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Of (Tattooed) Mice and Men

What the Latest Science is Teaching Us About Tattoos

Fun fact: You are currently eating your tattoo. You’re also puking it back up. Well, not you, exactly. You’d probably notice if you were chowing down on a patch of ink-soaked flesh and ralphing it up like a Victoria’s Secret model about to take a runway jaunt. Set the fava beans aside. But on a cellular level, that’s what your body is theoretically doing.
This little nugget of likely fact was discovered accidentally earlier this year by a group of French immunologists who were getting their usual jollies from torturing mice. Initially, they were studying skin cells in black mice for god-knows-what purpose, when they noticed something peculiar. When transferring skin cells from one mouse to another, they observed that the macrophages1 of the recipient mouse were eating the melanin released by the dying cells of the donor mouse. This aroused some curiosity, so they took a detour from their initial research and explored further.

First, they tattooed green strips on the tails of albino mice and observed the reaction under a microscope. They would have used the original mice, but they’d learned from Ink Masters that lighter canvasses are easier to work with (yes, that’s biting sarcasm.) From their observation, they were able to confirm the part of this that was already known; that macrophages store the ink of tattoos in their bellies. But then, when they killed off those macrophages, they observed that the tattoo wasn’t altered. When the ink-gorge macrophage died, it regurgitated its contents, which another immediately lapped up.

Next, they removed the tattooed skin from one mouse and grafted it onto the tail of another. Immediately, the second mouse became cooler, but less employable (fake fact). After six weeks, the tattoos were still intact, but the macrophages that were holding the ink were all from the recipient and not the donor. Don’t you fucking love science?

What’s the point of this knowledge? Not sure, exactly, but at least you learned something. The scientists who made the discovery are suggesting they can apply it to improving tattoo removal methods, but that doesn’t exactly help us. But, to tie this piece off with a nice, after-school special-style ‘moral of the story,’ consider this report’s implications about our knowledge of our bodies and how they interact with tattoos. It’s 2018 and we apparently still don’t know everything.
So, it turns out that the ink we use isn’t just hanging out under our top layer of skin in static suspension. It’s moving, continually interacting with our cells. What else don’t we know? Maybe more than even the known, it’s the unknown that should drive us to ensure that we’re always using the best materials available to us, always eschewing cheap ingredients. Maybe it’s one more reminder that we should be reaching for non-toxic, organically sourced inks like Kuro-Sumi or Papillon’s Hemp Ink. After all, this is our bodies we’re talking about. Let’s keep them pretty, outside AND in.

What the hell are macrophages? Yeah, we didn’t know either. We should have all paid a little more attention in Biology. From Wikipedia: “Macrophages are a type of white blood cell . . . that engulfs and digests cellular debris, foreign substances, microbes, cancer cells, and anything else that does not have the type of proteins specific to healthy body cells on its surface in a process called phagocytosis.” Neat!


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