Updated: Aug 23
For practicing vegans, getting a tattoo used to be a research intensive process. Think about all of the moving parts that come with it: the ink, the transfer paper, the razor, and tattoo aftercare, many of which can and used to include animal products. As a non-vegan, I never considered the possibility that the ink in my skin could contain things like bone car and gelatin; so I was struck when I learned that, in the past, most inks were not vegan.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise — many ink companies are notorious for keeping their ingredient lists a secret, which is made all the more possible when regulatory bodies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration do not investigate these products unless a safety issue is reported. But now that word spread of inks made with animal products, companies have removed these ingredients and the majority of ink available to tattooers is vegan-friendly.
According to Urban Vegan, black ink’s color is boosted with the addition of bone char, which is arguably the biggest culprit in making an ink non-vegan. Other ingredients include animal-derived glycerin, which acts as a stabilizer, and gelatin (made from connective tissue of pigs and cows) and shellac (crushed beetle shells), both of which binds inks. A vegan ink uses carbon or logwood to create a black color, and a vegetable-based glycerin, as well as witch hazel or ethanol.
For inks other than black, one tattooer in the Ask a Professional Tattoo Artist group on Facebook, the differentiating factor is which carrier or liquid companies use to bind powder pigments. In a conversation with Michelle Livingston, owner of Arcane Body Arts in Vancouver, she explained that, with reputable ink brands, ingredients like bone char is far less common than it once was.
There is some debate as to whether vegan ink is “healthy” or safer than others — arguing that vegan inks are more natural (which is not necessarily the case). In fact, one of the most popular companies, World Famous Tattoo Ink, makes the claim that their vegan inks are better for immunity and are more reliable, though there’s no evidence this is true. However, now that you’re more likely to have a vegan ink used, it’s time to learn what sets it apart.
Aside from shellac, which can cause contact dermatitis, the health risks associated with tattoo ink are associated with chemicals from both vegan and non-vegan products. In a 2016 report from the European Commission Joint Research Centre, tests found that chemical ingredients in both types of ink were the foremost issue in 95 percent of the adverse cases reported.
The health risks denoted in this study and other reports are that tattoo inks may contain carcinogenic chemicals, that ink particles can travel and become trapped in lymph nodes, or ink can cause autoimmune disease, allergic reactions, infections, and complications with MRIs due to magnetic material in the ink. Some of these concerns are well-founded — after all, tattoo ink is a foreign body injected below the skin and our bodies are predisposed to fight back against these intrusions. However, reactions like this are rare and have more to do with chemicals than animal products.
Even still, ink is only one part of the process that determines whether a tattoo is vegan or not. It is highly likely that your local tattoo shop uses a vegan ink, which is why some studios are differentiating themselves as all-vegan, like Arcane and Gristle Tattoo in Brooklyn, New York. When Livingston opened her studio eight years ago, it was the only vegan-only tattoo shop in the area. “It was a big thing in the neighborhood we were in… it was harder to find studios that were doing all vegan tattoos.” And if a shop is technically vegan, there are many other products that need to be adjusted. “It’s all the other things that are used in the tattooing process,” she says, like moisturizing strips on razors and transfer paper, which both contain lanolin, along with lubricants that can contain glycerin. Then there’s also the gamut of soaps and aftercare products, which actually had to be made animal-friendly and cooperate with her studio’s vegan policy. Thereby, she needed to import lubricants, transfer papers, and other tools needed to make a tattoo at her studio completely vegan. One of her suppliers, Spirit, created a vegan line of transfer paper and, given it’s popularity, recently made all their transfer papers vegan-friendly.
If making sure every aspect of your tattoo is vegan, it’s important to ask questions before committing to an artist or studio. It’s likely that a studio can accommodate your needs even if they’re not advertising themselves as only vegan. But the conversation around vegan ink should pique the interest of everyone. We should know the ingredients of what we’re putting into and on our bodies — especially if it will be there forever.