The Future of Tattoos

Tattoos have been around for centuries and the oldest tattoo is dated somewhere between 3370 and 3100 BC on the body of Ötzi the Iceman. 

Considering how long tattoos have been around, I started to think about how much the process and techniques have changed as technology has advanced. I personally have two tattoos and both were done in essentially the exact same way, so I was wondering how much this industry has changed and will change. Tattooing typically involves placing pigment into the layer of dermal tissue under the epidermis via a single needle or group of needles. 

However, technology has started to merge more with tattoos and they no longer simply serve as art on the body. Launched back in April of 2017, tattoo artist Nate Siggard created the first soundwave tattoo that people can play back using a mobile app. You can visit Nate’s website and upload an audio file to generate the stencil for the soundwave. This audio file can be up to 30 seconds long and can be a song or voice message. Once you get the tattoo, you need to upload a photo of it, pay $39.99 to activate the soundwave audio, and then $9.99 each year after. Through a combination of audio processing, image recognition, computer vision, and cloud computing on top of a custom built proprietary platform using Javascript and Python, the audio can be played back on the app by scanning the tattoo with your phone. 

Back in 2016, Microsoft and MIT worked together to create DuoSkin, a gold leaf temporary tattoo that works as an on-skin user interface. It can essentially serve as a skin based remote control and also changes color based on temperature. This allows for people to track their body temperature while having a dynamic design. When paired with an NFC chip, people can pay for their movie tickets or food with a wave of a hand. I thought this application is extremely interesting, aside from how cool the design looks. 

The medical field has also combined with the tattoo industry, as seen by the development of temporary tattoos that monitor glucose levels for diabetics. A team from the University of California, San Diego created precisely patterned electrodes printed on temporary tattoo paper in 2015. The diabetic places the tattoo onto the skin as well as a mild electrical current. The sodium ions, which carry glucose, migrate towards the electrodes. Through a built-in sensor, the tattoo measures the strength of the electrical charge and can ascertain the glucose levels. This provides a great alternative to pricking a finger and is relatively inexpensive. 

Some people shy away from getting tattoos because they are permanent, so Ephemeral Tattoos set out to create tattoos that last 3 months, 6 months, and 1 year. They are working on providing ink that contains smaller molecules than traditional tattoos so that you can go over the original design with removal solution to flush all of the ink molecules out of the skin. The ink is designed to dissolve overtime and this can mitigate the risk of not liking a tattoo, and therefore not having to painfully remove it through laser removal. 

3-D printers have become increasingly more popular and have even entered the tattoo world. France-based company, Appropriate Audiences, created a 3D printer that can tattoo a human arm. As of right now the printer can only tattoo simple designs on few parts of the body. As this technology develops, people can expect to have precise tattoos at cheaper rates, bringing in the question of if robots or printers will replace tattoo artists in the future. I do believe people enjoy the human component of getting a tattoo, especially because artists can give advice about the placement, size, and look of a tattoo. If someone is looking for a simple design though, I could see them being performed by printers.  

Tattoos no longer only serve as a work of art on the body, but have expanded into several different fields that we typically do not immediately think of. I used to think of temporary tattoos as something that I put on myself as a kid for Halloween, but now they serve several incredible purposes that I would have never imagined. The process of traditional tattoos has essentially stayed the same for a while now, but the usages have expanded immensely, providing several benefits that we typically do not associate with a form of art. I think that the technology behind tattoos will continue to expand and become more interactive and compatible with our phones and I am interested to see what the future holds. 

What do you guys think? Would you try out any of these tattoos or have you heard of any new iterations of them? Sound off below! 

12 comments

  1. Interesting topic to read about! I’m surprised it took so long for 3D printers to begin with basic tattoo designs. The sound wave tattoo is a cool business idea; people better like whatever song/ message they choose since they are stuck with it…unless this could be linked with the temporary tattoos which last anywhere from 3-12 months? It will be interesting to see how this industry continues to evolve with technology…would like to see tattoo artists work in collaboration with the 3D machines. If given the option, and 3D tattoo printing was well-established, would you choose 3D over a human tattoo artist?

  2. I have to admit, I have never been a huge fan of tattoos. However, if I needed to do so for health reasons, I would not hesitate for a minute on inking my skin. I was most intrigued by your description of how tattoos have impacted the medical industry. For individuals who are diabetic, the use of tattoos to detect glucose levels seems like it would be life changing. On the other hand, using a tattoo to pay for food or movie tickets sounds terrifying. I was just starting to get comfortable using Apple Pay. Really great post!

  3. Cool post! I don’t have a tattoo myself, but have long thought about getting one. Since then I have noticed new and interesting ways/reasons people are beginning to get tattoos, for example the increase in ads for the temporary tattoos to give people the chance to the test the waters. I have heard a little lit about the glucose level monitor, and I think this is a great option for some folks. A have a few young friends that are diabetic and the one thing they complain about is the amount of different devices they have to use. 3D printing seems to be shaping a lot of different industries as well, this reminds me of the way the medical field has started to use printing of organs or for surgeries, I think there is always a threshold of risk with these things. I am not surprised it has taken this long.

  4. Very interesting post! I have never thought about tattoos as more than an expression of meaning for the person getting it, but the description of how they are being used in the medical field was really eye opening. Being able to use a non invasive system to monitor glucose levels seems to have a huge value proposition, especially among young diabetics. Also if it is relatively cheap, all the better. I wonder how else they can be used in this industry and if we will see many new use cases popping up in the coming years.

  5. Wow, this post had me hooked from start to finish. I had no idea these types of things were happening in this space as I’m pretty indifferent on tattoos. As you discussed, I’ve never been certain on whether I want a tattoo for life so the ability to basically take a test-run for a few months is a great solution to this regular issue. I’ve seen the sound wave scanning idea in other places but just in a card or framed piece of art, never on skin! I think its a good idea but $50 seems like a hefty price when you can have the sound bit stored elsewhere on your phone or computer. However, since tattoos are very personal I can see the appeal of wanting to have it as a piece of you no matter where you go. I don’t think I would trust getting a tattoo from a 3D printer even though there is less room for human error. As you said, I would want the trusted opinion on size and design by a person and would feel more comfortable if I were to squirm or need to stop abruptly that a computer wouldn’t have as quick reaction time to. I think its interesting how these types of programs will evolve and when users will be able to get these tech benefits ingrained in whatever design they want.

  6. For a while I was tempted to get an ephemeral tattoo but eventually decided against it. Honestly, its great that some technology is being focused on an often regretted yet permanent decision people make. The medical uses of tattoos are particularly interesting. For diabetics, I’m sure the temporary tattoo is definitely favored over the more painful pricking. Personally though, I don’t think that the sound byte tattoos are too appealing. I mean the revenue scheme is really a bit excessive, $10 a year indefinitely is pretty steep when you think of it, all for a cool 30s story, unless it has some sentimental value. I’m interested to see what’s to come with the technology these epidermal tattoos can use like opening doors or making purchases. Interesting post about something previously never considered with tech!

  7. Interesting ideas here. Like others, I am also not a huge fan of inking skin, however, you brought up several entirely new use cases that could help change the way healthcare and technology collect and utilize data. Specifically, the ability to monitor glucose levels in diabetic patients sounds like a great idea provided it could be pulled off. Also, the temporary tattoos that help monitor body temperature could be helpful for those with a server fever requiring constant monitoring.

  8. Really interesting post! The idea of 3D printers doing tattoos is wild, yet I’m not surprised. I think you are right for simple tattoos, especially words/writing, I think the space will welcome it. The printer I would imagine, in time, will be able to be very precise. Hopefully, it can help prevent botched tattoos with typos etc. However, tattoos that lean more on the art side, I don’t think you could ever fully eliminate the artist. Maybe the machine will do the actual tattoo, but the design will still need to come from somewhere, and there will still need to be the interaction between the artist and the client.

  9. This was really interesting! I’ve honestly never thought too much about tattoos, although I do have a few friends who love them. The idea of using 3D printers to bring down the cost of tattoos is really interesting, and I wonder how long it will take for the technology to be able to replicate really intricate pieces.

    Regarding the medical uses of temporary tattoos – this is awesome. It’s a really great example of how technology can be used to make people’s lives easier. I’ll be watching to see if there is some way to combine using 3D printers to make tattoos, and medical tattoos, to make some of these applications significantly less expensive for the people that need them on a regular basis.

  10. Wow, this was super interesting to read! I had no idea such technologies existed, and I never really thought about how technology could transform the tattoo industry. It really makes me wonder what the industry will look like later in the future, as 3D printing becomes more commonplace. How would that affect the jobs of tattoo artists? As you said, I’m sure 3D printers won’t be able to complete intricate tattoo designs as of now, but who knows, maybe it’ll get a lot more advanced later on. It’ll certainly decrease both the costs and time it takes to get a tattoo, which is a huge benefit. I also think it’s cool how tattoos can be used for medical purposes. This intersection between the healthcare and tattoo industries is very innovative and I see a lot of potential in it. This was a very well researched post!

  11. I have been a non-supporter of tattoos from the day I saw one. I never understood the appeal or attraction. As I have grown up and seen how people display them on their body, in a sleeve form or just a simply a few symbols on the wrist, I can’t help but see that the tattoo market has expanded. With your reference to technology being a big driver to create new opportunities to wear them and not have them permanently branded ie: Ephemeral Tattoos, I am more open to the idea of maybe starting to support them. Thanks for deep dive on how this industry is being shaped and the process firms are going through to try and expand the consumer want – creating healthier alternatives, medical purposes/solutions and even tracking body temperature. This leads me to – anything is possible in this era. What is the next trend?

  12. Wow I had no idea about all of the different kinds of tattoos. As many above, I have never been tempted to get a tattoo myself and could only see myself getting a small one if it was something really meaningful to me. I love the idea of being able to get it for a period of 6 months or a year to see if you actually like it, I think I would for sure do that first if I ever wanted one. Also the medical used, and even the commercial uses, are really amazing and completely new to me, and it was really interesting to read about!

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