A traditional tattoo. Neither Singer nor Pinter would let us photograph their animated tattoos, but we do have photos of the technology behind them.

Introduction to How Animated Tattoos Work

Tattooing is one of the oldest forms of body modification known to man. These days, getting a tattoo is a much safer and more standardized procedure then it once was. Modern tattoo artists use a tattoo machine (which is like a small, handheld sewing machine gun) to do the work.

The tattoo machine has remained relatively unchanged since its invention in the late 1800s. In fact, outside of improvements in safety and sterilization methods, there really haven't been any great leaps forward in tattoo technology. That is, of course, until the recent introduction of the animated tattoo.

Animated tattoos are just what they sound like -- implanted images that actually move under the skin. HowStuffWorks got to examine this technology closely and talk to Jay Sean Singer and Carl A. Pinter, the people who created it.

In this article, we'll explain the hardware behind animated tattoos, learn how they are implanted in the body and discuss some of the safety issues associated with animated tattoos.

PSVI Tattoos

The technical name for an animated tattoo is Programmable Subcutaneous Visible Implant, or PSVI. The PSVI is a small, specially-made LCD implanted into the skin and used to display pre-programmed images. LCDs, or Liquid Crystal Displays, are used in a number of everyday things like TVs, computer monitors and digital watches. Jay Sean Singer, the man who brought PSVI to life, has altered this common technology so that it can be used to display simple, one-color, animated images from underneath the skin.

PSVI tattoos have two major advantages over traditional tattoos. The most obvious advantage is that they are animated, bringing body art to a whole new level. The second advantage is that while the implant surgery is fairly permanent, the images are not. Because PSVIs are programmable, a person with a PSVI tattoo can change the image whenever they like by simply having their tattoo "reprogrammed."

A Programmable Subcutaneous Visible Implant

A PSVI has three major hardware components:

  • The LCD
  • The control module
  • The power supply

Now let's look at each of these components closely and see how they work together to make animated tattoos.

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The flexible LCD is 2 inches high, an inch-and-a-half across, and just over 2 millimeters thick.

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The LCD

­The LCD is the heart of the animated tattoo. If you understand how LCDs work (check out How LCDs Work fo­r a detailed explanation), you are probably asking yourself, "How can an LCD be implanted in the skin?" Let's look at how Jay Sean made this happen.

The Display

LCDs need two layers of polarized glass and a light source to work properly. Singer was able to handle both of these needs with a special thin film that he stumbled across while working with it for use in an unrelated application.

Two film layers are used for each PSVI display. Each layer is actually two pieces of this film pressed together. One piece is covered in a special polarized coating and the other remains clear. The film has the same properties as polarized glass when put together in this way -- it even looks like glass.

­The ­non-polarized sides of the film layers are coated with a special polymer that wears grooves into them. When the layers are put together, these grooves are positioned at right angles to one another and a coating of nematic liquid crystals is sandwiched in-between them.

Each inner layer of the film is also fitted with half of a simple grid made of tiny indium-tin-oxide fibers. The grid controls individual pixels on the display and is part of an integrated circuit controlled by the appropriately-named control module.

Backlight

The last piece is the light source -- LCDs must be backlit to work. To deal with this, Singer once again turned to his special film.

"This film is real thin. When you take dozens of layers of it and press them together real hard...you get this thin wafer."

Singer covers this wafer in a reflective surface, then threads in a hair-like filament that has low power draw and long life. The filament lights up, and that light is reflected off of the shiny surface of the wafer, successfully backlighting the display. There are two thread-like cables for power and a small ribbon cable for data. Singer sums it up, "What we have here is a simple, small and flexible one-color passive matrix LCD. Pretty d--- cool if I say so myself, and I often do."

We'll look at the control module in detail next.

The control module is the brain of the PSVI

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The Control Module

If the LCD is the heart of the animated tattoo, then the control module is the brain. The control module comprises three major parts: the microprocessor, the wireless receiver and the software drivers for the LCD display.

The control module allows the images in a PSVI to be animated. It sends the proper voltage down the grid to manipulate the pixels. It also makes it possible to input and change images. Most of the details about the processor are a closely guarded secret, but basically, it has a tiny bit of flash memory to store the image and the software that it runs. All of the software, drivers and associated applications that are used in PSVIs were written by Singer and are compatible with Windows-based machines.

The control module is programmed wirelessly. It receives data using a small integrated wireless receiver. The PSVI module receives FM signals from a specially-made transmitter that Singer designed.

Carl A. Pinter, PSVI tattoo artist and Singer's business partner, does the bulk of the design, programming and installation work for the animated tattoos. Pinter discusses animated tattoo programming: "I don't know if I'd call it programming even though Sean [Singer] does. The thing to know about this programming is that it's not easy, fun or fast. If you want me to make a design or a change you better have a lot of time on your hands...and money."

Next, we'll look at how the tattoos are powered.

The magnetic sensor allows the battery to be charged without puncturing the skin.

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Power Tattoos

Like any electronic device, a PSVI needs power. The PSVI is powered by a rechargeable NiMH (Nickel-Metal Hydride) battery.

The battery is recharged through a magnetic sensor. The sensor is embedded into the skin so that is almost flush with the surface. The battery and magnetic sensor are encased in a non-toxic coating.

The magnetic sensor is charged when it is attached to a special Singer-designed power adapter. One end of the adapter is a conventional electric plug and the other end is a magnetic connector. This allows the battery to be charged without having to plug directly into the skin. You simply connect the two magnetic surfaces and the battery charges. Singer explained, "it's something you do while you're watching TV or sitting at work."

Singer admits that plugging yourself into a wall takes some getting used to.

"It's like anything else...people think its weird now, but we'll all be plugged into some type of device eventually. It's a small price to pay for a really cool animated tattoo...and this could be the bridge to an exciting new era of plugging in people. Maybe we don't need to eat anymore? Maybe we plug in? Right?"

It can take up to three hours to get a full charge. Depending on the size and complexity of the tattoo, a charge can last anywhere between four and 12 hours.

When pressed on questions about battery replacement Singer declined to answer, but Pinter had this to say: "I don't know, man. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it...hadn't happened yet. Those batteries have pretty good long life on 'em. Hell, eventually all those backlights on the LCDs are gonna go down too, so...what are you gonna do? It ain't perfect but it's pretty darn cool -- you feel me?"

Next, we'll look at the implantation procedure.

Pinter performs the implant surgery in his workshop in rural Kentucky.

The Procedure

Both Singer and Pinter were reluctant to give a lot of details about the procedure. As Pinter put it, "...it's not really legal in the strictest sense of the word." But we were able to talk to them about some facets of PSVI "installation."

Singer explains, "Like a real tattoo, the implants are all placed subcutaneously, everything except the contact surface of the magnetic sensor. That's a little shallower. Carl only makes one incision per component and there are three components."

The battery pack is implanted first. It's about the size of two shirt buttons stacked on top of each other. Its placement is determined by the location of the tattoo. Because the sensor is so close to the surface of the skin, Pinter tries to place it somewhere where it will be concealed and protected. "Fleshy parts are good, like underneath the arm or right around the back flab if it's lower back tattoo."

Pinter continues, "The hardest part is fishing those wires through to connect all three pieces. If I'm gonna screw it up, it'll be on that part. The LCD is hardwired and I have to fish those two leads and the ribbon cable through the first cut, up under the flesh and out of the second cut. It's like pushin' a puppy hair through puddin'. Once I pull it out of the cut I can hook up the (control) module and load her in. The battery pack and sensor are also hardwired so it's the same thing. I gotta fish those leads through the third cut and up into the second one. Then you hook her up, power her up, sew those cuts up and it's Miller time."

Carl, the fact that you refer to "surgical" incisions as "cuts" scares me.

"Really? I'm scared of getting shot in the a-- while riding in a helicopter."

We'll look at the safety issues surrounding animated tattoos next.

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An X-ray of a PVSI

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Is It Safe?

There is no doubt that animated tattoos are really cool, but before you run out and get one there are a few things to consider. First and foremost it is currently illegal to give or get animated tattoos. Beyond that there are safety concerns. Jacob Schlieb of The American Society of Plastic Surgeons had this to say about animated tattoos: "If you are performing an elective surgery without a medical license then you are in violation of the law. That's the bottom line. Beyond that there are dozens of reasons not to perform these procedures and certainly more reasons not to have it done. This technology has not been subject to any sort of monitored, scientific or medical trials. We don't know if it's safe to have these appliances implanted in the skin...they could result in any number of health problems." Schlieb continues, "...that's not even touching on how insanely negligent and dangerous it is to have this procedure done by persons with no medical training, without proper facilities or sterilization. This is tantamount to back-alley surgery."

Singer and Pinter are reluctant to discuss the safety issues associated with animated tattoos. Pinter muses, "Hey dude, we're here for a good time, not for a long time," to which Singer replies, "Please shut up, Carl."

The pair claims to have performed "almost 60" PSVI procedures with "no complications or complaints." They don't deny the potential for risk, but claim they have taken every precaution. Singer elaborates, "It's really expensive. I'm not going to say how much but it's in line with buying a big-screen TV or a nice riding lawn mower...and it's not like we advertise. If you want one you have to find us first. If you find us, you have the cash, and you check out, we'll load you up with one of the implants. But if you went through all of that you must really want one, so you're taking responsibility for your own safety. Nobody makes you get an animated tattoo."

Singer dodged specific questions about particular dangers associated with animated tattoos, but Pinter did say, "We don't really talk about the batteries a lot. If anything in this contraption is gonna make you balloon out with hundreds of tumors it's gonna be that battery rig. But we don't really know for sure. That's not going in the article, is it?"

Of course not, Carl.

For lots more information on animated tattoos, regular tattoos and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Thank You

Thanks to Jay Sean Singer and Carl A. Pinter for their assistance with this article.

Lots More Information

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Sources

  • Singer, Jay Sean and Carl A. Pinter. Personal Interview. March 17, 2006.
  • United States Patent Office. Patent 5,638, 832: Programmable subcutaneous visible implant, June 7, 1995. http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect2=PTO1&Sect2= HITOFF&p=1&u=%2Fnetahtml%2Fsearch-bool.html&r=1&f=G&l=50&d= PALL&RefSrch=yes&Query=PN%2F5638832