How Deep Do Tattoo Needles Go?

  • Written By Dan Hunter on December 16, 2019
    Last Updated: November 27, 2020

You’ve decided to get a tattoo, but are wondering about the process. That’s super understandable and a smart move. Tattoos can be the most beautiful piece of artwork or memory you try to hold on to for the rest of your life. 

If you’ve never been comfortable with needles before and are worried about the level of pain to expect, knowing a bit more about the mechanics behind tattooing can help allay those fears.

One of the hallmarks of a practiced tattoo artist is how they handle the needle. The depth and pressure of a needle help to ensure both a long-lasting tattoo and a relatively painless experience.

The tattooing process penetrates 1/16th of an inch into your skin through:

  • Five layers of the epidermis
  • The dermal layer
  • The top-most layer of the dermis

How Does a Tattoo Machine Work?

Tattoos have been a tradition for centuries, spanning the globe, found in many different cultures, and populating the high seas on the backs of sailors. In this long tradition, there have been many forms of tattoos styles and methods. In contemporary tattooing, most tattooists opt for a modern, electrical tattoo machine as the tool of their trade. 

This machine pulses a needle into the skin at around 6,000 motions a minute. At the same time, the machine pools ink on the surface of the skin. The piercing needle then creates a hole, and when the needle comes out of the skin, it creates a vacuum. This vacuum sucks the ink on the surface of your skin into the hole. 

How Long Is a Tattoo Needle?

The depth of driving a tattoo needle is arguably one of the most important skills learned by an apprentice tattoo artist. That’s because the depth affects the quality of the tattoo and the pain a client experiences. Tattoo artists adjust the length of the sharpened metal so that it only penetrates 1/16th of an inch into your skin. 

How Deep Is One Sixteenth?

Driving a needle too shallow into the skin will produce a patchy tattoo that’ll fade as your skin sheds its layers. A tattoo that goes too far into your skin can cause nerve damage or thick scarring that will disfigure the artwork you intended to have. In addition, if a tattoo artist penetrates your skin too far, it can cause intense pain and bleeding.

All of these consequences result from the structure of your skin. Initially, right after a tattoo, ink is deposited in:

  • All of your epidermal layers
  • Epidermal-dermal junction — the division between the dermis and epidermis 
  • Your dermis

The epidermis is the top layer of your skin that shed cells continually. The dermis is the layer beneath it, which is mostly made of a more fibrous connective tissue than your epidermis. In between these distinct layers is a membrane to separate the tissues. 

After tattooing, all of these layers kind of blend. You can think of the tattoo needle as a micro hand-mixer for your skin. All of the layers get chopped and chummed up by the penetrating force of the sharp needle. 


In the days following the tattoo, your body produces immune cells because it sees this invasion as an open wound. In response to the wound, your body starts to heal itself as it would with any other skin injury. Your immune cells activate to deal with any potential infection or allergic reaction to the tattoo. The cells in your epidermis metabolically break down the ink in those layers as the division between dermis and epidermis heals.

Epidermal-Dermal Junction 

At the same time, as your epidermal cells are breaking down the ink in these more superficial layers of your skin, the membrane separating the dermis and epidermis heals. Once this division is fully intact again, the tattoo is healed, trapping ink below the dermal layer. 


Fibroblasts are cells that make up connective tissue. This is relevant to the depth of a tattoo needle because only the second layer of your skin, the dermis, is made of connective tissue. The needle is adjusted to penetrate this layer but no further.

Fibroblasts give tattoos their longevity. Like the immune cells in your epidermis, these fibroblasts go to work metabolizing and “eating” the tattoo ink once you get inked. The difference in these cells, however, is that instead of dissipating the ink, fibroblasts trap the pigment inside themselves.

The connective tissue cells keep the deposited ink from moving further through your body tissues. After a few months, once your tattoo is fully healed, the ink will only remain in your dermis, beneath the partition that separates the tissues. Once the ink is ensconced in fibroblasts, the permanence of the tattoo is complete. 

The Permanent Level 

The depth of a tattoo needle is designed to minimize your pain and maximize the longevity of your ink. For a tattoo to truly be permanent, it must reach the cells in your dermis. Needles penetrate just far enough to deposit the ink here so that tattoos stay at a high quality for a considerable amount of time, but shallow enough so that other bodily workings, such as hair follicles, aren’t affected.

And don’t worry, your tattoo artist won’t be driving the needles straight into your veins.

When you eventually go ahead with getting your dream tattoo, it’s imperative that you always follow your tattoo artist’s aftercare advice closely, and be sure to invest in a high-quality tattoo healing lotion to aid recovery.

The best tattoo lotion I’ve ever personally used is a vegan-friendly aftercare product called After Inked Tattoo Aftercare Lotion. This stuff works amazingly well during the healing process; not only by keeping your tattoo really well hydrated, but also by soothing any annoying itching and irritation. When using it from the very start of the healing process, this lotion will help to decrease tattoo healing times, and work towards eliminating any lingering dryness and scabbing.​

Related Tattoo Articles