As the 5,000+ year old mummified remains of Ötzi the Iceman reveal, ink has long adorned us. Ötzi's markings were created by making vertical cuts into which powdered charcoal was then rubbed. The marks were placed over areas where his bones were degenerating, indicating his tatts were less about aesthetics and more to do with his medical care.
Ancient Egyptians honored their god of fertility and revelry, Bes, with tattoos, while Crusaders of the 11th and 12th centuries marked themselves with the Jerusalem cross to ensure they would be given a Christian burial if killed in battle. Captain James Cook brought the word tatau back with him from Tahiti, Maori for the sticks tipped with razor-edged shells that were used to work designs permanently into the skin.
All tatts have a tale to tell and in his 1951 collection of 18 short stories, Ray Bradbury had them literally do the talking. In The Illustrated Man, a vagrant inked by a time-traveling woman is covered in animated tattoos able to look into the future, telling stories which explored the conflict between the "cold mechanics" of technology and the messiness of our psychology.
Fast-forward six decades to a time when tattoos are now busy bidding adieu to Ye Olden Days of injecting ink into the skin using a design based on Thomas Edison's electric pen of 1877.
Instead, the new frontier is one part body modification, one part computer hack and several parts sci-fi. "In some cases, ink will become ephemeral, like the data for an animated gif floating in the ether," explains Gizmodo. "In other cases though, the ink is actually a gadget itself." The days of injecting ink into the skin will soon seem quaint and old-school as the future continues to dawns in an interactive, post-ink blaze.
Nokia has already patented a special ink which is applied the same way as an old-school tattoo. Several passes with an external magnet then magnetize the ferromagnetic ink and train it to react to whatever you want, like incoming calls on your phone. Given my phone is already plenty invasive without having the ringer located inside my body. Less creepy, somehow, are the tiny implantable devices made of silicon - under 250 nanometers in thickness - which sit just under the skin. To prevent them from being rejected, they are first enrobed in biocompatible silk which eventually dissolves completely, leaving just the circuitry and transforming the skin into both a neural interface and a touch-screen.
A company called MC10 developed stick-on electronics that look like a metallic tattoo. It can monitor your vital signs, tell you if you're about to get a sunburn and even talk to your smartphone. Literally in the case of the electronic neck-tatt Motorola's been working on. It captures the vibrations emanating from your throat when you speak and then turns into a microphone, transmitting the data directly via Bluetooth. Currently, these devices are plopped on top of your flesh rather than embedded into it, but that's just a matter of time. (images)
Nancy Tilbury of Studio XO - responsible for those awesome light-up costumes the Black Eyed Peas wore - even envisions a time when devices will be placed in our veins and float freely. Whenever they pass by the surface of the skin, these tiny beacons of light would emit a moving "tattoo" light display. Who knows why, exactly, but there's no arguing with how cool it would look, which is something the Futurenetic fashion tribe* specializes in.
Podcast music: Kevin MacLeod, Incompetech.com
- Lesley Scott