The QR Code Tattoo: Futuristic Trend or Orwellian Nightmare?

The versatility of QR Codes knows no bounds. Since 2021, the QR Code on marketing materials has been rocking different industries, and one sector that has been gathering momentum is the personalized use of QR Code tech. From a QR Code business card to the QR Code badge, people have been incorporating these little squares to bridge different touchpoints to online resources in order to better build their professional and artistic identity. 

One use in particular has needled its way into our hearts: the QR Code tattoo, another puzzle piece in the short-standing history of scannable tattoos. From anti-capitalist symbols to memeable tech artifacts, each of these machine-scannable images are going viral. And it might not be as much of an Orwellian omen as one might think.

The history of scannable tattoos

Scannable tattoos play an intricate part in a new wave of inking and self-expression. Transcending the world of body art and technology, they bridge the gap between digital and tattoo, resulting in more poignant and malleable design content.

The tattoo QR Code in itself is not an innovative concept, but another piece in the scannable tattoo mosaic. From barcode tattoos to sound wave tattoos, a definite shift is happening toward connecting some parts of our bodies to the possibilities of the online sphere.

#1 What is a QR Code tattoo?

What makes a QR Code tattoo unique is that it takes the gateway into augmented reality to a new level. Unlike other scannable body art, QR Code solutions allow you to link not just to an audio file, but also to a memorable video, a PDF, or any multimedia platform.

And if you make use of a Dynamic QR Code over a static one, you can edit the content whenever you want and change the QR Code type (from Image Gallery to PDF, for example) without having to create a brand new design. This means you can turn something seen as permanent and static, like a tattoo, into something mutable and changeable.

In short, the versatility of content that can be linked to this simple image is what elevates the creative output that can be generated.

A QR Code tattoo on the inside of someone’s wrist.
Nils Engelking showing off his fully healed QR Code tattoo at the Bitly Summer Event of 2022.

#2 The meaning of a barcode tattoo

The barcode that we are familiar with today originates from the 1940s. It was popularized in the 1970s because it provides a way to monitor inventory, increase worker productivity, and speed up the flow of shopping.

As a tattoo, a barcode attracts quite a bit of attention. Since it plays a key role in commerce, this design came to be associated with meanings surrounding the commodities of capitalism, overconsumption, labor, and collectivism.

From there, of course, each person attributed their own story behind their barcode tattoo. Whether it’s to embrace individualism or reject post-capitalist malaise, or simply as an aesthetically pleasing way to showcase one’s birthdate or commemorate an event. 

The design, in this case, emotes sentiments and meaning behind the numerals and bars.

#3 Tattoos of barcodes and barcode tattoo designs

The barcode as a tattoo is unlike the QR Code tattoo in that it cannot store a varied amount of information. It can, presumably, be used for scanning purposes. But as Tattoodo explains, if you don’t want to be confused with a consumer good like a bag of chips, you should aim to create your own custom barcode.

This means either creating your own serial number, or ornating the barcode with a separate drawing: vines, a figure, or a character, just to name a few possibilities.

If you want to make it machine-readable, the artist of your choice has to create precise, thin lines that mimic a computer-generated barcode. Since a barcode is a printed series of parallel bars or lines that vary in width and quantity, precision is key here.

A person scans a barcode tattooed on their wrist at a scanning machine that reads the price and information for a package of Oreo cookies.
A person got a barcode tattoo that is actually scannable and shows the price for Oreo cookies. Source: Reddit

#4 Are there other scannable tattoos?

Besides the barcode and QR Code tattoo, other scannable tattoos do exist. There is the soundwave tattoo, which works in conjunction with the Skin Motion app. The app works as a connector between the tattoo and the audio of your choice, which is a file you previously uploaded in the app.

In this case, the machine reader is not translating any of the features on the tattoo into audio, but rather is retrieving the saved file associated with the image.

#5 The QR Code revolution of 2020

Some people think of the QR Code as still wearing its early 2000s guise. Black and white, static, hard to scan unless you have downloaded the appropriate app to read it, and constantly living beneath the ever-lasting question of how do QR Codes work

The reality is that as of 2020, QR Code tech has experienced a massive push forward and is enjoying its own space in the limelight. QR Code solutions and the advent of different types of QR Codes have allowed people to create specific and unique use cases for a variety of needs. Augmenting, in essence, the potential of how the physical world connects with digital spaces.

A QR Code being tattooed on someone's arm next to two men looking at a QR Code on an arm.
A man in Italy got his Covid green pass QR Code tattooed on the inside of his arm. Source: Twitter

5 ways you can use a QR Code tattoo

Tattoos are a body modification practice that can serve as decorative designs, capture a symbolic memory, or mark a rite of passage, rank, status, or punishment. Ink art allows you to tell a story on your skin, or at the very least, decorate your body with designs that speak to you.

With QR Codes and scanning tech, the ink can become a gateway to songs, a picture gallery, your resume, an Instagram profile, or even be used for pranks and memes.

We have amalgamated five ways QR Code tattoos can be used to expand the possibilities of body art and self-expression.

#1 As a portfolio of your work

Let’s start with something a little different and a bit unconventional in the professional sphere.

If you peruse QR Code websites, you might come across use cases highlighting QR Codes on resumes and business cards to provide potential employers with more information about you and your work. This can be done by either linking to a portfolio using the PDF QR Code or directly to a website using the Dynamic URL QR Code.

If you want to leave an even stronger impression, imagine doing the exact same thing, but on your wrist or forearm. It need not be big, since the recommended minimum size is 2 x 2 centimeters (about 0.8 x 0.8 inches) for Dynamic QR Codes and 3 x 3 centimeters (about 1.2 x 1.2 inches) for Static QR Codes.

#2 As a memento

Depicting a specific person or item in tattoo form, also known as pictorial tattoos, is a popular form of body art.

But imagine being able to always carry with you an album’s worth of pictures of a loved one that has passed, easily accessed with your mobile device. Easily shareable with anyone when reminiscing on a certain event. Or perhaps, even better, if you have a memorable video or some endearing audio, you can always have a quick watch or listen if you are feeling nostalgic.

All of this is possible with the image to QR Code and the video to QR Code tech. Both these QR Code types allow you to upload several images or videos, enabling you to expand the possibilities of your body art.

Someone’s leg on a tattoo chair with a QR Code tattoo and the QR Code tattoo stencil next to it.
A football fan got a QR Code tattoo that takes you to a video of his favorite team’s final win against a rival. Source: Twitter

#3 As a sound box

Similar to the soundwave tattoo, the QR Code also offers the possibility to combine sound with body art. The MP3 QR Code converts a sound file into a Code that, once scanned, directs you instantly to the MP3 file without the need for an additional app.

In the same way that the Image and Video QR Codes allow you to revisit captured memories, the MP3 QR Code lets you replay sounds or songs close to your heart. 

If you are a musician or artist, then the Spotify QR Code is better suited for you. Picture it: You can carry your entire album, on hand. Literally.

#4 As an influencer’s stan

Have you ever heard of shock advertising? It’s a strategy that centers around a brand or person becoming memorable because their ad is impossible to ignore. When done right, this strategy is impactful and helps boost your image. 

QR Codes have a little bit of that factor at the moment. That shocking je ne sais quoi. Though not novel, the idea of someone getting a tattoo that redirects to their socials does have an alluring factor. A Snapchat QR Code tattoo or an Instagram QR Code drawn on your body would definitely capture the collective imagination and attention.

A man wearing a tie-dye shirt has a tattoo of a QR Code on his cheek.
For the release of “Bad Decisions”, artist Benny Blanco announced on his socials that he got a QR Code tattoo that links to the song on his face. Source: Twitter

#5 As a funny QR Code meme

We started this list by disrupting the professional setting with a bit of tattoo fun, so why not end it on an even more unruly idea: the famous Rik Roll meme turned into the Rick Roll QR Code tattoo? 

Go ahead. Here, the sky’s the limit. Shoot for the galaxies and land among the stars; create your own constellation of madness. Destabilize what someone expects to get when they scan the QR Code you have permanently tattooed on yourself. Get a QR Code tattoo and then link it to a dank meme. Let them scan it and then roll their eyes as “Never Gonna Give You Up” begins to play on their mobile device. 

And have a good laugh.

A mobile device is scanning a QR Code tattooed on someone’s leg and is then linked to a Rick Roll video.
An example of a QR Code tattoo that links to the famous Rick Roll meme video. Source: Instagram

3 QR Code tattoo questions answered

You might still have some questions about the QR Code tattoo, and we are more than happy to oblige with some answers of our own.

#1 Did the founders of QR Code Generator really get QR Code tattoos?

They did! On May 26th, 2021, Nils Engelking and Nils Drescher hosted an online company clubbing event live from a Hamburg, Germany venue. There, while the entire company watched from their home computers, Nils and Nils got matching QR Code tattoos to commemorate the success of their QR Code startup.

Two arms with QR Codes tattooed on the inside of the wrists.
Nils Engelking and Nils Drescher got QR Code tattoos on May 26th, 2021 to commemorate Egoditor’s 12-year anniversary.

What does it link to, you ask? We will let you see for yourself.

#2 Do QR Code tattoos work?

It depends on a few factors. Since ink on the skin can sometimes create tricky contrast over time, it’s difficult for anyone to guarantee the scannability of a QR Code down the line. So tread this topic carefully because there is a good chance that the tattoo won’t work after a while.

Much like a barcode tattoo, a QR Code tattoo requires precision and know-how. Make it bigger rather than smaller, use strong colors that will stand out, and make sure the artist can recreate the pixelated design with the accuracy required to be machine-readable.

A man waiting for a tattoo artist to start working on his arm and a close-up of the artist tattooing a QR Code on the inside of someone’s wrist.
Nils Engelking showing his excitement at getting his QR Code tattoo.

#3 Can you get a temporary QR Code tattoo?

Definitely. If you have access to the tools required to print out a temporary tattoo, then go for it. Melina Sophie, a German influencer, got a temporary QR Code tattoo on her forehead.

The sheer shock value of such a bold move captured the attention of many. At first, it wasn’t clear whether the tattoo was permanent or not. After a few days, she assuaged the public by confirming that it was, in fact, a temporary tattoo. This brings us back to our earlier point on shock advertising, doesn’t it?

Final thoughts

The multi-media possibilities of QR Code tech combined with the age-old art form of body inking can truly elevate the possibilities of creative expression. Sure, it might sound a bit cyborg-esque and Orwellian to tattoo codes on our bodies for scanning purposes, but it’s just another form of self-expression.

It uses the bridging capabilities of the QR Code to link to digital resources, expanding what memories, information, or jokes you can quite literally carry with you. Imagine it like this: A QR Code tattoo is the physical representation of the old saying that you “wear your heart on your sleeve.”

Author
Georgia Zouganeli

Georgia Zouganeli is a content writer at Bitly. She was born in Florida, the sunshine state, but raised in France, and is now based in Münster, Germany. She specializes in creative and SEO writing, and in her free time, she is an avid climber, training weekly at her local bouldering gym and traveling to Fontainebleau whenever possible. Feel free to connect with her on LinkedIn!

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