Drawing on popular culture: using tattooing to introduce biological concepts.
Abstract: Collaboration between two biologists and a physicist resulted in the example of tattooing being used as a motivator to support discussion across several scientific fields (cell biology, microbiology, human health, and physics). Although often viewed as self-destructive and rebellious in the Western world, tattooing has a deep and rich history full of meaning, for example as a rite of passage. Our main objective was to use a culturally relevant topic as a way to increase student engagement and learning while linking biological phenomena and physics. We describe this experience and provide a brief background on how the art and history of tattooing can aid in teaching young biologists.

Key Words: Tattoo; cell death; sterility; apoptosis; cell biology; microbiology; physics.
Article Type: Report
Subject: Tattooing (Educational aspects)
Physics (Study and teaching)
Cytology (Study and teaching)
Authors: Poli, Dorothybelle
Fleenor, Matthew
Rearick, Matthew
Pub Date: 08/01/2012
Publication: Name: The American Biology Teacher Publisher: National Association of Biology Teachers Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Biological sciences; Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 National Association of Biology Teachers ISSN: 0002-7685
Issue: Date: August, 2012 Source Volume: 74 Source Issue: 6
Product: Product Code: 8521100 Physics; 8521214 Cellular Biology NAICS Code: 54171 Research and Development in the Physical, Engineering, and Life Sciences
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 298172415
Full Text: Television shows like A&E's Inked and TLC's Miami Ink and LA Ink reflect the increasing popularity of tattoos in today's culture. One of the most recent fascinations with tattooing is exhibited in Carl Zimmer's (2011) book Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed. Yet tattooing has a long history around the world. Ancient and tribal cultures have used them in a variety of ways for centuries: medicinal, spiritual/ religious, status, and decoration (Table 1). In 1991, on the Italian-Austrian border, the oldest example of tattooing was announced; an "Iceman" mummy was discovered with tattoos that carbon dated back to 5300 years ago (Green, 2003). Today, many people, from sailors to professionals, exhibit skin art for reasons similar to those of ancient peoples. Tattoos are becoming more accepted every day, and at least 80 million in the Western world are tattooed (Vasold et al., 2004). In 1936, only 6% of Americans had a tattoo, but in 2006 it was estimated that 36% of people between the ages of 18 and 25, and 40% between 26 and 40, had at least one tattoo (Kimelberg, 2007; Pew Research Center, 2007).

Interestingly, the science of tattooing provides several avenues for highlighting complicated biological phenomena to students. Furthermore, tattooing within a historical context opens up the potential for complementary discussions in physics and anthropology. We have utilized the popularity of tattooing to simultaneously reveal connections with the biological world during a cell biology course and a physics course for life science majors. This nontraditional yet popular topic served as a tool to reach a subset of undergraduate students who would not necessarily relate to the traditional biology or physics curriculum. Students, even those not tattooed, are intrigued, and therefore this research may apply nicely to high school curricula, too. Our experience with connecting concepts and applications is that student engagement is raised. Here, we present some of the facets of these applications and connections.

* Using Tattooing for Biological Applications

Tattooing was used to teach cell biology through traditional topics like cell signaling, anatomy, microbiology, and immunology across several cell biology lectures. The following sections describe how these topics were introduced.

Skin Anatomy

Because tattoos are applied to the skin, the process turns skin anatomy into a teaching moment. Two mutually dependent layers make up the skin: the epidermis and the dermis. There are four anatomical layers (called strata) of epidermis on the human body; they are derived from the ectoderm. From the most superficial to the deepest, those layers are called the stratum corneum (20-30 cell layers thick), stratum granulosum (3-5 cell layers thick), stratum spinosum (5-10 cell layers thick), and stratum basale (1 cell layer thick). Cells at the surface are dead, whereas the deeper layers closer to the dermis are living cells. At areas of high friction (feet and palms of the hands), an extra layer called the stratum lucidum is between the stratum granulosum and the stratum spinosum (Jenkins et al., 2007). Dermis rests on the subcutaneous fatty layer called the panniculus adiposus. The area that adheres the epidermis to the dermis is referred to as the dermoepidermal junction and has two layers; the lamina lucida connects to the epidermis, and the lamina densa connects to the dermis. Dermis is derived from the mesoderm, and its main function is to sustain and support the epidermis (Figure 1).

The Impact of Tattooing on Skin

To apply a tattoo, the artist pulls the skin tight and adjusts the rate at which the needle delivers ink to ensure that a sufficient force is supplied to the needle, which is a function of the client's body fat ratio and the chosen area for the tattoo application (professional tatto artist Michael Adkins, pers. comm.). A solid needle injects ink pigments as a suspension into the skin dermis approximately 1-4 mm deep (Engel et al., 2008). The process destroys the four layers of epidermis, the layer between the epidermis and dermis, and the first layer of dermis as the needle penetrates the skin to deliver the ink. Skin can vary, depending on its anatomic location and the sex and age of the individual. Skin thickness depends on dermal, not epidermal, thickness. Because epidermis does not contain blood vessels, bleeding occurs only when the artist has punctured down into the dermal region (at least) with the needle.

After ink delivery, granulation tissue forms, trapping the dye in fibroblasts in the superficial dermis. The ability to properly apply a tattoo is related to the experience of the artist. If the ink is not applied to the correct skin layer, the body will shed the tattoo as the epidermis is naturally shed. The initial vibrancy of a tattoo fades quickly because only a portion of the ink stays in the dermis; an unknown fraction of pigment is moved by the lymphatic system (Engel et al., 2010). When tattoos are applied to hands and feet, color or vibrancy fades faster because the tattoo is applied below one more skin layer. Because tattooing involves both the homogenization of the epidermal surface and the implantation of foreign ink in the dermal layer, cellular death occurs and results in a scabbing process.

Allergic reactions occur in many tattooed patients, especially those sensitive to red mercuric-based inks. Dermatologists have also seen an increase in numbers of patients who visit their offices with complaints about allergies, lesions, infections (mainly Staphylococcus aureus), tumors (benign and malignant), hypersensitivity reactions to pigments, and various dermatoses near their tattoos (Long & Rickman, 1994; Jacob, 2002; Kluger, 2010). More serious and systemic infections have also been noted.

Which process of cell death is at work during the tattooing process? Necrosis is the disorganized death that results in inflammation because the immune system is not involved and cell cleanup is not accomplished; clients should not exhibit this type of cell death beyond the initial scabbing process if a tattoo is applied correctly. On the other hand, apoptosis (programmed cell death) is highly ordered and controlled, involves the immune system, and results in phagocytosis by macrophages (Becker et al., 2009).

Once ink is delivered into the dermis region, the body immediately begins to recognize that the ink is foreign and the immune system starts to react. Immune cells move over other cells in the body to determine what cells need to be killed off. The apoptosis signaling pathway is triggered; other proteins move through the cytoplasm to make more physical connections with other proteins, resulting in further protein activation. Enzymatic reactions are plentiful, and these reactions should be introduced at an appropriate level for the class discussion. The cytoskeleton collapses and the nuclear envelope disassembles. DNA breaks down into fragments and the dying cell is phagocytosed. This process stops cellular content from being released and allows all cellular parts to be recycled. Cells that are located within a tattooed region (that were not burst during application) are eliminated in this fashion.


Bloodborne Pathogens & Other Disease Risks

Teachers should emphasize that with the process of tattooing comes health risks. Epidermal puncturing provides an avenue for bacteria and viruses to enter the body. Unsanitary tattooing conditions have been responsible for spreading hepatitis B and C, HIV/AIDS, tentanus, tuberculosis, and serious bacterial infections like pseudomonas, infectious endocarditis, and toxic shock (Long & Rickman, 1994; O'Malley et al., 1998; Hayes & Harkness, 2001; Mayers et al., 2002). Therefore, the tattoo process could be incorporated into a microbiology or immunology course rather easily, especially as an avenue to introduce these bacterial and viral concerns.

Sterilization: How to Kill the Microbe

Tattoo artists use autoclaves and ultrasonic baths to ensure that tattoo machine parts (Figure 2), ink tubes, needles, and other tools are free from all microorganisms and other debris. Many tools are disposable, especially needles, but all equipment must be sterilized for every use because of the dangers of bacteria and bloodborne pathogens.

Autoclaves are the equipment used to create sterility. Hospitals and many laboratories have one, so biology students tend to be at least aware of them. The autoclave uses extreme pressures (15-30 psi) and temperatures (121[degrees]C) applied simultaneously for 15 minutes to kill microorganisms. If a good seal were not used to establish the extreme pressures, it would take at least 2 hours at 160[degrees]C to kill bacteria. The death of the microorganism results because its membrane-bound proteins denature and are no longer functional.


UV Damage

Research has established that pigments break down in dermis when exposed to natural sunlight and to UVB radiation, that high levels of ink are found in the lymph system of tattooed individuals, and that breakdown intermediates can be carcinogenic (Cui et al., 2004; Vasold et al., 2004; Engel et al., 2007, 2008, 2010). Beyond the inks' risks, neighboring skin cells are damaged by UV radiation during sun exposure. Sunburned skin activates inflammasomes (macromolecular complexes necessary for receptor recognition; Faustin & Reed, 2008). Sunburn activates the immune system, triggering cell-protection mechanisms that push ink farther into the dermal layer where it is taken up into the lymphatic system (Moehrle et al., 2001; Friedman et al., 2003; Mangas et al., 2007), resulting in faded tattoos and dangerous movement of ink deeper into the body.

Ink Safety, FDA Approval, & Chemistry

Inks are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and can be made of anything. For example, azo pigments manufactured for printing, painting cars, and staining various products have been used in U.S. tattoos (Vasold et al., 2004; Engel et al., 2010); these same inks have been outlawed in European cosmetics because they may yield carcinogenic amines (European Commission, 1999). Teachers could use tattoo ink as a topic for conversations about government regulation of products and foodstuffs and the need for consumer education. The chemistry of tattoo ink is very easily brought into a classroom. Metals in most pigments (cadmium, cobalt, iron oxide, mercury, and chromium) could also be chemically analyzed.

MRI Issues

Urban legend has it that tattooed patients undergoing an MRI have experienced the ink being ripped from their skin; therefore, this topic always comes up during a question-and-answer session. Even though the presence of metal is common in pigments, there are no documented reports of tattoos being "ripped out" during a routine MRI. But some patients exhibit swelling and burning in an affected area (Kreidstein et al., 1997; Armstrong & Elkins, 2005). There have also been reports of pigments causing problems with the MRI results, perhaps because of the metals in the inks (FDA, 2011). Therefore, when a tattooed patient needs an MRI, doctors and technicians should have concerns because the metal could be attracted to the powerful magnets found within the machine (American Society of Anesthesiologists, 2009; FDA, 2011).

Physics: Physical Mechanisms & Tattooing

Undergraduates interested in going to graduate or professional schools are encouraged to take physics, yet many of them are less than engaged. A second-semester undergraduate course typically covers wave motion (oscillatory) and electromagnetism, so tattooing is a comprehensive application in that the traditional (coil-type) tattoo machine combines many concepts while utilizing fairly simple components. Direct current is supplied to the electromagnetic coils, which produces a magnetic force (Figure 2). The attractive magnetic force between the armature bar (Figure 2) and the electromagnetic inductors causes the bar (connected to the needle) to displace downward. As the armature bar depresses and moves toward the electromagnets, the original circuit is broken, which returns the arm with the needle to its original position. When the bar returns to its original position via the springs that are also connected to the needle and ink well, the circuit closes again, causing the attractive magnetic force to be restored, and the cycle of armature displacement is repeated. These principles are foundational for all self-interrupting circuits.

For many undergraduate students, with the exception of possibly physics and engineering majors, any tool or instrument that requires electricity is a "black box." As an example that is intriguing to many students, the tattooing process reinforces the principles of periodic motion, nonlinear circuit elements, and harmonic oscillation. The machine exhibits how mechanical and electromagnetic phenomena are coupled in maintaining the uniform delivery of ink to the skin. This coupling also provides a simplistic physical model for the manner in which biological systems invoke electrochemical means to accomplish mechanical work (e.g., flagellar motors). By drafting plans to build a tattoo machine, students begin to apply their biological understandings to a real-world physics problem. For example, understanding fat index allows students to comprehend why needle speed and machine voltage must change during the application process.

* Assessment

The projects discussed here were developed within a larger collaborative learning environment aimed at highlighting interdisciplinary points of confluence within the sciences. Contextual learning, whereby specific information is rooted within a particular concrete example, has been shown to increase students' learning gains within a traditional constructivist framework. For example, several of our students have made comments similar to this one:

The close connection between the physical phenomena associated with tattooing and relevant principles within biology provided the opportunity for interdisciplinary learning opportunities and collaboration among faculty. For example, the idea of "contexualized teaching and learning" has gained substantial support through the California Community Colleges and has roots within established theories of motivation learning and social cognition theory (Baker et al., 2009).

When the aforementioned material was introduced to primarily life-science majors (within an algebra-based physics course), ~90% of the 21 students in the lab course answered "much" (4) or "much more" (5) to five questions pertaining to the levels of interdisciplinary connections and contextual learning they experienced (mean = 4.4/5.0). Students indicated that the integrative nature of the biophysical lab improved their ability to identify diverse and conflicting concepts, as well as examine ideas and phenomena from multiple perspectives. Here are two of their specific qualitative responses:

Across the biology courses, similar trends were seen in all subdisciplines that explored tattooing. Almost 75% of students in a cell biology course mentioned tattooing in their course evaluation. One student's comment highlights how a simple reference and contextualization of material during lecture enhances a student's perception of material retention:

When courses were tallied together, 64% of students commented specifically and positively about tattooing in their learning (45 total students in physics and cell biology). In fact, students said they would like to see more biological applications; they enjoyed the engagement and insight the applications created. Therefore, we observe that embedding science within the context of a relevant topic is useful and beneficial to student learning, and we would like to encourage tattooing as a strong candidate for impact within the classroom.

DOI: 10.1525/abt.2012.74.6.5

* Acknowledgments

The authors and their students heartily thank Michael Adkins and Walking Work of Art Tattoo Studio in Roanoke, VA. They provided the expertise necessary to conceptualize the conversations and provided an insight into their world. The collaborative efforts of the authors were supported financially through a Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education grant to Roanoke College.


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Friedman, T., Westreich, M., Mozes, S.N., Dorenbaum, A. & Herman, O. (2003). Tattoo pigment in lymph nodes mimicking metastatic malignant melanoma. Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery, 111, 2120-2122.

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DOROTHYBELLE POLI (poli@roanoke.edu) is Assistant Professor of Biology, MATTHEW FLEENOR (fleenor@roanoke.edu) is Assistant Professor of Physics, and MATTHEW REARICK (rearick@roanoke.edu) is Associate Professor of Health and Human Performance, all at Roanoke College, 221 College Lane, Salem, VA 24153.
Being able to take physics theory and to
   bring it to life with biological aspects was
   a great idea. I think that all physics labs
   should be taught in this way. I really learned
   a lot and enjoyed the lab.

I'm a bio major and physics is not my thing.
   Having professors involved to talk about biological
   applications of physics concepts made
   me appreciate physics and biology more and
   work harder to more fully understand it.

   Multiple angles of approach ties to my major
   (biology). The extra material gave me focus
   and interest in the topics to a greater degree
   than if it had just been a one topic course.

Tattooing helped me place these difficult
   concepts in to a real life example and allowed
   me to wrap my brain around why the
   human body was doing things like immune
   responses and reacting to UV radiation.

Table 1. A brief world history of tattooing as summarized by multiple
sources (Leeming, 1990; Gilbert, 2000; American Academy of
Dermatology, 2004; Kimelberg, 2007).

Date           Event

5300 BC        The "Iceman" had 57 tattoos located in modern-day
               acupuncture areas (carbon dated, discovered in 1991).

3000 BC        Japanese figures show tattoos on the face that are
               thought to be magical/spiritual in meaning.

2400 BC        Mummified people discovered in 1949 near the Altai
               Mountains of Siberia have decorative animals tattooed
               on them (carbon dated).

2000 BC        Egyptians used tattoos on royal women during rituals.

2000 BC        Tattooing spread throughout Southeast Asia; from China
               it followed the silk trade.

1200 BC        Possibly the first Polynesian tattooing occurred at
               this time.

247 AD         The first record of a (decorative) Japanese tattoo
               occurred in this year.

4th century    Greek women were tattooed to warn husbands about

787 AD         Pope Hadrian banned tattooing.

1100           There are accounts of Vikings being covered in
               permanent pictures.

11th to 16th   There are Central and South American accounts of common
century        tattooing for religious purposes. The Norman Invasion
               was responsible for tattooing losing popularity in the

1593           Captain John Smith wrote that natives of Virginia and
               Florida were tattooed.

1691           William Dampher brought a heavily tattooed Polynesian
               to London and reintroduced tattooing to the West.

1700s          Pacific Island tattoo culture was discovered by world
               navies; reinterest in tattooing became strong across

1700           Japanese "body suit" emerged as a way to fight the
               concept that only royalty could wear ornate outfits.

1846           The first American tattoo shop was established in New
               York City.

Mid-1800s      Most European ports had at least one professional
               tattoo artist.

1861           The French Army and Navy banned tattoos after deeming
               them unsafe.

1862           The Prince of Wales (King Edward VII) received his
               first tattoo, beginning a trend for British royalty.

1891           Samuel O'Riley invented the first electric tattoo

1900s          Tattoos become common among circus performers.

1944           Coca-Cola shows a sailor and a tattooed islander
               comparing tattoos in a Life Magazine ad.
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