In october 2013, a famous design school in Paris, ENSCI les Ateliers, hosted a workshop organised by the French Ministry of culture. The idea was to use images, videos and sound fallen in the national pubic domain and use them in a sort of “Mashup”. The event was called Public Domain Remix.

The students had one day (8 hours) to pick their digital material and transform it, hack it or remix it.

Le FabShop, was invited as a digital manufacturing expert to help the students realise their project.

After a short brainstorm, all the teams came up with similar ideas, except one, who really went out of the box with their concept. They had this silly idea of making a machine that could automatically create tattoos taken from a bank of images. They learned from le FabShop's representative that their concept was more than feasible. It could be prototyped by themselve, using the school's equipment.  

In one afternoon, they managed to hack a Desktop 3D printer and enable it to trace on skin, using a pen instead of the extruder. The crowd was amazed and the Minister of culture even came to see the projects, but the young designers didn’t want to stop there. They wanted the machine to make REAL tattoos, on REAL skin, so they kept working on the project during their spare time, with some help from teachers and other students.

They borrowed a manual tattoo-machine from an amateur tattoo artist and found some artificial skin for the first tests. They chose to draw a simple circle. The perfect shape to test the precision of the process. It worked! But now they had to find a volunteer to be their “guiney pig”…
Somehow, they had no difficulty. A lot of people where excited by the idea of being the first human tatooed by a “robot”.

The big difficulty was to repeat the same exercise on a curve surface and on a material that has much more flexibility than silicone. Many tricks were tried to tighten the area around the skin ( a metal ring, elastics, scotch tape...) but the most effective one was a scooter’s inner tube, open on the area to be marked.

To suceed, everything had to be precise and calculated. Here is a step by step on how to transform a 3D printer or CNC into a tattoo machine.

- Measure your equipment and create (3D print) an adaptor to fix it instead of the 3D printer’s extruder.
- Install your tatoo tool so that it won't move at all. You don’t want it to vibrate during the print.
- Mark the center of the build platform.
- Make your drawing in a 3D software if you are using a three axis machine. Give it a minimum thickness of 0,2mm. Try to have only outlines. The trick won't work to fill surfaces… for the moment.
- Import your drawing in the 3D printing software.
-Measure the lenght between the platorm and the top of the arm you want to tattoo. Then insert the number in the 3D printing software to put the drawing at the good hight. Some 3D printer softwares will automatically put back the drawing to the build plate level. In this case, just create a 0,2x0,2mm cube under your drawing and give it the distance you want. The printer will then adjust its height automatically (since the file’s bottom will be at the good distance).

-You may want to adjust the tension on the skin so your circle wont look oval after removing the rubber. Use a stencil to draw a circle on the skin. Then use the inner tube to give the skin some tension, keeping it stretched uniformly.

-Some 3D printers initialize their XYZ axis by bumping into small sensors, usually at one end of each axis. Since you removed the extruder, you might need to create a small piece wich will make the contact between your new tool and the sensors.

- Make sure to sterilize every single element and tools that might be in contact with the human skin.

- Fill your needle with tattoo ink

- Send the drawing to print and pause the machine once it get’s to it’s measured hight.

- Place the “volunter’s” arm in the Automatic Tatoo machine and make sure that it’s perfectly centered. Start the motor, cross your fingers and… GO!

- If the skin tension and needle hight was measured correctly, every thing should go fine.
This experiment was made under the supervision of Tattoo experts.

For more questions about how this was made, on what is next and on how you can help, please contact the group leader : Pierre Emm at : magueule@appropriateaudiences.net

Video, episode 1




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    58 Discussions

    Guy MarkT

    2 years ago

    Awesome effort.

    I think the issue over non 2D surface should
    be fairly simple to deal with - at it's most simple, a "rest" which,
    like a tattoo artists' hand, then rests on the skin not only to apply
    slight tension but also to steady and establish the level.

    would reckon an approach like this would be able to reliably and
    consistently deliver ink to exactly the desired depth. As for listening
    to the sound of the tattoo machine for information, then I am not sure
    how many tens of thousands per second sampling a humble PC can manage -
    but it is sure going to exceed the 20-60 odd Herts from a tattoo machine
    - so more than, for example 100 samples per second would be pointless.

    Providing a "rule" can be established, a computer can not only emulate but can usually do so with more precision.

    interesting development will come when you can use almost an inkjet
    approach of CMYK or RGB with multiple heads and the machine able to scan
    in a photograph and reliably reproduce it on a person.

    Sure it may not be a working device NOW but we will get ever closer to it.

    Cool idea. Unfortunately it will never ever work. I am a proffesional tattoo artist. I am also a 3D modeler, digital artist, programmer with a bachelors in computer science and an all around maker. As much as I would love to see this work effectively its impossible. There is way to much going on in a tattoo to get this to work. Unfortunately the "test dummy" in this video didn't end up with a nice looking tattoo it may have looked nice, but then it healed and either scared or faded. This is because when you tattoo your only hitting the 3rd layer of skin. it is very very difficult to stay on this layer. It takes a combination of skill and practice. You have to listen to the sound of the machine you have to know the work of the machine in order to adjust speed for skin resistance there is just sooooo much going on. It would never work. Cool idea tho.

    4 replies

    i completely disagree as well. all of those issue can easily be corrected and improved upon using sensors to determine distance, angles, skin density, movement, etc, etc..., but it will all be done with precision, and without human error. so not only is it going to work, it is going to be/look much better than any human artist can do.... with less pain and guaranteed results, perfect fades and no flaws. maybe i will get ink someday now.

    I disagree when you say it will never ever be possible. Technology can analyze far better than our human senses. given the right programming and sensors this is totally possible, and to be honest quite simple for the right mind. This one in particular isnt of high quality, but a machine that is developed for the sole purpose of tattooing can be much safer, less painful, and more exact. This machine could allow for a photoshopped image, created to match every last detail of the creator's desires (because not everybody wants the artist's rendition of their own idea).

    They said the earth was flat.

    Columbus proved, it was round.

    They said the sound barrier could never be broken.

    Chuck Yeager proved otherwise.

    "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." -- Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.

    "Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and weigh only 1.5 tons." -- Popular Mechanics, 1943

    "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." -- Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977.

    Just a few examples where someone thought things could NEVER be done. Truth of the matter is, we don't and CAN'T know what things will happen in the future. The Precision of machines in performing tasks is, in many cases, mindboggling. Who knows what we can be capable of with just a few more breakthroughs in science and technology?


    Why would you use a "3D" technology when a simple plotter can do the same thing at a fraction of the cost. The 3D technology is for constructing objects on 3 planes (X,Y,Z) and a tattoo is a simple X,Y. Seems like a misappropriation of technology.

    2 replies

    Reply 4 years ago

    Because a tatoo is not a 2d image. It is 3d in that the canvas itself is 3d. in later iterations they may add the ability to scan the object being tatooed and the printer will auto adjust the z axis to meet the surface of the skin.
    I don't think it is foolish at all. Bravo to them for seeing a unique application.


    4 years ago on Introduction

    Very nice liked. I hope you the further development.


    4 years ago on Introduction

    As someone who's had his share of fights with printers, over clogged
    paper and dry ink cartridges, I sure hope there will always be a human
    supervising the tattoo sessions – in case something goes horribly wrong.


    Well of all the uses of 3d printing, i'm not sure i would trust a computer to do my tattoos


    4 years ago

    someone got to kill does people that trie to create this kine of machine I dont wanna be out of work in the future hahaha......


    4 years ago

    For those who feel that a computer is less likely to make a mistake than a skilled artist. How would you like a computer glitch permanently inked into your arm?


    4 years ago

    (sorry for the insanely long post haha)

    very interesting. i have nothing bad to say at all. but as a tattooist, i would have to agree with most of the other people who think this will be a long work in progress. i would love to have one, tho, because ive only done one tribal tattoo in my fifteen years of tattooing (that i can recall). there is muchhhhh more to applying a decent looking tattoo than what has already been mentioned. you guys should look into getting as much help from seasoned tattoo artists who might be able to help you along the way. i personally would love to witness a machine that can give a tattooist a run for their money. and i dont feel like any artists should feel intimidated, or insulted by this machine. i know that "everyone, their mother, AND their robots think they can become a tattooist over night, but we have to face it. it is a new day. but, the machines will need to either not use conventional machines, or need to some how take into consideration how machines work, and how they fail. for instance, a broken spring, pitted front contact, paper towel or who knows what stuck in the needle grouping. not to mention that each tattoo client is most likely different from another, in some way. some peoples skin need to be stretched more. some bleed more. muscle spasming. darker skin tones vs. lighter skin tones. i dont see how a machine could take all of that into consideration. but you guys keep working on this, cuz i want to see it happen. forgot to mention that some tattoo pigments appear to have not been implanted into the skin. a lot of artists have a hard time grasping that fact when they begin, so they tend to overwork certain colors, causing scarring.


    4 years ago on Introduction

    I think a practical application for this will be doing the tattoos where the person getting the tattoo isn't after art, they just want a bluebird or a lightning bolt or the mascot of their school. I'd bet most tattooists have thought at some point in time, if I have to do one more (pick your pet tattoo peeve) I will kill myself with this tattoo machine. Instead of taking money out of the pocket of professional tattooists it should free them up from the grunt work. A shop could have 3 or 4 of the robotic tattoo machines, each doing a tattoo at the same time. The tattoist would monitor the machines and save the lion's share of their time for the real art that they really want to do in the first place. That assumes they are able to get past what I think will be the biggest problem, that problem being the fact that the canvas is human skin. I wonder if one could combine the technology of the robots that travel along a line with a tattoo machine. . Perhaps something like that combined with a tattoo machine with some sort of x-y arms. Or, perhaps someone could redesign a tattoo machine based on the print head of the old dot matrix printers. It could be used to lay down a base tattoo that the human tattoist could clean up. Again, freeing the tattooist up to do the real art and the real money pieces.


    4 years ago on Introduction

    This is awesome! I bet my buddy who owns a tattoo shop will be sweating when I send him this link though haha.


    4 years ago on Introduction

    I think the 3D printer setup is mostly experimental. I would envision a 360 robotic arm would perform this kind of work. I like the idea of a laser calibration system. Don't forget they already have a robot that can play ping-pong.

    About the sanitary comments... Anything is only as sanitary as you clean it.

    I also must mention the "Not Sure" tattoo of Idiocracy. God I love that movie.


    4 years ago

    As a tattoo artist i find this an interesting experiment, but many decades away from a practical application. Most tattoos are bigger than the quarter sized circle this is capable of producing, and a good stretch is essential to any good tattoo. No way could this machine ink a sleeve or backpiece! It would have to be repositioned multple times even to do a small name, and that would cause alignment problems. Im intrigued, but not even a little bit afraid for my job.