The effort by scientists to describe and apply labels of safety are needed; apart from the money making efforts of suppliers, distributors and other companies involved in the influence of tattooing.
The efforts of researchers and regulators globally have only just started focusing on developing new ways to analyze and inspect products used in tattooing. As the science takes place, researchers are better able to determine what makes up newly released products. Once they can identify what is in these products they can start the process of identifying whether or not they are safe
One downfall to the process in the United States is:
Researchers cannot look for what is not listed on the label, especially when regulations are absent. There is also zero regulation about how products are marketed which leads to problematic ethics when supplying an industry.
Ethics and Supply – How Suppliers Mislead The Industry
Questions About Quality and Safety – Labels
For the most part, tattoo artists worldwide believe in the safety and efficacy of products made by large supply companies. These supply companies have spent millions on marketing and endorsement deals to instill a sense of quality and safety for those who use choose their brands. Marketing the idea of quality is a wonderful idea, especially when quality is meant to describe safety. The idea of quality to supply companies is not meant to describe a level of safety, it is meant to denote a level of effectiveness.
When consumers think of quality, various images pop into their minds: Clean, safe, costly, effective… While this is not a full list of descriptors for products the labels listed above (and many others) are being applied to the tattoo products that are currently in circulation.
When using these labels, each word applied to a product has a unique meaning that holds a value independent of its core value. It is something a person can visualize, hold in their hand and look back at with some form of emotional content that makes the product unique in the eyes of the beholder.
When using multiple descriptive labels together, the visualization a person receives is more defined and evokes a greater emotional response. By using such labels, marketing agencies, social influencers and companies alike can lead to the development of a label that is widely accepted as an image that precedes the product by holding the company name as a reference back to the images and labels used before.
This image applied to a brand comes to be known as something more than a simple product line – a sneaker or some therapeutic face wash – the brand becomes the emotional aspect that we as a population have chosen to accept as something that is more significant, greater than, what we compare to the other things that are comparable in life. We are trained by companies to want, regardless of the quality, efficacy or value of a product. Society can be swayed easily to accept something or to turn away from it. All this is possible with the use of language, pretty pictures and the guarantee of something that is far beyond what is being offered.
If manipulation of our simple language structure creates different interpretations when applied to a product, we are faced with an ultimatum of sorts – these products must live up to the interpretations we have assumed when we encounter them. This also holds true when newly developed products are released to the public.
Knowing that we cannot trust our instincts, as they are given to us through a company image or marketing campaign, it is essential, when the safety of an individual who is undergoing a permanent modification to their body is reliant on a product, that every product actually delivers what it promises. Sadly, most products released do not live up to the hype they are presented with, or to how they are described.
Here is a thought experiment to make what was stated above a little easier to absorb:.
Thought Experiment 1
Patients require “quality” healthcare when undergoing surgery. In this sense, “quality” embodies the feeling of safety. We know that a quality physician is able and well educated. They can take care of us when we are at our most vulnerable state. They’re above the average and have an intrinsic level of value that is almost ethereal when spoken about in public.
Compare that to a quality cut of meat; when we compare the use of quality to a food product, we expect it to be of substantial size, color, nutritional value and taste. It has little to do with the safety of such an item. We want our money’s worth and the “quality” label is a guarantee that we are receiving such an item.
While this initial identifying label can be applied to a unique object or person adding additional labels helps the public better understand how much more value can be placed on things when confronting new products or things that are similar in nature.
Thought Experiment 2
What happens if we attach a second descriptor like organic or grass-fed to a product that we already assume is quality?
When combining organic, grass-fed and quality together, those viewing or hearing these labels are given a different understanding of what “quality” means. These additional labels add a multiplicative effect to the interpretations of what is being presented.
To most of us viewing these labels, the product we are confronted with feels safer, cleaner and more responsible. It may seem funny to think that words can carry such weight and that the use of language can influence our decisions. This goes with most products that are marketed to us and is no different when looking at tattoo pigments available to tattooers globally.
The ethics of labeling things responsibly falls on the producers of any and all products. Regardless of how they may be sold, the literacy of the populace has been, and will continue to be lacking, when confronted with language that is intuited. True understanding comes when the labels being used are properly understood.
Ethical Labelling and Sales
While products for tattooing may be listed as having quality ingredients (effective), they are also listed as organic, vegan and cruelty free. This manipulation of product labels falsely applies the sense of being honest, safe and responsible to a product that has been knowingly manufactured with only efficacy in mind. To make this case even more evident we need to ask ourselves – What is safe, what is vegan and what does cruelty free mean?
Labels are created to inform the population and throughout history our species has thrived being able to classify things in a way that encouraged survival. The efforts of modern marketing have taken this evolutionary aspect of our species and flipped it. The focus of labels has been shifted to mark something with a greater value than it actually has.
This false sense of security is a blatant violation of trust by suppliers. Combine that with the efforts to resist regulation and sell untested, potentially unsafe products under the veil of what they supposedly embody does not align with what the tattoo industry currently needs. The false identity of products denies the average artist the possibility to critically compare products. This identity creates a system where artists believe they are buying things that will improve their ability, increase their value and expand their influence.
This practice must stop, or be modified to ensure education about product efficacy and safety. The efforts of supplies must focus on how the products are presented as well as how well they are understood by consumers.
Quality and the Labels Surrounding the Art of Tattooing
Cultural acceptance has led to a renewed renaissance in applying a tattoo artistically. This new era of tattooing has given tattoo artists the ability to claim the title of being accomplished early in their career. The reality is, they have yet to learn enough to be considered a master, regardless of how well they market their ability.
Mastery is a difficult thing to accomplish when a person wholly focuses on a single aspect of their field. Mastery demands a full knowledge of all aspects in a field of study. Beyond that, the person attempting the achievement of mastery must understand their place in the craft and how they are forced to be a part of it’s evolution.
While this glaring hole becomes more evident as time passes, companies who supply the next generation of artists are forced to adapt in tandem, or face the wild winds of change and suffer losses financially. In a way, they are forced to succumb to the labels that have been developed to compete with new companies offering the “next big thing”. In essence, they are forced to adapt or die.
My worry is that the application of specific labels to these businesses and the products they release have created a strawman in the industry. Because this may already be a problem, the future must force an adaptation or see the strawman increase in perceived relevance.
The deficiency that is slowly evolving in the industry, specifically in the areas of mastery, mirrors what the pigment and supply companies face as the threat of new regulations puts them under scrutiny. These companies may be exposed as the inexperienced professional who is being represented as a master.
Their labels may come under the lens of a more educated populace if the work is put in now. In doing so, these companies may be found out to know far less they claim. Their efforts to supply an industry with less than safe products, labeled as the new liquid gold, will fail under scrutiny. These businesses may also force their own hand when placed under examination about their practices. When this happens they must provide exceptional proof to justify the use of these false labels and their efforts must be in earnest. If they are unable to produce such proof they must admit that their efforts have been falsely applied to sell more products.
The break in knowledge
When speaking to those who are still alive and remember the glory days of tattooing (old-schoolers), modern practitioners are confronted with a history rich in platitudes, something that combines the ways and beliefs of the old with that which has occurred in such little time. The old timers have had a difficult time evolving and the future, to these relics of the quickly evolving history, is wildly unbelievable. (As an aside, I must state that their opinions, whether good or bad, are usually worth listening to.) These long standing veterans come from a time where mastery was a viable option and the critique they have offer should not be ignored.
The labels attached to products and artists were a well earned aspect of the evolution within a timeless tradition. If you were wise enough to earn the label of master, you deserved that label. In the past, most labels were applied this way. If a product was called superior, you could trust its efficacy.
As the industry evolves away from the past, where self sufficiency was a normal and one could obtain mastery, practiced aspect of business and the labels applied to artists and products must make sense. This is because more reliance is placed upon the suppliers and distributors as knowledge of how to make any product relevant to operations are lost. It is up to them to release products that are safe and effective.
They are forced to earn the labels they chose to self apply to increase sales.
Next, we will look at science, labels and how an industry fell away from itself.