How Scleral Tattoos Work

Why Would Anyone Want to Get an Eyeball Tattooed?

When people get tattoos on their skin, it's possible to create intricate, finely crafted drawings. But when you inject ink into your sclera, you're just staining the white of your eye. Shannon Larratt, who participated in the initial 2007 experiment, wrote that the goal was "to eventually fully fill in the white of the eye with blue" [source: Larratt].

But that leads to another question. Why would anyone want to have a sclera of a different color – and at such a risk? Lane Jensen, publisher of Tattoo & Piercing Magazine, tried to explain it to the New York Post in 2007: "It's trippy — and definitely starts some interesting conversations" [source: Positano].

Larratt explained in a later blog post that he wanted his eyes to resemble those of the Fremen, characters in science-fiction novelist Frank Herbert's "Dune" series. He described the result as "both subtle and extreme, in an effect that's completely alien, yet maintains its humanity and is almost even normal." People who notice his scleral tattooing "seem unsure of what they're seeing, whether it's natural, or a trick of the light, or something induced" [source: Larratt].

But Larratt doesn't encourage other people to rush out and get eyeball tattoos. Though he's undergone repeated scleral tattooing and so far hasn't suffered any significant ill-effects, he nevertheless warns that this permanent procedure is "high risk" [source: Larratt].

In an FAQ, he mentions that some subjects have experienced persistent pain "similar to a throbbing headache that never goes away" and sensitivity to light, and the sensation of having something caught in their eye. Injecting too much ink into the eye can also cause the sclera itself to break down and flake off into the vitreous humor, the interior of the eye. The result could be "floaters," annoying spots in a person's vision, or in a worst-case, loss of the eye itself [source: Larratt].

Doctors agree. Dr. Sandra Belmont, a clinical associate professor of ophthalmology at Weill Cornell Medical Center-New York Presbyterian Hospital, told the New York Post that eye tattooing could be very dangerous. Infection and hemorrhaging inside the eye are potential hazards, and an eyeball tattoo that went bad potentially could threaten a person's vision [source: Positano].

Dr. Douglas Meier, a Portland, Ore.-based ophthalmologist, took a similarly dim view of the practice in the Digital Journal. He noted that someone at working at home wouldn't have the medical knowledge or equipment to carry out the procedure safely [source: Hartman].

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