Ink with Impact: Some Tattoo Artists Opt for Vegan Supplies over Traditional Formulas

PHOENIX – Luis Marrufo, his brown eyes bright but focused, hunched over a client lying on a cushioned table. He pressed the sharp end of the tattoo machine into his client’s forearm, the needle dispensing carbon-colored liquid into his skin in vibrating bursts so quick they’re almost invisible to the naked eye.

The low-pitched buzz of the tattoo machine droned over the alt-rock playing softly in the closet-size room in an Ahwatukee Foothills office building on a floor housing mostly counseling offices.

The room, decorated almost exclusively in black-and-white, save for a bamboo plant and decorative lamps on the desk, smelled clean, lacking the harsh chemical smell that usually accompanies sterilized equipment.

Marrufo was dressed head-to-toe in black – even many of the tattoos coating his forearms are exclusively in black ink. His jet-black hair was slicked back in a small top-knot.

For many, tattooing and ethics don’t often intersect. Clients have come to expect services that include good inks, sanitary conditions, fair pricing and talented, trustworthy artists, but a growing community of customers have an additional request for tattoo shops: vegan inks.

— Video by Grayson Schmidt/Cronkite News

Some Arizona tattoo artists advertise themselves as “vegan,” providing the opportunity for a cruelty-free tattoo experience – outside of repeatedly poking their clients with needles, of course. Others simply choose vegan inks for their superior quality.

Marrufo, who has been vegan for seven years and goes by the handle @thevegantattooartist on Instagram, said it was his wife who got him thinking about vegan tattooing after asking whether the inks he used contained animal products.

Marrufo, a tattoo artist for 3½ years, said many new companies sell vegan ink, and that most tattoo artists using traditional inks are those sticking to older formulas.

According to UrbanVegan, the animal products most commonly found in tattoo ink are glycerin, bone char and gelatin.

Gelatin, a type of collagen derived from animal tissue and bones, acts as a binding element. Glycerin, made from either animal fat or vegetable oil, thickens the ink and, Marrufo said, keeps it from separating.

Bone char, created by burning and crushing animal bone, is used to darken black inks. Marrufo, who works exclusively in black-and-white, chooses inks that use carbon instead.

Marrufo said he avoids color inks because they can be made with harmful chemicals or heavy metals, such as mercury.

Marrufo said he and his clients have felt the difference using vegan supplies can make.

“I noticed that just using all these cleaner products, the tattoo doesn’t get inflamed,” he said. “I hardly ever see blood, honestly. The tattoos don’t ever get too puffy. It’s just a cleaner process, you know? And I think your body recognizes that.”

Andrew Saspe, a friend and client of Marrufo who was visiting the shop to get his flower of life forearm tattoo touched up, shared a similar experience.

“With the first tattoo I had, there was a lot of scabbing and the healing process took longer than what they had said, but it was still within the normal realm,” Saspe said. “With this (vegan) one, though, I noticed there was barely any scabbing and the healing process happened a lot quicker than when Luis had told me.”

However, vegan inks come with some of the same health risks as non-vegan inks. Last month, the Food and Drug Administration announced that two U.S. vegan tattoo ink companies recalled one product each, after finding they were contaminated with bacteria or other potentially dangerous microorganisms.

Marrufo said he uses all-vegan products in his work, from the ink to the stencil paper to the razors he shaves clients with before tattooing them. He recommends coconut oil as an aftercare salve and uses environmentally friendly vegan soaps instead of Vaseline when preparing clients’ skin for the tattoo.

Saspe said he’s still adjusting his habits to be as vegan as possible. For him, choosing an artist that uses sustainable inks can be as important as choosing the tattoo itself.

“The first (tattoo) that I got, it had its own little meaning, but I didn’t think about what it was as far as the ink itself,” he said. “The idea that there’d be an animal product in it, something that came from a violent background was going on my body permanently, just didn’t settle right.”

Amelia Whitney, a Tempe tattoo artist, said she chose the inks she uses not because they’re vegan but because, to her, the brand, Eternal Ink, is top-quality.

Although Whitney, who was vegan for three years but changed her diet for health reasons, didn’t choose her inks for ethical reasons, she believes using vegan ink should be a no-brainer for tattoo artists.

“Obviously, they found out a way to make (the ink) safe being vegan, so I just feel like it’s not necessary to hurt animals or use animals,” she said. “They’re living creatures. I don’t feel like it’s necessary to hurt them or use them or take advantage of them. Especially for tattoo ink … it’s not vital for you to live.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Move over, single-use plastics: Arizona company makes Earth-friendly replacements

GILBERT – From meat trays to mac-and-cheese cups, single-use plastics pack the grocery-store aisles and usually end up in landfills. Now, an Arizona company is on a mission to replace them with biodegradable and compostable products over the next five years.

“We had the vision that the whole world was going to demand alternatives to plastic,” said Troy Swope, founder and CEO of Footprint.

The trick is inventing a material that’s as convenient and useful as plastic.

Mushroom container prototypes made of molded biodegradable fibers are stacked and prepared for shipment to Walmart at Footprint’s facility in Gilbert. (Photo by Celisse Jones/Cronkite News)

Swope, who’s passionate about overcoming obstacles through innovation, and his business partners created Footprint in 2012. The company’s leaders used to work for Intel before putting their technology and innovation skills to work to start their own company.

They now produce packaging for big companies, including Walmart, Costco, Tyson Foods and Kraft.

The company does have competitors, such as Be Green Packaging in South Carolina, but most of these companies are focused on simple solutions to single-use plastics, such as takeout containers. Footprint is working on technology to tackle more difficult plastics, like frozen-food containers and meat trays.

They do this in their manufacturing facility in Gilbert, which recently relocated to a new industrial park. Much of the manufacturing space is empty, but the company, which currently employees 650 people, plans to expand over the next several years, and add 250 workers.

Stacked up along the walls of the production floor are bales of corrugated paper – cardboard – the first step in creating biodegradable products. The paper is ground up and mixed with various solutions, depending on the product, before going through heating machines that mold the material at 338 degrees.

Corrugated fiberboard is stacked before being used to form biodegradable molded-fiber packaging at Footprint. (Photo by Celisse Jones/Cronkite News)

The products are made from a slurry. Different coatings are added to the mixture to create barriers against moisture, oxygen and oil, which is needed for food products to maintain shelf life while in storage.

This year, Footprint began producing paper straws, and it plans to increase straw production by the end of the year. They’re working to find the perfect paper and adhesive combination to make a long-lasting straw.

“The most difficult part is the customers want biodegradability and compostability, yet they still want the product to behave like plastic,” said Yoke Chung, chief technology officer of Footprint.

The science behind the products is important, and so is the company’s environmental impact. It says carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by 40 to 60 percent depending on the type of plastic the Footprint materials are replacing. The company also says energy use drops as much as 50 percent.

“If you start looking at plastic’s true cost,” Swope said, “like the cost to haul it away and store it for 100 and some years, then we’re way lower cost than plastic.”

Mick Dalrymple, director of university sustainability initiatives at Arizona State University, recently toured Footprint. The company has a big, but not impossible, goal, he said.

“It’s a matter of how fast can they scale up. How can they fend off any competitors, and then also things like how can they avoid manufacturers that want to make exclusives with them,” Dalrymple said.

In five years, Footprint has invented more than 400 items, patenting at least three dozen of those items, including containers for produce.

“We want you to walk into a grocery store today, and you see all the plastic, and in five years, you’re going to walk into that grocery store and go, we changed this whole store – the bakery, the meat trays, the yogurt containers, right, the coffee lid on the way out – we’re going to transform that grocery store and it’s going to happen fast,” Swope said.

Footprint plans to increase production in the United States and expand into Mexico and Europe over the next few years.

– Video by Bryce Newberry/Cronkite News