Tattoos have come a long way. As body inking becomes more common, more people are pushing the envelope to find extreme body modifications to stand out from the crowd. Glow-in-the-dark tattoos, white ink tattoos, eyeball tattoos and tongue tattoos are rising in popularity among some courageous souls.
A tattooed tongue might seem cutting-edge, but people practiced this body art as far back as the 18th century. When European sailors first visited the Pacific Islands, they encountered many inhabitants who used tattoos to mark rituals and life passages. Natives of Hawaii, in particular, tattooed their tongues with three dots when in mourning [source: Franklin-Barbajosa].
Unlike the traditional tattoo machine, which inserts ink via rapid multiple needle punctures, artists typically apply tongue tattoos through a series of pigment injections. Your tongue is covered with layers of epithelial tissue meant to protect it from the wear and tear of eating. This epithelium is engineered to resist abuse and to heal quickly, and using a regular tattoo machine on the tongue would cause the ink to almost immediately disappear. The pigment injection method puts the ink directly into the capillaries of the tongue, where the color immediately spreads and saturates the tissue [source: Mod Life]. However, artists can use a tattoo machine on the underside of your tongue, as that part of your tongue is made of a different type of tissue.
Most people want tattoos on the top of the tongue, so other people can see it. What's it like to get a tongue tattoo? We uncovered many anecdotal experiences but not a lot of hard science, likely because tongue tattooing is a recent trend.
Many people report a low level of pain when receiving a tongue tattoo. And although the healing process is much shorter than that of a traditional tattoo (only about 3 weeks), you may feel more pain. Depending on the pigment used, a tongue tattoo may last only a few weeks, but some artists say a few have lasted a couple of years [source: Tattoodo].
But does a tongue tattoo affect your sense of taste? It's a valid question, since the artist injects the tattoo right through your taste buds. Tattoo artist Sarah Miller won't perform tongue tattoos – she believes they're not worth it, as they fade quickly and "can damage the taste buds" [source: Examiner.com]. Tattoo aficionado Egrett Emry, recipient of a tongue tattoo with an experimental flavored ink, described post-tattoo food as tasting like "burnt flesh" [source: Wolfe].
We're not exactly sure how he knows what burnt flesh tastes like.