Ink! Not just for sailors and sideshow freaks anymore! Tattooing has become a legitimate art form. And, like art, something magical happens when design and function meet. Consider seven ways tattoos are more than they appear (and two where they’re just confusing!).
1. Corneal Tattoos
There is a small percent of body modification enthusiasts who seek to have their corneas tattooed to some fabulous, mesmerizing color. That sort of corneal tattoo (which is rapidly becoming illegal in many states) is done by a tattoo artist, who should in no way be confused with a surgeon specializing in ophthalmology operating in a sterile setting. Ophthalmologists do perform a similar surgery, except with more conservative goals. If you suffer discoloration or scarring of the iris due to trauma or disease, corneal tattooing can disguise the scar. It does nothing to improve vision, however, and it is recommended only for patients who are already blind or near blind in that eye.
2. Radiation alignment tattoos
It’s usually not much of a tattoo. Just a few dots, sometimes even just one. It may be put somewhere you don’t like, such as your breast or near your prostate. You won’t have much say in the matter, because whatever argument you have, cancer has a better one. These permanent dots are placed by radiologists to help them align lasers. This ensures that cancer-fighting radiation is delivered to the right spot, every time. And to many cancer survivors, the dots serve as a tiny reminder of the fight of their lives.
3. Medic Alert Tattoos
If you’re allergic to penicillin, you probably will continue to be for the rest of your life. And it’s the kind of thing people need to know about, especially if the car accident you were just in makes you unable to tell them. Medic alert bracelets and necklaces are the traditional sign that your body needs special consideration in an emergency. If that information is tattooed on your body, you can’t forget to put in on or accidently drop it in the toilet. But there is one caveat. Don’t get too creative. First responders are trained to look at particular places such as the wrist and throat for medic alerts. They won’t always find it on your bicep, your back, or printed in graceful flowing script down the side of your ribcage.
4. Reconstructive Disguise Tattoos
Along the same lines of corneal tattooing is disguise tattooing. It’s not reconstruction, but rather the illusion of reconstruction.In cases like thinning hair and breast cancer, sometimes the illusion a skilled artist can create is preferable to an awkward reconstruction. Of course, some breast cancer survivors choose something a little grander when it comes to post-mastectomy tattoos.
5. Temporary Kid IDs
Kids are slippery. I make my small daughter wear my business card in her shoe when we go to crowded places. I have a friend who puts a bracelet on her kid with beads that show her cell number, and another who just Sharpies pertinent information on her child’s leg when needed. None of these ideas are super great; the first two are easily lost and the last one is just weird. Temporary ID tattoos are a much tidier solution, allowing you to tag your child efficiently before releasing them into the wild.
If you’re a craftsman or artisan, an accurate measurement tattoo is a great way to combine your passion with practicality. There aren’t many things you’re sure to use for the rest of your life. Your arm and standard units of measurement are likely two of them.
7. Mummy Tattoos
Sometimes a tattoo can be of use to you even if it isn’t on your body. Especially if you’re an archeologist, anthropologist, or any number of a great many careers ending in “ologist.” Mummies found all over the world, in completely different eras and civilizations, bare tattoos that serve as snapshots of their culture. Famous iceman Otzi probably practiced some form of acupuncture. People in Egypt have been tattooing Christian angels on their body since at least 700 A.D. And 1600 years ago Peru might have been host to a rare female-dominated society.
Bonus: Two Tattoos that Are NOT Useful
It is fair to hope that the clear black letters “DNR” tattooed across your chest will be enough to communicate your desire to not be resuscitated by artificial means. Many people get this tattoo with that intention. The problem is medical staff and first responders are not allowed to take it as a legal designation. Does it mean “Do Not Resuscitate” or is it the initials of your beloved father close to your heart? Has your health improved substantially since you got the tattoo? Have you changed your mind? At best it will motivate responders to search out if you have a legal DNR document filed under your name, but it will not stop them from charging up the defibrillator.
Blood Type Tattoos
Blood is an incredibly prejudiced substance, and will kill a patient if transfused into other blood that doesn’t match or accept it. A soldier’s dog tags ID his blood type, ostensibly so that he can be treated quickly for trauma. So it sort of make sense that tattooing your own blood type on your body would expedite any trip to the emergency room that might lie in your future. But don’t bother: Modern doctors will never give a patient blood without doing their own type test first—not even a dog-tagged man in a battle zone. Besides, in emergency situations, most first responders only carry plasma, which is safely blood neutral.