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Vegan Tattoos: There are Pigments without Pig

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Vegan fear mongering is a real problem. When non-vegans aren’t trying to make us afraid that plants having feelings, the focus tends to fall on hard to avoid examples of animal exploitation in our western society. So when I’m not being baited with questions like “do you ever ride a bike or drive a car,” my tattoos become a point of contention. When someone asks if my tattoos are vegan, they aren’t suggesting that the subject matter doesn’t fit my ethics. I mean the majority of my tattoos happen to be of plants, animals, and insects. No – when that question comes up, archaic tattoo pigments are always being brought to question. The thing is, it’s hardly ever from anyone who has any clue as to the actual process of tattooing. More often, it’s an attempt to make people feel guilt, shame, or uncertainty about the tattoos they already very permanently have. Read on to learn a bit about the history of tattoo pigments, and how to make sure you’re not contributing to animal exploitation with your body art going forward.

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What is tattoo ink made of?

The history of tattoo pigments is as vast as tattoo styles, and as such, used to be made very differently from how it’s made today. With the first known tattoos dating back as far as 12,000 B.C, our technology, understanding, and processed ingredients have changed. Rumoured to be discovered by accident when a burned stick was poked into flesh, soot is commonly recognized as being one of the first ingredients to make black tattoo ink. Burned wood, oil, and sometimes breast milk were also mixed in during early experiments. One ancient Roman recipe for tattoos called on pine park, corroded bronze ground in vinegar, and iron sulfate to be mixed with insect eggs, and then soaked in water and leek juice.  Oily nuts from native Samoan trees were heated over fire, combined with seawater, and applied with a boar’s tooth and more soot. These early, primitive techniques would help inform future generations on building suitable pigment formulas. However, just like tattooing for acupuncture pain relief, marking warriors for battle, and the popularity of tribal work has [mostly] seen its end, we have invited manufactured tattoo ink into our modern society.

Today, most tattoo inks combine powdered pigment with water, a viscous liquid, and sometimes, alcohol. The pigment provides color, while the liquids act as a carrier to keep it evenly mixed, and provide for ease of application. There are no insect eggs or alloys to fear, just the stigma of being in a biker gang.

What would make a tattoo not suitable for a vegan?

So apart from the boar tooth method I mentioned earlier, there are some animal ingredients that have been used for tattoo ink. The hot button issue for most is the concern over animal bones being burned down in to charcoal to make black pigment. Bone char is used in other common ways, like water filtration, sugar refinement, petroleum jelly, and artist paints. While it’s an uncommon ingredient to find in black tattoo pigment today, it’s a possibility that’s worth avoiding.

Other non-vegan products that can sneak their way in include glycerin made from animal fat, gelatin, and shellac. As we continue to finds way to manufacture man made alternatives, more and more applications of these products are disappearing.

Like many subjects, educating ourselves on tattoos (as opposed to spontaneously getting and regretting them) is the best way to keep peace of mind. If you already have work done that you’re unsure of, don’t let it get you down – there’s always your next tattoo.

How can you make sure your next tattoo is vegan?

In Canada, companies refer to Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) to provide a product’s physical and chemical characteristics clearly. Since many people have been more concerned about tattoo toxicity then the use of animals, health boards have made it easier for companies to be safe and transparent in their pigment creations. Eternal Tattoo ink is one company that’s helping vegans realize their body art goals. Their products are made from organic pigments, distilled water, witch hazel, and alcohol. I happen to be an accidental advocate for the brand, rocking their bright colours for the past eight years, longer than I’ve been a vegan.

As if choosing a design, artist, and shop weren’t enough, it’s a good idea to include the pigment in your conversations before booking an appointment. Your chosen artist should be able to answer any questions you have regarding your tattoo, including if any of the other supplies (soaps, aftercare, etc) that will come in contact with you at their shop are animal-free. We’re talking about your skin! If someone doesn’t help make you confident in your choice, find someone else.

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As vegans, we do our very best to avoid all animal products even though 100% perfection is impossible. But when it comes to our influence through voting with our dollar or promoting change, we shouldn’t simply settle for what’s easiest, or what we turn a blind eye to. Understanding, researching, and supporting vegan products in the tattoo world should feel no more strenuous than finding a vegan winter coat in this day and age. Then, when you get a tattoo of a couple of bunnies cuddling on your back with a banner that reads “poison free,” you’ll mean it. Or maybe you’ll consider those non-vegans, and get something along the lines of “plants aren’t sentient, and neither are my tattoos.” Now, we can all return to the fear of getting tattooed, instead of the fear of being called out for having animal products beneath our skin.

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