Ink me up
Some time ago I was thinking about ink and wondering if it would be possible to use a fountain pen ink for a tattoo, specifically J Herbin’s Stormy Grey which I really loved. A quick check made clear that this was not advisable or even possible and I had to let go of the idea of a sparkling picture embedded in my skin. So the simple answer is no, you can’t use fountain pen ink for a tattoo.
But recently I have been thinking again about ink and what makes one ink work in a pen and another in the body. So, why can’t you use fountain pen ink when having a tattoo done?
The science - how is a tattoo made?
Fountain pen ink is generally a dye-based ink, where the colourant is fully dissolved in the liquid. Tattoo ink however is a pigment-based ink where solid particles of colour are suspended in a liquid carrier. Pigment-based inks would be a problem for fountain pens as the particles would clog up the feed, although you can get specially formulated particulate inks such as the Diamine Shimmer range. Conversely dye-based inks would be a problem for tattoos as they are soluble so they would simply be flushed out. In fact this is how tattoo removal works – a laser is used to break up the pigments into smaller particles which can then be absorbed into the bloodstream and flushed out.
So for a tattoo you need an ink with larger particles in it as they will attract the attention of your body’s macrophages, a type of white blood cell. As the needle of the tattoo machine punctures the skin, so the macrophages rush to the wound site and eat the invading particles and these cells essentially keep the ink in your dermis, the thick layer of living tissue below the epidermis. Even if they die, another macrophage will absorb them along with the particles which is why over time, the image will slowly fade and neat lines will eventually blur. Top tip, avoid small fine text and detail, it’s not going to last the course.
Would it be dangerous to use fountain pen ink?
As to whether it is dangerous to put fountain pen ink into your body? Well the main concern would be infection as tattoo inks are sterile and formulated to have few allergens, red being the colour that causes the most problems for people due to the presence of mercury sulphide. But there is surprisingly little regulation around, considering the prevalence of tattoos and the potential need for the NHS to manage any fallout. Some products have been found to contain the same ingredients as car paint and printer ink so is it the case that pen ink is not necessarily as bad as you might think?
The earliest ink was Lamp Black, made with soot which is a form of carbon. Subsequently Iron Gall was used which mixed iron sulfate and tannic acid and would darken when exposed to light. These inks would block a modern fountain pen unless specially formulated not to do so but even so, they are best washed out if left unused. Polish ink company KWZ make a beautiful range of iron gall inks for fountain pens which will literally darken before your eyes as you write. Tattoo inks can contain metals such as titanium and also carbon, so not that dissimilar to the inks of old.
On balance though, best to go for an ink that is designed for the job, pen or skin. Out of interest I decided to check what I have had injected into my dermis and as a strictly black-only devotee it seems I am sporting quite a lot of US brand Dynamic Ink. The black version of which contains Carbon Black 7, Acrylic Resin and Isopropyl Alcohol. I’m no wiser really.