National Geographic

The Return of the Science Tattoo Emporium

A few years back, I noticed a DNA tattoo on the arm of a neuroscientist. He informed me that it spelled out his wife’s initials according to the genetic code. And that enchanting discovery turned me, much to my own surprise, into an amateur anthropologist of scientist body art and the author of Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed. (Reviews)

I’ve archived the ~300 tattoos here at National Geographic so that future generations of researchers can analyze them for clues to the folkways of scientists and the scientifically-minded in the early twenty-first century. And I’m still getting fresh ink via email. I will continue to post them here on Saturdays. (The tattoo-averse can thus safely continue reading the Loom while avoiding a scorch of their retinas.)

The tattoo shown here is from Willow Brugh. She writes:

I had this deep fascination with transhumanism in college (still do, to a degree), and geared up to go to law school in anticipation of the coming legal war over prosthetics and implants. Who controls the information going through your cochlear implant? If you would gain more dexterity through an artificial limb, is it legal for a surgeon to remove a fully operational biological limb? But I’ve seen law school brainwash a few people, so I started getting quotes tattoo’d on me as reminders of what I hold dear. It’s ASCII hex because the abstraction of language is fascinating to me, and because while my relationship to the quotes might change, our relationship to the networks we build (and how we speak to/with them) will only become more complex. Three lines of code in, I found out about the EFF and figured I should go into helping make a world where those cases happen. So I co-founded a maker space (Jigsaw Renaissance) and a way to link hacker and maker spaces together (Space Federation), and then got into engaging those communities with humanitarian response. That’s still my focus, with Geeks Without Bounds, we’re an accelerator for humanitarian projects.

The heart and its surroundings are because the quotes just keep coming up, and I didn’t want to look like the matrix. Many of my mental battles have been about accepting organic nature and seeing how it relates to the digital, and wanted to express that by having body art which embraced form. So I was sending all these pictures of images and tattoos I liked to my tattoo artist. A month before I went in for two more lines of code, all the conversations I was having started revolving around how I needed to pay more attention to my heart (I’m a bit of a robot, and learning to interact with emotion for the sake of people I care about has been a long and arduous journey). I walked into Action Tattoo, and Aaron had drawn this thing up – transit lines for the structures we build reflecting the organic world we come from, and the particle trails, and circuits, and of course the heart. So we got it done.

More details are at Willow’s blog. (Thanks to Vaughan Bell for noticing Willow on a train and pointing her in my direction.)

You can zoom in on the details below, in this Gigapan by Rich Gibson:

You can see the rest of the Science Tattoo Emporium here or in my book, Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

There are 6 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Ellen Renwick
    January 2, 2013

    I hope she sees a dermatologist about that mole! Very cool tatt…

  2. Willow
    January 4, 2013

    @Ellen – if you notice, there is a scar from where I did have my moles checked out and one was not safe. The others are healthy, and I keep up on them.

  3. Ellen Renwick
    August 6, 2013

    Glad to hear you got an unsafe mole taken care of! I’m from a family of very fair-skinned cancer prone people so tend to obnoxiously notice moles when I should mind my own business. Sorry! Still love the tattoo.

  4. NoeTiC
    December 9, 2014

    Thanks for sharing – an interesting read. This is so curious – exactly a week ago I was writing about tattoos and scars, and motives. Nearly two years on, are you still happy with your tat? Has it changed how you dress to soak up the sun, on the beach or promenade (freckles on shoulders and sun marks below throat suggests you used to indulge the sun – maybe this reduced that, and the risk of skin cancer). The scar predated the tat didn’t it, why not incorporate the scar/moles into the design?

    … “Recently (< 6 months) I saw a teenager with three lines of text tattooed down her left side, across her ribs but outside her bikini top. If it was a Haiku, I suppose that's good and well, but what else could be so important to have across your ribs? And in the mirror it will be backwards, so she can't read it directly herself.

    … "I'll admit they are eye catching, but keep them discreet because you'll have them a long time. I really am not critical, it is just such an interesting psychological phenomenon to me – why people get them. They probably started off as identity marks on slaves, same role in prison camps in 2nd world war (and the famous 46664 tata), but what about all the sailors who had them (and the pirates) – some sort of team logo identity? And nowadays, I know it is a form of art, but there must be a deeper reason behind it than just "it looks nice". Part of it defiance I am sure, part of it wanting to demonstrate "I have committed to this for the rest of my life" – surrogates for something else? I just thought of a curious reason, some people have birthmarks – though these are fairly rare nowadays, so a tattoo could be a cosmetic improvement. Or even to cover a bad scar.

  5. Tami
    December 12, 2014

    How presumptuous to assume that tattoos were originally associated with something as negative as slavery! Tattoos originated long before the days of slavery and the taboo of tattoos seems to me to be a very modern concept.
    Otzi the Iceman had dots tattooed on his leg which are believed to be an attempt at healing. Celts and Germanics had tattoos covering their bodies. In the Phillipines, tattoos identified rank and awards. The Scandinavians had trees tattooed on their bodies which were considered Pagan and banned by Christians.
    As much as you consider it an “interesting psychological phenomenon” to have them, I consider it such to not have them. In my career, I am a scientist but art is in my soul. My tattoos are art that I can take everywhere with me. Why wouldn’t you want to take a beautiful painting everywhere with you? So that you can enjoy it whenever you want to? They aren’t for you. They’re for me.
    As far as covering my scars, I’m proud of my scars. They’re a part of me. I have no desire to cover them. I feel the same way about my tattoos but those are by choice. :)

  6. NoeTiC
    December 15, 2014

    Thanks for your comments (no really, I mean that sincerely) – not just fun, but educational too :-P

    Is “they probably were” presumptious :-? Whatever the case, I got an interesting response, QED.

    Hey – I am also a highly technical person, and there is more than STR and QCD in my soul (different art forms, mostly literary – though I have been known to play with artistic Kanji quite a bit).

    > “They aren’t for you. They’re for me.”

    That is probably not true for many people, if you look at where they are, they are only visible to other people. And as for the other slant to “They aren’t for you” – well you are right, I would not have one in the near future, but I have softened to “For the right person, at the right time – maybe”.

    Peace and blessings.

Add Your Comments

All fields required.

Related Posts