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A Twist on Tattoos: Artistic Website Marketing or Something More Sinister?

written by: •edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 2/1/2016

Do you have a message that you want to share with others? A whisky company’s ad campaign featured one artist tattooing his friend with a QR code that takes the viewer to an animated sequence…the world’s first animated tattoo. It also puts a truly personal spin on your online marketing potential!

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    QR Codes…Mysterious New Art

    QR Code for Bright Hub Page 

    There’s a new art form in town, and it’s as personal as you want it to be. Imagine having something drawn onto your skin—into your skin; a tattoo, actually—and the only people who can see it are those who access it, with your permission, using some version of a smartphone or iPod. What would you want them to see? Even if you don’t ever plan to get one, just think about what you would pick if you were pressed. Would it be a flower, a bumblebee, the name of a loved one, an American flag?

    You can create a symbol like the one to the right, which will take you to my Bright Hub writer's page if you scan it with your smartphone or iPod. From there, you need only to download it onto a tattoo transfer stencil and have it applied by a skilled tattoo artist. It gives new meaning to the phrase "express yourself," and it opens a whole new world of Internet marketing possibilities.

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    World's First Animated Tattoo

    This latest speculation of mine is sparked by’s recent story by Brenda Ehrlich about the world’s first-ever animated tattoo. The story features a YouTube video of a tattoo artist chosen by Ballantine’s, a Scottish purveyor of blended malt whiskies, to participate in its campaign to “Leave an Impression." Ballantine’s other creations in this series have included a kinetic robot carved from ice, sidewalk chalk art that looks like 3-D and, the most recent work, graffiti like no graffiti you’ve ever seen.

    But let’s get back to the tattoo. It consists of a QR code—Quick Response, in case you’re not in the know. QR codes are the little black and white squares that look very similar to barcodes, but they are filled with a gazillion tiny squares and rectangles instead of lines. Most people notice them for the first time posted in the corner of an ad, on product literature, movie posters, and much more. Once you know what they are, you see them everywhere.

    Animated Tattoo from YouTube Ballantine’s approached Karl Marc, an American tattooist in Paris, with the idea of administering a QR code as a tattoo. His friend Marco agreed to be the subject, and the tattooing process streamed lived in June. The QR code was nestled inside a drawing of an artsy mix of flowers amidst gears. When Karl finished, he held a smartphone in front of it, and the tattoo opened a link to a little video of a happy animated bug wearing a top hat and singing opera.

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    Tracking Down an Expert

    I have to admit that even though I don’t sport a tattoo, I am among those who appreciate the unique flamboyance in this. So my next step was to seek out someone in the field who could tell me if he (or she) has done any QR code tattoos and whether they are becoming commonplace. After trying about a half-dozen tattoo parlors chosen at random according to time zone, I was referred to Levi Smith, owner of the Jade Monkey in Phoenix, Arizona.

    Smith has personally created almost a half-dozen QR code tattoos, and he doesn’t know of anyone else who makes them. He had not heard of the Marc and Marco of Ballantine’s fame; what inspired him was the QR code knitted into the sweater of a friend. He figured if a QR code worked there, it had great potential as a tattoo. To date, the tattoos he has applied have been a success: One linked to a display of the birthdate of the person bearing the tattoo; another to a movie quote; yet another to the name of the subject’s daughter; and—most interesting in my quest for another animated QR code tattoo—the website of a rock band. The QR code for this last was actually applied to two members of the same band; the website contains videos as well as general information about the band.

    I just love the fluidity of a tattoo like this. It’s not finite; you can change what it links to. Just consider that with a website you can change things on the site without affecting the URL. That means if you have a QR code tattoo that links to a site with artwork or animation, even if you revise the site the code will still work.

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    But There's a Darker Side

    There is, of course, a darker side to this. Mr. Smith directed me to a YouTube video featuring an interview he did with Alex Jones, host of AlexJonesTV on YouTube Prison Planet TV, uploaded by The Alex Jones Channel. Jones expressed his worry that getting QR code tattoos sends us a giant step forward into Big Brother’s arms. You can dance with the devil, he warns, but you can’t change the devil, and he will in fact change you.

    Consider whether the idea of having a QR code made into a tattoo takes us too close to the day of chip implantations that will limit our privacy and rights. Then what’s next? Jones fears Big Brother will track us and subject us to mandatory taxation that’s automatically extracted from our state-maintained financial accounts. At the very least, says Jones, they will wear away the average person’s resistance to such control tactics.

    His points hold water. The government could probably invade all our private records, such as medical, financial, or legal backgrounds. Wait--don’t they do that already?

    Mr. Smith countered that people will always insist on maintaining their individuality. He believes that QR code tattoos represent access to a cultural experience. The people who want to use them, he says, feel strongly about adapting a countercultural expression, and they really own the tattoo—they know how to rock it. QR codes can be altered, too, so that they no longer function. It was an interesting, amicable exchange of point versus counterpoint, well worth watching.

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    What Would Your QR Code Link To?

    So, back to my original question: If you had a QR code tattoo, what would it link to? A quick survey of a few friends resulted in these answers:

    • A wedding video
    • A vacation video
    • Family pictures, specifically children’s pics
    • Picture of a beloved departed
    • Medical conditions (Now that’s a tad too Big Brother for me!)
    • A porn video (Question: Would you have to identify the QR code as X-rated?)
    • Personal or business website (Just like the band members that Levi Smith tattooed)
    • A montage of clouds moving in the sky
    • Daily schedule (Remember, you can change what’s on the linked-to site.)
    • A favorite musical selection
    • One person rejected the idea outright because the technology for QR codes might become obsolete in a decade or two.

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    You Can Do It--But Will You?

    Here’s a little mini-tour of quick facts about Quick Response (QR) codes, courtesy of the patent holder’s website. A subsidiary of Toyota based in Japan designed them as a way to track auto parts in a factory. The little squares and rectangles in this two-dimensional code mean that information can be carried both horizontally and vertically, so it can contain a great deal more information than a simple barcode. In fact, the three squares at the top corners and the bottom left corner provide position orientation so scanners and other electronic devices can read them from any direction. The QR Code is a registered trademark of Denso Wave Incorporated, but its website stipulates that people are free to generate and use their own codes. Visit Denso Wave's FAQ page about these identifiers for more technical information.

    It costs nothing to create your own code. Googling the topic took me first to Kaywa (link below in resources section) where I easily made the tattoo pictured at the top of this page. Bright Hub offers additional tips for choosing a QR code generator. You don’t have to worry about flipping the image when you print it on tattoo thermal paper, because QR codes (as stated) can be interpreted from any direction.

    If you're going to print this yourself for tattooing, you need a dot matrix printer, which you can find on eBay for less than a hundred bucks. If you don't want a tattoo, you can print it on your business cards and link it to your website for a whole new twist on Internet marketing capabilities.

    Ultimately, I want to know--what do you think of them: Artistic free expression, or something altogether more sinister? Do you have one, or do you know someone who does? And what does your QR code tattoo link to? Use the comments section below to tell me!

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    The writer thanks Levi Smith, owner and operator of the Jade Monkey in Phoenix, Arizona, for sharing his knowledge and experiences on this topic.

    Alex Jones TV on YouTube, at

    Denso Wave's FAQ page, at

    Kaywa QR code generator, at


    QR code generated by the writer on Kaywa's website

    Screenshots of YouTube taken by the writer:

    Animated tattoo by Karl Marc as seen on YouTube at

    Alex Jones TV as seen on YouTube at