In the future, tattoos could be designed by computers and applied painlessly

Getting a tattoo is often a slow and very thoughtful process, which has become more popular in recent decades. You come in with an idea of ​​what you want, or choose the art from a flash sheet or portfolio, your artist then draws the image and makes a stencil. You discuss the placement and make any last minute adjustments. Finally, your artist spends the next few hours skillfully painting the ink into your skin.

Getting a tattoo is an investment not only of money but also of time, not to mention the considerable pain you endure during application. In other words, unless you’re a 10-year-old who encounters The King of Staten Island on a beach, handing out tattoos for free. It’s a decision that goes wrong both in the moment and later in the film, but it could have been worse. After a line, this kid runs away and runs home. It’s probably for the best, getting free tattoos from strangers on the beach isn’t the most solid decision in life, especially if you’re in fifth grade.

In the future, however, this child might never have had the chance to back down. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a patch that delivers entire tattoos painlessly and in just minutes, according to a recently published article in the journal iScience.

The patch looks almost like a bandage, except it’s armed with a network of tiny needles in place of the gauze patch. The needles contain tattoo ink which is meant for a permanent home in your skin. According to the team, the needles are so small you won’t feel them puncture your skin or draw blood. But most importantly, they are still able to deploy ink reliably. It all comes down to their unusual construction.

Most needles, even the smallest ones, are made of a strong material such as metal, glass, ceramic or certain polymers. These tattoo patch micro needles take a different approach. The needles themselves are made of tattoo ink encased in a dissolvable envelope.

Medical micro-needles

Medical micro-needles Photo: Georgia Tech

The researchers begin by arranging the needles in the desired configuration. Currently they are able to make small shapes, letters and numbers. Ink is then added and a coating placed on the back of the needles. By pressing the tattoo patch on the desired surface, the needles penetrate the body. You then leave the patch in place for a few minutes, allowing the needle itself to dissolve and leave the ink behind. Because you get a single ink dot for each needle, the resulting images are reminiscent of retro video games or pixel art. In the future, you can easily create pixel art independently on a computer and translate these pixels into a network of microneedles filled with the appropriate inks. A little squeeze and a few minutes later you have permanent pixel art on your body.

The researchers made it clear that they don’t believe it can replace traditional tattooing, but it could provide an alternative for someone who doesn’t want to endure hours in a tank being stabbed many thousands of times. It could also have medical applications, including as medical alert technology, a guide for radiation treatment, and postoperative or cosmetic procedures. Additionally, the needles work with black light inks that only become visible under UV lamps. This could provide some additional privacy when permanently writing medical information on your body. It’s also really cool.

There is of course the question of whether these patches can achieve the same permanence as conventional tattoos. Tattooing is an art form that has been practiced and perfected for thousands of years. We have an endless and growing body of evidence that tattooing is an effective way to leave permanent marks on the skin. Moving the process to new technology raises questions about how this variety of tattoos will compare.

The researchers made additional observations after applying their tattoos and confirmed that they last at least a year, and there is no indication that they are going anywhere. Evidence suggests they are just as permanent as any other tattoo. Just without the pain or the opportunity to reverse a bad decision before it’s too late.