See How a Tattoo Machine Works in Macro Detail at 20,000 FPS

Gav and Dan of the popular YouTube channel The Slow Mo Guys have taken an up close and personal look at what happens when someone gets a tattoo at a blazing-fast 20,000 frames per second.

As seen on DIY Photography, armed with ballistic gel, a tattoo gun, the brand-new Laowa 24mm T8 2x Pro2be Macro Lens and a Phantom TMX 7510 high-speed camera, The Slow Mo Guys show what happens beneath the skin when someone gets a tattoo. Gav and Dan are not tattoo artists, so it is conceivable that the process looks slightly different when a professional performs the tattooing.

The Slow Mo Guys were inspired by fellow YouTube channel Smarter Every Day. Eight years ago, Destin Sandlin of Smarter Every Day recorded a slow-motion video of tattooing on real human skin as performed by a professional artist.

Sandlin has been recently featured on PetaPixel for his amazing Kodak factory tour that shows how the legendary company makes its film, film that the company remains committed to making for as long as there is demand. Kodak has been receiving great press lately for the custom 70mm black and white film it made for Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster bioptic Oppenheimer.

Back to Gav and Dan. While they do not have synthetic skin to tattoo and admit they are not brave (or stupid) enough to tattoo themselves for YouTube content, they do have ballistic gel. The advantage of ballistic gel is that it allows viewers to see what is happening beneath the surface of the “skin.” Novice tattoo artists can purchase special practice skin, which is eerily lifelike, to improve their skills too.

“I wonder if every time you go for a tattoo, how many people you would discourage from getting a tattoo if you showed them this first?” asks Dan when reviewing 5x macro footage of just the tattoo gun’s needles moving.

For viewers unfamiliar with tattoo machines, depending on what kind of tattoo or part of a design an artist is doing, the gun uses different needles. For larger areas, like when doing color fill or extensive shading work, a “mag” is used. This contains multiple needles arranged in a broad pattern. Needle tips for line work include multiple needles, which are very close together to enable precise ink application.

Thanks to the Phantom high-speed camera, Gav and Dan determine that each “cycle,” which is the tattoo needle tips fully extending and retracting, takes about five or six milliseconds. “That is rapid,” says Gav.

“It looks like the xenomorph’s second mouth. Ah, that’s horrendous,” Gav adds, referencing the alien from the Alien movie franchise. “I guess I wasn’t expecting the surface tension of the ink to completely cover the needle. This must’ve taken ages before electricity!”

A tattoo needle penetrates five layers of the epidermis, per Stories and Ink, which is about one to two millimeters (1/16 of an inch). That is not that deep but is enough to be plenty painful — and deep enough to leave permanent ink that will last a lifetime.