xxx = HiTech Tattooing Tattoo Physics Part 3 Tattoo Overview Episode 10 HiTech_Tattooing_Tattoo_Physics_Part_3__Tattoo_Overview__Episode_10 Fireside Tattoo Network

Tattoo Science: HiTech Tattooing Tattoo Physics Part 3 Tattoo Overview Episode 10

Hi-Tech Tattooing! Tattoo Physics Part 3 | Tattoo Overview | Episode 10

Interview By Jake Meeks —

Writing by Daniel Pushcarich -

Topics: Tattoos, Tattoo Physics, Aged Tattoos, Tattoo Technology, 3d Modeling for Tattoos, tattoo pigments, tattoo ink

This episode was made possible thanks to:

Tattoos in Real Life

“...but then as the tattoo ages, when it comes back healed, very rarely do the healed colors look like the fresh color looked.”

- Jake Meeks

When we look at a tattoo, we are seeing the result of light reflecting off of ink particles in the skin. But what happens to the tattoo over time? How does it age and change?

In this part of the series we’ll be going over A few different aspects of how light interacts with tattoos, and also some of the hurdles that tattooers face when making color decisions. We will also touch on emerging technologies that have been aiding tattooers in allowing for better informed decisions in regards to the visual aspect of a tattoo as it ages.

How Light Interacts with a Tattoo

“...if you think about a glass of water when you shoot a flashlight through the glass you can see the light bend the index of refraction inside of the glass.”

-Shawn Bellina, S8 Chemist

A Photons Journey

When light hits the surface of the skin, it is partially reflected and partially transmitted. The transmitted light then passes through the epidermis (the outer layer of skin) and dermis (the inner layer of skin). The epidermis is composed of cells that are translucent, meaning they allow light to pass through them. 

Light as it travels deeper into the skin has an amount of force. As that force moves through the skin cells it refracts and loses energy until it reaches the tattoo pigments. The tattoo pigments cause some of those photons to absorb and some to reflect. Then the reflected photon travels back through the skin losing more energy being absorbed in the skin cells until it reaches your eye. That energy loss is measured in wavelengths, and wavelengths also translate to colors. We will touch on several of these terms further down the article.

diagram of light passing through skin

Refraction, Reflection, and Skin tone

“The layers of skin as they heal up don't distribute themselves evenly. It's like a static pattern and the trick is, is to say what is the base skin tone of this person and what wave lengths of light would be on the other side, essentially, of a color wheel.”

-Shawn Bellina, S8 Chemist


Take the Red Shift or the Blue Shift?

Skin ranges in a myriad of different shades. Tattooers often have to make many color decisions after the completion of a design based on additional factors in a person’s skin. Factors like the hue of a skin tone. Even though two clients may have a very similar skin tone the palette you use on one may vary depending on whether they have a warmer or cooler hue. 

In a cooler skin tone blues, cool greens, and indigos will tend to fill out better. Although you can and should use warmer colors, sometimes a “cool” red might be more applicable to the situation. Depending on the client’s skin, a warm color on a cool hued skin tone might cause some colors to neutralize, or become “Muddy”, which is the same thing that happens when you mix complementary colors on a palette or in a tube. 

is the skin slightly blue or slightly red

How the eye Perceives A tattoo

We’ve touched briefly on how light interacts with the skin, but it would also be beneficial to understand how your eye actually receives that information. Now we’re not going to give you a full lecture on the anatomy of the eye, rods and cones and how your brain transforms photons into a visual representation, but we will be talking a bit more in depth about things like the light spectrum, wavelengths and how light works.

Visible Light spectrum

Though there is a vast range of light on the electromagnetic spectrum that covers a multitude of wavelengths, there is only a small portion of that spectrum that we can actually perceive. This is called the “Visible Light Spectrum”.  This is a small window of frequencies between the invisible infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths.

This is what we commonly call light. The retina receives a certain wavelength, and when it interacts with the eye, it generates a particular hue. 

How Light Works in Terms of Colors

Colors are the end result of some frequencies of light being absorbed by an object and the color you actually see is the frequency that is reflected (not refracted) back into your retina. One example would be a red flower like a rose. Light hits the petals of the rose and absorbs the blue and green frequencies, while reflecting the red frequencies back into your eye. 

This is doubly true of an aged tattoo. Not only does the light have to travel to the tattoo and back, but it has to travel through several layers of skin cells that have healed over the tattoo. This is why a healed tattoo looks so different. The skin acts like a filter and that filter can have a number of different shades and hues which can affect how the tattoo looks over time. 


diagram of light wavelengths

Wavelengths can actually be calculated to determine what colors the eye is able to perceive.

-“The optical frequencies of human response are around 400 nanometers (nm) to 700 nm, with peak sensitivity at 555 nm- the green region of the spectrum. In the blue-green region (around 500 nm), only 50% of light entering the eye reaches the image point on the retina, and only 10% at 400 nm (violet region). This is because the transmission of light decreases as the wavelengths get shorter (Davidson 2015)”  

-The Science of Tattooing (p.37) - Hannah Wolf

Nobody is saying that you need a spectrograph every time you go to choose tattoo ink, but knowing a bit about the physics of light interactions can definitely be helpful.

Technology for Tattooing

3D Modeling

Recently there have been a number of different emerging technologies that can bolster our ability to make informed decisions with regard to tattoo ink colors with different skin tones and environment. 

Products like Photoshop, Procreate, and Clip Studio Paint to name only a few have incorporated 3D modeling to their assets. There are a few other more powerful softwares like Z-Brush and Blender that focus on this specifically. Mostly this technology is used for modern video games which rely heavily on real world physics to determine things like proper lighting, colors, and texture.

Another topic we will touch on in part 4 of the series is how tattooers could standardize and systematize the range of skin tones that they encounter, and how that could also create a better, more informed process for choosing a color palette.

By utilizing the above mentioned standardized “skin tone range” and this 3d modeling technology in programs we already use for designing tattoos we can create an opportunity to check how a tattoo will look in a number of different situations:

  • Aged
  • Whether there is a cool or a warm shift in the skin tone
  • In different lighting conditions
  • If that person has a skin condition
  • Many other factors

This would streamline all of the factors above and get rid of a lot of the guesswork.



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