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Tattoos - History, Machines, Safety and Removal

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The History of the Tattoo

Tattoos have been used as a body decoration for many centuries now, amongst many tribes and cultures in the world. The earliest records of tattoos can be seen on wall paintings in Egypt, which depicts this form of body decoration being used on Ancient Egyptians more than three thousand years ago.

Tattoos throughout history were applied with some sort of sharp stick, such as a bone, twig or needle, to apply the ink below the top layer of the skin (the epidermis) and some way into the underlying layer of skin (the dermis).

The word "tattoo" is thought to either originate from the Tahitian word "tatu" which means "to mark", or the Polynesian word "tatao" that means "to tap".

The First Tattoo Machine

The blueprint for the first tattoo machine was made by Thomas Edison in 1876. His original drawings for an electric stencil maker are what the modern electric tattoo machines are based upon, although Edison's intention at the time was to modernise printing techniques. The first electric purpose built tattoo machine was invented by Samuel O'Reilly in 1891, and was based on Edison's engraving blue prints. However, the modern devices in use today use electromagnetic coils. The first single coil device was invented by Thomas Riley in 1891 and the first dual coil device on which today's machine is based was invented by Alfred South in 1899.

I want a tattoo - how can I get it done safely?

Unsterilized needles can host a whole range of infections that are passed from blood to blood, including Hepatitis and HIV. When looking for a tattoo artist, you should look out for the following:

  • Does the artist use new, prepacked sterilised needles for each client?
  • Does the artist have prepacked swabs, an autoclave (a highly effective device which uses high temperature steam for sterilisation) and disposable trays?
  • Does the artist wear surgical gloves, and does he change them frequently?
  • Does the artist keep good records, and are you asked questions about your medical history (eg do you have a history of heart disease, and you on any medication, could you be pregnant etc)?
  • Are smoking and food forbidden in the tattoo studio?
  • Does the artist ask if you have any contraindications to having a tattoo (eg acne, haemophilia, epilepsy, heart conditions, allergic reactions or a suppressed immune system)?
  • Will he apply disinfectant to your skin afterwards from a spray bottle?
  • What aftercare advice will you be given? The best practice is for the artist to give you this advice in writing.
  • Only use a tattoo artist who has been legally registered under the The Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 Part VIII. Check that the registration certificate is clearly displayed.


Remember that a tattoo is for life. It would be unwise to get the name of your girlfriend / boyfriend (or even husband / wife) emblazoned across your chest as relationships can and do come to an end, and you would perhaps be left with a memento that you would rather not have.

In addition, what can seem a really cool idea when you are 18 years old and full of fun, can become really dumb idea when you are aged 40 and going for a high powered job, and your prospective employer eyes the red roses (or whatever) on your shoulder. If you have any doubts, but really want a tattoo, have it done in a place where it is easy to hide (I'll leave that to your imagination).

Can Tattoos be removed?

Various methods of removal are possible but they do not always work. They include:

  • Laser treatment - different wavelengths of light are used that cause different colours of ink to break down.
  • If the tattoo is too deep for a laser to reach, it will have to be surgically cut away. If the area to be removed is large, skin grafts will be necessary, but this causes additional scarring.
  • Dermabrasion can be used to "sand" the tattoo away. However, if it is deep, skin grafting may again be necessary.
  • Click the link for further information on tattoo removal from BUPA.