A Colorful Narration of Pigments Past & Present. The History of Tattoo & Cosmetic Pigments


Colored sand, charred nuts, bricks and soot from a burnt Bible have one thing in common: they were all used at one time or another to permanently decorate someone’s skin.

 

The history of tattoo pigments stretches back to prehistoric times; before ink was created and books were written - before Buddha and Christ - even before man had control of fire. The evolution of tattoo and cosmetic formulation is a colorful narration of experimentation, of trial and error, and of various people daring to try what no one had ever tried before, and often shouldn’t have.


Historians have recorded various accounts of permanent body modification in most every culture since mankind’s beginnings. “If you study our creation and the history of religions, cultures, and social customs, you can find an illustrious journey of research and development as it pertains to permanent pigments,” says permanent cosmetics entrepreneur and pigment expert, Sandi Hammons.


Tattoos have served various groups as rites of passage, marks of status and rank, symbols of religious and spiritual devotion, and decorations for bravery. Tattoos in some cultures signify sexual lures or marks of fertility and pledges of love. And yet others depict “identification markings” more as a statement of belonging, as in the case of a gang. And in prisons, tattoos are sometimes used as a method of “social branding”, as in the case of a tear drop tattooed under the eye of prisoners convicted of murder.


In the beginning, tattoo colors were primarily limited to black. Evidence indicates there were mummies tattooed with black charred particles during the second millennium BC. However, one historian is convinced the first tattoo occurred before then and he thinks it was more likely an accident that occurred before primitive man could even cook. “Someone probably tripped over a log from a forest fire and got poked with a burned stick.” From then on, it was a race to discover tools and colors that could permanently mark human flesh.


In Samoa, black color originated from the oily nut of a native tree. The Samoan artists would cover the burning nuts with coconut shells cut in half. As the nuts smoldered, the coconut shell captured the soot. The charred powder was then mixed with seawater to create a paste. An instrument that looks like a garden hoe with a boar’s tusk attached to the handle was dipped into the paste and laid on the skin, and a tool that resembled a mallet was used to strike the instrument. All of this left a permanent mark that created a symbol of “spiritual significance”. Other experiments took place in New Guinea, where tribal art was created by rubbing colored sand into abrasive flesh wounds, leaving designs that created symbols whereby prophets or so-called ‘healers’ could glean spiritual messages.


Creations of home-made tattoo formulas can also be traced back to prisons. The Bible provided convicts with self-contained tattoo kits. Prisoners often used staples and soot from burnt books to mark the skin. Some artists in prison prefer the use of pottery. One account describes the story of a convict who spent his stretch behind bars grinding down a brick between two spoons; then he added some water and tattooed his friends. There are also stories which illustrate a variety of creative ways prisoners found to shove ink from writing pens into the skin for more “gang-style” type tattooing.


It was the Japanese who first introduced permanent cosmetics into the skin some ten thousand years ago. The women of the Ainu tribe tattooed their mouths, and sometimes their forearms. Lip tattoos began at a young age with a small spot on the upper vermillion border, gradually increasing with size. The soot deposited on a pot hung over a fire of birch bark and that was used for color initially. Accounts of artists using ferric oxide and cadmium surfaced during the seventeenth century and various concoctions of so-called ‘trade-secrets’ migrated from Japan throughout Asia, Europe and North America.


During the early twentieth century, numerous problems surfaced with the frequent use of iron oxides. FDA’s Dr. Linda Katz, M.D., M.P.H., Director of the Office of Cosmetics and Colors, presented an overview of the history of permanent pigments during FDA’s 2006 Science Forum. “Allergic reactions and photosensitivity were a problem with the early inorganic (iron oxide) pigments, as were color challenges. These problems created a need for new pigments.”

 

Sandi Hammons entered the permanent cosmetic industry in 1987. Sandi studied tattoo pigments literally from the ground up. “I walked through the iron ore fields and saw the process by which it was converted to iron oxide in an effort to find a solution to a horror story I experienced early on in my career.” For the past two decades, Hammons has been very actively researching permanent cosmetics and she has gained firsthand knowledge of the art of both tattooing and pigment formulation. “You can go into any well equipped permanent cosmetics clinic today and see maybe eighty or ninety colors mixed up and ready,” she continues. “But everything we’re using today is a result of an exhaustive study of longevity and safety of permanent make-up.”


Business analyst, Delbert Young; “Sandi Hammons is credited as the pioneer of organic pigments used in tattoo and cosmetic tattoo formulas.” Hammons took the permanent cosmetic profession to a global level; beginning in the early 90’s and the company she founded is recognized today as the market leader for permanent cosmetic pigment sales.


Sandi’s history in the permanent cosmetic industry is as colorful as the seemingly endless rainbow of hues she created. “My first experience was tattooing cattle with identification numbers on my family’s ranch in Nebraska. And then, when I was twenty-five, unbeknownst to me I took a class from a ‘con-artist’ who is credited today with the idea of tattooing make-up permanently. I was fresh off the farm and very naive when I received a brochure from him, claiming the process was painless and ‘FDA approved’.” After spending two days and several thousand dollars in tuition, Hammons was given a certificate proclaiming me to be ‘Board Certified’. Hammons attributes the naivety of her youth, coupled with unwavering optimism as the personal characteristics that contributed to her decision to learn the art and embrace a journey filled with trepidation and many ups and downs. “I had no idea that I was one of only a handful of people in the entire world actually experimenting on peoples’ faces. If I had been aware of the risks and the absence of solutions to complications, I would have never attempted even one procedure. I was searching for solutions from the very first procedure and I had no idea I actually pioneered much of the industry until years later, when I toured Europe, hoping to find leaders in other countries who could share the responsibility of pioneering a profession that was undeveloped. I was stunned when I learned all of the early Europeon practitioners had received their basic training from me or they were trained by one of my former students.”


“In the beginning, all we had to use were iron oxides. Through my own experimentation, I found out if I implanted a really dark color, I would end up with a trace of the original color. But it could take me anywhere from three to ten touch-ups to get the color to stay.” “Lip liner and eyeliner procedures were very painful for the clients. Topical anesthetics were ineffective and difficult to obtain. I was totally unprepared for the complications. And the colors! You never knew what you would end up with. Manufacturers of iron oxides tend to blame the disappearance of their pigments and the changing of their colors on technique!"


Vernon Porter, PhD, material safety chemist, explained the reason iron oxides fade and change in color is due to changes in chemistry of iron oxides when exposed to elements: “The reason iron oxide browns turn peach and pink is due to a reduction reaction. Iron oxide (Fe203) turns into ferrous oxide (FeO) and then Fe by reduction. Fe is reddish in nature and when implanted in the skin after a few months, it will appear pink.”


Bhakti Petigara, Ph.D., FDA Office of Colors and Cosmetics: “Historically, iron oxides were used in permanent makeup tattoos. But there was a need or a desire for more stable pigments. And that is because iron oxides fade and change color over time. Organic pigments are used because they are more stable than iron oxides. These organic pigments are known to have brighter colors and a wider range of colors.”


The horror story that precipitated Sandi’s journey of search for truth regarding longevity and safety of permanent colors happened in 1988, and involved a client whose lips turned blue. “I sought additional training from a registered nurse who claimed to have gained her expertise from her physician husband. I found out later that he was a urologist! The nurse advised me to darken the iron oxide red pigments she sold me with a drop of blue (the blue was organic) as an answer to an otherwise disappearing red lip color. The red iron oxide pigment faded like it always did and my client was left with blue lips. At that point, I wanted to get out of the business! But I couldn’t get out of the business because I had to find a solution for my client’s blue lips. I became passionate about finding a solution. And I began studying pigment ingredients. I started with fruit and vegetable dyes, then iron oxides, then tattoo inks, and eventually organic and inorganic chemistry.”

“I am most grateful to a chemist I approached early on. Although his company sold nothing but iron oxide, he was honest enough to educate me about the futility of using it as a base for intradermal pigmentation. He explained that its use in permanent cosmetics could only be due to its extremely low cost and its approval by the FDA for use in foods, drugs and conventional cosmetics; allowing unprincipled manufacturers just enough legal license to deceive the public into believing that their products are approved for use under the skin.”


Sandi Hammons research of longevity and safety of permanent cosmetics, her skills as an innovative business woman and her commitment to truth and perseverance earned her mark in the permanent cosmetic profession. Today, permanent cosmetics is rarely discussed without mention of Hammons’ name, or the research she leads.


These pigments Sandi developed are the market leader, with good reason. They set the standard for quality permanent cosmetics for the profession. Over the years, they’ve been proven to be safe with no adverse reactions*, long lasting and resistant to the sun. Thousands of clients implanted with these pigments have safely undergone magnetic resonance imaging and CAT scans without burns or false images associated with iron oxides. Even some of the Japanese masters, whose ancestors first introduced the use of colors in tattoo pigments, insist on using these high quality American-made pigments for both cosmetic and traditional aesthetic tattoos.

 

*In 2003, Premier Pigments voluntarily recalled Premier True Color Concentrates due to rare cases of allergic reactions.