Laughing hipster girl with tattoos and piercing in urban style

Where Does the Ink in Your Tattoo Come From?

Paint It, Black (Rolling Stones)

Trade helps millions of Americans make their mark – on their skin, that is.

Tattoos are not just for heavy metal rockers. Not content to express themselves only through their cuisine, the young top chefs all seem to have fully tattooed arms. Artists are always looking for ways to differentiate themselves and push boundaries. Even IT workers are cutting loose with a little body art. According to Harris Poll research from 2017, as many as 3 in 10 Americans have at least one tattoo.

When someone gets “inked,” the pigment injected under the skin is most likely comprised of globally produced and traded mineral powders and the industrial chemical called carbon black.

Black Magic Woman (Santana)

These days, more women than men are tattooed. They are encouraged by magazines like Allure to go for a wide array of colorful tattoos. Ink makers are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration so whether they have to tell you what your tattoo ink is made of depends on state regulations. Generally speaking, tattoo color pigments are derived from a variety of minerals.

Ochre offers brown when its iron oxides are mixed with clay. Cinnabar and cadmium help create red. There’s a cadmium yellow, casalis green and manganese violet. The safest blues and greens come from copper salts.

Of course the most often used is black ink, which is made from iron oxides and carbon.

Black (Pearl Jam)

According to the International Carbon Black Association, about 18 billion pounds of carbon black is produced annually. Ninety percent of carbon black is used in rubber applications such as tires, automotive belts and hoses. Carbon black is an additive that improves rubber’s resistance to tearing and increases traction. Apparently, our car tires would barely last 5,000 miles without carbon black.

Nine percent of carbon black is used as a pigment, which includes the toner in our laser printers, plastic coatings and – tattoos. Keeping in mind that just a small fraction of traded carbon black ends up under someone’s skin, let’s look at the volume of carbon black moving around the world through trade.

According to the International Trade Centre’s trademap.org data site, $5.46 billion in carbon black was exported in 2018. As is often the case, China is the lead exporter with $1.07 billion in sales, followed by Russia at 680.6 million, Germany at 365.7 million, the United States at $361.6 million, and South Korea at $299.2 million.

Carbon Black Exports

Black Dog (Led Zeppelin)

Contrary to popular misconception, carbon black is not soot, and it’s not black carbon, which is an unwanted by-product resulting from incomplete combustion of oil, fuels, paper, rubber, plastics or waste material. The only ink derived in this way is ink for prison tats made from contraband materials. Ask me how I know that – there’s a really interesting video on the unique subculture of “black and gray” tattooing using makeshift single-needle tattoo machines made by convicts from things like guitar strings and pen barrels. This is fascinating, but unrelated to trade, of course.

Back in Black (AC/DC)

The practice of staining the skin with temporary body art using a paste made from dried henna leaves dates back to the late Bronze Age. Used to celebrate occasions such as weddings, henna is grown commercially and traded internationally; henna body painting still holds a prominent place in cultural ceremonies throughout the northwestern states of India and all across South Asia and the North African region. Henna is temporary though.

To make your permanent statement, you’ll need carbon black and a good tattoo artist. Luckily, the large volumes of carbon black traded globally not only sustains a wide variety of industrial uses, it also supports Americans’ growing desire to express themselves through body art.