Now, people all over the world are inking these machine-scannable images. And what’s more, they’re even going viral for it.
Tattoos are a way to capture a significant memory on your skin, a permanent-ish stamp that tells a story or, at the very least, a design you vibe with. But in the world of QR codes (which stands for “quick response”), the ink can be scanned to become songs, resumés, Instagram profiles and even…. wait for it... vaccine certificates.
“In the ‘90s, people were all about getting barcodes tattooed. Today, they want QR codes they can scan with their phones,” Gabrielle Pellerone, a tattoo artist who runs a studio called Boot-W in the Italian neighbourhood of Reggio Calabria, told VICE. In August, Pellerone designed a scannable vaccine green pass tattoo that soon went viral.
“Many people have also been tattooing QR codes that lead to family photos or other such personal reminders, but this green pass code has a valid social functionality besides being associated with a memory,” he said. Pellerone also pointed out that the popularity of QR code tattoos is inextricably linked to the heavy dependence on technology humans have acquired over the last year.
As we embrace our digital lives in the pandemic era, the QR code is becoming an inseparable part of our existence – whether you want to check out a digital menu at a restaurant or make payments without having to fish out your wallet. In fact, a town in Moscow is even giving out temporary QR code tattoos that contain details of the wearer’s vaccine status so they can enter restaurants and public spaces.
“Due to the pandemic, the use of QR codes to make payments – whether at the bank or a restaurant – has become increasingly normalised,” said Lokesh Verma, an Indian tattoo artist who runs a studio called Devilz Tattoos. “So, people feel more comfortable, even drawn to getting it as a tattoo.”
Verma has inked clients with a variety of QR codes, from GIFs and Instagram profiles to music videos and work portfolios. He sees the trend as an attempt to stand out and curate a tattoo design that is unique and unconventional.
But while QR code tattoos are functional for some people, some others want to get them just to be in on the joke.
“The world of tattooing is evolving everyday, and the same goes for technology,” Leonardo Biason, a tattoo artist based in Pordenone, Italy, told VICE. “This type of tattoo creates a closeness between these two worlds.”
After watching a YouTube video of a person getting a QR code tattoo, Biason – who is part of a studio called Tattoo Lab – came up with the idea of inking an amusing song on his friend, Max Mancin. In September, they decided to go with a QR code that could be scanned to throw up a YouTube link to the song “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Within a few weeks, their tattoo went viral on the internet, gaining over a million views from art and meme pages.
“We decided to tattoo this song because I’ve always found it funny,” Mancin said. “No one really knows what a QR code leads to, so I think it’s a great way to interact with people.”
QR codes come packed with an instant shock value and a sense of intrigue that’s beyond skin-deep. While some use it to relay professional details or simply make people laugh, they have apparently also become a common form of tech-enabled serenade.
“Once, a client wanted to write a love letter for his girlfriend, so he got a romantic song they listened to together as a QR code,” said Vikas Malani, an India-based tattoo artist who runs a studio called Body Canvas.
These machine-friendly designs may make for interesting romantic interludes and engaging conversations, but, there’s also a lot that can go wrong.
In March, a Colombian influencer got his Instagram profile tattooed as a QR code on his neck. He, too, went viral, but mostly because he realised soon after getting permanently inked that his tattoo kinda… didn’t actually work.
“You need a lot of precision and training to make a QR code tattoo that actually works,” said Pellerone, who specialises in hyper-realistic tattoos. According to artists, QR codes can be embedded onto any flat surface, including body parts like thighs or arms. But extra care has to be taken while inking these instruments of intrigue, with many recommending that you get the initial sketch scanned before needling it. Then again, there’s also the issue that a QR code can be changed quite easily, making these tattoos vulnerable to pranksters who can edit the destination of the scannable code.
Gabrielle Pellerone gave one of the world's first vaccine green pass tattoos that contains information about a person's immunity to COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Gabrielle Pellerone.
But when it comes to these tattoos, even QR codes that do work may get distorted in time. “I think a QR code tattoo has a short life because you probably won’t be able to scan it properly once you get older and your skin starts to sag,” said Malani. He added that once the skin gets stretched out – as it’s sure to do at some point – it could become increasingly difficult to scan such a tattoo.
“Unlike other tattoo styles, QR code tattoos don’t have a historic significance,” added Biason. “We don’t know if they will still work in 10 years, or if the links they link to will be deleted. To do it or not do it depends solely on the meaning the person attributes to the tattoo.”
But though these permanent tattoos bear temporary significance, those who get them don’t seem too bothered by it.
“I did think about whether with time I would not be able to scan it, but it was more a decision to get something for today,” said Mancin, noting that since his tattoo was significant in the present moment, it would remain so even if it could be rendered obsolete.
Ultimately, QR code tattoos signal a shift towards an increasing ease people feel towards technology, enough to get it scratched onto their skin just to make a statement.
“I think it’s a kind of human evolution, that we’re slowly transitioning into cyborgs,” said Verma. “Our phones have become an extension of who we are. QR code tattoos are the first sign that we will soon be half-human, half-robot.”