Nov 10, 2015 | By Kira

In 2013, three industrial design students from Paris, France hacked a MakerBot 3D printer into an automatic tattooing machine. By replacing the 3D printer's extruder with a tattoo needle, they created a machine that can recreate incredibly precise designs uploaded with 3D modeling software onto actual human skin. Motivated by the overwhelmingly positive response and enthusiasm of the tattoo community, Pierre Emm, Johan Da Silveira and Piotr Widelka of the studio Appropriate Audiences have dedicated full-time efforts to developing and eventually commercializing their own proprietary 3D printer tattoo machine, Le Tatoué, a tool they have designed to enhance, rather than replace, the skills of tattoo artists around the world.

Appropriate Audiences has received a great amount of attention, as they are the first and only company to produce such a technology, and so far the team has traveled to Moscow, Luxembourg, Rome, and Stockholm to demonstrate their creation. I spoke with Pierre Emm last week just before he and the team headed to the Renaissance Maker Faire in Lille, to find out more about their inspiration, process, and future plans.

The art, anthropology and science behind tattoos

The practice of tattooing has existed across the globe since at least Neolithic times (beginning around 10,2000 B.C.), and has evolved from literally rubbing ink into wounds, to automatic tattoo machines that can jet out many a poorly-chosen design faster than you can say “are you sure about that?”

Today, many cultures still practice traditional, non-electrical tattooing techniques, including the Japanese tebori method (‘hand-poking’), or Hawaiian hand-tapping. These traditional methods often involve lengthy prayers and rituals that make tattooing more of a sacred rite than the mere application of artwork onto a person’s body. Even with the use of automatic tattooing machines, many artists have preserved this sacred regard towards the art of tattooing.

It is precisely this blurring of history, art, technology and humanity that defines Appropriate Audiences’ approach to creating their tattoo machine. “We’re talking about mechanics, engineering, electronics, the human body, anthropology, history, art, even philosophy…it’s a project that allows us to meet people from many different disciplines and to create a porosity between them,” said Emm. “That’s what we are passionate about.”

Pierre Emm, left and Piotr Widelka, right

Though using a 3D printer to replicate designs from 3D modeling software may seem to do away with the skill and craftsmanship of traditional tattoo artists, Emm insists that, above all, Tatoué is about enhancing human capabilities. “It was important for us to create a tool that is entirely in the service of the tattooer, that was designed for their specific needs, and that they could appropriate to their various styles and techniques…the idea is not to waste time re-doing things that are already possible, but to redefine the elements, question existing tools, allowing us to move forward.”

From the very beginning, he insisted, the project was about designing a real-life tool that would be more than a marketing gimmick, but that would actually expand the possibilities of this ancient practice.


In terms of how the machine came into being, that all started two years ago at a workshop organized by the French Ministry of Culture, held at ENSCI, (École Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle), a famous design school in Paris. Emm, Widelka and Da Silveira, all students of Industrial Design (Emm and Da Silveira have since graduated, while Widelka will be earning his degree this year), had the idea of creating a machine that could automatically create tattoos from a bank of images.

Luckily, le FabShop was present at the workshop, and quickly pointed out that this concept could easily become a reality—all they had to do was replace the extruder of a desktop 3D printer (a MakerBot was already on hand) with a tattoing needle, and upload their desired tattoo design to a 3D modeling software program such as Autodesk. Within eight hours, the first prototype of le Tatoué was born.


Initially, they tested the machine on silicone-based artificial skin, the same kind tattoo artists use when they are in training, but their desire to create a real tattoo on an actual person was both unstoppable and inevitable.

The greatest challenge was to calibrate the machine so that it could recognize the curved surface of a human arm (3D printers are normally designed to print on the flattest, most levelled surface available). This was achieved by flattening the skin using a scooter’s inner tube. Their latest iteration of the machine (which is still based on a hacked MakerBot), uses a custom-designed needle with a sensor that can detect the body contours and curved surfaces, allowing the needle to move smoothly over a human arm without sacrificing the artwork or threatening to tear through the skin. The printer can adapt nearly any image, including their first design, a perfectly round circle, and generate up to 150 punctures per second.

Enhancing human capabilities

Over the past two years, the team has dedicated themselves fully to developing the machine’s capabilities. Already it can create more precise lines and seamless gradients than the human hand is capable of, a fact that has been acknowledged by several renowned tattoo artists. As Emm told me, they work with many working tattoo artists, some of whom are good friends, to find out exactly what it is that they need in their work. “We’re three on the team, but really this is a collaborative project that wouldn’t be possible without others,” he said, adding that they have worked with anthropologists, traditional tattoo artists and various engineers.

For example, they’ve worked closely with Tony Weingartner from Biribi Tattoo Studio in Lyon—in Appropriate Audiences’ latest video, he actually uses the machine to create a new tattoo on Emm’s own leg. “Seeing how he worked was very interesting. We could learn how, as a skilled tattoo artist, he used the machine, the ergonomics of it.”

“These are fellow artists, creators, who are constantly searching for new tools and methods,” he said. “It is in our nature to question existing tools, to experiment with what could work better, or, in the case that no better tool exists, to create it ourselves.”

tatoué. 3D PRINTER X TATTOO MACHINE / EP 14 (ft. Pierre Emm)

Emm even envisions transcontinental applications for the automatic tattoo machine. “Imagine there is a tattoo artist in Belgium whose artwork you really love,” he explained. “He can electronically send one of his designs to your local tattoo studio, wherever you are in the world, and your local artist can perfectly reproduce the original image.” Another trend is parents who get tattoos of their children’s drawings: “We could imagine that the child draws onto a tablet, and the machine can directly upload the drawing to its software and replicate it as a tattoo. There are really a lot of options.” In one of their videos, they use conductive 3D printing filament to create a working tablet keyboard. They’ve also talked about fashion or medical applications, and bringing an end to the stigma that surrounds diseases related to unhygienic tattooing practices.

Though some critics have pointed out that a machine cannot detect variations in skin texture and tension the way a trained tattoo artist can, potentially leading to  scarring or mistakes in the design, Emm says that this is the usual response whenever new technologies are introduced. He gave the example of Photoshop, which was first seen as a threat to photographers, but has now become an essential addition to their toolbox. If anything new technologies not only allow humans to express their creativity in new ways—it forces them to, in order to keep up with competition.

The team is currently developing their own proprietary machine that will be able to tattoo any part of the body—including the scalp—that they will sell directly to tattoo studios around the world. Though they hope to have the machine ready by 2016, they still have to undergo lots of tests to ensure safety and hygiene standards, which is a long but necessary process.

In the meantime, they are experimenting with new designs and body parts to see what the machine’s current limits are. “We are purposefully pursing relatively simple designs so that we can focus more on questions of skin tension, the needle sensors, the more technical things,” explained Emm. “We also don’t want to associate the machine with too strong of a visual identity, because the idea is to let each individual tattoo artist appropriate it to their own style.” Emm himself has five tattoos from the machine, including one on his leg. Da Silveira and Widelka also have unique pieces to show off—Wildeka studied history before moving to industrial design, but he has maintained tattoo artistry as a side-hobby since before the Appropriate Audiences project even began. Emm emphasized throughout the interview, however, that with their current machine and in almost all of their videos, they are only performing tattoos on artificial skin models.

tatoué. 3D PRINTER X TATTOO MACHINE / EP 13 (ft. Johan Da Silveira)

Currently, Appropriate Audiences is taking part in the Utopian Bodies: Fashion Looks Forward exhibition at the Liljevalchs Art Gallery in Stockholm, Sweden. Emm also let me know that they are planning to upload more videos to their website in the very near future, each one revealing new projects or experiments with the Tatoué machine. In the interim, those brave souls who are reading this and must try it for themselves can check out Emm's Instructables page.

Though getting tattooed by a 3D printer is no less painful than any other machine-based tattooing, nor is it any less permanent, the application of 3D printing technology and software allows for an unprecedented level of accuracy, control and internationalization, potentially ushering in the next era of an art form that has existed for over 12 millennia.



Posted in 3D Printer



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