The Loom

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Okay. So, the other day I asked an innocuous question about whether scientists get scientific tattoos. I also invited people to send in their own example. I didn’t quite bank on this site becoming a clearinghouse for science tattoos. The traffic of readers coming in from reddit, etc., is startling enough. But the stream of tattoo pictures coming into my inbox is causing me to freak out, ever so slightly. Seriously, think about this: people with Ph.D.’s, who study esoteric aspects of physics and insect neurology are baring flesh, snapping pictures, and sending them to me, a stranger. Just consider today’s addition. It comes from Jay Phelan, a biologist at UCLA, and author of Mean Genes. Phelan writes:

…I think you’re right that you’ve just hit the tip of the iceberg. I thought I’d add mine to your collection.

I got it around 1990 when I was in graduate school. As I got deeper into the study of evolution, genetics, and human behavior, I realized that there was a tension between what my genes “wanted” me to do and what I wanted to do–from the fattiness of the foods I ate, to the selfishness/selflessness I showed to others, to issues with managing my money, my risk-taking, and my relationships, and more. It dawned on me that I was fighting a never-ending battle. Anyway, I tried to come up with a design that captured that tension and, once I did, decided to get it tattooed on my back.

About ten years later, I co-wrote a book called “Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts” (with Terry Burnham) and our publisher ended up including my DNA monster as part of the cover. (Unfortunately, it doesn’t show up too well in this image; I’m on the road and don’t have access to a better image of it.)

Take care,
Jay Phelan

So, without further ado, I give you the DNA monster…(which I’ve inserted, along with all the other tattoos I’ve received, into the original post



  1. #1 bug_girl
    August 8, 2007

    there is actually a famous (infamous?) publication in a peer reviewed journal:

    Insect tattoos: a dermographic study. American Entomologist.

    (I think that’s the year, anyway.)

  2. #2 Allen
    August 9, 2007

    Well, tattoos are accessories after all, and why else would one get one if not for others to see? Sure, not all tattoos are for everyone to see, but it seems clear that the intent is to display.

    In our case, my wife and I got tattoos as our wedding rings.
    I can still hear the guffaw of one of my wife’s good friends at the wedding when it was announced what we did. Our tattoos are ankle rings composed of a siphonophore, deep sea relatives of the Portuguese Man-o-War. We modeled it after one of Haeckel’s plates, but have since been told by the guy who knows more about siphonophores than anyone else alive that it “doesn’t exist”. That is one aspect for which it is not an apt symbol.

  3. #3 Carlie
    August 9, 2007

    I don’t usually like DNA representations, but that one is incredible.
    Allen, yours are neat – they kind of look like quipu, too, so you can say it’s symbolic of keeping account of your relationship. 🙂

  4. #4 Perry
    August 10, 2007


    You should’ve registered the domain and just started a database. It seems you inspired someone else to do that.

    Great work with the blog by the way. Any chance we’ll see Parasite Rex II?

  5. #5 Bart Mitchell
    August 23, 2007

    Here are my Nerd Tattoos. Im just happy that the artist now understands what a Swartzchild Radius is. I was suprised at how interested he was, and asked great questions.

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