Electronic Tattoos?

Years ago, I wrote a story about electronic tattoos that could be programmed and even hacked. “Hacking the Skin Trade” (see below) never sold, perhaps because it was just too unbelievable. But now the gizmo is coming to a tooshop near you! https://gizmodo.com/scientists-have-invented-light-up-oled-tattoos-1846379012

Go figure!


“Give me that, you little bastard!”

Molly had spent an hour carefully copying a bold black and red geometric pattern from a magazine page taped to her mirror.  The dark hair that framed her face made the design even more dramatic.  But now Tony-J had the toowand.  He was holding it like a sword, en garde with Molly’s nose above her plate.

“Hah!”  He slashed the toowand in the air, and a stripe of iridescent green toobits appeared across her nose and cheek.

“Give!”  Molly lunged at her brother and a milk carton went flying off the table.

“Gotcha, gotcha, gotcha!”  But as Tony-J threw himself backward, his hand went up in the air.  His father, Tony Scarpatti, grabbed the toowand before it could do any more damage. 

“Antonio Junior!”  His mother, Dinah, took the toowand from her husband and said. “You clean up the milk.”

He knew better than to argue with that tone of voice, but he couldn’t help muttering, “Call me Scar.”

Then Dinah handed the toowand back to Molly.  “Go get that straightened out.  And hurry, or you’ll miss the bus.”

Tony finished his coffee and sighed.  “I can go by the high school.”

“What about me?” said Tony-J from the floor, still mopping up milk.

His mother laughed.  “You miss your bus, you walk.”

Not that the middle school was really that far away.  And not that she couldn’t go by it on her way to work.  But the kid had to learn: You screw up, you pay.


Ben Yugato must have been waiting for Tony.  As soon as he unlocked his office door, Ben was right there, crowding in behind him with his belly and his mint-soaked breath and his musky cologne, saying, “Got something new here, Tony boy.”

“What, boss?”  He set the laptop case on the desk, took out his machine, set it where it wouldn’t block the view of his family photo cube, plugged it in, hit the button.  The office was small, barely big enough to warrant a door, and windowless. One wall bore shelves of reference books, software manuals, and copies of all the ad campaigns he’d worked on.  Another bore a few stills and a faded travel poster.  Paris, where he and Dinah had wanted to go for their honeymoon.  They had gone to Connecticut instead, a long weekend instead of two weeks.  They had both had project deadlines.

Ben set a smart phone in front of him.  But not quite a phone–a black cylinder the size and shape of a cigar stuck out of one end.  Tony turned it over.  Standard form factor screen but no camera lens.    “Where’d you get this?”

“One of our clients, PowerToo.  It’s a prototype.  Old components.”  Ben touched a button, and a panel slid aside to reveal a miniature keyboard.  Tony remembered when and grimaced.  “Except for this.”  Ben touched the cigar.

“Pretty clunky for Wi-Fi.”

“Different frequency band.  Everyone’s got toobits now, right?  Go down to the drugstore and they spray ’em into your skin.  Face, back, arms, legs, wherever.  Then they sell you a toowand so you can draw whatever toos you want.”  The toobits were nanomotes only slightly larger than bacteria, tiny versions of radio-frequency ID chips with quantum dots for color.  The wand was a wireless projector that told the chips which dots to activate. 

“God, yes.”  He didn’t have to explain.  Ben had kids too.

“Most people don’t realize the toobits are networked.  But that’s how they get color shades.  And how they keep the edges of the toos clean.  Not like old-time tattoos.  And this…”  He touched a button on the device.  A red rose bloomed on the back of his hand.

Tony grinned.  “The whole pattern at once.”

Another button. The rose vanished.  “Undo.”  Another, and it was back. “Redo.”

And wouldn’t Molly love that!  No chance of missing the bus when Tony-J messed up her makeup.

Now Ben was backing across the office. “Hit it.”

Undo. Redo.

“Longer range.  See?  It’s a PowerWand.  And I’m thinking of the beach.  All that skin, like a thousand billboards.”

“Ads?”  He was horrified.  “They will hang you from a lamppost.” 

Ben winked and laughed.  “Not me.  Maybe whoever bites when we sell ’em the ad.  And that’s your job now.”

“What do you mean?  I’ve got …”  Tony gestured at his laptop.  He had clients, campaigns…

“Turn everything over to Janice.  I want you to come up with something that will use this gadget.  Something we can pitch to clients.”  Ben grinned.  Waved.  Said, “Take it home and play with it.”  And vanished, leaving the PowerWand on Tony’s desk.

He stared at it for the next hour.

The PowerWand was a nice gadget, a nifty gadget.  Molly would love it.  The maker wouldn’t be able to keep up with the cosmetics demand.

But ads?  Popping up on people’s skins? 

What kind of a sleazy son-of-a-bitch would even think of such a thing?

People would remember telemarketers fondly.  They would declare them saints of restraint.

Maybe spammers too.

And if they ever found out who had started it…  It wouldn’t be Ben who would swing.  He was too savvy, he’d just point at Tony, and then…


If only he didn’t have a mortgage, two cars, a couple of college educations to save for…  Dinah made good money, but not enough.  He couldn’t just say no.  That wasn’t how this business worked.  He’d be on the street, and someone else would be only too happy to take the credit for this little gig.

Ben knew him too damned well.  Figured he couldn’t say no.  And he was right, damn him.  Sneaky, slimy bastard.

He swore.  He stared.  He thought of sports stars who showed plenty of skin.  Boxers, swimmers.  Legs on runners, basketball players.  Cover ’em with logos like NASCAR cars.  That would work.  But it wasn’t the beach.  He swore again.  Finally, he got down to work.  Copied his work files to Janice.  Attended a couple of meetings.  Took Janice to lunch with the biggest of his clients, introduced her, said something about a big new project, new media, hottest thing since Super Bowl slots, the client would be the first to have a shot at it.  Went back to the office, took a couple of ibuprofen, and thought, “God help me.”  He knew what he was going to do, what he had to do.  He didn’t like it, but he already had a few ideas.

The PowerWand went into the case with his laptop.


Molly knew the drill.  Every night her Dad had to spend a couple of hours with the laptop, but not in any den.  Big fat recliner, TV mouths running off about news, politics, sports, teenage mouths yah-yah-yahing.  So she grabbed the case as soon as he walked in the door, took it to the table by the recliner, set up the machine.  By the time he got back with his Sam Adams, Tony-J had the PowerWand in his hands.

“What’s this?”

“A new toowand.”

The kid laughed and waved it toward his sister.  She batted him away.  “What’s new about it?”

Tony held out his hand and smiled when Tony-J obediently handed it to him.  “You can program a whole design. From a distance.  Though I haven’t had it long enough to figure out exactly how.”

“Can I try?” 

“Me first, kid.  It’s work.” 

“And then me?  Is that a promise?”  The kid looked downright eager, and Tony was sure it wouldn’t take him long at all.  Might even save time to let him at it.  But…

“We’ll see.  Like I said, it’s work.  It goes to the office with me, and it might not come back right away.”

“Huh,” and Tony-J eyed his sister, who said, “No way.”

Tony laughed.  “Don’t worry, Molly.  It’s got an undo button if he tags you with it.”

Later, while the kids were doing homework, playing video games, chatting with friends, bickering as usual, Tony pulled up the PowerWand’s specs.  500-foot range.  Addressable toos, send them anywhere a target had toobits, hand, arm, back, butt even.  Nifty interface–3D manikin on the tiny screen, rotate it, set the crosshairs, click OK. Notes on how wide-open skin-nets were, no encryption, no passwords, no need that anyone had ever thought of.  He shook his head.  That wouldn’t last.  But for now, all a user needed was a port scanner to find a local skin-net, and that was built right in.  All you had to do was aim.  The manikin even showed you where the toobits were.

He played with the controls.  Used his laptop to store an image of Dinah on its memory card, tried impressing that on the toobits in his arm.  Grainy, but…

“Wow, Dad.  Can I try?”

He looked at his son.  Held up his arm.  “This is the only place I’ve got toobits, Tony-J.  What about you?”

“Ah…”  Hesitation, an almost visible squirm.  Toobits in places he didn’t want his parents knowing.  Tony tried hard not to laugh, couldn’t help the smile.

“Your back?”

“Yeah.”  Tony-J’s grin seemed relieved.

“Then take off your shirt.”  A moment later he was nodding.  Much better with more skin.

“You can’t leave him like that!”  Dinah sounded horrified.

Molly just laughed.  “Think what the other kids would say. ‘Mommy on your back all the time?'”

“We can’t have that!” Tony laughed and pushed the undo button, but as the image vanished, Tony-J yelled, “Hey! I want to see!”

Redo.  “You know where the mirrors are.”

A moment later, from the bathroom: “Wow.  This thing makes killer toos.  You could have anything!

Undo again.  Tell the kid no, he couldn’t borrow the PowerWand.  Test the regular wand to make sure it can erase the Dinah on his arm, and tell Molly yes, he’ll use it to put a fleur de lis on her cheek.  Tell Tony-J yes, he can have a dragon on his arm.  The gizmo has both in its clip art folder.

Then back to thinking.  Killer toos indeed, as long as he gave each image a patch of skin big enough for decent resolution.  Logos could go anywhere.  He laughed at the thought of a Studley’s Gym ad decorating some beach-going slob’s swollen paunch.  A condom ad on  a pregnant woman with six brats in tow.

Not exactly winners, he thought.  Time to hang it up.


“Hey, Scar!”

“Ubori! Khan!”

Three buddies, one for all, all for one, all in trouble together. 

 “Whatcha got there?”

“Dad brought it home last night.  A super toowand!”

“Super, huh.  What’s it do?”

“Whole pics.  See?”  He’d found the rose image while he was still on the bus.  He held up the palm of his hand.

“A flower?  C’mon.”

“You like my dragon better?”


“That must have taken hours!”

“Nah.”  Tony-J snapped his fingers.  “Like that.  It even works long-distance.”  A moment later both Khan and Ubori wore roses on their foreheads. Then he had to show them the undo feature.

“Can you buy these things?”

“Not yet.”

“Then lemme have it.”

Scar yanked it out of Khan’s reach.  “If I don’t take it back tonight…”

The others nodded, reluctantly.  They understood.

“But we can play with it today?”

“Unless Dad shows up with the cops.”

Ubori laughed.  “We can put spiders on people.  Roaches.  Snakes.  Dripping blood.”

Khan giggled.  “And I know who…”

“We pwnЗ them!”


This morning Tony had time to get into the office and open his laptop case before Ben Yugato showed up.  But he was still staring blankly at the empty space beside his laptop when his boss’s hand landed on his shoulder.

“What’s the matter?”

“It isn’t there.”  No point in trying to hide the truth.

“What?  The PowerWand?”

Tony nodded.  “I know I put it in here last night.”  He pointed.  “After I got it figured out.”

“You got kids, right?”

Tony nodded again. 

“Then we know where it is.  One of ’em snuck it, and he’ll bring it home tonight.”

Tony-J, of course.  No wonder he had seemed in such a rush to get to school.  “He’d better.”

“Tomorrow, then.  I’ve got kids too, you know.”  Ben laughed, looked surprisingly satisfied.  “Amazing, isn’t it, how you can count on ’em to mess you up?”

Yeah.  Had Ben taken the PowerWand home himself?  Not likely, and Tony’s laugh wasn’t as jovial.  He felt uneasy, suspicious, though he could not quite say why.  The missing PowerWand was his own damned fault.  He should have a den, or a lock on his case, or he should have left the thing in the office, no matter that the boss had told him to take it home for the night and play with it. 

“It’s not a problem, Tony.  It’ll work out.  Now, have you come up with anything yet?”

“Nothing I like much.  Though I do have one that would keep us out of trouble. No invasion of privacy.”

“What’s that?”

“Do a NASCAR number on athletes.  Logos on their skin.”

Ben shook his head.  “They’d want to be paid.  Think beach, Tony.  Lots of skin.  Free skin.”

“Just let the too folks sell it, Ben.  My daughter drooled all over it. It could do animated toos if you wore it like a pager.  A watch in your skin.”

“Too obvious, and they’re on that already.  Think beach, Tony.  We want ads.  We want eyeballs.”

Tony shook his head.  “They will shut us down so fast.  Legislation, security in the toobits.”

“But we’ll get attention, won’t we?  Lots of it.”

And that was the name of the game.  Why skin shows and Super Bowls carried the most expensive advertising.  They had the eyeballs.

“Maybe we should just advertise the gadget itself.  ”Are we bugging you?  Get your PowerToo PowerWand now and turn us off!'”

Ben gave him a dirty look.  He wasn’t being a good team player.  “Maybe.  It could work.  But first the ads.  Come up with something.  Don’t be negative.”

As soon as Tony was alone, he sighed.  Or else, eh? 

Looking for inspiration, he pulled up a list of the agency’s clients.  Cars, perfumes, clothes, real estate agencies…  Jolly Laszlo’s Seafood Haven.  He imagined swimmers suddenly sporting toos of various fish as they emerged from the water.  Squid, lobster, snapper, trout, striper, bluefish, tuna, shark, shrimp, sole… A beat, two, three, just long enough for everyone to say “What the hell…?”  Then the skin goes bare, and “It’s just as fresh at Laszlo’s” pops up on backs and bellies.

Could it do that?  The PowerWand had a 500-foot range.  Would water interfere?   Could it do simultaneous images on multiple hides?  Not his department.  He had a nifty here, now all he had to do was write it up, generate a quick animation, and send it to Ben.

Even better would be politicians. Who needs a red cap with a slogan when you can paste it on a forehead? Even one belonging to the other side. Tony shuddered, but there was another animation he had to do.

He was almost done when the phone rang.


Ben’s office was twice the size of Tony’s.  The carpet was a thick Isfahan.  The walls were covered with ads–magazine pages, stills, even loops on flat panel displays–and the awards they’d won.  The broad, polished maple desk was dominated by a 20-inch monitor displaying a page of text. 

“Ben?  We got trouble.”


“I just had a call from a reporter.  My son’s expelled, he’s being charged with assault, and the school confiscated the PowerWand.”

“What the hell did he do?  And how did it get out?”

“He picked on the reporter’s kid.  She’s phobic about spiders, and…”

“Oh, God.”  But Ben Yugato was grinning like a cat who had just scored a canary.

Tony didn’t notice.  He was looking at the carpet.  “Damned stupid kid.”

“Don’t worry about the gizmo.”  Ben pointed at a small table by the window.  Two more flanked a vase of lilies.

“You aren’t going to get a chance to use it for ads.”  And neither he nor Tony would be attacked for invading privacy.  Just Tony Junior, stupid kid, idiot kid.

“That’s okay.  See this?”

The monitor, the text.  Tony moved close enough to read it: A press release.  Denying blame.  “We were testing the Powerwand and brainstorming publicity approaches.  Unfortunately, a security lapse let [name] ‘borrow’ the prototype.  We regret the consequences.  Obviously measures will have to be taken to prevent misuse of the product….”

Tony abruptly swung to face his boss.  “You expected this.”

Ben nodded.  “As soon as you told me it was gone.”

“You set me up.  You set him up!” 

Ben just looked at him, as if to say that of course he had.  Of course the ads had been just a pretext.  The point was publicity, eyeballs, no matter how.

“I’ll talk to PowerToo.  If this works out–and it should–they’ll cover the lawyer.  And your kid’s a minor.  He’ll get a slap on the wrist.  That’s all.”

“But…”  But Tony could only shake his head as helpless tears filled his eyes.  He wanted to shout and scream.  Do something violent. 

“You want the account?  It’ll be an easy sell, and plenty of billings.  But you may have to play lobbyist too.”

He could do that.  He really could.

Or he could just plain quit.  Right now. 

Couldn’t he?

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