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The Science of Tattooing with Hannah Wolf

The Science of Tattooing with Hannah Wolf

Guides8 min Read

Tattoo artist Hannah Wolf tells us everything about her book, The Science of Tattooing, and the importance of scientific knowledge beyond artistic skills.

Tattoo is art, history, tradition, technique, but is it also science? Think of it this way: how many times have we asked ourselves or our artists questions about the process? Why are tattoos permanent? Why do tattoos fade? Why are some tattoos more painful than others?

The problem is that it is very difficult to find answers to these questions. There are no official scientific resources and often even experienced and very talented tattoo artists do not have the scientific knowledge to explain to clients what happens and why it happens. Tattoo artists invest time, effort and money into improving their techniques and craft but they don’t easily have the chance to do the same in order to improve their knowledge about materials, inks, chemistry, human physiology and everything that their job involves every day.

This is part of what got Hannah Wolf started on her book. There is so much to learn, to share and to understand about the science behind the art, and so little resources. Her goal is to make a change in the industry for the better, sharing the knowledge and possibly help improving the experience of getting a tattoo in terms of public health and safety for all those involved.

The Science of Tattooing by Hannah Wolf #HannahWolf

Please tell us a little about your background and did you come up with the idea for this project.

I started tattooing in 2003. I have always had a love for science. I took a number of biology and chemistry classes in college before dropping out. I had already started tattooing when I attended university and college. I kept leaving school and going back to tattooing; somewhere deep down I knew that tattooing was my true path. In my time tattooing I have built a solid foundation of knowledge in cross contamination and physiology relating to the tattoo process. I've taken disinfection courses in the US, Europe and Australia for conventions and various licensure (I'm based out of the USA). After gaining this knowledge, while attending guest spots and conventions, I've been mortified by individuals' behaviours.

When I became a shop owner in 2013, it became increasingly evident that there was an egregious lack of knowledge across the board. I also found myself asking more questions and not being able to find the answers. I felt helpless when my clients had complications and I could not help them. I felt helpless when clients asked questions about my materials and I could not answer them. I knew the tattoo industry needed a material science book with a greater foundation for physiology. Trying to figure out what to write and how to make this book was incredibly difficult. I'm a high school and college dropout who does art full-time, how would i tackle this daunting task?

Hannah Wolf #HannahWolf

The idea started to roll around in my head, "A science text book for tattooers." During a visit with a friend, this book really started to develop. This friend wanted to come on board to assist in organising and writing. After six months I had a technical writer and an outline. My initial technical writer contributed a few fantastic chapters, but it was clear if I wanted this book to be what I wanted it to be, I would need additional writers. The process of starting a publishing company and dealing in a world I knew nothing about was unbelievably time consuming and difficult. In all this project took about 3 years and 11 people to complete. While developing this book, I came across many helpful books. One to mention here is "Tattooed Skin and Health," by Jørgen Serup (editor), Nicolas Kluger (editor), Wolfgang Bäumler (editor)

"The Science of Tattooing" is unique in providing an introductory foundation for concepts in physiology and chemistry relating to the tattoo process. The book provides a fundamental understanding in order to provide more complicated subject matter as the book progresses. I have not seen that in any tattoo textbook in publication. The book has a limited unit in contraindications, complications and skin conditions. Those concepts could be a publication of their own and likely will be in the future.

neotraditional wine goddess - Tattoo by Hannah Wolf #HannahWolf

From what I understand, you are the mind behind this project but you did not actually write all of the book. Please tell us about your team and the process of peer review.

My name is on the book because I curated, directed, edited and hired all involved to be a part of this project. My involvement required a small amount of writing, which was done as part of the editing process; however most of what has been entered into the units/chapters is original content by my writers. All of my technical writers have graduate degrees in science friends. I felt it would not have been appropriate for me to write a book I still did not have a full grasp of knowledge in. It was better for me to ask the specialists who knew the answers or would know how to find them. My intention was never to vilify tattooing. We provide facts and data to the best of our knowledge to provide accurate information to readers.

Jack Rabbit tattoo - Tattoo by Hannah Wolf #HannahWolf

Dr. Shelly Mason is a PhD Bioengineer and educator; her sister has been a tattoo artist for nearly two decades. Dr. Mason grew up in a tattoo family, her mother tattooed in southern California in the 1980s. Dr. David Warmflash is a PhD astro biologist and MD. Dr. Warmflash has an impressive resume including NASA and his most recent publication "Moon: An Illustrated History." Dr. Kevin Choo has been a friend of mine for many years. Dr. Choo has a masters degree in Molecular Physiology & Biophysics and a doctorate of chiropractic. Dr. Choo helped with peer review, editing and authored a chapter on transmission of pain. I worked with a few editors, one of which is Beth Schecter who has a masters degree in digital media. I worked with a few more editors who specialize in scientific writing and structure.

For peer review, I enlisted a few individuals who work in regulation, compliance and medicine. These individuals scrutinized, picked apart, asked the hard questions and gave me a few more tips on what to include or leave out.

The Science of Tattooing by Hannah Wolf #HannahWolf

Given your research, what are in your opinion the most common errors or misconceptions about tattoos, believed both by tattoo artists and clients?

A big misnomer: tattooing is toxic or detrimental to the human body. We still do not have conclusive evidence on this. Through this project, I have become more aware of certain chemicals in pigments and how we should or should not use them. Many pigments still use heavy metals. Heavy metals in large quantities are toxic to the human body. Unfortunately to achieve a certain color, in some cases, trace-amounts of heavy metals are unavoidable. A long term study on the effect of ink in the body does not exist. A very small percentage of people are tattooed heavily, which makes a long term study difficult. Injecting foreign (not from our bodies) substances under our skin has inherent risks; however for many of us who are heavily tattooed individuals the risks are worth our desired appearance. Not all pigments are created equal and some are inherently riskier than others.

Sacred Geometric Skull tattoo by Hannah Wolf #HannahWolf

Throughout this process it became very clear that we need to come together to have a better foundation for education and standards in tattooing. A lot of us came-up in the industry using calligraphy ink for tattooing. Talens or Pelican are fine on paper; however these products are not manufactured for tattoo use and could cause serious health risks. The inks have no method for sterilization and could be unstable in the body. Inks which are not intended for human use can have high levels of toxic chemicals like lead.

Over the last few years, around the world, regulatory agencies have become involved in tattoo pigments, in some cases not for the better. As tattoo enthusiasts and tattooers, it is important for us to step forward and understand our materials. It is also important to mention that in the US and most other countries, pigment manufacturers provide MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) for each of their products. If anyone has a concern about what is in their product they should ask for an MSDS from a manufacturer. So long as manufacturers are being honest and truthful about what they are selling to the public...

frida kahlo color portrait - Tattoo by Hannah Wolf #HannahWolf

Which preexisting medical and/or skin conditions are not compatible with tattoos and why?

Unfortunately this is a longer response than I have room for in this interview. For a more detailed response I would suggest ordering a copy of my book and referencing Unit 3. A contraindication is a specific situation in which a drug, procedure, or surgery should not be used because it may be harmful to the person; in this case tattooing. Individuals with extreme metal allergy, diabetus, cancer, anemia, blood thinning medications, cardiopulmonary conditions should contraindicate from tattoos. Additionally there are added complications which could occur for individuals who have autoimmune disorders like eczema, psoriasis and vitiligo.

We all experience pain in different ways: some spots are way more painful than others, and some people take pain better than others. How do tattoos and pain relate in your research?

Everybody is different. Genetically we are not all created equal. Some individuals may feel more pain than others. The science of sensation definitely plays a role in tattooing. In order to understand how a chemical like lidocaine works first we need to understand how pain works. Understanding the physiology of pain can help us understand what ourselves and our clients go through and why being nervous or upset can make the experience more intense. There is an entire unit about this in my book. I never knew I wanted to know so much about pain until I did.

blackwork peony - Tattoo by Hannah Wolf #HannahWolf

Let's talk about something that we all have to deal with: exposure to UV light and sunscreen. How does fading work on our skin and how can we prevent it?

In order to understand how tattoos fade, we need to understand wavelength and the visible light spectrum. Chemicals absorb light wavelength which our eyes recognize as color. Once these pigments enter the human body, the chemicals in our bodies and UV radiation can change how these chemicals absorb light. This can render the pigment beyond what we recognize in the visible spectrum. Wearing sunscreen and SPF approved clothing is effective in protecting against UVB rays; however nothing is perfect. According to "SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays and SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays. So, the difference between 30 and 50 is about 1 percent." It is important to use SPF 30+ when in the sun (not just on your tattoos). We know that darker pigments can absorb more light, so it is possible for darker tattoos to absorb more UVB rays.

Tattoos are deposited into the skin, our skin is 64% water. Tattoo particles can start to migrate in the skin over time. There is nothing we can do to stop this. Tattoos will simply fade and fog-out. This is why as tattooers we advise against tiny details. Even the best tattooer can't compete with physiology.

geometric blackwork sleeve - Tattoo by Hannah Wolf #HannahWolf

Are you planning on writing a new textbook on further topics? What are the topics that you were not able to research and develop yet?

The next book will include more about wound healing, skin conditions and contraindications. I will be listening over the next year for feedback. I'm always here to answer the questions I can and receive feedback. I'm always available via

psychodelic octopus tattoo - Tattoo by Hannah Wolf #HannahWolf

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