Almost every culture from the past 5,000 years has shown some evidence of decorative skin tinkering. As we move into the 21st century, tattoo culture, much like everything else, is being fused with technology. From tattoos that act as embedded sensors to high-tech ink that can be easily removed, tattoos in the new millennium may look similar to how they have in the past, but they may also boast some added functionality.
Scheduled to launch in July 2017, Soundwave tattoos are designs based on waveforms uploaded to the company's website. Be it the laugh of your baby or your favorite song quote, a short waveform design is generated and can be tattooed onto your body. The image and associated audio is uploaded to a database and can be accessed using the Soundwave app by scanning the tattoo.
Due to the intricacy and complexity in the data an actual waveform contains, it seems the system doesn't actually read the waveform off the skin, but rather uses the corresponding image to reference an audio file from its database. Maybe in the future we'll be able to print detailed enough waveforms on our skin to actually hold complete audio data, but right now on just a visual design level this seems like an appropriately modern aesthetic choice for the 21st century.
Imagine a stylish tattoo that also functioned as a touch-based interface for controlling your computer, TV or smart device. In 2016 Microsoft and MIT joined forces to develop a fabrication process that turned gold leaf temporary tattoos into just such a touch-sensitive interface.
With wireless communication capabilities, the DuoSkin design can function essentially as a skin-based remote control for whatever can be remotely controlled. The gold leaf technology can also be used to track body temperature or embed an NFC chip, so paying for a coffee or opening your car door could be achieved with the wave of a hand.
Wearable sensor technology has been fusing with tattoo culture for a few years now, and much innovation has occurred in the medical monitoring world. From a temporary tattoo that can monitor your glucose levels to a transdermal sensor that picks up alcohol levels in the wearer's sweat, embedding body sensors into stylish tattoos is an obvious fit.
Electronic tattoo developer Chaotic Moon has been working on a project called TechTats for several years. Its system embeds electrodes onto a tattoo template that sits on a person's skin and tracks biometric data, such as body temperature or heart rate. The data can then be transmitted wirelessly to a nearby device.
The current technology is a little cumbersome, looking like a weird stick-on tattoo at this stage, but it isn't too difficult to see this evolving in the future into nano-laden inks that are embedded into the skin in more traditional tattoo-like ways.
Disappearing tattoo ink
The permanent nature of a tattoo is probably the biggest psychological challenge someone faces when getting inked. Is this a design you want to have on your body for the rest of your life? Up until recently the only options for the hesitant were superficial temporary tattoos, or possibly painful laser removal if they decided to forge ahead and ended up regretting things down the track. But now a company has devised a series of inks that can be easily flushed out of your skin after just a few months.
Ephemeral Tattoos, set to publicly launch sometime in 2018, are offering three, six or 12 month tattoos made up of a patented ink containing smaller molecules than standard tattoo dyes. This means that when you are ready to get rid of the tattoo, you just go over the original design with a special removal solution that flushes the ink molecules out of your skin.
Researchers at the University of California have developed bio-inks that contain specific enzymes that can detect certain chemicals. For example, one of the bio-inks is designed to measure glucose levels beneath the skin, while other inks can detect pollutants in the air.
The early incarnation of the technology has the ink only functioning as a sensor, so an external device is still needed to process the data, but the team is currently working on inks that can communicate wirelessly with a monitoring device.
This would point us to a future where a diabetic could possibly get a tattoo that contains a glucose sensing bio-ink. No more fiddly finger-prick tests, but rather a hi-tech tattoo that constantly monitors and communicates the wearer's glucose levels.
There's seemingly no industry that won't be touched by 3D printing technology, so why would tattooing be any different? In the quest for machine-based tattooing, France-based company Appropriate Audiences has created a 3D printer that could successfully tattoo a human arm.
The early demonstrations of the machine only offered simple designs on limited parts of the body, but the ability to precisely and repeatedly tattoo a specific design cheaply and quickly makes it not unreasonable to imagine a future where tattoo parlors are just automated robotic spaces where tattoos are mechanically inked at the push of a button.
So really, the future of tattoos offers something for everyone. A tattoo that can disappear after a year for the indecisive types, a tattoo that works as a medical monitor for those with a complex chronic illness, or even a tattoo that can be used as a remote control for the TV – perfect for those that keep losing the remote.
Tattoos have well and truly moved into the mainstream in recent times, and blending the yearning for self-decoration and self-expression with modern technology is likely to make them even more popular – not to mention more functional.