Wearing a loved one's DNA in a tattoo

Ms Virginia Elwood and Ms Stephanie Tamez have matching tattoos made with ink that contains each other's DNA, a sample of which was synthesised into Everence, a powdery substance (above).
Ms Virginia Elwood and Ms Stephanie Tamez have matching tattoos made with ink that contains each other's DNA, a sample of which was synthesised into Everence, a powdery substance.PHOTO: NYTIMES
Ms Virginia Elwood and Ms Stephanie Tamez have matching tattoos made with ink that contains each other's DNA, a sample of which was synthesised into Everence, a powdery substance (above).
Ms Virginia Elwood and Ms Stephanie Tamez have matching tattoos made with ink that contains each other's DNA, a sample of which was synthesised into Everence, a powdery substance (above).PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • It all began with a floating leg.

Or, more specifically, an idea came tattooed on the leg of a woman kicking through the water in Key Largo, Florida, seen clear as day through Mr Patrick Duffy's diving goggles.

Mr Duffy, who ran a scuba-diving therapeutic programme for military veterans with his father, was inspired by the tattoo; it was the woman's dedication to her late husband, a Navy Seal killed in combat.

"In that moment, I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool to turn that tattoo into a reliquary?'" Mr Duffy said. "To put a piece of something she cared about, maybe even her husband, into the tattoo itself?"

Four years, a handful of dedicated colleagues and nearly a dozen patents later, Mr Duffy has brought the idea to life with Everence, a product he and his partners hope will deepen bonds - in the most literal and physical way - between family, friends and loved ones.

Everence is a powdery substance synthesised from a sample of DNA, something as simple as a few thousand cells from a swab of a person's inner cheek or from cremated ashes. A small vial of Everence can be brought to a tattoo artist and added to any type of ink.

The result: a tattoo imbued with the DNA of another human being - or, if you prefer, a dog, cat or other furry friend.

In so doing, Mr Duffy and Endeavor Life Sciences, his company, join the ranks of a winding list of biohackers, artists and technologists dabbling in the world of biogenic tattoo artistry. Many have mixed ash, hair or other material with inks to include organics in tattooing for years.

But that practice has long been left to underground artists, a subculture unto itself with a dark, self-aware nickname: morbid ink.

In recent years, the practice has been reanimated, so to speak, by armchair enthusiasts. There is the DIY crowd, such as Skin46, which seeks to raise money on Kickstarter for biogenic tattoo efforts based on hair samples. CGLabs, a Canadian outfit, is pioneering its own method, primarily marketed as DNA preservation (though not necessarily for the ink-stained crowd).

Everence takes a different approach. Customers are asked to mail their DNA samples to Endeavor's laboratory in Quonset, Rhode Island, where the material is milled, sterilised and enclosed in microscopic capsules of PMMA - you know it as plexiglass - which is often used in medical applications like dentures, bone cement and cosmetic surgery.

The pitch is a curious, emotionally poignant one coming from Mr Duffy, a gruff, plain-spoken New Yorker with a background in real estate and a degree in political science. But after starting the nonprofit therapeutic scuba-diving programme for veterans with his father nearly a decade ago, Mr Duffy, 40, said he was inspired to find new ways of connecting people while honouring those they may have lost.

A rube to the worlds of both tattoo artistry and biomedical engineering, Mr Duffy spent the past four years seeking out experts in both fields, eventually finding advisers, including Dr Bruce Klitzman, an associate professor of surgery at Duke University, who endorses the practice: He says it is as safe as traditional tattoo inks.

Mr Duffy and Dr Edith Mathiowitz, a professor at the Center for Biomedical Engineering at Brown University, have patented the technology.

Under the United States Food and Drug Administration, tattoo inks are viewed as cosmetics, a designation that Everence will also adopt.

Mr Duffy also found a partner in Ms Virginia Elwood, a 37-year-old tattoo artist in Brooklyn who was taken by the idea almost immediately after he pitched it to her over e-mail.

Their meeting was a stroke of fate: Mr Duffy's e-mail was sent to her spam folder and she opened it only because she thought he was the actor who played the father on the 1990s sitcom Step By Step.

Alas, it was a different Duffy, though Ms Elwood took him up on his idea. She shares a matching tattoo with her partner, Ms Stephanie Tamez, each with the other's Everence inked in. Ms Elwood also plans to get a tattoo with Everence containing DNA from her mother, who died years ago from cancer.

"We're connected to so many things in this world right now, be it through social media or sticking photos in the cloud, and I find that, personally, to be a bit hollow sometimes," Ms Elwood said. "So instead of taking something precious to me and uploading a picture of it to a server, I'm actually carrying it on my body, in my skin."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 11, 2017, with the headline 'Wearing a loved one's DNA in a tattoo'. Print Edition | Subscribe