My Inkless Tattoos

In April of 1999, I got laser eye surgery (you can read about that here). Letting a doctor scrape at my eyes took some degree of bravery, so I wanted to commemorate it with a ritual of some kind.

I searched around for just the right idea, and finally hit upon the idea of an inkless tattoo. The idea originally came from Penn Jillette, of Penn and Teller. I read his excellent account of his first inkless tattoo in the book How to Play in Traffic. Penn explains, and I agree, that the appeal of getting a tattoo is undeniable, but that the permanence makes it troublesome.

The answer to that is the inkless tattoo, which is a tattoo applied with a regular tattoo needle, but with no ink. It creates a cut, which, when properly treated, becomes a scar that lasts about a year.

My Experiences

I got my first one at the Pink Zone on Broadway in Seattle. The tattoo artist, Dave (now gone), had never heard of such a thing, but gamely agreed to do it. I got the design above, which is called "Hrungnir's Heart" - a viking symbol that represents a giant with a heart and mind made of stone. In other words, strength. I also think it looks cool.

The scar from that tattoo was completely gone in a year, and on the anniversary of my surgery, I decided to get more: a matching set of spirals on my middle fingers.

I had quite an adventure trying to get these tattoos, since Dave had left town. A few shops I tried were booked all day, which turned out to be the least of my problems. The first tattoo artist I spoke to had a condescending attitude and wouldn't do any hand work unless I was "practically covered" in tattoos already. I spoke to several tattoo artists who simply would not do an inkless tattoo. They felt they were artistes who couldn't possibly compromise their art by trying to scar a client. I'm not kidding... I talked to at least three prima donnas with this attitude. So much for "the customer is always right."

I finally found a great tattoo artist, Eric Eye, who works at Lucky Devil Tattoo. I highly recommend him and the shop. He was intrigued by the idea of an inkless tattoo and was as pleased with the result as I was:

Everyone wants to know if it hurt. Yes, and I found out once the first spiral was in progress that the knuckle is one of the most painful parts of the body to be tattooed. I believe the term Eric used was "bad-ass". But the pain was manageable, and didn't last too long. My wrist tattoo was much easier, kind of like a cat scratch.

The most interesting part of my day was that none of the tattoo artists I talked to had heard of an inkless tattoo! It made me feel very cool to be suggesting something new to people who have probably seen a lot of weird things.

~ * ~

By November of 2000, seven months later, only the merest trace of my spiral scars remained. I was travelling in New Zealand, backpacking around with some newfound friends, and got the tattoo itch again. As you can read in my travel section, I grew a lot in New Zealand and left with a great affinity for the country. So, naturally, I chose a symbol of New Zealand for my next inkless tattoo.

I talked my friend Farley into getting tattooed with me. She chose to get an outline of a star on each upper arm. I decided to get my new tattoo done on my right wrist, the site of my original tattoo, which was completely gone. We went to Inner Steel, a piercing and tattoo parlor in Queenstown. I went in wanting a fern, which is another NZ symbol, but the tattoo artist pointed out that the design would require fine lines, which would heal faster. I agreed and chose a kiwi instead.

Above you can see the tattoo when it was new, and as of January, 2002 (14 months later). The scarring is more permanent on this one, I hope.

Care of an Inkless Tattoo

A tattoo is usually a small scratch like you might get from a cat. The cut is thin, shallow, and clean, and therefore heals quickly. If you want a scar, even a somewhat-temporary one, you need to work at it a bit. I apologize if this sounds gross, but that's the way it is. There are a couple things I've done to get the scar to last longer:

    Pick a design where the lines can be thick. Something with a lot of detail may not be the best choice.

    Have the tattoo artist push hard and go over the design two or three times. Yes, it will hurt more.

    After each tattoo, I have soaked it in various kinds of acid (vinegar, lemon juice, etc.). This was suggested by the first tattoo artist, and I don't really know if it does any good. But I've always done it. The idea is that it might whiten the outline of the tattoo.

    Don't be super-hygenic. Here's the gross part. Tattoo cuts usually heal very quickly, so you should do what you can to slow it down. This includes stretching the skin to re-open the cut, and even pulling off the scabs. Don't worry, your body is a healing machine and the cut will eventually close no matter what you do.

    Take a picture.

    (Update 12/03/02)
    Someone pointed out to me that inkless tattoos are now starting to gain acceptance under the term "body etching." Here are a couple of websites on it:


    The hesitation of so many tattoo artists made me a little paranoid, so I feel I ought to offer a disclaimer. I am only the second person I have ever heard of to get inkless tattoos (Penn being the first, and then Farley being the third), so there is no guarantee or even track record to suggest you would have similar results. You may heal in a completely different way, or not at all. Either way, it is not my fault. Thank you.


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