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

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


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.

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

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