For a while now I’ve subscribed to various online sources of words on skin images, and recently I also found Darren Barefoot’s collection of observations on Textual Tattoos. The following are some thoughts about words-on-skin - thinking towards (as usual) digital-words-on-skin.

tattoo ("we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars")tattoo ("bibliophile")tattoo equation ("ex")tattoo braille (Lyrics to Bjork's "Bachelorette")

When people think of words-on-skin, they generally think of tattoos. Examples of plain-text (or reasonably unornamented) tattoos include not only simple words and phrases but also quotations (Oscar Wilde’s “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”), definitions (”bibliophile”), or mathematical equations (”ex“). Like other forms of ‘plain’ text art, the text may be rendered using a language or encoding which is unreadable to the observer - for example, this tattoo renders the lyrics to Bjork’s song “Bachelorette” in braille - a rendering which presumably makes it an unreadable mystery, not only to most braille-illiterate sight-readers, but also to most touch-dependant braille readers.

fake tattoo ("fakecore")henna (The lyrics of Al-Atlal by Um Kalthoum)pen ("in the darkness / you can find me")

Of course, just because words are on skin doesn’t mean that they are permanent - and impermanence can change both the context and the message. For example, this fake tattoo (”fakecore”) is a parody of a real one - the classic two-word knuckle tattoos made famous by the film “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), and referenced by The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Do the Right Thing, The Blues Brothers, and others. Text can also be in the transitory markings of henna (The lyrics of Al-Atlal by Um Kalthoum), or simply a message written on the body in marker or pen (”in the darkness / you can find me”).

pen ("no pictures")pen ("eyelash")pen ("don't rape me just because I'm pretty")lipstick ("ugly")

With the freedom to use the body as an erasable message board come staged photos with situational messages (”no pictures”), referential objects (”eyelash”), and scrawled commentaries (”don’t rape me just because I’m pretty”). Of course, nothing in principle separates the obviously impermanent words on skin from becoming permanent - permanence would simply change their message. If the lipstick-art-piece (”ugly”) were not an impermanent staged moment, but instead was a daily face that the subject presented to the world, the combination of message and context would take on a more radical social message. Here I’m reminded in particular of facial text tattoos from science fiction, for example Raven’s forehead tattoo “Poor Impulse Control” from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, or Gully Foyle’s facial Maori mask tattoo inset with the word “Nomad” from Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.

projection ("graffitti on your body")projection ("don't close your eyes")projection ("my pillow")projection ("When she made my morning scream or when she visited my dreams the trees and mountains always stay although the light is far away")

It may seem self-evident that, when discussing tattoos, perminance and impermenance matter. But another category of words on skin, that of projected text, is in one sense just as permanent as pen, henna, or ink. When the photograph fixes the projected light (”graffitti on your body”) in space and time, those words are inscribed on skin, as permanently (within the scope of the photograph) as any ink. The words may bend obviously to follow the contours of skin (”don’t close your eyes”), they may appear at first glance to float off the image, as if scrawled across its surface (”my pillow”), or they may spill outside and beyond the skin, covering other surfaces or filling the frame (”When she made my morning scream or when she visited my dreams the trees and mountains always stay although the light is far away”).

digital projection ("to torment, to torment")photoshop ("affection / crave / kiss / love / lust / touch / yes")

What happens when words-on-skin go digital? Does the idea of being “on” skin require a kind of physical encoding of binary or QR code, akin to the braille tattoo, or are digital words-on-skin more akin to the textual transformations of skin in projects like “Screen” or “QueRy”? Of course, using text as texture doesn’t require an algorithm, or even a digital process. Still, many Photoshop experiments (”affection / crave / kiss / love / lust / touch / yes”) show a definite will towards algorithm, for all that they are done manually. Algorithmic words-on-skin may need to exist in these abstract layers of computation - at least until that advent of nano-scale smart tattoo inks.

This discussion is also a lead-in to some later thoughts on information culture and Shelley Jackson’s Skin project.

4 Responses to “Words On Skin”

  1. 1 Tattoo Designer

    What a weird idea …. its like a walking book. But funny though :-)

  2. 2 Tattoo Art

    I am a huge fan of tattoos and I am happy anytime I find a good read about tats. Your article is very interesting change to the normal picture tattoos.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

  3. 3 Heather

    Reading this really made me wonder how much of it was photoshopped and how many of the pictures really were actual tattoos. I mean wouldn’t the lip one HURT? :)

  1. 1 Brain Hammer

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