Bones and Animal Fat: What’s Really in Your Tat?


Vegan tattooI only actually moved two hours away, but undoubtedly, Charleston is a far cry from Columbia. It’s on the water, it’s busier, more metropolitan, and well, its citizens are adorned with more tats. 

It’s the most artistic and progressive part of South Carolina and there’s a diversity of style. I hadn’t really ever thought of getting a tattoo until I moved here and saw a myriad of colorful designs adorning the body parts of my fellow Charlestonians. That’s not to say I have one yet, or will likely get one, but I’ve certainly started to take notice.

After reading a former South Carolinian’s article on the subject, I felt compelled to explore it further. Devoted vegan Tim Donelly was dismayed to learn that the majority of tattoos aren't animal-free at all. In fact, tattoos are made up of a host of different animal parts from bones to fat. 

Donelly reported in The Atlantic:

Myles Karr, co-owner of Williamsburg's busy Three Kings Tattoo, which has an artist specializing in vegan tattooing, said he thinks the animal-free black ink isn't as solid because it's supposed to be carbon-based, which is where the bone comes in. Vegan alternatives sometimes contain plastic, and some clients balk at having plastic under their skin instead of something organic.

But not everyone aggrees with Karr’s conclusion like vegan tattoo artist Ashley Thomas who says that it’s the way the tattoo is applied that matters. She uses a vegan alternative that includes plant-based glycerin, according to the article.

What’s in Tattoo Ink?

The down low on tattoo ink that it’s hard to always know how it’s made. Manufacturers are not required by law to disclose all the ingredients. While many tattoo artists say they make their own ink, what they really mean is that they mix their own ink from pre-made dry pigments.

The inks, especially the black inks, are normally made of burned animal bones. Glycerin, also used in tattoo ink, is an organic compound that’s made from animal or vegetable fat. 

So if the idea of having animal bones and fats tattooed into your skin isn’t appealing you can call ahead and ask that your tattoo artist use Stable Ink, a vegan ink that’s made with veggie-based glycerin. They may already be using vegan inks that they mix themselves, but it’s best to call and find out. 

Tattoo Health Risks

And I'd be lying if I said that there weren't some health risks involved, vegan or not. Because manufacturers don't disclose what's in their inks, allergic reactions are certainly a risk. Plastics are sometimes used in animal-based and vegan inks and though they offer bright colors, they can also cause allergies.

Bacterial infections at the sight of the tattoo are also a risk along with bloodborne diseases such as tetanus and Hepatitis B and C, according to the Mayo Clinic. Don't be afraid to ask questions about the sterilization process and take notes when you explore the studio. A safe studio is, for the most part, a safe tattoo.

Photo: Ryan McVay/Thinkstock

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More on Tattoos 
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Sara Novak writes about health and wellness for Discovery Health. Her work is also regularly featured in Breathe Magazine and on She has written extensively on food policy, food politics, and food safety.









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