As hipster cool reaches ‘peak-ink’ the scientific literature is awash with studies on the safety of tattoos, but wonders Russ Swan isn’t this all a bit late… and is there really nothing to worry about?
Is the whole hipster thing over yet? I ask because I've worn a beard since the Cretaceous, and the initial novelty of being ahead of the trend has long since worn off. I can't wait to be once again out of fashion, freed of the burden of being an unwitting style icon.
When the fad does fade, it will presumably be good news for the razor industry. I fear, though, that the high streets will be full of former tattoo parlours, and legions of artists will be seeking new career opportunities. Ink removal, tissue bioengineering, and skin graft services look promising.
I've nothing against tatts, least of all my own dermis. There are some marvellous designs out there and some clever use of scientific imagery that almost makes me want to get one. If I wasn't such a martyr to a low pain threshold.
There is something slightly magical about the permanence of a tattoo. Why doesn't the body, which is generally so good at self-repair, restore the dermis to its unadulterated condition?
But we must be beyond peak ink. The demise might be hastened by recent scientific reassurances that tattoos are perfectly safe, probably, and there's absolutely nothing to worry about. Is anything more likely to raise alarm than a scientific vote of confidence?
Actually yes. It's when a scientist promises that something you'd never even thought of is safe.
The literature has been booming with analyses of the actual constituents of ink. Reports listing such alluring ingredients as carcinogenic aromatic amines, heavy metals, and synthetic preservatives make sobering reading. There are components whose effects are unknown, including hexachlorobenzene, shellac, and essential oils. Developments in bright colours, and novelties such as glow-in-the-dark inks, add to the air of mystery.
But they're probably fine. There are suggestions that people with weakened immune systems might be susceptible to long-term tattoo-related rashes and swellings, and tatts with red ink seem to produce a higher proportion of chronic complications, but something like 90 percent of people have no significant discomfort beyond the short term.
On behalf of the softies, let me add that 100 percent of untattooed people suffer zero complications.
There are two really interesting things to be learned from a quick trawl of recent research. The first is that tattoos don't necessarily work the way we thought they did, and the second is the terrifying prospect of a previously unconsidered mechanism of unpleasantness.
There is something slightly magical about the permanence of a tattoo. Why doesn't the body, which is generally so good at self-repair, quickly overwhelm the incursion and restore the dermis to its unadulterated condition?
This was long thought to be because the inks reside in long-lived fibroblast cells. More recently, attention has turned to macrophages, whose job is to attack and destroy invading pathogens. Perhaps these take up the pigment and remain permanently in situ.
Now however a team from Centre d'Immunologie de Marseille-Luminy suggest that the fibroblasts and macrophages aren't actually immortal, but have the habit of dumping absorbed pigments into their successor cells. The dying bequeath their dyes, if you will. Either way, the only thing eternal about the ink is the ink itself.
But what of that previously-unconsidered hazard, the one that's probably okay and nothing to worry about really?
"Based on our investigations, we can now state that the risk of side effects is very small" explains physicist Martina Callaghan at the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging.
Many tattoo pigments are ferrous, and therefore magnetic, and could be violently twisted and pulled during an MRI scan. Colour pigments are conductive, and high-frequency MRI fields happen to correspond to the resonance lengths of tattoo-sized conductive structures.
The prospect of an MRI scan simultaneously pinching, twisting, and scorching body art only reinforces my cowardly tendencies and resolve to remain uninked. Unfashionable, me, and that's the way I like it.