The world is getting much smarter, from smart-home technologies like voice-activated lights and climate control to self-driving cars. It’s no surprise the tattoo industry is also considering the implementation of smart tech to improve the overall experience. Smart tattoo inks are currently being developed to create inks that indicate a health issue, such as changing color after too much UV exposure, but a lot of these smart inks would require a different injection technique to the traditional methods. As such, existing tattoo machines are being analyzed to see how they work in comparison to new, smart tattoo machines that are less invasive and more precise.

Needle-less tattooing

The University of Twente, based in the Netherlands, has developed a micro-jet injection technology that doesn’t require any needles at all. It works by using an ultrafast liquid jet that rapidly heats up above boiling point with the help of a laser. As the fluid heats up, it forms a vapor bubble that grows and pushes the liquid out at speeds of up to 100 meters per second, or 360 km per hour. The jet is about as thick as a human hair and can easily penetrate the skin, but it hurts less than a needle and can be compared to a mosquito bite. There’s also less ink waste involved due to how precise the method is, and needles don’t need to be changed and disposed of per person to avoid contamination.

Little development in current tattooing methods

Tattooing dates back thousands of years, starting with a very simple hand-poked method where the ink, often made from soot or charcoal, was pushed into the skin with thorns or a specially-designed tool that is hit by a hammer, often made from bamboo or stone. This moved onto the commonly used method today of an electric machine, which used to be powered by foot, to speed up the process and with commercial inks that are sterile and safer.

Other than this, there hasn’t really been any evolution of the tattooing process until now. Researchers behind the micro-jet have said that, surprisingly, the classic needle application has never been thoroughly researched in the way they have been doing, such as by using high-speed images.

Direct comparison of traditional needle vs. smart machines

The University of Twente recently published a study in the American Journal of Applied Physics comparing a needle with their fluid jet method. They used various commercially available inks as professional tattoo artists would. The micro-jet was found to consume very little energy, does minimal skin damage and the efficiency of the injection is much higher than a needle, as well as a small cross-contamination risk.

Currently, the micro-jet is a single jet, whereas a lot of artists will use multiple needles at once, depending on what they’re trying to achieve, such as shadowing. The volume of ink that the jet can currently deliver is too low and needs to be increased before it can be considered for wider use. These are the next steps that the researchers are working on to achieve needle-less tattooing.

Other applications

As with most technology, the application of the micro-jet fluid and delivery system has applications to other areas that can benefit the skin. Techniques that resemble tattooing are already used for masking scars and treating hair diseases. This new method could be used for these to give a smoother process and is also being considered for vaccinations. The health benefits of using smart inks with a smart tattoo machine are huge, but the biggest problem is making a tattoo serve for both cosmetic and health purposes at the same time.

Combining smart inks with smart tattoo applications could transform the industry, as well as overflowing into other skin care technologies. The research is a little way off still to be able to combine an aesthetically pleasing tattoo that serves a functional health benefit, but it’s only a matter of time.