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What Are the Dangers of Getting Eye Tattoos?

Tattoos have become an increasingly common sight both in real life and popular culture. As body modification grows in popularity, we take a look at an extreme form of tattooing that is causing some controversy, eye tattoos.

Body Modification

A 2017 US study found that 42 percent of Americans had at least one tattoo while nearly 20 percent were considering getting a tattoo.

Formerly thought of as something different and daring, tattoos have entered mainstream culture.

The tide is turning even in socially conservative Asia. For previous generations a tattoo was a sign of a ne’er-do-well, someone who might be in a gang or secret society.

That stigma is slowly fading as everyday, hard-working people choose to express themselves through tattoos.

Perhaps in tandem with that change comes a movement towards forms of self-expression through body art which pushes the envelope.

Body art nowadays includes not only the ancient practices of tattooing and piercing but more extreme body modifications such as elfin ears, tongue splitting and eye tattoos.

While any procedure that requires creating a wound in the body carries with it the danger of infection and all the adhering consequences, getting an eye tattoo can result in blindness.

First Eye Tattoos

It was during a 2007 body modification convention in Canada that eye tattooing was attempted for the first time.

Under less than ideal conditions, three volunteers underwent a public experiment to have the whites of their eyes coloured with tattoo ink.

Anaesthetic drops numbed the eyeball before ink was injected using a hypodermic needle. Aftercare consisted of antibiotic drops and a patch.

This is a permanent and irreversible procedure, and one that has turned disastrous for some people.

Anatomy of the Eye

The anatomy of the eye is intricate and delicate. What we know commonly as the white of the eye is the sclera which surrounds the cornea at the front and the optic nerve at the back of the eye.

Making up more than 80 percent of the eyeball’s surface area, the sclera is from 0.3 mm to 1.0 mm thick and consists of dense connective tissue.

There are circumstances when injecting medication directly into the eyeball is necessary, for example macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, retinal vein occlusion.

Of course, a doctor performs these injections in ideal, sterile conditions with the support and back-up of a medical team, not to mention years of training in medical school.

The Risky Business of Eye Tattoos

Getting an eye tattoo is considered a high risk by ophthalmologists. Australia’s New South Wales Health website lists the risks of eyeball tattooing, which include:

Complications that may lead to blindness:

  • Perforation
  • Retinal detachment
  • Endophthalmitis, meaning infection inside the eye
  • Sympathetic ophthalmia, an autoimmune inflammatory response affecting both eyes

Other complications:

  • Transmission of blood-borne viruses from non-sterile equipment (for example Hepatitis B and C, and HIV)
  • Bleeding and infection at the injection sites
  • Delayed diagnosis of conditions such as jaundice, as the eye’s true colour is inked over
  • Adverse reactions to the ink
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Staining of the surrounding tissue due to ink migration

The risks were considered so serious that New South Wales amended its Public Health Act in 2017 to ban the practice of eye tattooing by anyone other than a qualified medical practitioner.

Eye tattoos are particularly challenging because they require accuracy on a millimetre scale as well as knowledge of anatomy on a medical level to have the best chance of success.

Likewise in Ontario, Canada, a campaign to ban eye tattoos is spearheaded by eye physicians and surgeons, spurred on by the case of Catt Gallinger, a 24-year-old woman whose tattoo-parlour eye colouring went seriously wrong.

According to Gallinger, whose story went viral in 2017, she did not adequately research the procedure before deciding to have her sclera coloured with purple ink – unregulated, non-medically approved ink.

Because of the life-altering and permanent damage of her eye tattoo, Catt has become an advocate for properly researching and informing yourself before making any decisions when it comes to eye tattoos.

Even the man widely regarded as making eye tattoos popular is against the practice.

In a Newsweek article about Gallinger’s botched eye tattoo, Luna Cobra said, ‘I’ve been trying to ban this. I think it’s super important that this becomes illegal.’ He continued, ‘To be clear, this is happening all the time, all over the world.’

Keep an Eye on Your Health

There is a saying among tattoo aficionados — ‘For passion, not fashion’ — which illustrates their belief in getting tattoos for yourself and not as a fashion accessory.

Maybe ‘For passion, not fashion, but ultimately be aware of the health risks and do not jeopardise your future health for a cool tattoo’ is not quite as catchy a phrase, but when it comes to eye tattoos it might be sound advice.

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