Damien Thorne wants to carry his late grandmother under his skin forever.
He looks on as his tattoo artist sprinkles a pinch of cremated ashes into two vials of ink, one black and one yellow. The inks will be used to tattoo a smiley face on Thorne's forearm.
"She used to have smiley faces plastered all over her apartment," he says. "This is for her."
Biogenic tattoos like Damien's have been done underground for years, but "morbid ink" is poised to evolve from fringe practice to high-tech business.
Biotech startups are developing creative methods to mix tattoo inks with biogenic additives including cremated ash, carbonized hair, and even DNA from both the dead and the living.
There's currently no clear regulation addressing the practice. The FDA says it hasn't evaluated the risks. But these tattoos are harmless as long as the ashes were properly cremated and shielded from contaminants, says microbiologist Jason Tetro.
"By taking biological material and reducing it to an inert state [through cremation], you are making it safe for injection," he told Motherboard. "If the material no longer has a biological function and doesn't stimulate the immune system, there's no problem. It's basically as inert as the ink itself."
"There's no harm in that as long as the ashes are stored aseptically so you're not introducing any microbes."
Newer morbid ink formulas eschew ashes in favor of more uniquely personal additives like DNA.
Any free DNA will be recognized by the immune system, but if introduced with a biologically inert carrier, the process should be safe, Tetro says.
In one process, pioneered by Canadian company CG Labs, customers use a cheek swab to collect a DNA sample. They send the sample to CG Labs, which removes enzymes, extracts DNA and binds it to an inert substrate before mailing it back to the customer, who can mix it with tattoo ink.
Another approach, which is being patented by an impressive cast of scientists including nanomedicine pioneer Edith Mathiowitz and biohacking expert Ellen Jorgensen, proposes an "inert, non-bioerodible, hydrophobic [water-repelling]" micro-capsule that safely encloses the "personalizing substance."
The micro-capsule will likely be made of the non-biodegradable polymer PMMA, preventing the DNA from making contact with the person's body.
PMMA, better known as Plexiglas, is the most widely used polymer in the human body—but it's not risk-free. Some people react to it by developing granulomas, inflammations that Tetro describes as "immune cells gathering together and hunkering in for a war." Not pretty, and not something you want disfiguring a memorial tattoo.
The risk can be mitigated, but this will require astute engineering of various physical and chemical properties of the PMMA, including surface charge, morphology and adhesiveness.
Across the pond, Swiss inventor Andreas Wampl and his startup Skin46 wants to offer "connective" tattoo ink made with carbon extracted from human hair.
The process will need to ensure against the creation of carcinogens, which can occur when organic matter undergoes incomplete combustion. To avert this, Skin46 wants to use temperatures in excess of 1,500 degrees Centigrade to incinerate the hair all the way through, creating pharmaceutical grade carbon that is inert and free of carcinogenic compounds.
Once the technology is ready, Wampl will demo it himself using hair samples obtained from his children. He then wants to take the project to Kickstarter to raise funds to go into commercial production.
"Everyone has a parent, child, lover or friend that they want to be connected to in a physical and emotional way," he says "I've talked to a lot of people who don't even have regular tattoos but love the idea of a 'connective' one. I think it's a huge market."