No Charred Bones or Animal Fat: The Search for a Vegan Tattoo

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For thousands of years, humans have been using a host of animal byproducts to decorate their bodies, but there are finally alternatives

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At a party in Midtown a few weeks ago, a friend and I were caught up in the rush of an open bar with name-brand liquor and a buffet table stocked with delicious vegan options. Something about the dizzying lights mixed with being broke among successful entrepreneurs made us feel mischievous and impulsive. Once the discussion turned to our mutual desire to stop being the last people in Brooklyn without tattoos, we made a pledge to impulse-buy some body art on the way home.

Midtown is not exactly a hotbed of tattoo activity at any time of day, let alone at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday, but that turned out to be the saving grace that prevented me from becoming a hypocrite. As I accidentally discovered online a few days later, getting a tattoo can be about as vegan as having a rib-eye sewn to your arm. The ink and processes at your average shop contain a veritable buffet of animal detritus: charred bones of dead animals in the ink, fat from once-living things in the glycerin that serves as a carrying agent, enzymes taken from caged sheep that go into making the care products.

There are vegan tattoos, but outside veggie hotspots like New York City, Portland, and Los Angeles, they can be hard to find.

I had been off the meat for 10 years before I decided last year to finally go whole-hog (pardon the expression) vegan. Moving to Brooklyn from South Carolina made it significantly easier to maintain a plant-based diet. But, along with vegans, the tattoo-per-capita ratio is much higher in Brooklyn, and there's considerable overlap. Has it always been this way?

The first recorded people to get inked are believed to have been in ancient Egypt, somewhere around 2,000 BCE, though recent discoveries suggest it may have been even thousands of years earlier during the Ice Age. The Smithsonian says the first discovered mummies with tattoos were often discarded by excavators as being of "dubious status" (punks!), but the marks were probably used as ritualistic amulets to protect births. The instruments used were a bundle of tied-together needles, often made of bone, which is very similar to ones used as late as the 19th century in England.

For ink, they used soot, burned wood, or oil, and even a bit of breast milk. One ink recipe attributed to an ancient Roman physician called for wood bark, corroded bronzes, and insect eggs.

It wasn't until 1891 that the electric tattooing machine came to market. Other places in the world do tattooing differently: Just a few years ago in Samoa, for example, someone I know got a tattoo done traditional style, meaning with a boar's tooth dipped in ink, a plank of wood to slap it, and no anesthesia besides a warm 40 oz. beer.

There are vegan tattoos, but outside veggie hotspots like New York City, Portland, and Los Angeles, they can be hard to find. You might have to ask an artist which products they use and do the research yourself.

There are a few places that openly advertise vegan tattoo processes in Brooklyn, where I live, but some people say you can't obtain the same depth of color without all the animal products. 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.

"I've never found anything that works as well," said Karr, who dabbles in ink-making himself. "It sucks that you can't live your life completely vegan. Where do you draw the line? It's really difficult to remove all the elements from your life." Another shop told me people inquire more about the trendy new black-light ink than vegan ink.

In times of ethical crisis like this I turn to my friend J.P. Piteo, a coworker and compendium of cruelty-free esoterica. In addition to being the longest tenured vegan in my quiver (13 years), she's tattooed from ear to ankle. She didn't learn about the ink issue until five years after her first tattoo and well into her vegan career.

"In the moment you are permanently decorating yourself with a tattoo, you can also choose how you make an impact on the environment," she told me. "And we all know how pollution works and how it's largely irreversible, just like your new tattoo. That's supposed to be a part of what veganism is about, that big picture."

Gristle Tattoo, a new shop in Williamsburg, touts its completely animal-free process. Artist Ashley Thomas uses non-toxic Eternal Ink, which has a plant-based glycerin, and natural after-care products that don't include animal products.

Thomas told me there's no difference in quality; It's all about the skill of the artist applying the tattoo. She went vegan three years ago and then heard from a coworker about the hidden animal products in her inks, and immediately altered her process. 

But what about the vegans who will eschew Jell-O because it contains tissue from cows and pigs, but go right on with getting animal bones pumped under their skin?

"That's sort of something everyone has to come to on their own terms," Thomas said. "Once you find out about it, you really should lead by example. You should be the best example that you can be."

For some veggies I talked to, it seems the concern is similar to one they have about sugar: most mass-produced sugar is made using a process that includes bone char, making tons of delicious, sweet, and seemingly harmless things decidedly not vegan, or even vegetarian, but devilishly hard to avoid.

Image: Vegan tattoo by Ashley Thomas of Gristle Tattoo.

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Tim Donnelly is the managing editor of Brokelyn.com, a writer for Inc. magazine, and a former McClatchy newspapers reporter. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. Find him at TimDonnelly.com.

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