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Pigments Past and Present:
A Colorful History of Permanent Cosmetic Pigments

[ Introduction ] [ Tattoos in Ancient Times ] [ Tattoo Pigments Today ]


Bricks and Bibles, colored sand, soot and rust – what do they all have in common? They've all been used to make tattoos. The history of tattoo and cosmetic pigments stretches back beyond books, Buddha and Christ, to early man and pre-history. It's a history of trial and error, of people trying what no one had ever tried before...and sometimes shouldn't have. "In all of human history, there's never been a culture that didn't practice permanent body modification," Sandi Hammons tells us.

As a permanent cosmetics technician and instructor since the late 1980’s, and the developer of her own line of permanent cosmetic pigments, Sandi has studied tattoo pigments literally from the ground up.

Old Iron Oxide“I walked through the iron ore fields and saw the process by which it was converted to iron oxide in an effort to find a solution to a horror story I experienced early-on in my career.”

For the past two decades, Hammons has been very active in researching permanent cosmetics and she has gained first-hand knowledge of the art of both tattooing and pigment formulation. You can go into any well-equipped permanent cosmetics clinic and see maybe a hundred or more colors mixed up and ready,” she continues. “But everything we're using today is really just different shades of the basic primary colors.” In the beginning, tattoo inks were limited to black. The first tattoo was probably an accident that occurred in prehistoric times. Someone probably got poked with a burned stick. The would healed and some color remained under the skin.

From then on it was a race to discover better forms of black, not to mention easier ways of getting them in the skin. “The human race has a wonderous history of research and development,” Sandi explained. During her career, she has studied different people and their tattooing methods. For years it was common practice for traditional tattooists to prepare the ink themselves using methods that were both elaborate and time-consuming.

Tattoos in Ancient Times

“One tattoo pioneer describes the creation of black pigment that originated from the oily nut off a native tree in Samoa. The colorant was produced by placing these nuts on a hot fire and then covering them with half of a coconut shell. As the nuts smoldered, the coconut shell captured the soot. When enough soot was produced, the Samoan artist added seawater. They dipped an instrument that looks like a garden hoe with a boar's tusk attached to the handle in the soot and laid it on the skin. Then they struck the instrument with a tool resembling a mallet. In New Guinea they used the branch from a tree that when burned produced a crumbly powder used as a colorant. Perhaps the most unique tattooing formulas originated in prison. One convict spent his stretch behind bars grinding down a brick between two spoons. Then he added water and went to work tattooing.

BibleThe Bible also provided a self-contained tattoo kit for convicts. The binding was burned for soot and the staples were used for needles. So when did color come about? A long time ago, considering certain tribes whose members sliced open their flesh and stuffed colored sand in the wounds.

Most accounts credit the Japanese with using the first color tattoo inks 300 or more years ago. Tattooists explored using cadmium, ferric oxide and a group of synthetic green and blue organic dyes labeled phthalocyanines. Unfortunately these weren't always the safest ingredients. Another problem facing artists was that most pigments were dry. Over the years, manufacturers experimented with a variety of ingredients including witch hazel, glycerin, rose water, and several other liquids seeking formulas that would eliminate health risks while producing a brilliant color.

According to Sandi, chemists evolved superior surfactants that dissolved the powders into a homogeneous liquid without the use of the creamy, ever-migrating glycerin or inks found in many tattoo products.

Tattoo Pigments Today

Today, developers use solutions containing methyl salicylate, distilled water, alcohol, benzoic acid and other ingredients. "Open up a bottle of pigment and that's what you smell," she explained. Sandi was one of the pioneers of these pigments.

Her own history in the permanent cosmetic pigments industry is as colorful as the seemingly endless rainbow of hues she has created. “My first experience was tattooing cattle with identification numbers on my family's ranch in Nebraska. I was fresh off the farm and very naive when I took my first class in cosmetic tattooing. I got a brochure from a company claiming the process was painless and free of risks. They touted iron oxide pigments as 'FDA-approved natural fruit and vegetable dyes.' After two days and several thousand dollars – and no hands on training whatsoever – I was given a certificate proclaiming me to be a Board-Certified Dermologist. Despite the shortcomings of the training, I was determined to learn to do dye procedures. I had no idea that I was one of only a handful of people in the entire world actually experimenting on peoples’ faces. If I had been aware of the risks and the absence of solutions to complications, I wouldn't have ever attempted my first procedure.

“Through innocence and persistence I found that if I implanted a really dark color, I would end up with a trace of the original color. But it could take me three to ten touch-ups to get the color to stay. Lip liner and eyeliner procedures were very painful for the clients. Topical anesthetics were ineffective and difficult to obtain. I was totally unprepared for the complications.

“And the colors! You never knew what you would end up with. Light brown colors would turn pink or peach and dark browns changed to purple. My supposedly experienced instructors blamed the disappearance of the colors on my technique. I sought additional training from a registered nurse who claimed to have gained her expertise from her physician husband. I found out later that he was a urologist! The nurse advised me to darken the iron oxide pigments she sold me with a drop or two of blue as an answer to an otherwise disappearing red lip color. The red faded like it always did and my client was left with blue lips. I gave up. I wanted to get out of the business; but I had to find a solution for my client with blue lips. I started studying permanent lip makeup ingredients. I began with fruit and vegetable dyes, then iron oxides and eventually organic and inorganic chemistry. I am most grateful to a chemist I approached in an effort to locate a higher grade of iron oxide.

“Even though his company sold nothing but iron oxide, he was honest enough to educate me about the futility of using it as a base for intradermal pigmentation. He went on to explain that its use in permanent cosmetics could only be due to its extremely low cost and its approval by the FDA for use in foods, drugs and conventional cosmetics; allowing unscrupulous manufacturers just enough legal license to deceive the public into believing that their products are approved for use under the skin. He gave me the information that led me to find permanent pigments that are stable, free of iron oxide, true to color, and, most important, safe. It took me years to develop the formulas I use today. These pigments set the standard for quality permanent cosmetics for the industry. Over the years, our Original Colors and newer Concentrated Originals have been proven to be safe with no adverse reactions, long lasting and resistant to the sun. Hundreds of clients implanted with these pigments have safely undergone magnetic resonance imaging and CAT scans without burns or false images. Even some Asian masters, whose ancestors first introduced the use of colors in tattoo pigments, insist on using these high-quality, American-made pigments for both cosmetic tattoo procedures and traditional aesthetic tattoos.”