Q: Last month, I vacationed with a cousin who wears his strong eco-convictions on his sleeve … and all over the rest of the body. This left me wondering if there are environmental drawbacks to tattooing since his lifestyle choices seem be perfectly “green” in every way. Is tattooing green?


A: … And you thought I’d know the answer to this because I do have a tattoo? Who told you about the “18 birthday mistake” in the form of a Chinese zodiac character that lives up my right left shoulder blade? Who squealed? 

I’m kidding. I suppose your query just reminded me that I have a bit of ink that I regret. Just call me the “Boy with the Unfortunate Non-Dragon Tattoo.” Anyways, on to the subject at hand: your flawlessly green cousin and his maybe no-so-eco penchant for body art. To be honest, it looks like we might have found a crack in your cousin’s otherwise eco-upstanding lifestyle even if he’s decorating his body with illustrations of CFL bulbs, wind turbines and passages from “Walden.”

Planet Green recently looked into the topic and found that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate "any tattoo inks for injection into the skin, and many ink pigments used are industrial strength colors suitable for printers' ink or automobile paint.” The American Academy of Dermatology further details traditional tattoo ink’s not-so-green ingredient list: “Tattoo pigments may contain industrial organic pigments, including azo and polycyclic compounds, sandalwood and brazilwood, as well as aluminum, cadmium, calcium, copper, iron, phosphorus, silica, sulphur, titanium dioxide and barium sulphate, each of which may be the cause of a skin reaction like a rash or be toxic.” 

Additionally, some black ink used in tattooing is animal bone burned down to charcoal while the “carrier” solution in the ink may contain glycerin derived from animal fat. So while your cousin may not eat any animal products, he’s certainly found a unique way to wear them.

Who knows, perhaps he is well aware that the ink he’s having permanently injected a millimeter into his dermis isn’t exactly aligned with his lifestyle? Maybe tattooing is a special eco-concession? Whatever the case, the next time you see your cousin, I wouldn’t be quick to point out that the giant sequoia on his forearm is made from toxic metals and animal products. That would just be obnoxious (and maybe not true). But if he ever does get on his high horse about something and criticize you for behaving in a not very planet-friendly manner, you do have instant retaliation material that won’t be disappearing anytime soon. Just keep that in mind if you and your cousin get into a spirited debate.

That said, it could be the case that he has his “work” done at a vegan-friendly tattoo parlor where no animal-based inks are used. There are several out there including Scapegoat Tattoo in Portland, Ore., Daredevil and FunCity Tattoos, both in New York, and Only You Tattoo in Atlanta. There’s a full list of such business over at Vegantattoos.com. Apparently, veganism and tattooing often go hand in hand, with many tattoo artists themselves abiding by strict vegan lifestyles.

So there you go … something to think about the next time your cousin disrobes at the beach to show off his pecs/canvas. Again, the vegan tattoo movement is quite active so he may very well be practicing what he preaches. Or, his body art could be one big, hard-to-erase contradictory statement. Anyways, I’m off to try and forget about the permanent monkey (Chinese zodiac sign) on my back.

Got a question? We've got the answers. Visit MNN's advice archives to see if your query has been tackled.

Photo: lindsay.dee.bunny/Flickr

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.