From Pathology Tables to Phone Access – The New Role of Tattoos in Identification

Tattoo BarbieWhat do Ötzi the Iceman, Barbie, and pathologists across the world have in common? Tattoos! Since the 4th millennium, tattoos have been used for multiple purposes; from medicinal uses and personal signatures to current day artistic expressions that often include symbols, portraits, and creative designs.

The 1970’s saw a huge resurgence of tattooing, which has not only continued into today’s culture, but expanded as well. In 2014, NBC Nightly News did a poll comparison showing that in 1999, only 21% of American households had someone living in the home with a tattoo, compared to 2014, where the percentage increased to 41%. Even reality television is swept up in the tattoo trend. Popular television shows such as “Miami Ink,” “LA Ink,” “Bad Ink,” and “Tattoo Master,” give viewers an inside look into the tattoo industry, and have propelled tattoo artists into the celebrity world. This trend is so prevalent that in 2011, the Mattel Toy Company created the first ever “Tattoo Barbie.” In addition, tattoo museums are making their presence known in cities like San Francisco, New York, Amsterdam, and Yokohama, Japan where actual tattoo skin is on display.

According to the Medical Academy of Dermatology, there are five basic categories for tattoos: traumatic, amateur, professional, cosmetic, and medical. While traumatic tattoos are accidentally obtained via an accident such as sliding across pavement, amateur and professional tattoos are done with an actual tattoo gun. Cosmetic tattoos consist of markings like permanent eyeliner and medical tattoos are used by medical technicians for marking areas on the body for radiation.

Biometric TattooWith over 15 million households a year reporting identity theft, technology experts have been working on alternative methods for establishing your identity via phones, computers, and other access devices. The medical community has been testing Biostamps - temporary tattoos that are used for recording medical data on outpatients without requiring large amounts of equipment. Since Biostamps contain antennae and built-in sensors, researchers believe this technology can speak directly to a mobile device such as a tablet or cell phone, eliminating the theft of a typed password or code. Whereas, this type of technology may not be available to the mass population until the distant future, this CSI type of tool is an effective and valuable tool for law enforcement.

Due to the fact that even charred tattoos are distinguishable, Pathologists have been using tattoos (along with scars and other markings) to identify John Does. In some cases, pictures of tattoos are shown to family members for identification, rather than forcing them to view the actual body. Tattoo recognition became an integral part of confirming identities after recent tragedies, including 9/11 and the Lockerbie air disaster. Even John Does with identical tattoos (i.e. gang members), can be distinguished from one another by age of the tattoo, skin of the person displaying it, etc.

Tattoo in Law EnforcementSimilarly, law enforcement and corrections personnel have been capturing SMT (Scars, Marks, & Tattoo) images during the booking procedure to be used in photo lineups for visual witness identification. Even non-permanent markings (i.e. henna tattoos) can still be used for identification as markings can take days or months to disappear. For seven seasons, Charlie Hunnam has played “Jax” Teller on the FX drama, Sons of Anarchy. His henna tattoos are slowly fading now that the cast has completed their final show; however, it will be awhile before the remnants of the Sons of Anarchy leave his body.

ImageWare Systems, Inc. a leader in identity management provides SMT lineups with the standard Law Enforcement Investigative tools. Using the FBI mandated descriptions (i.e. right upper arm, left ankle) and types (Needle marks, Scars, etc.), along with a note description like “Mom” or a calendar date, officers may search for similar markings in the same area of the body to be used in a photo lineup. Agencies around the world now have the ability to share SMT and facial images with one another in an attempt to identify a John Doe or capture a criminal. In a world where life is changing every day, any image or piece of data that is sent to a wide audience provides a bigger witness viewing pool and is one extra tool that may be used to fight against crime.

When Ötzi the Iceman had tattoos inscribed on his body, chances are, he didn’t imagine it would become the widespread culture it is today. Whereas, some parents may view it as their worst nightmare, it can be law enforcement’s dream and one connection to solving a crime.