Barcodes are a way of graphically representing data that is readable by barcode scanners. The amount of data that can be stored in a barcode image depends on the design, but it may range from simple price info—as it is most commonly used—to a secret message or phrase.
Barcodes are strongly associated with consumerism and technology, and many barcode tattoos are meant to ironically position the tattoo wearer as a product, allowing them to make a statement about consumerism in culture, loss of individual identity, and the potential dark side of ever-advancing technology. The idea of receiving a barcode forcibly has been explored in pop culture, particularly in sci-fi movies, as a way of tracking individuals—used by fictional totalitarian governments or invading alien races, for example. Those concerned with Christian End-times discussion also frequently theorize that the Mark of the Beast (666) in the Book of Revelation may take the form of some sort of barcode-like image.
A barcode is not necessarily a statement about negative aspects of technology and culture, however. They may also express geekiness and a love for tech. They may also be used to communicate a more subtle message. As a matter of fact, when done correctly, barcode tattoos may actually be readable by barcode scanners, allowing the tattoo designer to hide a hidden phrase or message within the design. In the era of smart phones, these may even be readable by phones, allowing people who view the tattoo to scan it and decode the message, a kind of interactivity found nowhere else in the tattoo world. Many websites actually let you generate barcodes for free.
Barcode designs usually have two basic parts: the code itself (the series of black lines of width and space) and human-readable text beneath it. On consumer products, that’s often a serial number or something like “Made in China”, but in tattoo designs it’s a place to customize. One route is to use binary code, the system of 1s and 0s that computers can read and translate to plain English. This is a way not only to slip a hidden message (often the person’s name) into their tattoo, but also to rep a little geek pride.
The most common places for barcode tattoos are the wrist and the back of the neck, despite the fact that the small, rectangular tattoo could easily fit anywhere else. This is the case in movies and comics, too, since those are places one could scan easily. However, the head is becoming an increasingly popular spot to get a barcode tattoo.
The human-readable text below the barcode may also have an ironic slant to it, since it associates that word or phrase with the barcode stamp—and, thus, consumerism, fascism, or robotic, sheep-like thinking.
On the other hand, a barcode tattoo may also identify the wearer as a member of a particular group in a prideful but playful way, like they’re all churned out of the same assembly line. This is especially common for “Made in X” barcodes, offering the chance to show a little national pride.
Another kind of code that’s not technically a barcode but is closely related is the QR code, which are increasingly common. Cell phone apps can read these —the phone scans the QR image with its camera, and that in turn opens up a website. QR code generator applications are abundant and free, allowing people to make scannable tattoos and that take people to the website of their choice.
Numerous websites let you instantly generate a QR code with text. The above QR code reads "Tattoos.net is the ultimate ressource for everything on tattoos" (Try it, it works!). Using a simple app on your smartphone, you can instantly scan this code and not only get a URL link, but also hidden messages, phone numbers and adresses.
Tattoos change with time, and as the black ink spreads and fades it can cause the tattoo not to scan properly. Since they’re simple and small, it would likely be simple enough to alter the tattoo or do a cover-up, of course, and the statement the image itself makes will last either way. However, those who wish to get a barcode tattoo should do thorough research on the different types of barcodes (UPC, Code 128, etc) to ensure that yours is designed properly (that is, if you want it to scan.)