Frightful Or Functional? A New Era for Tattoos (Part One)

I’m doing something new — contributing posts to the University of Michigan Risk Science Center blog. Andrew said it was fine to also post them here, which is a win-win as far as I’m concerned. This encourages me to get out of my rut and explore some new and very different topics from what I have been doing in this blog. I’m excited! So this is the first post, originally posted at

[[There is one human in the panel.  The human points at their chest.]] Human: I just have one tattoo - it's six dots on my chest, done by my oncologist.  Human: I need them for aligning the laser sights on a flesh-searing relativistic particle cannon,  Human: So it will only kill the parts of me  [[Dramatic zoom, the panel background is black, with white text.]] Human: That are holding me back.  [[The panel is larger, revealing who they're talking to.]] Human: But your barbed wire bicep tattoo is pretty hardcore, too! Dejected: No, it's OK.  I'll just go put a shirt on.

xkcd: 933: Tattoo

The idea of a functional tattoo is not new. In a sense, tattoos have always been functional, just that the functions have tended to focus more on social bonding, status, communication, and beauty, rather than as specific tools or technologies. That vision of a ‘functional’ tattoo solely social in purpose is changing.

Curious about how tattoos are turning functional? This ranges from the ridiculous to the sublime, and touches on several points in between. You can find a house “tattooed” to meet building codes (yes, that’s by a different Andrew Maynard); tattoos with medical instructions; temp tattoos to help find lost kids or kids with special needs or allergies;and tattooed tools such as a ruler or a to-do list (also available as a temporary tattoo).

Increasing in popularity are cosmetic tattoos, usually to give a woman permanent makeup (but makeup tattoos are also available as temp tats). Tattoos can also serve to reconstruct normal appearance for some medical conditions or following accidents or injuries. Then there are legitimate medical tattoos done by doctors instead of tattoo artists, such as those used to position targets for radiation therapy to treat cancer (as in the comic at the head of this post).

The next level would include scientists and researchers who have chosen tattoos of their research area’s core equations (“tools of the trade”) or similar concepts. Many of these have been immortalized in Carl Zimmer’s book Science Ink.

Those are all ideas that could have been done with tattoos at any time in humanity’s history. I’m not stopping with the obvious or easy. Well, this next one sort of is easy, and sort of isn’t. At least it’s temporary? PaceTat is a temporary tattoo for runners showing their mileage and speed and other useful metrics runners sometimes wish for while in mid-marathon. Another potentially useful temporary tattoo for runners and campers (and Michiganders in summer) is the Bugga Bugga infused with vitamins and scents to keep bugs away (if the developer can work out the child safety issues)!

Less temporary, but equally techy (and probably more innovative and awesome), are the new breed of medical tattoos that track personal health data metrics with an eye toward early intervention when problems crop up.  Tattoos to improve health is a brainchild of Heather Clark. Her team developed nanosensor tattoos that are embedded in the skin and fluoresce when scanned with an iPhone. They started with sensors that monitor blood glucose levels, allowing patients with diabetes to avoid those daily needle pricks. The idea is very extensible and could include other kinds of sensors, so they continue to expand the offerings, with the next one in development tracking sodium levels.

One of the more innovative and extraordinary examples of a functioning technological tattoo is an augmented reality chip tattooed onto someone’s arm so they can combine their real world with their tech world in, shall we say, novel ways. The concept of tattoos that interact with software or databases in unique ways could, however, be used in other ways, from security to wayfinding to identification, and many other uses I’m sure people will imagine.

What’s next? Ah, well, that’s why I wrote all this. This is the context, working up to the really exciting bits. I’ll continue with more emerging uses for tattoos, and some of the potential risks in part two.

ENDNOTES (Discovery information for links used above)

Andrew Maynard Architects. Tattoo House.

CBC News. Childhood scars spur tattoo artist to help others.

Dawson, Buck. Functional Tattoos (November 2011).

Eduardo Alessi. Tatoo Meter.

Engadget. Fluorescent nanosensor tattoo monitors glucose under the iPhone’s glare (July 21, 2011).

FDA. Cosmetics Q&A: Tattoos & Permanent Makeup.

Flash Your Tattoo. Temp Tat for Runners – Functional Tattoos (July 17, 2009).

I Heart Chaos. Nintendo 3DS augmented reality tattoo is awesome, real.

Levy, Stephanie. My “To Do” List: Yay For Functional Tattoos!

Mr Precious Kid: Temporary Tattoos.

National Cancer Institute. Radiation Therapy for Cancer.

Northeastern University. News. Tattoos that improve health (November 2010).


Quirky Ideations. Bugga Bugga temporary tattoos, by Brad Thorne.

Temporary Tattoos With A Purpose.

Useful Things. To-Do Temporary Tattoos.

Violent Lips.

Zimmer, Carl. Science Ink.

7 responses to “Frightful Or Functional? A New Era for Tattoos (Part One)

  1. I’m thinking about getting a functional tattoo and found this post while looking for inspiration. When can we look forward to part two?


    • Part two has been written, and part three is in progress. I am waiting for the part two to be released at the Risk Sense blog, for which this series is being written, before releasing it here. Not sure what is taking so long. Well, partly my fault for cutting back on blogging over the summer, but still, I’ve been waiting a week for the part two to be unlocked. Soon, I hope!


  2. Turns out they are tweeking their blog and it wouldn’t come out for a while (if ever), so moving along here. Enjoy! Part 3 in progress.


  3. Pingback: Bubble, Blur, Flip, Spin, Hoard, Hug. Part Four: Blur | Emerging Technologies Librarian

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