It’s fortunate that eyeball tattoos weren’t a thing during the Battle of Bunker Hill, when soldiers were famously instructed not to “fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” With eyeball tattooing, there are simply no whites left — they’re filled in with colored ink. Dudes would have been sitting ducks.
But eyeball tattooing is a thing two centuries later, and the New South Wales government in Australia has just made it legal. It’s ostensibly to force practitioners of the risky procedure to comply with existing safety regulations for other skin penetration procedures.
Still, sticking to safety guidelines doesn’t make an already-unsafe procedure any less dangerous.
Proponents of eyeball tattooing, usually people on the extreme end of the body modification community, generally accept that it comes with serious risks. Even a definitive eyeball tattoo FAQ on the body-modification website BME.com, written in 2012 by Sharon Larratt, a late pioneer of the procedure, notes in its introduction:
“Eyeball tattooing carries with it significant risks up to and including blindness and life-threatening complications. Nothing in this document should be taken as condoning or recommending or encouraging eyeball tattoos, or presenting it as safe. Proceed at your own risk.”
Anyone who argues it isn’t risky is delusional. Of course it is: like regular tattooing, it involves poking holes with a needle to deliver ink to human tissue. Only here the multiple pin pricks are in your fucking eyeball. One variation of the procedure requires making a single, bigger hole and injecting a larger amount of ink, allowing it to spread. In both cases, you’re still essentially directly injuring the eyeball and rubbing foreign material into its wounds.
Theoretically, in both cases, the ink gets sandwiched between the conjunctiva (the mucous membrane on top of the eyeball) and sclera (the eye’s white outer layer), where, in theory, it floats around permanently if the tissues heal properly.
The healing process, as you might guess, can get tricky. The multiple wounds make it easier for bacterial infections to settle in, and they invite severe inflammation caused by allergic reactions to the ink. These complications, in addition to improper tattooing technique, could eventually lead to permanent vision damage.
It’s hard to say what the long-term effects are, considering the procedure was only popularized in 2007 by Toronto tattoo artists. But scientists have warned that undergoing the procedure is probably a bad call.
In 2015, researchers described a case of apparent eyeball tattoo-related injury in the journal Clinical and Experimental Opthalmology, where a patient showed up with severe inflammation, bluish crystals floating around in his vitreous, and a torn retina — which, when left untreated, can lead to permanent vision loss.
“It is important that awareness is increased regarding the potentially blinding procedure of eyeball tattooing in people interested in this art,” the authors wrote.
Despite the known risks, eyeball tats continue to be popular in niche subcultures, like the Jamaican dancehall community and, apparently, body-modding Australians. After all, since when have potential dangers ever stopped us from doing what we want to do?