How to get tattooed by a robot

When human artists just aren’t fast and risky enough.
When human artists just aren’t fast and risky enough.
Image: Reuters/Eloy Alonso
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Good news: You can turn your 3D printer into a tattoo machine. But the prototype, a MakerBot reconfigured by a group of students in France, isn’t the first attempt at making a robotic tattoo artist.

Here are your current options for robotic tattooing:

Just burn it on with a laser

Burn baby burn.
Burn baby burn.
Image: Instructables/Tetranitrate

In 2008, a user of the popular DIY site Instructables posted an account of his experimentation with laser-etched tattoos made with an Epilog laser cutting system. This is really a form of scarification or branding, with the laser burning through top layers of skin and leaving a scar in the shape you wanted. “The smell is bad,” he wrote. And “It turns the laser cutter from a simple machine shop tool to a futuristic torture device.” His description of the pain involved is less than reassuring, but hey—tattoos hurt.

The original video of the process has been deleted, but you can see a low quality copy here. And for a less skin-crawling project, check out MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis laser etching his fingernails.

Put your arm in here

The laser etching method only really works on flat surfaces: You need to set the laser to hit your exposed skin properly, and you only get about a centimeter of clearance. It would be difficult to use it to tattoo a curved part of the body, and doing a design that went all the way around a limb would be a complex, multi-step process.

Auburn University architecture student Luke Gehron overcame that limitation last year with his digital tattoo machine. In his system, you put your arm in the 3D printed apparatus, and it takes a high resolution scan of the limb. The robot can then correct for the curve of your arm as it tattoos, so designs come out looking the way you intended. Gehron put the project on hold before he had perfected its design, but the results are still pretty cool:

The California-based artist Chris Eckert did something similar with his art project Auto Ink. But Eckert’s tattooing robot is designed to assign you a totally random religious symbol.

Both projects use pens instead of a tattoo gun for now, making it a little less daunting to surrender your arm to a robot’s tattoo stylings.

The true tattoo robot

French student Pierre Emm and his classmates decided to hack a MakerBot 3D printer to draw on human skin. But unlike their predecessors, this bunch then graduated to actual permanent tattooing. They acquired a manual tattoo machine and jerry-rigged it to the desktop printer. After some tests, they used it to tattoo circles on their arms.

Not exactly high art, but the first volunteers get points for bravery. And we wouldn’t be surprised if more than a few folks are swayed by the wow factor of getting a totally robotic tattoo. If you want to make your own, all the instructions are here.