This video was just released, of an industrial robot tattooing a person’s leg. It was the joint work of Johan and Pierre from Appropriate Audiences and Autodesk’s Pier9. This isn’t the first attempt at robotic tattooing for Johan and Pierre. They have previously hacked a makerbot by adding a tattoo machine, allowing it to “print” tattoos on people. They’ve been iterating the design and getting pretty good results as you can see in the video below. However, until they teamed up with Autodesk and the industrial robot above, they were really limited to fairly flat surfaces.

The industrial robot version does a simple spiral, and could be a bit misleading. You may think it is incapable of any shading or complex work. However, if you look at the videos on their vimeo channel you’ll see that the version that evolved from their hacked makerbot has made lots of progress in creating more variation in style.

Before we get into the discussion about the future of tattooing, learn a bit about how tattoos work with this video from Smarter Every Day. Do yourself a favor and subscribe too, its a great channel.

Are robots the future of tattoo? Yes probably, but not for everyone.

Lets face it; no matter how romantic the idea of having a tattoo artist do your work is, cheap high quality tattoo machines will win the majority of times. The ease and ability to get (in our fantasy projections) a photo realistic quality tattoo, will be hard to pass up. However, there are a few things in the way of this imaginary future.

Inspections and regulatory issues

As for inspections and regulatory issues, there really aren’t any problems with robot tattoos yet. If you do a simple google search for Tattoo studio inspection checklist, you’ll find that the actual items vary from one geographical location to another but that almost all of the checklist items are simple sanitation requirements and book keeping. There’s nothing in the lists that precludes the tattoo from being administered by a machine.  I found one that required the soon to be tattooed area to be inspected to make sure it is viable, but a person could do that for a robot as well.

There may be a regulatory reason from the other side though. If you look at industrial robotics, you’ll find they often exist in factories where there are all kinds of worker safety regulations in place. However, I was unable to find any official documentation of regulation on human interaction with an industrial robot arm, only employers rules for safety.

Just because these two things don’t exist now, doesn’t mean they won’t exist in the future. If tattoo robots become something that people begin to use in big numbers, regulation will occur. Of course at that point, it won’t be something that stops the industry.

It is going to be a long time because tattoo robots are “dumb” and expensive

You’re not going to see automated tattoo studios or tattoo vending machines any time soon, and there are a few reasons. Mostly, there’s just not much incentive to make it happen on a large scale. The few machines that exist right now, are hack jobs and prototypes being built by enthusiasts. Most are probably the ones that Johan and Pierre from the video above made. Their machines are still very limited. You don’t see them doing fancy shading, or stopping if the line goes awry. Until this video, they weren’t even able to follow the contours of the skin.  They have to watch the machine constantly so that they can stop it if an error occurs or if the person moves. A tattoo artist does a lot while they are giving you a tattoo. It may be easy to just assume they are tracing a pretty pattern, but skin is a complicated canvas to work with. They’re inspecting, fixing, and adjusting the work as they go.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t really cool (I love them and wanted to build my own!). It just means that the number of people lining up for a tattoo will be limited mainly to those seeking the novelty of being tattooed by a robot.

If enough research and development were put into a system like this, giving it the ability to produce high detail tattoo work reliably at a reasonable price, there could certainly be a market. That research and development takes a lot of money and time. Who is going to fund that research? Who is hoping to cash in on automated tattooing? Right now, nobody. Until someone puts in the time and effort to create this new thing, it will be cheaper and more efficient just to hire a tattoo artist.

The artist has value, so there will always be a place for them

Yes, sure if we just imagine a future where you could find a tattoo booth in your city, plug in some clip art, and a machine prints it into your skin like an inkjet printer, a lot of tattoo artists would be out of work. There would probably be a lot less “bad” tattoo work out there, but sadly a lot of decent artists would be struggling as well. This doesn’t mean that the entire industry would solely be run by machines though.

For many, the tattoo artist is an integral piece of the art itself. Just like painting, would you rather have a print or the original by the artists hand? I wouldn’t mind having both kinds of tattoo, but I’d actually be proud of the ones done by the hand of an artist.

For those of you who are curious, yes I do have tattoos, the work of the amazing Jason Jones.

This is a video I prepared for a project in my Controlled Chaos series (a project that is on hold right now… one day I’ll make it!).