INK: Clean, cool & shaken

Tattoo ink has come a long way since the days of soot being pounded into flesh with a sharp piece of bone. We’re at a time in tattoo history where the quality and variety of pigments to choose from is so bountiful it’s almost confusing. A professional artist takes the subject of tattoo pigment seriously and has a full understanding of not only how the pigment is administered into the skin, but is also informed about it’s contents and effects. I believe that before an apprentice even picks up a machine, they should be knowledgeable about tattoo pigments. Further more, they should know how to properly store and care for their inks as well.

Taking good care of your tattoo pigments is not only important to protect your ink investment, but also important to the health and safety of your clients. Proper pigment care isn’t a topic of discussion I see often so I thought I would put some helpful tips out there for any interested parties…..A.K.A. Fellow tattoo professionals.

I’ll start with the basics: Tattoo pigment consists of two parts; the pigment and the carrier. The composition of tattoo pigment varies from brand to brand. The best way to answer your clients questions regarding the specific brand of pigment you use is to educate yourself as much as possible about it. I practically consider myself and Eternal Ink guru(It’s merely an obsession, that’s all). Different ink companies use different dispersion methods and different formulas. Take a moment once in a while and look up the MSDS sheets for your favorite brand. It’s really boring, but worth it to know your ink so you can answer your clients questions and not look stupid.

One of our most important duties as tattoers is to keep cross contamination to an absolute minimum and how we take care of our ink is a pivotal part of this. Keeping bacterial levels as low as possible in your ink is of the utmost importance. We all owe it to our clients to be assertive about our cleanliness and sterile practices. There’s some simple things that an artist should be mindful of, like keeping your ink bottles closed while tattooing. The longer you leave the bottle open, the more microbes can get inside your ink, the higher for a potential contamination situation. Setting your ink as far away from the procedure area while you’re tattooing is helpful in keeping it away from micro spray which you don’t want looming all over your bottles. Always make sure you wipe your bottles down after each use. Using microbial wipes are great for this.

More ink companies are starting to sterilize their ink which is great. Sterilized Ink is a great idea as far as prohibiting bacterial growth in pigments BEFORE they are opened. The one inherent problem with sterilizing a bottle of ink, is that once the safety seal is removed, air gets into the bottle and it’s no longer sterile. So, essentially if a client asks if your ink is sterilized; depending on the brand you can say “yes”, because it was at one point before you opened it. The only answer to keeping ink sterile for each person is by using single use packets. I won’t go on right now about how much I hate this concept. I’ll save that for another day. You can’t keep your ink in sterile, bacteria free condition for the entirety of a bottle, but a diligent artist can keep contamination to a minimum by the way they care for and store their pigments.

An often overlooked situation in the minimization of ink bottle contamination is the obvious duty of washing your hands and gloving up before pouring pigment. I’m just as guilty as the next guy when sometimes I take a last sip from my water bottle before I begin to pour and I grip up my color choices without gloving up first. Even if you wash your hands, there’s still small amounts of oils that leave residue on the labels. Those oils are sticky and attract particles that float through air and these particles accumulate on your bottles. If they’re not wiped down frequently you can be sure of an abundance of nasty little bacteria coating the outside of those ink bottles. Always gloving up before you pour will keep the natural oils, acids and bacteria from your hands off your bottles and you won’t get your hands all inky. Plus, I think it looks more professional during set up to glove up. This keeps cross contamination down in general, cuz you’re not touching everything with your booger fingers.

utg no back

How you store your pigments is important. It has an effect on their longevity and keeps them good to the last drop. It’s important to try and maintain ink at a reasonable temperature. If it gets to hot, it can cause bacteria levels to be a potential problem, especially in clients who are sensitive. Also, some evaporation can occur an it makes your ink thick and sticky. However, on the opposite end of this situation. If you’ve ever had your pigments freeze on you, they’re just never the same again and I can’t tell you why(though I have theories about it). To put it quite simply, if you’ve left your ink in a hot car for a lengthy amount of time, you might as well just throw it all out, because extreme temperatures will not only screw up your ink, but it can turn it into a health hazard.

But, leaving your ink in a hot car isn’t the only way to elevate your pigment temperature into a delightfully colorful bunch of Petri dishes. Storing your pigment in direct sunlight can do this as well. Also, another think to consider is that consistent sun exposure will zap the color out of anything. Leaving ink out in direct sunlight will cause inconsistencies in pigment if exposed for to long. The optimal situation is to store your pigments in a cool, dark place where they can be protected from possible contaminates. In some places, Health Departments will insist that you keep your pigments contained in drawer or cabinet. I personally, love shelves where I can line my pigments up in all their beautiful, rainbow glory. I believe a properly placed shelf is just as good as any cabinet or drawer so long as you keep things clean. I absolutely envy this awesome Ink shelf that Liz Cook has going on at her shop!(


Liz Cook Tattoo

Another important part of keeping your inks consistent and usable till you’re ready to scrape the bottle, is to keep pigment sediment to a minimum. Some sediment in the bottom of the bottle before shaking is normal; some inks more than others, but it’s important to keep up on the situation. If the ink is allowed to separate and solidify on the bottom of the bottle, you don’t actually get the full amount of pigment dispersion. This can reduce the ink’s effective saturation. When the sediment at the bottom hardens, it can’t be evenly mixed, then color inconsistencies begin to occur. I like to go through my bottles once a month and make sure every one is cleaned and shaken well. In fact, I go through my entire collection once a week and shake my bottles, I have a little dance and everything. Some ink companies put ball bearings in their bottles to help disperse pigment, others use bolts and some brands don’t use anything. It doesn’t cost much to purchase a box of ball bearings, sterilize them and drop them into ink bottles for extra thorough mixing.

11257918_1013538712023777_1955550280111469615_nThere are several products on the market that help with pigment sediment problems. One of the most interesting products I’ve seen recently is the 3E Ink Keepers: This is a perfect product for those tattooers that love gadgets. It rotates multiple bottles of ink at one time continuously like a rotisserie chicken.


If you’re looking for a smaller option to give your bottle a good shak’in, you can pick up and orbital mixer, like this one available form Painful Pleasures:  

For a less expensive option, there is an Ink Mixer by Josh Bowers that uses a needle bar to mix pigments in the cap, but more importantly using the needle bar makes it long enough to mix up sediment in a 1 or in some cases, 2 oz bottle of ink. mix2

If you don’t need fancy gadgets to make sure you keep that sediment from settling, you can also use a clean, sterile cocktail fork or just a needle bar alone using good old fashioned elbow grease. I have a special “ink fork” I use.

Another way to keep your inks unspoiled and sediment free is to keep smaller bottles around, especially if it’s a color you don’t use often. Take time and think how often a pigment gets used before you decide how much to order. You’re ink is less likely to have a lot of settling if it’s not around for long. I’m a fan of small bottles. Their easier to store, take up less space, are easy to travel with and it encourages an artist to keep their ink supply fresh. 

To summarize and extremely lengthy blog: The key to keeping your inks in golden condition are these three components; clean, cool and shaken (just like a good martini).

Everyone has a way that works best for them. My blog merely presents suggestions I believe are useful and to some artists they may or may not be. But, food for thought for us tattooers; how we choose to store and handle our pigments says a lot about us and our level of professionalism. Think about it.

Got any input about how you like to keep your pigments? Any hot tips or ideas for the rest of us? Let me know by commenting below or email me at:

You keep reading and I’ll keep writing!


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