Traditionally, tattoos are etched on the skin by a human being – which is why each design can be considered a unique piece of art. On the other hand, tattoo removal methods involve laser technology. But what if body art could be also be made by a machine? Recently, a group of students sought to figure out whether or not this would be possible, and the results of their experiments were astounding. Not only were they able to turn a 3D printer into a tat​tooing machine, but they also managed to create some stunning imagery with it.

An experimental project
NewScientist reported that the development came about during an electronics workshop at the ENSCI-Les Ateliers design school in Paris, which was organized by the French Ministry of Culture. In a matter of eight hours, Pierre Emm, Piotr Widelka and Johan Da Silveira​ were able to modify a MakerBot 3-D printer so that they could etch simple temporary designs onto the skin using a normal pen. Then, the group decided to take the idea one step further. The students installed parts from a tattoo gun onto the machine in an effort to produce permanent inkings.

Of course, they weren't ready to put anyone under the needle just yet. First, they tested the machine on artificial silicone skin. Once it was determined that the results were successful, a bevy of tattoo-hopefuls volunteered to be the guinea pig for printed ink.

"A lot of people were excited by the idea of being the first human tattooed by a 'robot,'" wrote team leader Pierre Emm, according to Science Direct.

Complex modifications
How did the students build this unusual inking machine? According to The Daily Mail, the group started by swapping out the printer's nozzle with one they made themselves. Then, they carefully mounted the tattoo gun in such a way that it wouldn't start vibrating while the printing was taking place. The group leveraged regular computer modeling software to design the circle and scaled it to size for the skin of the volunteer's arm. One of the main obstacles with the printing process was making sure that the skin is taut enough for precise inking. CNET explained that the group of students tried out a multitude of different strategies to resolve this issue, and eventually ended up installing an innertube to with a hole exposing the skin that would receive the pigment. Once the skin, printer and needle were all sterilized, the gun was loaded with ink and the volunteer's arm was positioned in the printer inside the tubing. Finally, it was time to turn on the motor and start inking.

The first printed inking
So what is the first ever 3-D printed tattoo of? The volunteer who had the honors got a perfect circle emblazoned on his forearm. Many might be wondering why the student chose that shape in particular. The Daily Mail noted that he selected a circle because it showcases the remarkable precision that the technology is able to achieve – a major advantage that machinery has over a human tattoo artist. Don't expect any elaborate etchings from the 3-D printer, either. NewScientist explained that as of now, the machine is only capable of super basic shapes and outlines.

While some may fear that this development could mean the end of the tattoo artist, their instructor insists that's not the case.

"The idea really isn't to replace the tattoo artist: you can't replace their eyes and brain," said Samuel Bernier, the students' instructor, according to the news source. "What's interesting is to open the discussion."

Interestingly, if you want to take a deeper glimpse into the building process, the students have posted a detailed tutorial on how to make the machine yourself at Instructables.

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* Source: Harris Interactive, 2012