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WIREs Forensic Sci

Tattoos and tattoo inks: Forensic considerations

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Abstract Tattoos and tattoo inks play a critical role in forensic investigations, and have done so for centuries. Tattoos are most useful as a means of identification for both the living and deceased. From their continued discovery on mummified remains dating from antiquity to their utilization in modern day investigations and prosecutions, tattoos demonstrate persistence and clues to cultural practices and identity. The tools and techniques of tattooing, as well as the phenomena of visualization of pigments according to the interaction of light radiation in human tissue is presented. An overview of the history of tattoos is provided, with a specific focus on tattoos in criminological, medicolegal and forensic investigations—from the characterization of criminals in the 19th century to the introduction of tattoo evidence in criminal trials of present day. Finally, an overview of the scientific study of tattoos and tattoo inks is presented, including the visualization of obscured tattoos, the chemical analysis of modern tattoo inks, and trends towards understanding the migration, retention, and photodecomposition of pigment particles. The purpose of this article is to draw attention to the importance and utilization of tattoos and tattoo inks in a forensic context—specifically highlighting that tattoos can prove critical to providing investigatory leads in criminal investigations and tattoos and tattoo inks should have an increased use in forensic endeavors moving forward, both in casework and scholarly research. This article is categorized under: Forensic Chemistry and Trace Evidence > Ink and Paper Analysis Forensic Science in Action/Crime Scene Investigation > Crime Scene Documentation and Visualization Forensic Science in Action/Crime Scene Investigation > Special Situations and Investigations Forensic Chemistry and Trace Evidence > Emerging Technologies and Methods
Cross section of tattooed skin (magnification: ×40). The dark purple layer is the epidermis, the light pink layer is the dermis, and the black areas are tattoo pigment. Note the difference in thickness of the epidermis and the dermis, as well as the location of the pigments within the dermal layer (Miranda, )
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Example of a tattoo cover up in which the original design was covered with a larger design. The photograph on the left is the existing tattoo and the photograph on the right is the infrared image of the tattoo. Within the infrared image, the original design can be resolved—The name “Jen” becomes apparent within the tattoo (Miranda, )
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Cross section of skin, demonstrating the relative penetration depths of different wavelength regions of electromagnetic radiation (Miranda, )
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Left: Photograph of tattoo made public in the case of an unidentified, decomposed body that washed up on the shores of Suriname. The tattoo was described (by investigators according to media reports) as an anchor with a red X above it, but upon closer inspection, a portion of the tattoo has been obscured by decomposition (likely a combination of epidermal skin slippage and exposure to water). An alternate interpretation of the tattoo design is that it represents the Chinese symbol for gold (金). Right: Photograph of tattoo on victim when he was alive. In a case such as this, infrared imaging would have been a useful tool to resolve the tattoo design on the decomposed body. One concern with reporting by investigators and the media with respect to unidentified human remains is initial interpretations of associated physical features such as race/ethnicity (based on apparent skin tone), sex and age, especially where the remains may have been exposed to environmental effects, such as decomposition, water, burning/charring or mummification. When comparing the two photographs, the skin appears to be a different color, which could lead to misinterpretation of race/ethnicity. Photographs: Public domain (“Fisherman's decomposed body washes up…,” 2018)
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Optical pathways in skin (Anderson and Parrish, ; Miranda, )
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Browse by Topic

Forensic Science in Action/Crime Scene Investigation > Crime Scene Documentation and Visualization
Forensic Science in Action/Crime Scene Investigation > Special Situations and Investigations
Forensic Chemistry and Trace Evidence > Emerging Technologies and Methods
Forensic Chemistry and Trace Evidence > Ink and Paper Analysis

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