I'm hardly the most hesitant person on the planet, but when it comes to my body, ten years of studying and working in both chemistry and medicine have made me pretty risk averse. I need my health in order to work well and enjoy my leisure time, so putting it at risk just doesn't seem worth it.
Things I don't do include: taking recreational drugs, having unnecessary cosmetic surgery, having sex with someone whose STI status I know nothing about, drunk driving…
And having my eyeballs tattooed.
This might seem like a strange one to add, but eye tattoos are getting a lot of media coverage lately. On February 19 the New South Wales Government in Australia effectively legalized the practice by adding it to a number of health amendments. The NSW Government has since received a lot of criticism, both from the Australian Labour Party and health professionals who claim it's a dangerous practice. Ophthalmologist Dr. Chandra Bala went on Today Tonight to describe it as "a step too far" and "not worth it."
Eyeball tattooing works by injecting a small amount of pigment in liquid solution directly underneath the conjunctiva (the thin top layer of the eye) so the dye is sandwiched between the conjunctiva and the sclera, which is the white of the eye. The dye spreads between the layers to permanently cover the whites, although normally several injections are required to cover an entire eyeball.
The technique was pioneered by nearly a decade ago by a Melbourne-based tattooist and body-modifier named Luna Cobra, and since his initial trials on three consenting volunteers, he's fine-tuned his technique and tattooed nearly a hundred people.
Although none of Cobra's clients have experienced any problems so far, he has inspired a few copycats who aren't as fastidious. Many clients have reported short-term problems including prolonged headaches and staining of the surrounding tissue. They also describe their acute sensitivity to light from too much ink being injected at once. Other risks include infection, inflammation, blindness, and even losing eyes. Cobra, perhaps for reasons that work in his favor, warns on his website that untrained copycats have previously blinded clients with the disclaimer: "YES PEOPLE ARE NOW BLIND FROM EYEBALL TATTOOING." Also, given the procedure is entirely novel and experimental, the long-term risks are unknown.
As a person who won't smoke a cigarette, eyeball tattooing seems completely insane. With all these unknowns and potential risks, why would anyone do it?
Kylie Garth is a body piercer and hand poke tattoo artist practicing in Perth. Her skill, professionalism, and ability to make me laugh exactly when I needed it most helped me feel completely comfortable when she pierced my nose last year. Another remarkable thing about Garth is her body, which is a veritable work of art.
Like a lot of people into body modification, Garth tells me her "mods" are an expression of her personality and a means of crafting her own identity. Even though tattooed eyeballs were something she had to work up towards, she eventually decided to take the plunge not only because she thought they "look fucking cool," but also because she felt that she could keep health risks to a minimum.
"With all of my mods and piercings I know the people, or it's at the studio I work at, so I know everything's clean and I know the person's skill level," she says. "The only person Garth trusted to tattoo her eyeballs was Luna Cobra, who happened to be her colleague at the time and whom she had seen do the procedure successfully before. Having someone untrained do the procedure was never a question, as Garth relies on excellent vision for her work and never wanted to jeopardize that. "There are so many things that can go wrong with eyeball tattoos. People can go blind. Imagine if I went blind? I'd be fucked! What kind of insurance can you get for that?"
While Garth hasn't experienced any short-term side effects from the procedure, I was interested to see whether she had considered any longer term consequences. "It's only the tiniest amount of fluid [injected into the eye]" she points out before changing tack. "Yeah I was a little concerned, but there hadn't been anything talked about. No one was having any issues later on from the first lot."
Indeed, throughout our conversation it appears to be reactions from people, rather than the tattoos themselves, that pose more of a risk. "Being an alternative strange looking female… people react on the streets in funny ways," she says. "Some people might judge me in a certain way, and they might stop me from getting opportunities later on. There's a risk that friends and family might not like it; they might not like it so much that they might not want to be around you. These are all very real things."
Kylie Garth puts forward a convincing argument but I'm still happier with my eyeballs white.
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