What a Tattoo Looks Like Up Really, Really Close

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Photo: Marianne Hamel

This is what a tattoo looks like up close — really, really, really close. You’re looking at a picture of a piece of dead, tattooed skin tissue, magnified to 400 times its original size; it’s part of an ongoing exhibit at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia called “Death Under Glass,” notes Science Friday. 

Marianne Hamel, the medical examiner and forensic pathologist who captured the microscopic image, called me this morning to explain more about the photo (she had some time between autopsies, no big deal). So here’s precisely what this picture shows us: The wavy, stringy stuff all the way to the right is keratin, the outermost layer of skin. Moving in to the left, that purple layer is the epidermis. The rest of the pinkish stuff is the dermis, the deepest layer of the skin. And that red stuff, in the center of the dermis? That’s the tattoo pigment.

The dermis is where the tattoo pigment actually lives,” Hamel said. “That’s why tattoos are permanent — they live in the deep layer of the skin that you never lose.” Side note: Something about hearing a forensic pathologist describe — on a break between autopsies, no less — why tattoos last forever makes you consider their permanence on a whole new level, no?