Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Getting e-Inked

by Drew Martin

I met a man from a land down under where beer does flow and men chunder. It happened to be in the unremarkable outskirts of Prague, 15 years ago, at the end of a bus route, at the end of a metro line, where no foreigner would care to venture unless he (me) was teaching at an electrical component start up company where the students (men and women, 20-40-somethings) smoked cigarettes and drank vodka in the office during class, or he (the Aussie) was staying there with a recently connected, long lost cousin.

Shortly after bumping in to each other we went to a small food store, where I thought the elderly shop women would be shocked by his abundant and colorful tattoos, unconcealed by his tank top. Instead, they were quite animated because of him and called him the "painted man". That nice expression has stuck with me all these years because, at that time, tattooing still had many negative connotations: prison derelicts and WWII concentration camp survivors.

Multiple piercings, all over the body, were more common than tattoos in the art crowd, as I recall, especially during the the height of AIDS unawareness, because piercings were more easily performed by friends and tattooing was still considered very HIV-risky. This all changed in a few years and soon it became super trendy to get inked. As an artist, I always liked the concept of tattooing, especially to have your own artwork on oneself but the idea of never really being able to change it was unappealing, especially to someone like me who was constantly drawing different things: A static image seemed too boring. Additionally, it seemed like everyone I talked to at the time with a tattoo expressed regret for getting one.

The other thing was that the fine colorful lines always become splotchy and blurred. It's still a hard fact, tattoos don't age gracefully. If legs are the last to go, tattooed skin is the first to wither. Though most tattoos are silly images and the equivalent of bad clip art, I still really like tattoos by artists done unto themselves, including inmates. The latter are are ingenious...having used motors from Walkmans for the gun and burned black chess pieces for the ink.

Like everything, tattooing has an evolution. Parlors are cleaner and safer now and so are the clientele. But what's next? With e-books here to stay and advancements in digital ink/e-ink technology, I think the next logical step is to make a digital ink tattoo (e-tattoo), which could update itself according to the whim of the bearer.

This is a golden opportunity for Barnes & Noble, whose NOOK envies's Kindle. B&N has a lot going for it for this venture: unlike B&N has around 1,400 walk-in locations, most with Starbucks cafes. Just tack on a e-ink tattoo parlor and extend the literary experience beyond the coffee sipping cafe.

To my knowledge e-tattoos have not be invented yet, but that is a low hurdle for brainiacs at MIT. All it would mean, would be to embed a field of matched-skin color pellets, which would have the ability to switch colors. It might be interesting even if these pellets raise the skin up a bit: I have always found scarification more interesting than here they could be combined. As a kid, I had one of those potato clocks that ran off the juice of tubers and I am sure the human body could charge the e-tattoo, which could be synched to the electronic device of choice.

You could even synch your e-tattoo with your NOOK to display the "book cover" so you could have a complementary dragon tattoo, while reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Or you could show off (in the flesh) that you are tackling Moby Dick, which, come to think of it, was the ahead-of-its-time synthesis of tattooing and literature. Who could forget (assuming you've read the novel, shame on you if you haven't) Ishmael's first encounter with the extensively tattooed Queequeg, returning from an evening of peddling shrunken heads, harpoon in hand, and crawling into the bed they shared at the booked Spouter Inn, only to awake spooning like an amorous couple.

The "What did I do last night?" morning-after effect might even inspire the nocturnal e-tattoo, so the snarling panther on your jugular would disappear by the time you got to the office.