The Tribal Tattoos of Science

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This month's Smithsonian magazine has a fun little arts and culture story about a photographer who has traveled the world in pursuit of tattoos. The images are gorgeous black and whites—the photog, Chris Rainier, is a protégé of Ansel Adams, and it shows—and he seeks out the meaning behind the tattoos:

In New Guinea, a swirl of tattoos on a Tofi woman’s face indicates her family lineage. The dark scrawls on a Cambodian monk’s chest reflect his religious beliefs. A Los Angeles gang member’s sprawling tattoos describe his street affiliation, and may even reveal if he’s committed murder. Whether the bearer is a Maori chief in New Zealand or a Japanese mafia lord, tattoos express an indelible identity.
“They say, ‘this is who I am, and what I have done,’” Rainier says.

But, frankly, those tattoos are idle doodles compared to some of the science tattoos collected by Carl Zimmer in his The Loom blog. I spoke with him this morning about the project, which started three years ago with an open question (with a sweet backstory) about whether the few science tattoos he happened to have noticed were the tip of an iceberg. They were.

"It was a little overwhelming at first," Carl says about the flood of images. The site is up to about 230 tattoos, and some of them are breathtaking. One of his favorites is a landscape with Deinonychus dinosaurs that he describes as "artistically pretty amazing." But as Carl points out, "the only problem is that we now know it should have feathers."

One recurring tattoo theme is Charles Darwin—Darwin's sketch of the tree of life, four Darwin's finches (my personal favorite), Darwin and King Kong. But the physical sciences are well represented. One guy wrapped the entire periodic table of the elements over his forearm (note this post's advice to future ink-etched wretches: wait until the bruising has healed before sending in a photo).

Carl (who, like photographer Rainier, has no tattoos on his own skin) is working on a book of science tattoos. It will be called "Science Ink" and will be published in late 2011. Just in time for holiday gifts, as he says, "for every geek in your life."

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