06 Feb The flesh as a digital canvas, by William Wang
He doesn’t understand my perspective, James thinks. He’s old, and utterly oblivious to what I want for myself!
As he flips through his tattoo artist’s portfolio, James imagines how his dad will respond when the deed is done. After all, that ink would be embedded in his skin forever—barring, of course, expensive cosmetic surgery. No amount of shouting or demeaning could change that fact. His dad might inflict some punishment, but the subversion would be immutable.
This makes James smile. After all, the spite makes this tattoo all the more satisfying. He’s been planning the design for weeks—a stylized lion labeled “Tangiers” after his favorite African city. He knows he’ll appreciate the aesthetics, but knowing it constitutes his revenge is even better. Just thinking about his father’s argument makes him grind his teeth.
“You’ll regret it when you’re my age!” his father had insisted. “You don’t have the wisdom or judgment to make these sorts of permanent decisions! You’re wasting hard-earned money on nothing but an ugly picture on your arm!”
This is the most common argument leveled against tattoos today: they are permanent, and they serve no practical purpose. Though many cultures have practiced tattooing for centuries, recent technological advances have begun to subvert these two arguments. By implanting electronic tattoos beneath the epidermis instead of ink, tattoo artists can introduce dynamism and non-aesthetic functionality to body art.
Recently, a Philips design probe explored the possibility of an electronic tattoo. These tattoos would function as more than simply a work of art upon the human flesh. Instead, they can be controlled by an outside element, allowing the image imprinted on the flesh to change, either constantly or whenever the wearer chooses. They can react to touch or human emotion. In other words, they transform the human body into a canvas with interactivity transcending conventional digital mediums. Whereas one might normally interact with art through touch or sound, a dynamic digital tattoo could change shape when the wearer is happy or sad. This creates an entirely new way for artists to communicate with their audience.
However, the potential for this technology runs even further. This body art can be merged with modern-day technology to act as an extension of even our cell phones. Jim Mielke’s blood-fueled tattoos promise a degree of integration with technology that merges the biological human body with cybernetics. With these advances, an artist could make tattoos communicate with cell phones through Bluetooth, allowing the wearer to make a call or check messages with his arm. Such a tattoo could even extend our lives: since the tattoo is powered by blood, it also monitors the blood for various blood disorders.
Though these electronic tattoos are only concepts right now, a more primitive form has already been put into practice. Many artists have already implanted magnets in their fingertips, paving the way for more advanced electronic implants. While many forms of traditional art like painting or sculpture serve only aesthetic purposes, new media art like electronic body modification act as a proof-of-concept that marries function and aesthetics.