The Stencil: Why RED? - S8 Tattoo
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The Stencil: Why RED?

May 19, 2016

Its time again for another installment of Stencil Science, where we tell you way more than you would ever want to know about tattoo stenciling. Last week, we talked about how to keep the stencil on the skin. This week lets talk about the color red and why it’s a good choice in stenciling.

Before we get into the weeds here about what “color” really is, lets get something out of the way- the COLOR “red” isn’t dangerous in stenciling. There has been a lot written and discussed about using red-colored permanent markers for drawing on the skin, and S8 discourages artists from using products that were not designed for use on the skin for stenciling. But the important thing to remember here is that not all reds are created equal because the colorants that human beings have used color things red are incredibly different. Humans have, over the course of our long and illustrious history, used two different types of winged beetle, carcinogenic metals, and beets, to color things red. The colorant that is used in red-colored permanent markers is probably not great for human skin because permanent markers aren’t designed for use on human skin.

We’re a little different. S8’s labs take safety seriously. So we only use colorants that are approved for use on human skin by every major cosmetic regulatory body. It was a hassle to find colorants that worked, were approved, were tuned in such a way that was compatible with thermographic printers, and stayed on the skin for long periods of time. Why did we do it?

To begin, lets recap why we stencil. We use stencils to visualize the future tattoo and provide guidelines for session. Which means that stencils have to be visible on the skin, last for extended periods of time, and be distinguishable from the ink that the artist is using to outline.

 What does it mean for a stencil to be visible on the skin? And whose skin are we talking about? Skin color is largely a function of the amount and type of melanin present in the skin. Dermatologists spent most of the late 19th and well over half of the 20th century attempting to created classifications for skin colors- most notable are Von Luschan’s Chromatic Scale (with 36 categories) and Fitzpatrick’s Scale (with 7 meta-types). In the case of the Von Luschan Chromatic Scale, there was a substantial amount of inconsistency in readings- observers held colored glass slides next to the subject’s skin, which introduced user-error and bias- and so this scale has largely fallen out of favor for scientific use; it is still often used in cosmetics. The Fitzpatrick Scale is still widely used by dermatologists as a means of classifying skin based upon anticipated sun tanning and sun burning. This scale is so widely used, in fact, that the Unicode Standard uses the Fitzpatrick types for emoji. Today, scientists also use spectrophotometers to measure the reflective and transmissive properties of skin, but this does not lend itself well to easy categories.

When developing a tattoo stencil, a one-size-fits-all approach is impossible. Instead, S8 Labs decided to develop 3 different stencil colors. The first was RED. RED was designed for skin types that roughly correspond with Types I-IV on the Fitzpatrick Scale. The other two fit specific visual needs inside Types V and VI- we hope to announce those colors later this year.

Red as a color is well suited to these lighter skin types for a handful of reasons. While we really won’t tackle “color” in hugely abstract terms, it is really important to remember that what we seen is not simply an exercise in color or chromaticity. Variables like luminance, lightness, brightness play huge roles in what we see as “color,” and chromaticity itself is a function of hue and colorfulness/saturation/chroma/intensity/excitation purity (the “appearance parameters”). And everything we see is electromagnetic radiation that is “bouncing” off of objects- but just as important are the frequencies that don’t reflect off of the object. If all of this sounds hugely complicated, that’s because it is- researchers working on these sorts of concepts are found in stealth fighter programs, digital sensor departments for companies like Apple, or (like S8’s lab team) the art and body mod material space. We encourage every tattoo artist to go down this rabbit hole of concepts, and we’ll probably write some about each one of these ideas a little later.

Virtually any stencil will “pop” on very light skin- that is to say that they will be visually distinct enough for an artist to differentiate between stencil and underlying skin. This is because light skin is comparatively luminant- most colorants (outside of some fluorescent yellows) will be less luminant than very light skin, allowing easy visual distinction. The red colorants that we use are no different. But there is more to it than visual separation from the skin. The stencil has to be visually distinct from the ink.

Most modern tattoo movements rely heavily on black ink. Be it heavily outlined new school and kustom kulture work, robust traditional and neotraditional pieces in full color, black and gray washed tattoos, or heavy all-black tattooing, we can all agree that black is the new black. And this is where red makes all the difference.

See, black is an achromatic color with very low luminosity. It absorbs huge swaths of the visible electromagnetic wavelengths that we see, meaning that the degree of visual separation between light skin and black lining ink is dramatic. The issue with traditional purple stencils is that the colorant used in purple stencil also has very low luminosity. While this creates a substantial degree of visual separation between light skin and a purple stencil, the purple is too similar to black lining ink. This can mean that artists are unable to determine whether a section has been lined, or whether the line weight was appropriate.

The color red is different. Because the red colorants that we selected are more luminant those used in traditional purple stencils, and because of red’s chromatic attributes, red is an ideal color both in theory and in practice for black lining on skin types I-IV. Red provides the greatest possible visual separation when compared to lining ink.

This is an image of two stencils- an S8 RED and a traditional purple. We drew a quick line across the top using a permanent marker (broke our own rule, but we did it for science). It visually shows what it took us nearly 1000 words to describe. Basically, its easier to tell the difference between red and black than purple and black. 

So why did no one make a red tattoo stencil sooner? Physics. We’ll cover that next time when we discuss how a thermal stencil-making machine works. Remember to leave your questions and comments in the area below or on our facebook page. And follow us on instagram for images of our product at work and discount codes.

1 Response

Erik Hardy
Erik Hardy

May 19, 2016


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