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The Stencil: Let's Get It On

May 05, 2016 3 Comments

Last week, we talked about the tattoo stencil- what they’re made of, how a tattoo artist might create a tattoo stencil, and some tricks to getting more out of hand-traced stencils. In the next few weeks, we’ll talk about the variety of machines that artists can use to make tattoo stencils, like thermographic and dot-matrix printers. But this week, we’re talking about how a tattoo artist takes that stencil and applies it to the skin.

We’re going to have to cover a pretty wide expanse of information- everything from human anatomy on functional and micro levels to proper shaving procedure to the role hydrogen ions play in stencil longevity- and this is going to be pretty big picture descriptions of much more involved, complicated processes. In the future, we will tackle each one of the concepts in greater detail, partly because we have nothing better to do and partly because all of this shit is super interesting.

So the 5 point recap of last section is:

  • The functional portion of the tattoo stencil is a wax-colorant blend.
  • Good tattoo stencils are ones that are colorant rich
  • Stencils can be made manually or with a machine
  • Artists should experiment with a variety of tracing implements and handweights to find tools that express sufficient pressure without damaging the stencil.
  • Hand-traced stencils that are warmed over 90 degrees Farenheit and maintain that heat during the stencil making process will be brighter and more long lasting. Increasing humidity can reduce heat loss in the stencil.

This recap proves that we can be concise. Now watch as we write 2000 words about how to apply a tattoo stencil.

At it’s most basic level, when we apply a stencil we are using a colorant to mark the skin. The stencil is on a piece of paper. So we’ve got to figure out a way to move that colorant from the paper onto one of the most complex human organs, do so in such a way that doesn’t make the tattooing process more difficult or painful, and ensure that the stencil is visible and long lasting enough to make it through one or multiple sittings. Clearly, stencil transfer is a complicated problem, as it has biological, chemical, and mechanical variables that need to be controlled for to ensure consistency.

First, lets talk about the skin. We’re not going get into the endless semantic and physiological debate of how many distinct layers of skin there are right now. What matters for stenciling is only the outermost layer of skin- specifically the stratified squamous epithelium (SSE) of the epidermis. 

The SSE is basically the last line of defense for the body, and it has some remarkable, bizarre, and important characteristics that tattoo artists need to be acquainted with. Perhaps the most well known aspect of the SSE is the fact that it is entirely designed to rub off. The SSE is composed of cells that overlap one another, dispersing force loads over an increased surface area and providing a uniform surface that slows or prevents microbes from entering the body, in a manner entirely similar to wood laminates. Unlike wood laminates, these cells slough off on contact, which means this layer of the skin is in a state of constant flux and renewal 

Another important aspect of this part of skin its electrochemical state. While the cells themselves provide a physical barrier to microbes, human skin is also acidic, with a pH of around 5.0, which is about on par with a cup of black coffee. This acidity is a chemical deterrent and creates a hostile local biome that kills many- though by no means all- environmentally present microbes.

How else does the SSE maintain the body’s integrity and prevent invasion? More molecules and chemicals. Your skin is absolutely saturated in everything from lipids that slow transepidermal water loss (which in turn slows topical microbial growth) to antimicrobial peptides, and it keeps making more. Basically your SSE has declared total war on everything around you. Hell, your SSE even has allies in the form of an entire “friendly” topical biome of microorganisms that is acclimated to this warzone and provides cover fire for your SSE in the form of more chemicals. Now cover this entire thing in long protein filaments that add additional protection and slow heat loss (a.k.a. “hair”) and you’ve got a sense of just how serious your SSE is about the whole defense thing.

In order to get a stencil on the skin, we’ve got to systematically neutralize every single one of these defense mechanisms without doing any lasting damage. The following steps are highly recommended- we’ll explain what to do, and what impact they have on both the body and the stencil.

First order of business is washing the tattoo site. In a few weeks, S8 will be introducing our own RED Soap (you heard it here first, folks), but any sort of soap designed for surgical settings is appropriate for this sort of work. Surgical soap is designed to rapidly surfact topical microbes and lipids, as well as remove organic matter like dead skin or pizza sauce and potential contaminants from the skin. When we remove oils, organic matter, and microbes from the surface of the skin, we dramatically reduce the risk of infections post-tattoo- this should come as no surprise to any artist who has been tattooing more than a week. But it is these same oils and organic matter that stand in the way of good stencils; many dermal lipids interact with stencil transfer products and the stencils themselves, and can result in poor transfer releases and longevity.

After washing, artists need to shave the site. Shaving removes hair- this is clearly vital for stencil application as hair gets in the way of both stencils and later the tattooing process- but shaving can do more. Tattoo artists should take notes on the ways nurses that help prep surgical procedures shave down patients. Like a tattoo artist, nurses need to remove hair to ensure patient safety and ease for the operating physician. However, nurses know that shaving can also serve to debride the skin, removing dead skin, topical microbes, and other contaminants; nursing students are taught to properly shave patients in a manner that maximizes the additional positive benefits. So how do nurses shave a patient? Nurses make 4 to 5 passes over an area using a non-film forming shaving soap, “raking” away hair and keeping the razor free from hair. Tattoo artists interested in proper shaving procedure should definitely speak with friends and family who work in healthcare; there are also tutorials online that teach good shaving practice.

As soon as the site has been shaved, it is time to deal with pH. pH, or “The Power of Hydrogen,” should be vaguely familiar because every 7th grade science teacher seems to get really excited about it and because we mentioned it like 3 paragraphs ago. Like we mentioned earlier, human skin cells are acidic- it’s a defense mechanism against microbes. But dermal pH can also complicate stencil application, as the more acidic the skin is, the less likely the colorant is going to actually stay on the skin.

It is in the moment that we should stop and say that S8 is still a company that wants to sell you things. But we also want the things that we sell you to make your tattooing easier. So when we start name-dropping our own products, its because we think that the product that we’ve got fits a very specific need in tattooing that isn’t being addressed. For example, our Stencil Transfer Gel: it is the only product designed to neutralize skin pH during the stencil process. When we encourage tattoo artists to apply a small amount to the skin and massage it in, we’re doing so because our product shifts skin pH from 5 to between 7 and 8, which substantially improves transfer quality. Our stencil transfer gel also increases SSE cell wall permeability- this will come back later. This whole shift lasts for about 10 minutes, so there is no long term impact at all.

If you’ve done all of this right, you’ve got a clean, slightly basic/alkaline, hairless patch of skin that you’re going to stick a whole bunch of ink into. But you still don’t have a stencil down.

On the macro level, tattoo artists use a transfer product to move the stencil from a piece of paper to the skin. On the micro level, good stencils are ones that actually stain the cells of the SSE (remember, this is the layer of skin that just rubs off). We’re going to explain how our Stencil Transfer Gel actually does that.

Our Stencil Transfer Gel is a water- and plant-based solvent that on the macro level does exactly what every single other stencil product is supposed to do- it moves the colorant from the stencil paper to the skin. Except ours doesn’t have alcohol, which can cause redness and irritation. Or propylene glycol. And unlike some stencil transfer products, we list our ingredients on our products. So that’s cool. 

But what’s really cool is what goes on on microscopic level with our Stencil Transfer Gel. Remember how you stripped away lipids when you cleaned the skin, and then later changed the skin pH with our small amount of our Stencil Transfer Gel? You dramatically changed the surface layer of the SSE. All of those cells, which are normally sort of like deflated balloons with impermeable walls, are now ready and primed to suck up anything you throw at it. Like, oh I dunno, stencil colorants. The minute the stencil is applied, the stencil begins “staining” the surface of the SSE which really means those cells are absorbing small amounts of the colorant. And as the skin’s pH recalibrates (in a process called “acid base homeostasis,” a name that sounds like a bad prog-metal album) and the cell walls become more impermeable, the color is locked in to this top layer of the skin.

Smart artists should be asking if staining SSE with red colorants impacts ink down the road. It doesn’t. Because these colorants are isolated to surface layers of the skin and absorbed by the SSE, there is little chance they’ll even come in direct contact with inks. It just so happens that our colorants are FD&C and D&C approved as well.

Now, getting colorants into the SSE is tricky, but keeping those cells on the skin is even more difficult. That’s why, next week we’ll cover how to keep a stencil on the skin, or more appropriately how to keep the stencil and your skin on your skin.

As always, leave questions or comments below or on our Facebook page.

3 Responses


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May 22, 2019

Thank you, I appreciate all of the info on this site 👏

Audie Dewey
Audie Dewey

January 17, 2017

Thank you so much for this article—so many helpful tips here. But, I just saw this post (“Laserless Tattoo Removal is Possible. Here’s how…”) and actually was reading about this same topic the other day. I did some searching around and stumbled onto this cool article… I thought it was helpful…

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