Thinking of inking?

Tattoo artists are basking in the rise of their craft. Since the 1970s, when painters-turned-tattooist brought fine arts sensibilities and limitless options to the craft, tattooing has grown into a $2 billion industry in the United States. In 2010, the Pew Research Center found that a third of Americans age 18 to 25 have a tattoo, and about 40 percent of Americans ages 26 to 40 have at least one. With more choices comes more pre-ink homework, so here are some things to consider before getting inked:

What will it look like?


Thanks to modern inks and techniques, portraits and images get far closer to the ideal of "realism" than one from decades past.


Credit the "Alien" movies with inspiring this branch of surrealism, which depicts a combination of human and robot-like parts.


Just like the 20th century arts movement, this style covers everything from Salvador Dali to fantasy monsters and incoherent nightmares.

Fine line black and gray

This technique, pioneered in the mid-1970s in Los Angeles, involves subtly shaded, intricate designs and portraits rendered without color.


A modern U.S. trend sprang up in the mid-1980s, imitating the bold, dark, geometric tattoos common in many ancient tribal cultures.


Large symbolic designs, particularly Japanese, are considered timeless. Japanese koi morphing into dragons are a popular theme for arm “sleeves.”

Traditional American

Think Betty Boop, an anchor, or "Mom" in a heart. Before the 1970s, this was the only true style in the United States, when people collected tattoos like stamps. Designs were usually small with crisp lines, few colors and little subtlety. The style is enjoying a revival.


Not a style, but a name given to the printed designs on the walls of a tattoo shop. Beware as flash designs are subject to trends. Remember Tasmanian Devils in the 1980s?


This design was found on a 2,500-year-old mummy in Siberia. The oldest known tattoos were black tribal designs found on the "Iceman," a European mummy estimated to be 5,200 years old.

How will it get there?

Epidermis, the skin’s outer layer, acts like a tinted window over the tattoo.

Each needle injects ink, a drop at a time, 1-2 millimeters below the skin’s surface.

Dermis is the target area. Here antibodies surround the ink and trap it in place.

If the needle reaches the subcutaneous fat, the ink will immediately spread and blur.


Using the basic technology of a doorbell, the gizmo was first patented in 1891 and has changed little since 1929.


A needle can puncture the skin up to 3,000 times per minute.


Small groupings of needles (often three, but sometimes just one) draw the sharp, distinct outlines.

Shading, coloring

Larger groups of up to 32 needles are splayed out in rows like the bristles of a paintbrush.

How will it feel?

Pain tolerance varies by person, but in general:

  • The fewer the needles, the more it hurts.
  • Bony areas don’t necessarily hurt more. A better indicator is skin softness: Inner thighs, inner arms and torso are often extremely tender.
  • Artists say women tend to handle the pain better than men.

Tattoos in areas with soft skin tend to be more painful.

Artists use sterile needles, disposable gloves and antiseptic creams.

Step 1: Sketching

An artist applies a stencil or sketches on the skin with markers (shaving the skin first if necessary).

Sunday Dawne-Marie, a tattoo artist from Phoenicia, N.Y. tattoos a floral design on stay-at-home mother Kay Brinning of Manassas.

Where should it go?

Sun exposure

Sun fades tattoos. Plan to use strong sunblock all the time or get the tattoo in a well-covered place.


Tattoos in squishier areas such as the midsection will lose their shape much more quickly than those in bonier areas.


Arm bands and lower back “tramp stamps” are no longer popular in many areas.


Tattoos on feet and hands tend to fade or become uneven quickly because those parts get so much use.

What if I hate it?

Tattoo removal isn’t cheap or easy and likely will leave a scar. Dermatologists use three main techniques, usually with an anesthetic:


The image is cut from the skin. This may be the only option for ink that has penetrated the subcutaneous fat.


Skin is sanded down to the dermis using salt or a rotating brush. Chemical peeling works in a similar way.


Short flashes of high-intensity light break up the ink so it can be absorbed by the body.

SOURCES: American Academy of Dermatology; FDA;; professional tattoo artists: Gregory Piper of Manassas; Mike Skiver of Somerset, Pa.; Caryl Cunningham of Taylor, Mich.; Bill Funk of Philadelphia; Anna Paige of Waikiki; Jack Rudy of Los Angeles; Halo Jankowski of Odenton, Md; Hector Cedillo.

GRAPHIC: Wilson Andrews, Bonnie Berkowitz and Alberto Cuadra - The Washington Post. Published Feb. 7, 2011.

The buzz at the DC Tattoo Expo

There was no panic or indecision inside the ballroom at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Arlington; these attendees were not amateurs, but expert collectors searching for new acquisitions.

Tattooing outgrows its renegade image to thrive in the mainstream

It's 1945, and you want a tattoo. You drive to the part of town your mom warned you about, past scruffy bars and burlesque shows, and arrive at a tiny shop offering maybe 200 designs in three or four colors.

More health stories