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A tattooist creates his or her art with needles, ink and your skin. The needs are driven by several different types of machines.

Before sitting down in the tattoo artist’s chair, it helps to know what equipment will be used and how it affects your safety.

1. The tattoo machine. Tattoo machines operate much like a sewing machine. One to 14 needles are grouped together in a needle bar, a rod with needles at the end. The rod is attached to the machine and moves up and down in a tube, which keeps the needles from moving side to side and gives the tattooist something to hold on to. Electrically powered, a tattoo machine punctures the skin from 50 to 3,000 times per minute. Some artists use more than one machine, depending on whether they have an all-in-one type piece of equipment or use a different machine to outline as opposed to coloring.

2. Tattoo needles. Tattooists create their art with needles, ink and skin. The needles come in different sizes and styles depending on the detail in the art and whether they’re used for outline or coloring. Before letting an artist stick a needle into your dermis, make sure he or she opens sealed packages with a new needle and tube setup. Needles should NEVER be reused for any purpose or reason.

3. The inks. When the needle meets the skin, it forces ink under the epidermis into the second layer, or dermis, to create the design. Ask the tattooist to pour the ink into a new disposable container. When done, any unused ink should be properly disposed of. If your tattooist pours unused ink into a bigger container of ink he or she plans to use later on other customers, you picked the wrong artist! Ink can be contaminated and cause infection and even disease.

4. Autoclave. The autoclave is perhaps the most important piece of safety equipment. It is used to sterilize tattoo equipment and supplies with high-pressure saturated steam. Equipment should be in the autoclave, which reaches temperatures of 249 degrees, for 15-20 minutes. Before committing to the ink — or the tattooist — ask the artist to go over the entire procedure with you prior to getting started. Be sure to specifically ask about the shop’s safety and sterility procedures. If the artist shows any sign of annoyance about having to explain safety procedures or equipment sterilization, move on to another establishment. Plenty of artists keep their shops and equipment in pristine condition and can help you keep your masterpiece from getting infected.

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