Futuristic Tattoos That React to the World Around You: Carson Bruns (Transcript)

Carson Bruns is a researcher in the interdisciplinary field of molecular nanotechnology, with a focus on soft materials. In this talk, nanotechnologist Carson Bruns demonstrates futuristic tattoos that aren’t just beautiful, but functional too.

Carson Bruns – TEDxMileHigh TRANSCRIPT

I’d like to introduce you to an interesting person named Ötzi. He lives in Italy at the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology because he’s a mummy.

This is an artist rendition of what he might have looked like when he was alive, 5,300 years ago. You want to see what he looks like today? Okay, brace yourselves, gross mummy pic coming at you. He’s not as handsome as he used to be, but he’s actually in great shape for a mummy because he was discovered frozen in ice.

Ötzi is the oldest mummy that’s been discovered with preserved skin 5,300 years is super old, older than the Egyptian pyramids. And Ötzi’s skin is covered in 61 black tattoos, all lines and crosses, on parts of his body where he might have experienced pain, so scientists think that they might have been used to mark sites for some kind of therapy, like acupuncture.

So clearly, if the oldest skin we’ve seen is all tattooed up, tattooing is a very ancient practice. But fast forward to today, and tattoos are everywhere. Almost one in four Americans has a tattoo. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry.

And whether you love tattoos or hate them, this talk will change the way you think about them. So, why are tattoos so popular? Unlike Ötzi, most of us today use tattoos for some kind of self-expression.

Personally, I love tattoos because I love art, and there’s something so wonderful to me, almost romantic, about the way a tattoo as an art form cannot be commodified. Right? Your tattoo lives and dies with you. It can’t be bought or sold or traded. So its only value is really personal to you, and I love that.

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Now, I tend to gravitate towards really colorful tattoos because I’m obsessed with color. I teach a whole course on it at my university. But my very first tattoo was an all-black tattoo like Ötzi’s. Yep, I did that cliché thing that young people do sometimes, and I got a tattoo in a language I can’t even read.

Okay, but I was 19 years old, I had just returned from my first trip overseas, I was in Japan in the mountains, meditating in Buddhist monasteries, and it was a really meaningful experience to me, so I wanted to commemorate it with this Japanese and Chinese character for “mountain.”

Now, here is what blows my mind. My 14-year-old tattoo and Ötzi’s 5,300-year-old tattoos are made of the same exact stuff: soot. That black, powdery carbon dust that gets left behind in the fireplace when you burn stuff. And if you zoom way, way in on either my tattoo or Ötzi’s tattoos, you’ll find that they all look something like this.

A tattoo is nothing more than a bunch of tiny pigment particles, soot in this case, that get trapped in the dermis, which is the layer of tissue right underneath the surface of the skin. So in over 5,000 years, we’ve done very little to update tattoo technology apart from getting access to more colors and slightly more efficient methods of installation.

While I’m an artist, I’m also a scientist, and I direct a laboratory that researches nanotechnology, which is the science of building things with ultra-tiny building blocks. Thousands of times smaller, even, than the width of a human hair.

And I began to ask myself: How could nanotechnology serve tattooing? If tattoos are just a bunch of particles in the skin, could we swap those particles out for ones that do something more interesting? Here’s my big idea.

I believe that tattoos can give you superpowers. Now, I don’t mean they’re going to make us fly, but I do think that we can have superpowers in the sense that tattoos can give us new abilities that we don’t currently possess.

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By upgrading the particles, we can engineer tattoo inks that will change not only the appearance of our skin but also the function of our skin. Let me show you. This is a diagram of a microcapsule. It’s a tiny hollow particle with a protective outer shell, about the size of a tattoo pigment, and you can fill the inside with practically whatever you want.

So, what if we put interesting materials inside of these microcapsules and made tattooings with them? What sorts of things could we make a tattoo do? What problems could we solve? What human limitations could we overcome?

Well, here’s one idea. One of our weaknesses as humans is that we can’t see ultraviolet, or UV, light. That’s the high-energy part of sunlight that causes sunburn and increases our risk of skin cancer. Many animals and insects can actually see UV light, but we can’t.

If we could, we’d be able to see sunscreen when it’s applied on our skin. Unfortunately, most of us don’t wear sunscreen and those of us who do can’t really tell when it wears off, because it’s invisible. It’s the main reason we treat over five million cases of preventable skin cancer every year in the US alone, costing our economy over five billion dollars annually.

So, how could we overcome this human weakness with a tattoo? If the problem is that we can’t see UV rays, maybe we could make a tattoo detect them for us. So, I thought, “Why don’t we take some microcapsules, load it up with a UV-sensitive, color-changing dye, and make tattoo ink out of that?”

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