The Other Needle Experience: What can healthcare learn from a tattoo artist?

Ronan Gibney is the shop owner and tattoo artist of Imperial Tattoo, a custom tattoo shop located on the west side of Toronto established in 2008. Having tattooed people for 16 years, he is exceptionally skilled and talented in creating realistic black and gray tattoos. Together with his fellow artists, Ronan has a deep understanding of the relationship between client, artist, machine, and space, and how these elements work together to create a custom and valuable experience for those who visit his shop.

A needle injection is often considered an uncomfortable and at times polarizing moment for many. Injections are often thought of taking place in a medical setting, where flu shots, boosters, and vaccinations alike are administered to protect us from bacteria and viruses that are threatening to our health. But, injections also happen in many different settings for those needing to self-inject, using specific drugs to help manage their health, whether at home or elsewhere. The moment of injection is much more than the little pinch we feel from the needle breaking our skin and the ensuing burning from the medication being forced into our body. Our tools, environment, and the individuals within it play a much larger role in the physical and psychological effects the experience of injection weighs on us.

Is it possible to design for a better injection experience, despite our instinctive cringing at the very thought? What if we were to look outside medical settings for inspiration – to examples where the dialogue around needles is regarded more positively, and the injection experience is more favorable?

Having gone from counterculture to mainstream, tattooing has provided many fruitful lessons. Decontextualized, the craft is anchored by the notion of permanently marking the skin through many needle injections (or scratches) as a small sacrifice for a greater payoff. Celebrated tattoo artist Ronan Gibney describes the physical tattooing of someone’s skin as a mere moment in the many symbiotic elements crucial to a quality experience, which include the individual receiving a tattoo (client), tattoo artist, machines, inks, and shop environment.

First Impressions Count

At a custom tattoo shop such as Gibney’s – which emphasizes desire over spontaneity – the first interaction starts with either a phone call or drop-in visit to book a preliminary consultation, where one of his artists and the client sit down together to discuss the client’s needs. This scheduled visit is key in helping share a vision for the aesthetic, placement, and meaning of the tattoo that the client is interested in, and provides a chance for the artist to build a deeper relationship with the person they may be tattooing.

This preliminary process is significant in the overall tattoo experience as it sets the tone and degree of comfort between client and artist. “The way we set up our consultations and check on our own appointments – we really take care of things like having people come in, and who gets to sit down and collaborate with and be guided by the artist,” says Gibney. It also provides an opportunity to ask any questions, set expectations, and come to a place of shared understanding. Someone who is receiving a tattoo from a tattoo artist is putting a lot of trust in the expertise of the individual. In a medical setting, establishing the right interpersonal dynamic could be improved. Factors such as time, resources, and training should not be sacrificed due to constraints, as it is detrimental to the individual’s confidence, comfort, and overall experience.

Demystifying the Process

For first timers, the tattoo machine can feel like a vicious device; it is loud and will be repeatedly piercing your skin. To ease clients, the artist can choose to describe many aspects of the experience – helping to demystify the process depending on how uncomfortable their client may be – such as the machine itself, its various motors, or the types of needles and how they correlate to different tattooing techniques. They also describe and illustrate the depth in which the needle penetrates the skin by using their hands or using the tattoo machine to show that the needles only scratch the surface of the skin.

Not surprisingly, clarifying the depth – or lack thereof – puts people at ease, knowing the risk of causing greater bodily harm to their organs and bodily processes is not there. Gibney describes his approach: “One of the ways I used to make people feel comfortable would be just showing them the needle. They’ll look at it because the actual needle assembly is pretty long and you just show them we’re only using about the first two millimeters of these pins. You just sort of explain exactly what’s going to happen and you tell them, ‘it’s not a feeling of an injection, it’s just scratching.’ Most of the time that sets them at ease.”

It’s important to have the right tool for the right job, but what is even better is when the same tool adds positivity to the overall experience and environment by way of its design

Form Affects Function – and Experience

The injection device plays a large role in the experience. Take, for example, the tattoo artist’s machine. Among the few different types that have developed over the years, the most traditional form is called stick and poke, where individual needles or groupings of needles are used in combination with ink and manually inserted under the skin without the use of a small motor. This type of tattoo method is much slower, as each mark is made by hand, one by one. The much more common second option is the machine that uses electromagnetic coils which move an armature back and forth. These devices can be quite heavy, often equipped with stainless steel parts, and buzzing loudly as a result. Lastly, there is the rotary tattoo machine powered by regulated motors. These machines are much lighter and quieter.

Interestingly, the rotary motor has drastically changed the tattooing experience for Gibney, who has observed a smoother experience for both himself as an artist and for his clients. “Using the rotary machine and the disposable tubes has really taken the edge off. I can do longer sittings now, and it’s easier on my hands.” It’s important to have the right tool for the right job, but what is even better is when the same tool adds positivity to the overall experience and environment by way of its design.

There are many different forms of medical injection devices, all of which have their pros and cons. What has been illustrated here is the physical and psychological influence of a tool or machine. A quieter, lighter, and more comfortable machine can, as Gibney mentioned, “take the edge off.”

This begs the question: Can we design for a better injection that optimizes the device form, features, and function to make for a better experience? Both the studio’s layout and design, and the expertise and style of its artists are what differentiates both the experience and quality of their work. Providing a custom and quality tattoo goes beyond the mark on the body. It’s about creating a space where those looking to illuminate their skin are connected to artists who can help guide them in their choices, coming together in a beautiful experience and piece of work. Our environment, and the people and tools within it, affect how comfortable and confident we feel about the needle – be it an injection or a tattoo.

Read more about the integration of technology and the human body with:
A Reason to Cross the Final Boundary of Skin: What can Healthcare learn from a Cyborg Professor?
Hacking the Body to Hack The System: What can Healthcare learn from a Biohacker?

Featured in the MISC 2015 : The Creative Process Issue.

Braeden Watts is a design strategist at Idea Couture. He is based in Toronto, Canada.

the author

Braeden Watts

Braeden Watts is a former design strategist at Idea Couture.