Looking forward at the strange, beautiful future of tattoos

Looking forward at the strange, beautiful future of tattoos

CultureApril 20, 2017 By Isabelle Kohn

Let's talk about tattoos.

People have always have had them. They've been around for 12,000 years. Still today, nearly 40 percent of Americans are inked, a massive population whose commitment to sparkle motion makes tattooing a $1.65 billion dollar industry.

However, despite their historic presence on the integument of humankind, tattoos have always been the same old "excruciating needle stabbing you with questionably designed thing you'll later regret" song and dance. Over, and over, and over. 

Well, no more. Thanks to an overwhelming amount of inspired technological and artistic innovation in the past decade, tattoos are no longer just flaming eight-ball shaped mistakes taking up permanent real estate on your bicep. Instead, they've evolved into something much, much more.

Today's tattoos are rapidly becoming fully-fledged futuristic interfaces upon which increasingly cozy relationship between the human body and technology can flourish and expand. Everyone from bio-hackers to neurologists to extreme body modification artists are rethinking tattoos in terms of what they're capable of, which, turns out, is everything from medical tools to augmented reality platforms. Tattoos can be digital devices, animated GIFs, and insanely forward-thinking pieces of futuristic body art that transcend the 2D surface of your spray tan to bring both the wearer and viewer a 3D, interactive experience.

UV Blacklight Tattoos

Also known as UV tattoos or invisible tattoos, black light tattoos are created using an ink that's made of photo-luminescent compounds which glow under black light, but are invisible to the naked eye. Most people tend to use UV ink shading as a way to make traditional tattoos pop, but others do the whole kit and caboodle in UV ink, making for body art you can never really see until you accidentally step foot inside a rave or have your house raided by the DEA.

... Or unless you have your own black light. That, too.

However, while they look bona fide Avatar-certified and their popularity is growing, many people have raised questions about UV ink's health risks, of which there seem to be many. But hey, it's risky just to drive to work, so ... no one is too worried about it.

Animated and Augmented Reality Tattoos

Karl Marc, a tattoo artist from Paris, claims to have created the world's first-ever animated tattoo.

To do it, he tattooed an actual QR code on an intrepid volunteer, then programmed software on his smartphone to respond to the code. When you place the smartphone over his design, the phone makes the tattoo move and do a little dance when seen through the phone's camera.

Here, look:

Since then, many tech companies have been working on what are called "augmented reality tattoos," which are barcodes or images tattooed onto the skin that, when activated by certain software (usually an app), come to life as they jump off the person's flesh and flail around with animate aplomb. Some are permanent, while others are temporary.

One Buenos Aires-based company called Think An App, recently developed a smartphone app to recognize an AR barcode tattoo. Here's one of the augmented reality designs they came up with:

Other companies are manipulating augmented reality to design apps that let people test out tattoos before they get them permanently inked into their supple flesh. One, called Ink Hunter, lets you upload whatever image you're thinking of engraving on yourself to the app, where it transmits the image in 3D real-time to your skin. You can move your body part around and see how that barbed wire-covered soccer ball would actually look:

Currently, this technology serves are more of a novelty than anything else — people aren't really knocking down the doors of tattoo parlors for AR tats that make a cool dragon pop out when you point your e-phone at them — but they do give a good sense of what direction of technological exploration and self-expression tattoos are going.

LED Tattoos

From what we've seen so far, it seems pretty likely that the future of tattoos is going to be post-ink. Gizmodo — the probable experts on such things — predicts that, "in some cases, ink will become ephemeral, like the data for an animated GIF floating in the ether. In other cases, though, the ink is actually a gadget itself."

The latter option is definitely the case when it comes to LED tattoos. In lieu of a needle puncturing ink into your corpus, this futuristic body modification involves implanting LED displays under the skin. LED tattoos are made of silicon electronics that are less than 250 nanometers thick and built onto dissolvable silk substrates, which, when injected with saline, disappear completely, leaving only the pretty glow-lights behind. The electronics then harness the body's own electrical currents to power LED lights which work as photonic tattoos. Already being implanted into mice, these tattoos can essentially turn your skin into a screen capable of displaying anything you program it to — a handy GPS map on the back of your wrist to help you get around; a stoplight feature that tells people whether you're single or taken; a full-body advertisement for fuckin' ... Tampax. Or whatever.

Combine this with bioluminescent UV ink in your future fantasy, and you could easily turn yourself into a walking version of Times Square. Only difference is, you can be turned off and returned to inconspicuous humanity.

Philips Design imagined what this next-generation body art might look like in this weirdly sexual video from 2008.

However, we're still a ways away from the day when you can get a butterfly-shaped LED tattoo implanted on your tramp area, and word's still out whether that'll be as embarrassing as an ink tattoo would be 20 years down the line when it pops out at the grocery store just above your plumber's crack as you reach for a thing of Pace Picante.

In the meantime, people are currently working with more rudimentary forms of LED tattoos. Far off from the Times Square displays imagined above, but still pretty cool nonetheless, they're currently being installed by experienced pierces and bio-hackers like the group like Grindhouse Wetware to help enhance people's existing tattoos or create a works of body art entirely in a league of their own. 

"People from the biohacking community wanted it. They contacted us because they wanted to light up their tattoos," GW's Shawn Sarver explained to Motherboard.

Here's a design they came up with:

Freaky, no?

LED tattoos are more than aesthetic statements, though. Neurologist and bioengineer Brian Litt thinks they can also be used as futuristic medical devices that relay bodily information to patients and their doctors (for example, blood sugar levels for diabetics).

Animated GIF Tattoos

A few years ago, artist Anthony Antonellis dropped jaws when he developed a new form of body modification that allowed him to receive animated GIFs via a tiny antenna tattooed into his skin. The antenna he designed — which would become the world's first-ever digital tattoo —  transmits a signal to an app, which relays the GIF onto the screen. He plans on using it to collaborate with artists so that his body essentially becomes a rotating, interactive GIF gallery.

"Think of it as a changeable, digital net art tattoo," he told the Atlantic.

At this point, we could keep explaining it to you, but, why tell when we can show?

(Video contains blood).

Clearly, when it comes to the future of tattoos, ink is a nostalgist's game. A new era of tattoos and a re-imagining of what they can be is pushing the boundaries of both technology and self expression. Skin is no longer just an organ that protects your meat; and tattoos are no longer emblems of a low-life or a drunken night in Cabo  — together, they're they're the computer and the program; a testing ground for the increasing symbiosis of flesh and function.

All that said, there's nothing stopping you from getting a bioluminescent LED hologram of a donut playing a flute. You're still human, after all.