America loves tattoos. From tribal designs to tramp stamps, this country can't get enough ink. Last month, a Pew study showed that tattoos grace the bodies of nearly 40 percent of Americans under 40, a massive number of customers in a $1.65 billion industry. Like any industry, however, the tattoo industry must innovate.
But what on Earth does tattoo innovation look like? What are we going to do next? Make them light up, or monitor our health, or turn into computers? What is the future of tattoos?
Everyone from neurologists to biohackers is reinventing the very idea of the tattoo. With the right technology, tattoos can do a lot more than just look beautiful or badass. They can become digital devices as useful and complex as the smartphone that bounces around in your pocket. It sounds wildly futuristic, but the technology already exists.
Before wading too deep into the future of tattoos, it's useful to understand where the custom comes from—and it sort of comes from everywhere. Ancient cultures, from Africa to the British Isles to the South Pacific, practiced some form of tattooing, often for ceremonial purposes. Even cavemen did it.
One of the earliest known examples of tattooing was found on Ötzi, a Neolithic man mummified in the Swiss Alps and uncovered in 1991. Ötzi's well preserved skin shows signs of tattooing in several places, including dots on his back, knee, and ankle, locations that suggests they were given as a form of healing, a more artistic form of acupuncture. Ancient Egyptians also used tattoos as a form of medicine, but the body art took on a more cultural role elsewhere.
Tattoos took on a new meaning when the British began exploring the world. The name "tattoo" can actually be traced back to a series of journeys through the Pacific that Captain James Cook made in the late 18th century. There, his sailors learned of the Tahitian art of tatau, a ritual involving ink and needle, and many returned to England with their own tattoos. Over the years, tattoos became associated with sailors, who reintroduced the art to Europe and, eventually, to the United States.
Modern tattooing has evolved beyond the crude methods of the British Navy—but not by much. In 1891, New York tattooist Samuel O'Reilly patented the modern two-coil electromagnetic tattoo needle, borrowing the design from Thomas Edison's electric pen. The basic concept behind the device is still what powers tattoo machines today. What's improved dramatically, however, is the ink that goes along with it.
Traditionally, tattoo ink was made of anything from soot to metal salts. As health concerns cropped up around the use of potentially toxic substances as a pigment, natural vegetable-based organic pigments have come into fashion. That doesn't mean that chemicals are out of the picture. It's possible, for instance, to use ferromagnetic ink in tattoos, ink that responds to electromagnetic fields. A couple years ago, Nokia patented a technology that would enable the ink in a tattoo to interact with a device through magnetism. With this technology, your phone could ring and you could literally feel it through your tattoo.
Then there are the more visual innovations. The 90s rave scene helped spawn an ongoing trend of using ultraviolet and glow-in-the-dark ink for tattoos, for example. Often invisible in the daytime, these designs light up under blacklights in the club. Think of them as Tron tats. It's worth noting, however, that the health risks of these radioactive-looking tattoos remain unclear.
The other major innovation in tattoo ink relates to permanence. You see, sometimes people get permanent tattoos—then later regret them and want them removed.
While it's possible to remove permanent tattoos, the process is painful and leaves scars. Or at least it did before scientists from Harvard, Brown, and Duke teamed up to create Freedom-2 ink, a removable ink that stored the dye in microscopic capsules that can be easily eradicated with a laser. So it's entirely possible in the 21st-century to get a tattoo made of vegetables that glows and can be removed almost painlessly. Progress!
The future of tattoos doesn't really lie in the ink, on the other hand. A new era of tattoos essentially reinvents the very definition of the art by pushing the boundaries of technology. Think of putting ink in your skin as analog, and you can start to get an idea of what a digital tattoo can do. Some will amaze you.
In the future, tattoos will do things. If you imagine a sort of post-ink tattoo, you can comprehend the emerging field of bio-hacking. This term refers to a practice that's part body modification, part computer hacking, and all kinds of crazy. Artist Anthony Antonellis is one of the true pioneers of the movement. Last year, he stunned the geek world when he implanted an RFID chip in his hand that could store and transmit one kilobyte of information through a tiny antennae. He started out with a simple animated gif (below).
It makes you think: Is that rotating rainbow the tattoo? Or is it the RFID chip Antonellis is carrying around in his hand? Or both?
The animated gif tattoo brings to mind Rich Lee, a 30-something salesman from Utah who implanted sound-transmitting magnets in his ears. The magnets are powered by a coil apparatus that includes a little amplifier and battery pack and plugs into Lee's Walkman (or whatever). The coil creates an electromagnetic field that vibrates the magnets in his ears and creates sound. Lee says the quality is akin to a cheap pair of earbuds—a pair of earbuds he wears at all times. It sounds like a pretty crazy rig, but it sure is a conversation starter at parties.
Now, I know what you're thinking: Putting magnets in your ears or a chip in your hand doesn't really seem like a tattoo. After all, aren't you supposed to see tattoos? Well, remember that the future of tattoos is most likely going to be a post-ink enterprise. 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.
Take LED tattoos. Instead of ink injection, this form of tattooing involves implanting LED displays under the skin. More specifically, LED tattoos are made up of silicon electronics less than 250 nanometers thick, built onto water soluble, biocompatible silk substrates. When injected with saline, the silk substrates conform to fit the surrounding tissue and eventually dissolve completely, leaving only the silicon circuitry. The body won't reject the electronics which can be used to power LEDs that act as photonic tattoos.
This is not science fiction. The University of Pennsylvania's Brian Litt, a neurologist and bioengineer, is perfecting a form of this technology that could be used to build futuristic medical devices—say, a tattoo that gives diabetics information about their blood sugar level. (The idea that futuristic tattoos might serve a medical purpose sure brings us full circle back to Ötzi and his arthritis treatment, huh?)
However, the technology could also power next generation body art, like animated tattoos that make you look like a mutant. Philips imagined what that might look like in this (rather sexual) video from 2008:
The tattoos of the future inevitably have to work with the technology of today. We're probably a few years away from the Philips fantasy up there, but creative tattooists are figuring out ways around the limitations. Karl Marc, a tattoo artist from Paris, says he created the world's first animated tattoo that makes use of a QR code and a smartphone. The code basically activates software on the phone that makes the tattoo move when seen through the phone's camera. It's legitimately cool.
Then there's the temporary approach. Things get very tricky when you start putting foreign bodies—ink, silicon, or otherwise—into the body. But if you're just putting the electronics on top of the skin, well, that changes the game.
Materials scientist John Rogers is doing some pretty incredible work with flexible electronics that stick to your skin like a temporary tattoo. These so-called "epidural electronics" can do anything from monitoring your body's vital signs to alerting you when you're starting to get a sunburn. Rogers and his company MC10 are currently trying to figure out ways to get the electronics to communicate with other devices like smartphones so that they can start building apps.
Google isn't far behind them. This year, the company's Motorola division patented a device that looks like a neck tattoo. Like Rogers' technology, this device is attached directly to the skin where it picks up vibrations from the vocal cords creating a microphone with virtually no interference. It's hard to tell if they filed the patent because they wanted to win some attention or because they actually want to build and sell the thing. But it's still cool to imagine.
Along those lines, don't expect to be able to walk into your local parlor and ask for a digital tattoo any time too soon. While the technology exists to make some pretty incredible stuff, it's still very specialized and incredibly expensive. It'll take some time for the demand to increase enough so that industry offers up the supply. Because remember: body art is a business. And businesses need incentives to change course.
Images via Shutterstock / Wikipedia / AP / MIT