Just as the name suggests, eye tattoos are a controversial trend that involves injecting ink directly into your eyeball. Also called sclera tattoos, this unique, often vibrantly colored ink is injected under the conjunctiva (aka the clear membrane on the front of your eye) and over the sclera (the whites of your eyes) in order to stain the area around the cornea a new hue. Recipients of this kind of ink have essentially chemically “dyed” their eyeballs colors like purple, blue, or yellow.
How Did Eye Tattoos Come About?
The procedure was created over a decade ago by celebrity body modifier Luna Cobra and the late Shannon Larratt, who founded the first extensive body modification digital publication. The method was developed over a two-year trial process in which Cobra performed a number of tests on Larratt and other subjects in an attempt to refine it. In late 2007, a record of the first three procedures and the history of the body mod was documented in Body Modification Ezine (BME). According to the article, Larratt got the idea after seeing a Dutch surgeon give his wife an eye implant. In essence, the technique used for scleral tattooing is similar; however, the ink is injected for aesthetic and cosmetic reasons, rather than medical purposes. Since its development, hundreds of body modification enthusiasts have successfully received a sclera tattoo from Cobra.
Risks and Side Effects
Of course, as with any procedure or treatment associated with the eyeballs, there is an exorbitant amount of risks associated with the body mod ink. One example of eye tattoos gone wrong is the case of Canadian model Cat Gallinger, who got a sclera tattoo in 2017 to color the whites of her eyes purple. After the procedure was finished, however, she realized that one of her eyes was oozing purple liquid. Although she figured the reaction was normal, Gallinger sought medical attention. In an interview with The Sun, the model said that she experienced swelling of the eyes and blurred vision after checking in to a hospital. Medical staff reasoned that the tattoo process had torn her sclera and told Gallinger that, even after taking medication for several weeks, her eyesight wouldn’t heal and she would go blind without surgery. “This was caused by undiluted ink, over injection, not enough/smaller injections sights,” wrote Gallinger in a viral Facebook post where she discussed her tattoo. “I am NOT sharing this with you to cause trouble, I am sharing this to warn you to research who you get your procedures by as well as how the procedure should be properly done.” In another post about a month later, the model reported she suffered from blurry and double vision.
Gallinger’s case may have been an extreme outcome, but her results are a real risk for others who are interested in getting a sclera tattoo. “Ophthalmologists have treated people who have suffered devastating consequences,” says Andrea Tooley, MD, clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. “The process of injecting ink into the eyeball is dangerous… because the eye is a very delicate organ. The needle must be injected precisely in the right place, just under the conjunctiva (the clear tissue covering the white part of the eye), to avoid injecting the ink inside the eyeball. That’s a risky procedure for anyone who is not a trained surgeon.”
The general risks of eye ink include decreased vision, retinal detachment, infection of the eye, inflammation, sensitivity to light, the feeling of something being in your eye at all times, and even blindness or complete loss of an eye. Even if you manage to get an eye tattoo without any damage, the coloring makes it harder for doctors to examine the health of your eye in the future.
From a tattoo artist’s point of view, sclera tattoos are a risky endeavor to perform. Because this type of tattoo has not been medically or scientifically studied in-depth (or, really, at all), and because the procedure was not created by a doctor, there is no formal training, licensing, or certification process for those who want to offer the tattoo. Because of the extreme need to choose carefully, it can be difficult to find a trained artist who is not only comfortable injecting ink into the eye, but an expert at it.
The dangers and risks associated with scleral tattooing are extreme, but there is still a community of people who are actively seeking out the eyeball ink. In the 2007 BME article, Larratt noted that there’s no one specific look for sclera tattoos and that the goal of developing the process was “to see how to apply the ink and how it heals.” He also noted that his personal goal in receiving the ink was “to eventually fully fill in the white of the eye with blue.” In another BME post from 2012, Larratt called sclera tattoos “the riskiest but most exciting body mod procedure to date” and said that he “noticed in public that people seem unsure what they’re seeing, whether it’s natural, or a trick of the light, or something induced.” In essence, this is the draw of eyeball tattoos: They're intriguing both to the person receiving it and to those they meet.
Even the originator of the sclera tattoo couldn’t help but reiterate the ink’s risk in the 2012 post. “Remember,” Larratt wrote, “if you are interested in eye tattoos, these are a high-risk procedure that should only be attempted by those with significant experience and training.” It’s a sentiment that Tooley not only agrees with, but one she urges anyone considering the procedure to keep top of mind. Ultimately, in her professional opinion, she strongly encourages looking for safer alternatives to the ink.
“I cannot stress this enough: Be kind to yourself and skip the eye tattoo,” says Tooley. “There are safe, medically-assisted alternatives, including FDA-approved contact lenses." If you're dead set on receiving an eye tattoo regardless of the glaring risks, Tooley suggests doing maximum research. "Before considering any cosmetic procedures or modifications to your eyes, make sure to speak with your ophthalmologist (a board-certified eye surgeon) about the safety and concerns regarding the procedure.”
Rohl A, Christopher KL, Ifantides C. Two cases of pen ink scleral tattoos and a brief review of the literature. Am J Ophthalmol Case Rep. 2021;21:101015. doi:10.1016/j.ajoc.2021.101015