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].

Author's Note: How Scleral Tattoos Work

I got my left ear pierced back in the early 1990s, for what probably seems like an odd reason: My wife and I had just gotten married, and we were either too frugal or too broke— I forget which — to buy gold wedding rings. And I'm a bit absent-minded, so I was certain that if I got a ring, I'd inevitably leave it in a gym locker room or on the hotel nightstand (I traveled a lot in those days). So instead, she and I went to the Piercing Pagoda at the local shopping mall and split the $25-a-pair gold ear stud special as a symbol of our love. I soon acquired a variety of ear studs and rings, including a ceramic yin-yang symbol, a gold peace sign, and my favorite, a silver skull dangling from a chain that my wife fashioned for me from stuff she bought at the local bead shop.

Having an earring was kind of a gateway drug for me, and pretty soon, I was sporting other affectations of nonconformity. I traded in my foreign correspondent-style raincoat for a black biker jacket and a beret, and grew a ponytail and a chin beard that I imagined made me look as cool as Dave Navarro, the guitarist for the then-popular alt-rock band Jane's Addiction. I contemplated getting a barbed-wire band or Chinese characters tattooed on my arm as well, but I never quite could go through with it—in part because of a fear of getting some infectious disease from the needle, in part because I was concerned about how silly it would look someday when I was an old man playing shuffleboard in a trailer park in Sarasota.

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