February 28th, 2010


Short Story: Holographic Tattoos

This was a scenario I came up with and immediately had to write down. There's no moral; just a situation meant to entertain you about the future of tattooing:

Holographic Tattoos

The thing about tattoos is that they look like tattoos. No matter how talented the artist, the canvas is always the same: skin, and ink. The skin morphs; the ink fades. So many limitations.

I couldn’t wait for the next evolutionary step in tattoos. No, they weren’t even tattoos – no ink involved. I suppose it was technically ‘body art’: a personalized, imbedded hologram, just far enough under the skin and custom-colored so you couldn’t see the processor. When the skin was exposed the program activated, and there, hovering above your arm or your neck or your back were the words or images you wanted, clearer and more dynamic than any stain on your skin.

I remember observing at one of the shops, determining if this was for me, as a man had the sensors inserted all the way down his spine, so a snake could wind across his back forever. The technician conducting the insertion had a meadow hawk on her sternum, activated due to the low-cut shirt exposing half her cleavage. It fluttered its wings every now and then, gazing into the distance, mostly disinterested in looking down the rest of her shirt. Occasionally it sidled closer to her heart and seemed to nest there by her left breast. Its beak opened and I heard the chirp in my mind.

Such a private symbol, displayed so elegantly. The technician caught me staring, and glared. Nothing about her seemed as authentic as that hologram; that was the strange part of them. A cartoon bird glaring from her sternum, stationary and thick-lined, would match the rest of her, but the photo-realism of the hawk clashed with her black jeans, spiked belt, and highlighed pink hair done up with chopsticks. She had a magnificent creature roosting on her chest, but her eyeliner was uneven and boxy.

Another technician, a man, had a video of a woman and himself on his arm, smiling and kissing, repeated every four seconds. On his hand was a small mouse, wandering in circles over the flat of his hand. He saw me watching and flipped his palm up; the mouse moved with him, repeating its pattern seamlessly.

These were the things we could do with our bodies.

“How can I help you?” he asked.

“I want one here,” I said, touching my shoulder, just where it started to curve downward into my arm.

“Nice. You got an image in mind?”

I nodded.

“Anything we carry?”

“No. Something I did myself. I have it here,” I said, shuffling in my pockets for my stick drive.

The technician – name of Tom – picked a chip off the rack that best matched my skin color, and transmitted the file to it via the shop computer. He readied the instruments.

“Can I see it?” I asked. “You know… before it goes in?”

“Can’t,” he said, shaking his head. “Some shops have a simulator, but we don’t yet. Sorry. Hey, if you don’t like it you can always change it.”

“It’s not that,” I said.

Tom put on his mask and gloves. He opened the sterile container housing the chip and laid some tongs next to it. They had been soaking in a green fluid, which spread onto the napkin.

He disinfected my skin, at the shoulder where I wanted, and sliced me open, spraying a cold, numbing liquid onto the cut as soon as I began to bleed. The bleeding stopped.

Tom took the chip and eased it into my shoulder. I couldn’t even feel it. He pressed the skin back down and sealed the cut with a healing gel before dusting it with anti-scarring powder.

“Don’t shower for a couple days.”

“When will it start to work?” I asked, staring at my shoulder, waiting for the image to come to life.

“Give it an hour or so. It needs time to get electricity from your body and calibrate for skin density, you know? These things are great, but they’re not instant. Come back if it doesn’t work after three hours.”

$300 for the whole thing. I tipped him a twenty and grabbed my coat, leaving the bright lights of the shop for the dim streets. The feeling slowly returned to my shoulder as I walked home. I touched my shoulder carefully, avoiding the cut, and felt the tiny chip under my skin. I was satisfied.

Back at my apartment, I slid off my coat and sat on my bed in the dark, waiting. I felt a tingle, and slowly my image appeared. The butterfly blinked its wings and circled my shoulder, hovering near me like a beloved pet or benevolent spirit.

This is what I had wanted for so many years. This was my drop of beauty, my constant companion, an artificial blessing from nature itself. I fell asleep watching the butterfly slowly wander around its small space, touching the lights and pretending I could feel the velvet.

Some people shuffled their image constantly, mixing it up between text and animations, whatever they felt like for the day. I never changed mine, too afraid to blink out of existence the tiny being that lived with me. It observed over my shoulder, adding its small approval with a slow, observing flap of the wings, as if saying ‘mm-hmm’ to what I was doing with my hands.

The thing about tattoos is that you know they’re not real. No matter how talented the artist, the effect is always the same: a flat imitation of real life. Holograms were different. Finally there was an art that captured our imaginations in a way skin and ink never could. And that little guy? Twenty-three years before the first chip faded out. When it finally broke down I cried like I’d lost a beloved dog. Holographic tattoos aren’t the big thing anymore; there’s no way to get a duplicate effect without a full-body system. And let’s face it, I’m too old to go through all that.

I still feel him sometimes, though. At night, when its summer and I can only stand to sleep in a tank top. I still feel the phantom tingle, and can trace his pathway across my skin: first the blink, then the slow turn, wandering about my shoulder like a tiny familiar. My constant companion.

Tell me how a tattoo could ever top that. No, wait. On second thought, don’t even try.