Building a Retina Tattoo Machine

Nicole just finished a brand new exhibit that debuted at a semi-secret cyberpunk event at Manylabs in San Francisco. I wanted to give a behind the scenes look at the process of building the Retina Tattoo arcade machine. 


This piece took advantage of the scientific principle of after image effect (where you see a shape on your retina for a few minutes after being flashed with a bright light. The idea for the machine was that you would put in a quarter, choose your 'tattoo' and a spinning wheel would rotate so that the lights could give a quick flash of the right design. WICO collaborator Marie Baeta helped to draw sword, anchor, eyeball, and butterfly 'tattoos'. 


After creating a rough prototype, nicole built a new wooden cabinet and refined the lights, set out the placement of the components and mounted LED buttons for choosing the tattoo. 


To add a bit of fun, Nicole purchased a cheap tattoo gun off amazon to add a realistic and startling sound to the machine. It was cool to see that the mechanism to make the gun work was similar to the classic Exploratorium exhibit, adjustable plaything.


And to complete the slightly seedy look, she shaped EL wire to appear like a neon sign. I found an article in make magazine for help with the proper bending technique. 


All of these elements required a pretty complicated sketch for the arduino. One challenge that came up was that the stepper motor doesn't keep track of its own position. We had a couple complicated solutions, but ended up just adding a microswitch to the outside of the disc and having it reset each turn. 


And finally she added some instructions to the top of the machine using vinyl cut lettering that gave the machine a really cool looking aesthetic. 


The retina tattoo machine made it's debut at a science art party aptly themed "you've got my eyes" at Manylabs in San Francisco. It was a pretty crazy night and people really enjoyed the experience of getting a temporary tattoo on their retina. I liked watching people bring their friends over and go through the process together. 


After the event, Nicole put the finishing touches on the art piece, adding legs and giving the wooden box one more coat of paint. We've both been inspired by the coin operated marvels made by our friend TIm Hunkin for Novelty Automation and Under the Pier Show and in many ways this machine was an homage to the master. 

Now this art piece is looking for a permanent home, please get in contact if you have any leads for museums, arcades or tattoo parlors looking for a fun and unusual machine. 

Ryan Jenkins