How to Make Tattoo Ink

Indigenous man with tattooed face
Many tattoo inks were prepared using burnt wood ashes. Traditional Maori tattoo ink has been made this way for hundreds of years, if not longer. George Steinmetz / Getty Images

The earliest tattoo inks came from nature. You can use non-toxic natural ingredients to make your own homemade tattoo ink. This tattoo ink recipe is simple and has been used in various forms for thousands of years. It's sometimes called wood ash ink, carbon black tattoo ink, or a poke-and-stick tattoo.

Homemade Tattoo Ink Ingredients

The earliest tattoo inks were prepared by mixing ashes from completely burned wood together with water.

The wood ashes were nearly pure carbon, which yielded a black to brown tattoo. While carbon is the base for modern tattoo inks, it's not a great idea to use water as the liquid to suspend the ink (the "carrier"). While a homemade tattoo ink may be prepared using sterile distilled water, poking the ink into the skin will force bacteria on the skin into the deeper layers. A non-toxic disinfectant, such as vodka, is a better choice. Vodka is a mixture of alcohol in water. Any other "white" alcohol, such as rubbing alcohol or tequila, would work.

Prepare the ink from:

  • 1 cup carbon black ashes (e.g., from completely burned wood)
  • just enough vodka to create a slurry

Prepare the ink by mixing the carbon black and vodka in a blender (15 minutes to an hour). If the mixture is too thin, add more carbon pigment. If the mixture is too thick, thin it with a little more vodka. It is best to prepare fresh homemade ink for each use, though the ink could be stored in a sealed container away from sunlight and blended again.

It's a good idea to wear a mask and gloves when applying a tattoo to prevent the spread of infectious agents. The tattoo can be applied using a pin or quill that is dipped into the ink and poked into the skin.

Notes About Wood and Paper

  • Some people make this ink by burning wood into a heat-proof bowl. The advantage of using paper is that it produces fine carbon particles.The disadvantage is that some types of paper are treated with chemicals that may remain in the ashes (e.g., heavy metals).
  • If you're using wood, be aware you'll get slightly different results depending on the species of wood that you burn.
  • If you know you'll need multiple batches of ink to complete a tattoo, it's a good idea to use the same source for the carbon each time and to keep track of how much ash and liquid you're using. Careful measurement will help ensure each batch has the same particle density, which translates into color intensity.

Tattoo Ink Safety Notes

While you can prepare your own ink and give yourself or a friend a tattoo, this is not a good idea for most people. Professional inks are much more consistent in quality and safer to use, so they will give you better results with less chance of a reaction to the ink. Also, tattoo professionals are trained in aseptic techniques, so you will have much less chance of getting an infection or accidentally puncturing a blood vessel if you get your tattoo inked by a trained artist.