I figured we’d run out of things to talk about by hour two, maybe reverting to small talk about the weather or weekend plans. That’s how it usually went with other artists. But Victor showed no signs of stopping—from venus fly traps to Blade Runner, he rattled on without even looking up, long hair hanging over his shoulders, tattooed arms bent in an effortless precision, black latex gloves matching a worn t-shirt with ink stains. I stared down at his Converse on the tile floor as we talked, half listening to his rambling and eavesdropping on the afternoon chatter around the tattoo shop.
“How are you doing?” he asked over the buzz of the needle and alt-rock.
“Great,” I peeked at the ink on my shoulder and paused. “Hey, has tech changed the tattoo industry at all?”
Victor nodded to the equipment on the table next to him. “Same shit, really…just now you can buy it anywhere, and anyone can become a tattoo artist,” he lifted the needle to pause. “Which is good for the industry, I guess, but like with any tech stuff, there’s a trade-off, right?”
Victor was right—the tattoo industry is doing well. According to IbisWorld, tattoos make up a $1B industry in the US, with projected growth of 6.5% over the next 4 years. There are nearly 40,000 tattoo shops in the country, and 3 in 10 American adults (45 million in total) have at least 1 tattoo. This number jumps to nearly 1 in 5 when focusing on the millennial segment. Americans spend almost $1.7 trillion on tattoos annually.
While the practice of tattooing dates back to Neolithic times (the word tattoo itself comes from the Tahitian word “tatau”), the first registered American tattoo shop was owned by Martin Hildebrandt in 1870. In the US, the role of tattoos steadily evolved from one of identification (Hildebrandt’s shop was originally created for Civil War soldiers who needed tattoo IDs, and the advent of social security in the 1930s led to a tattooing craze of SSNs for memory purposes, for example) to one of artistic expression and rebellion.
And now, tattoos are increasingly common, in large part thanks to technology. As Victor said, not much about the tool technology has changed radically in recent years (the introduction of computer imaging and better print technology has helped, certainly), but where those tools are coming from has. While prospective artists used to need licenses and permits to buy equipment, now anyone can become an instant tattoo artist through sites like Worldwide Tattoo Supply, or even eBay (they even have a detailed guide for novices).
Plus, perceptions have changed—again, due to technology. The rise of Miami Ink in 2005 brought tattoos into the mainstream, but it wasn’t until Instagram that tattoos really gained traction, particularly among millennials (consider, for example, Justin Bieber making headlines last week for his enormous stomach tattoo). Instagram, which The Daily Beast calls “part art collective, part marketing tool, part window-shopping for new ink,” has made tattoos more accessible, especially for those new to the scene, and as a Yelp-LinkedIn hybrid it has enabled artists to strengthen their brands, gaining significantly more business through the app. The site, and social media’s heralding of self-expression as a whole, has helped push tattoos as far into the mainstream as to inspire Whole Foods to suggest putting tattoo parlors in its store locations in 2016 and the US Navy to allow neck tattoos on sailors. Creator of video game NBA 2K16 was even sued last year for copyright infringement, as artists argued that they should receive credit for the tattoos featured on player likenesses. In terms of platforms, newer sites such as Tattoodo provide online communities for tattoo enthusiasts and artists, and digital businesses like Inkbay try to capitalize on the fragmentation of the market, offering interested clients the option to pay a flat fee, versus the hourly rate usually demanded.
But something Victor didn’t touch on was technology’s almost sci-fi application of tattoos as wearables. Wearables make up a $30.5B industry, with projected growth of 17% this year. Sure, almost half of these sales are from smartwatches, but the tech tattoo segment is growing, giving a whole new meaning to the oft-used term “digital tattoo” to describe one’s data footprint:
Biomonitor Tattoos: Researchers at Harvard, MIT, and UC-San Diego have created smart tattoo ink that reacts to your body. Bioinks can detect glucose levels in people with diabetes, as well as monitor pH and sodium levels.
Duoskin Tattoos: The MIT Media Lab has created temporary tattoos that use gold leaf and a silicon overlay to sense touch, store data, and communicate with devices through NFC, the same technology behind mobile payments. Motorola even got involved in something similar in 2013, where tattoos would serve as personal password devices.
Project Underskin Biotech Tattoos: Gadi Amit, one of the minds behind the Fitbit, has created a concept for an implantable tattoo, placed in your hand, that can do everything from open your front door to connect on LinkedIn through a handshake.
Soundwave Tattoos: Tattoos in the form of soundwaves allow you to use your body as an instrument; with an app, you can scan your tattoo to play back anything from a song clip to a loved one’s voice.
And beyond these wearables, soon we’ll have semi-permanent tattoos for the less decisive types, and even tattoos done by 3D printers. Tech tattoos are an example of how wearables may change our lives—and while the industry is in its infancy, these tattoos are but a gateway to even more intimate applications: implantables, ingestibles, even invisibles. With this, of course, comes questions about privacy, data, and health risks, but there is great potential here, particularly in the medical sector. Like Victor said, as with all technology, there are always trade-offs—but I think I’ll stick with my traditional tattoos for now.