Artist produces temporary works by etching her oversensitive skin

Ariana Page Russell is a visual artist whose work features intricate patterns etched in her own skin. Russell has dermatographia, an immune system disorder that causes histamine swelling in response to light scratching. The effect lasts about 30 minutes: "This allows me to painlessly draw on my skin with just enough time to photograph the results. Even though I can direct this ephemeral response by drawing on it, the reaction is involuntary, much like the uncontrollable nature of a blush."

You can see more of Russell's work on her site, at the Magnan Metz gallery, and at Collabcubed.

(via Kottke)


  1. I used to get this as an adolescent, still occasionally do when I’m tired.  Mine wasn’t painful, was itchy at times.

     The allergist, Dr. Lively, who diagnosed me told me that he used to lightly write his name on patient’s backs with the handle of his reflex hammer.  If it raised up, they had it.  He stopped doing it when an irate husband called wanting to know who the hell this Dr. Lively was who had autographed his wife. 

  2. Doesn’t look comfortable at all. After having Mono during high school I used to get crazy hives due to just about anything. Finally became just cyclical on a daily basis. Could set my watch by them practically. Seeing this photo makes me just want to turn my head and take an oatmeal bath.


    Although the pic in the Collabcubed link, the one where it’s around her eyes, is quite nice.

  4. I had this from about age 10-13 or so.  I played a lot of tic-tac-toe on my arm during sixth grade.

  5. Bodyhack ahoy! I think what she’s doing is terrific – I wonder if she has some sort of scratch/stamp devices or does it all by fingernail. 

  6. I know someone with this condition.  By her doctors’ accounts it is an inexplicable histamine reaction, but it makes for interesting conversations with masseuses, doctors, and anyone else who has reason to touch her and then realize that they have left a mark.  Some people think it is interesting, and others are weirded out by it.  When she wants to demonstrate it, she uses her fingernails, it is pretty much this clear to see, and it also lasts about half an hour.

  7. Note: The top photo, in which she looks a bit like a giraffe, is not a histamine reaction. Those are decals she prints from photos and applies to her skin. More at the Collabcubed link above.

    Just doing my part to prevent twitching.

    1. At first glance I thought the red marks on her neck were from the scratching too, but the more I looked at her site I saw they were the decals. Awesome decals at that.

  8. In the sideshow people with this condition were often known / pitched as “Human Slates” you can find several examples documented by Ripley’s in their books & museums most of which are female but this is likely only because female performers had the added allure of more than the usual amount of exposed flesh (the same reason tattooed women often outdrew tattooed men unless the men were incredibly extreme like the Great Omi)

    1. That is so cool.  Not quitting my day job to seek my fortune as a human slate, but nice to know I’ve a plan B.  Ok, more like in the Q-R range, but it’s waiting if I need it.   

  9. Ugh, I have dermatographism, but it’s not painless. Mine becomes a cyclical reaction with my urticaria, causing more hives from the histamine. I take 6 antihistamines a day now. She’s lucky.

  10. This gets a little close to self-mutilation for my tastes – I wish her well with it, but this particular art forms is a bit too sketchy for me.

    1. Pencil drawings are sketchy. Maybe this is “skinny”?

      My personal feeling is an odd sort of schadenfreude: it’s both interesting and disturbing at the same time.

  11. I’ve had the same condition since I was a kid – I drew on my arms all the time in Middle/High school.  Now I take antihistamines most of the time, so my skin just turns red instead of puffing up but, if I haven’t taken any in a few days, I get this puffing  :P

  12. I had dermatographia for awhile.  I blame it on DMSO (Dimethyl sulfoxide) usage as an anti-inflammatory for knee-joint problems – not recommended regardless of what you read.  The condition went away shortly after trashing the DMSO.

    What I can say, to those who feel this is self-abuse, the scratching required was /very/ light.   You could do it unintentionally with ease.  It was easy to put a smiley face on the back of my hand.  I don’t miss the effect.

    1. The other reported danger of DMSO is that it enhances permeability of membranes and other tissues/structures that are normally less permeable.  So any environmental toxic exposure can be greatly enhanced.  The FOAF story I heard was a field hand who used it on crops that had been dusted, allegedly immediately dropped dead from the pesticides.  True story/Truly a story!

  13. I do remember that when I sat on the textured upholstery or fabric, like in our Volvo station wagon, my exposed skin would (painlessly and not itching) often retain the pattern of the texture for ten or twenty minutes. 

  14. I see the writing on her leg and all I can think is:  Girl, get yourself some CALAMINE LOTION! (And get me some while you’re at it, because now I’m itchy all over!) 

  15. I have had dermatographia since birth, and the marks feel warm and in no way uncomfortable. Sometimes I get lines down by back, as if I’ve been flogged, from the shower.  I also get marks from wearing snug-fitted jeans, from scratching where I itch, occasionally from my wristwatch, from carrying shopping bags, and all sorts of things. 

    Raised welts are sometimes cause for concern, but if they don’t bother the person with them it’s worth trusting what they have to say about their body.  I can’t imagine taking anti-histamines for my dermatographia, in part because those drugs usually get me high and nauseous.

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