How to Research the Tattoo Profession, Like a Professional Researcher


I usually have some time set aside each week to watch one of Jake’s podcasts, meditate and then write a complementary piece to go with it, from a slightly different perspective. However, this week I was inspired by an exchange I recently had with an old friend from high school. She has always been a free spirit with a bent towards what my wife refers to as “granola”. However, as long as I have known her she has been someone I consider an intelligent person. So when she presented me with an article she had read about the safety and composition of tattoo inks, I was flabbergasted.

It was a very scientific looking article, “looking” being the key word here. It gave mention to more than one study, but never actually named them or cited them with references at the end of the article. It used a very nonnarrative format, which made it sound more technical. However, in the end, you could neither reproduce nor find any of the material it was claiming backed up its argument. It played on the use of a .org web address to lull the reader into a sense of security, even though anyone who has any savvy in the realm of website building would know that you don’t have to be a nonprofit to purchase a web address with that particular suffix.

I know we have all seen our share of obvious smears and b.s. out there, but we don’t have to be victim to some of the more sneaky tactics that a business or organization can use to make a buck or defame a target. Let’s face it, color inks in the tattoo industry have undergone a remarkable evolution since the old days when there actually were widely known toxins in the pigments. Over the course of almost three decades, inks have been industry regulated and quickly identified which ones are quality and which ones are not, without any help or regulation from the FDA. Of course, I’ve mentioned my mixed feelings on the subject in previous posts, but let’s get back to the focus here; let’s get back to the sources.

Given that some of the most intelligent and self-educated people I know are tattoo artists, I know that most of you can handle what I’m about to drop on you. In our world of misinformation, disinformation, scare tactics and “alternative facts” it is easy to get lost and just take what is given at face value. I’m about to give you a rundown on how to find, identify, and use an actual independent scientific study. This is one of the cornerstones of what I teach when I teach research and argumentation at the college level. So in other words, I’m saving you about $2,000 worth of English 101 and 102 classes that you would have to pay to learn this. You’re welcome.

Knowing where to look and how to find:

Before you can learn where to look and how to find a study, you need to have a clear understanding of what it is you are actually looking for. You are looking for nonbiased information that has undergone a very specific protocol in both the gathering of data, writing, and presentation of the content. These are not just scientific sounding articles written by marketing content specialists for nefarious purposes. You are looking for what is the gold standard of any serious academic, peer-reviewed content from a recognized journal in a field of discipline. What this means is that the author has submitted the article or study to a journal in their field where a selection committee of other people who are recognized authorities in the field (usually PhDs, aka peers). The author should usually have some academic credentials as well, at least a master’s degree. After all, the guy who failed 10th-grade chemistry yet somehow figured out how to mix over-the-counter cold medicine with household cleaning products to make a marketable product is still not an actual chemist or authority in chemistry. Well, I mean unless he is Walter from Breaking Bad.

Identifying a credible source is just the first step. There are actually two main types of writing that you can gain access to. The first is an academic study performed in a lab environment or using people as test subjects, which means they have followed the scientific process. These can be grant funded, institutionally funded and privately funded. This is why the peer review process is so important. Privately funded projects can often be for the purpose of supporting a specific industry that is based on profit. The oil industry does this all the time but often has to publish their findings independently because the results are usually not reproducible and the peer review process reveals it.

The second form of research is called a metastudy. This is usually a comparative article or paper where the researchers have gathered and compared multiple studies and publications on a general topic to bring you to a specific conclusion based on overwhelming evidence that the original studies provide. I find metastudies easier to read, process and digest if you are not totally competent in a specific field. There is usually less deciphering of raw data on your part.

Most of us are content to just type in what we want on Google and hit the enter key. To be quite honest, this is the worst way to do research from an academic perspective. This is just searching the internet for content that has been optimized for the search terms you are typing to yield results that benefit the people who are posting it. True academic writing doesn’t work that way. It has to be found another way. If you worked in academia or a specific field, you would have designated databases that your school or employers pay for you to access. If you are a nurse you would probably use a database called PubMed. If you are an academic in literature, you would use JSTORE. Thankfully, Google recognized a need for a more academic search filter. Thus Google Scholar was born. For a lay person, if you go to you will find that Google will filter out all the paid and commercial content and provide an easier window to the writings of the academic community. And yes, there are plenty of tattoo based studies done by credible sources out there.

So now you know what to look for and where to find it, I’ll leave you with some questions to ask yourself when looking at an article about your industry to make sure you aren’t being duped by some bullshit artist.

  • What is the source of this article?
    • Is this published in a reputable source like a scholarly journal?
  • Who is the author?
    • If I look this author up, are they a respected authority in their field or just some schmuck who took some classes in the subject before they dropped out of school?
  • Who funded this and how do they benefit?
  • Is there an actual reference list where I can look up and read the same research this person used and weigh that research’s validity on this person’s conclusion?

The important thing is to always think and always question. Never accept things blindly and passively. You are tattooers! Passivity is not in your nature! So give Google Scholar a try and be sure to give us your thoughts. And as always, thank you for supporting the Fireside Tattoo Network. Now go forth and conquer.



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