BodyMark, Akhenaten's new keyboard, tradition of body imagery, tattoos, drawings on skin

Akhenaten’s new keyboard

Body tattoos that are not just decorative. When we heard about Google’s “SkinMarks” project, we immediately thought of a certain Egyptian ruler. It’s fascinating. Naturally […], we started referring to it as “Akhenaten’s new keyboard.” SkinMarks seems both futuristic and ancient — the whole tradition of body markings and graphics. They are really dedications. And, as soon as we learned some of the details about electronic tattoos we thought of Egypt and Akhenaten. It all goes wayyy back…

If you want a quick briefing on SkinMarks,’s The Byte has a short article. “Google Is Working on Tattoos That Turn Your Body Into a Touchpad” is pretty interesting, you can read it here. We’re used to thinking of the forcefield in which the human body is immersed — and many have been exploring tools and methods for stimulating it.

(For instance, I just read our article on the UV Light Sanitizer Wand… I’ve not used it or anything like it, but am curious.)

The dynasty of visionary evolution

Ok, to explain the dynastic reference. Dating to over 3,000 years ago, Akhenaten is surely one of the most strange figures in the “strange enough” history of Egyptian royalty. This is the Eighteenth Dynasty of ancient Egypt, which included the female pharaoh Hatshepsut. Also Tutankhamun, Nefertiti, and of course Akhenaten. Billed as the first monotheist, he was a tall, delicate, narrow-faced, long-fingered pharaoh, a religious revolutionary. Also a mystic, visionary, and iconoclast, he changed Egyptian theology for the duration of his term.

More importantly, perhaps, the Eighteenth Dynasty saw a new level of involvement with imagery in general. A kind of slick, elegant, modern look broke through. It is startling to look at it today and not think it is contemporary. Art and visions of divine realms, carved, engraved surfaces, were the heart of Egypt in some ways.

But it got weirder. “Aten,” which was the sole deity in the Akhenaten era, is not the sun, it is the disc of the sun. I.e., the image of it, so the implication was they were worshipping, not the deity, but the face or image of the deity …

(Read the basic Google paper here — it’s a bit “heady.”)

Distinctions: the thing and the image of the thing

This cognitive divide between the object and the image of the object was central in an almost fetishistic way. The distinction strikes us as Freudian or Jungian (obsession, mania, the psychology of idolatry). And modern, not ancient. Indeed, Akhenaten’s style was to tattoo the world around him, obsessively and unrelentingly.

Case in point, when a worshipper treats the image of the god as the god, it enables the idea of divinity to be transferred as well. In this case, to the royal couple, or to Akhenaten himself.

The body as a keyboard

Images of the universe Akhenaten worshipped covered every available surface– the idea that the body would be part of the device communicating with god, was implicit. The pharaoh’s curious appearance seemed to play a role, and “Akhenaten’s new keyboard” is not as fanciful and imaginary as we originally thought the phrase. He had wide feminine hips and was depicted with breasts and a generally flowing form. He could have been, one imagines a devilishly skilled violinist — Paganini-like. Or, a pianist in the genre of the new generation of young prodigies. You know, the new generations of virtuosity which dazzle us with wizardry of which no one can understand the source.

Popular on Amazon: a BodyMark temporary tattoo marker kit.


Gene editing: dominant v. recessive

Interestingly, Akhenaten has recently been identified as possibly having suffered from “Marfan’s disease.” A genetic disorder of the autosomal dominant type, Marfan’s produces some of the attributes that were so striking in Akhenaten. These include arachnodactyly — elongated fingers — and a general sense of delicacy. The sort of thing we might have perceived in the extraterrestrial from Spielberg’s pioneering movie (E.T.).

Freud’s theory

Sigmund Freud wrote about Akhenaten and famously compared the pharaoh to Oedipus. The passionate worshipper slays the elder male god, in order to possess the mother-wife. (Nefertiti, Akhenaten’s spouse, is even a more obsessive target of literature than the pharaoh himself, if possible.) Psychiatry aside, Akhenaten still today claims bandwidth in the news cycle.

Also, Marfan’s is an “autosomal dominant” disorder. “Autosomal” means that it appears on one of the non-sex chromosomes (out of the 23 pairs). “Dominant” is really a gene-editing power: it means the sequence can overwrite other genes. In effect, one instance of the Marfan gene is sufficient to ensure its expression biologically. (Other autosomal dominant diseases include Huntington’s and neurofibromatosis.)

SkinMarks and our bodies

La salle dAkhenaton (1356-1340 av J.C.) (Musée du Caire) (2076972086)

Worship of the Aten, Temple of Akhenaton (1356 – 1340 BCE), Cairo Museum, Egypt.

Google’s new SkinMarks research and development venture treats the human body as an input surface. Akhenaten’s new keyboard indeed. Electronic tattoos populate surfaces of the body. Glyphs and images… Features localizing functions triggered by gesture or touching.

Google wants to imprint our skins, the’s article states, “in order to collect even more of that sweet, sweet user data.”

Public Domain image on left is from the Wikipedia site.

The body is to be a massive input device, digitized, and wired microelectronically. It is an idea that Akhenaton-era art already had suggested (without the detailed microelectronic interface of course). Took us 3,300 years to hear the message and do something to make it real.


We’ll be following this project, to see where it goes and whether it launches something successful.



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